The Driving Question: What Every Teacher Needs to Know Part 1
Updated: Jul 14
"Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions…it is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions. The trick is to find the medium questions that can be answered and that take you somewhere." ~Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education
The driving question, sometimes called the compelling question, is the most critical component of PBL. This is because A good driving question moves the project forward by serving as a guide for students as they conduct their inquiries. In other words, the driving question is a mission statement for the project. It captures the essence of the project in clear, compelling language that provides students a sense of purpose while challenging them to think critically. Further, the driving question provides coherence across various lessons and activities during the PBL unit of study. There are seven criteria to consider when crafting a driving question. For example, the driving question must be challenging and complex, have real-world implications, be open-ended, actionable, relevant, substantial, and provocative. When students clearly understand the project's driving question, they will not have to ask, "why are we doing this?" Let's take a moment to look closely at each component of an effective driving question.
Driving questions are challenging and complex. Students cannot answer these questions with a simple yes or no response or with a Google search. Challenging and complex driving questions place high cognitive demand on learners because these questions require students to go beyond superficial and simplistic answers to seek complex and nuanced solutions to real-life problems. An example of a challenging and complex question is "What should America's immigration policy be?" Students may respond to challenging and complex questions in various ways because each has their unique perspective and lived experience. When students contemplate such questions, they are learning how to participate in a culturally and ideologically diverse democracy in which citizens must make informed decisions.
Driving questions must be rooted in the real-world. One of the reasons why PBL is so impactful for learners is that students can delve into issues that are interesting and relevant to their lives. Real-world driving questions compel students to go beyond what is typically considered "schoolwork" to investigate matters that have meaningful consequences. For example, "what should communities in Southwestern states do to conserve water?" Researchers believe that the "megadrought" that has plagued the Southwest over the last 22 years has been the driest since the late 1500s. Students working on this driving question can investigate and propose solutions to a timely real-world issue that directly impacts them.
Driving questions are open-ended. Open-ended questions have more than one "right" answer, because students may arrive at different conclusions and points of view based on their interpretation of the data. Driving questions should not contain bias leading students to a particular conclusion. Instead, the driving question should allow students to follow the evidence as it takes them. Differing opinions among students is not only desirable in PBL, but it is highly encouraged because it demonstrates independence of thought. An example of an open-ended question is, "Is war ever justified?" This is an open-ended question because students cannot satisfactorily answer the question with a simple yes or no response. The question is also provocative because the question challenges students to think deeply about the causes of war and under what circumstances if any, it is appropriate.
Driving questions lead to actionable projects. Actionable projects are final projects that have value beyond the classroom. Unlike typical projects, in which students hastily discard them after they have been graded, PBL projects have enduring value. Examples of actionable projects include creating a report, drafting legislation, or writing a letter to a public official or governmental agency regarding an issue that impacts the students and their communities. Other examples of projects are designing and building an interactive exhibit, website, or model to communicate the results of student research. Or create a song, poem, or mural to bring awareness to an important social issue.
Driving questions must be relevant. When school activities connect with students' home cultures, families, and communities, students are much more likely to become engaged in their learning leading to higher academic achievement. To create relevant learning experiences, teachers must adhere to the cardinal rule of teaching, which is to "know thy students." In other words, teachers must be familiar with their students' backgrounds to create projects that are personally meaningful to them. For example, a relevant driving question could be, "Should English be the official language of the United States?" This question is relevant to all students, but especially to those that live in communities where languages other than English are commonly spoken.
Driving questions must be substantial. Substantial questions get to the heart of a discipline by requiring students to think about the big questions in the field of study. Substantial driving questions are informed by national, state, and local curriculum standards and disciplinary content. An example of a substantial driving question is, "What is the American dream, and is it obtainable for all?" This question requires students to think deeply about the nation's history, ethos, and commitment to equality. Additionally, substantial driving questions are enduring, meaning that students will ponder the question well after the PBL has concluded. Substantial questions enrich students' lives by providing opportunities for students to ponder big ideas.
Driving questions must be provocative. Provocative questions hook students by generating interest in the topic by posing questions that stir students' emotions. When students connect with the topic emotionally, they are more likely to stay engaged in the project. An example of a provocative driving question is, "Should the government provide universal healthcare?" Some students may argue that healthcare should be an individual's choice, free of governmental interference and regulation. Others may say that healthcare is a fundamental human right that should be afforded to all citizens regardless of their ability to pay. Either way, students are likely to have strong opinions on the matter, which will help them connect with the topic on an emotional level. While providing students with provocative questions is important, teachers must consider their students' ages and maturity levels. And be mindful about what may or may not be appropriate topics for their students to explore.
What I have Learned: An important lesson I have learned in designing PBL is to adequately consider the resources available to address the driving question. By resources, I mean time and access. The first resource to consider is time because it is the nemesis of all teachers, as we always seem to be fighting against it. Be realistic in your expectations of time to address the driving question. Projects will usually take much longer than expected, especially when doing PBL for the first time. So, it may be a good idea to begin your PBL journey with a small project of a few days in duration. Then, as you gain experience and understanding of the PBL process and grow more proficient with time management, you can extend the project and have students go more in-depth over longer periods of time. In other words, it is essential to remember that doing PBL is a radical departure from how most teachers typically teach, and there is a steep learning curve. Give yourself grace and time to make mistakes and learn, especially at the beginning.
The second resource to consider is access. By access, I mean that your students have, or can obtain, the data and information they will need to respond to the driving question appropriately. For example, in a secondary humanities class, the driving question could be, "How does the media impact the way that news and information is conveyed"? To appropriately respond to this question, students would need to analyze various forms of news over time, including newspapers, radio, television, and internet media like websites, blogs, and streaming video, to name a few. Depending on the amount of time allocated to this project and the students' background knowledge, research skills, and availability of technology, the teacher may want to provide students with materials or have them locate the information independently. As the projects become more in-depth, students may need to go beyond the schoolhouse gate to do "field research," such as interviews with area residents, business leaders, and professionals. They may need to visit local sites to collect samples or make observations.
Thanks for reading! Please stay tuned for my next blog post where I will go into more depth about various types of driving questions and how to write a driving question. You might want to take a look at my other poss An introduction to PBL.