• Jeffrey Hinton

The driving question: What every PBL teacher needs to know part 2

“The important thing is to not stop questioning” ~Albert Einstein.

Writing a good driving question is critical to creating a high-quality PBL. For the teacher, the driving question gives the inquiry focus and direction. In PBL, it is easy for students to get sidetracked in their inquiry as they discover new information and uncover alternative perspectives and points of view. When the driving question is at the forefront of the teacher's mind, it will help them keep their students focused and moving forward. In addition, the driving question is essential for students because it will give them a sense of purpose in the project. In other words, students will understand why they are doing the project and clearly understand the outcome. With a well-written driving question, students will never have to ask, "why are we doing this?" Now that we have a basic understanding of what a driving question is and the seven attributes of a compelling driving question. We will now consider how to craft an excellent driving question. Please see part 1 of this blog post for more information about the seven attributes of effective driving questions.

What I have learned: Write the driving question on the whiteboard or poster paper so it can be prominently displayed in the classroom. Doing this will ensure that all students know the driving question as they are working on their projects. Further, it is helpful to have the driving question in sight so that you can refer to it when mentoring students during daily learning activities. Having a constant reminder of the purpose of the project is a great way to keep students focused on the project's end goal.

Step 1 develop the big idea

The first step in developing an effective driving question is

to think about the big idea you want your students to contemplate. Even though PBL is firmly rooted in local, state, and national curriculum standards and benchmarks, the driving question is not simply a curriculum standard restated in question form. Rather, the driving question should get to the heart of the discipline. For example, imagine a high school U.S. history class learning about immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The teacher is teaching the curriculum standard "The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants" (National Standards for History Basic Edition, 1996). Benchmarks addressed in this standard include knowing the difference between "old" and "new immigrants," settlement patterns, challenges immigrants faced, and their contributions to American life. Despite the importance of knowing the "facts" of American immigration history, the big idea that the teacher may want students to wrestle with goes deeper than the who, what, where, and when of immigration history. A driving question that goes to the heart of the discipline could be, "Is America a nation of immigrants?" This question will provide students an opportunity to ponder big questions pertaining to America’s national identity, ethos, and perspectives on immigration and immigrants.

Types of driving questions There are four main categories of driving questions that will shape the project in distinct ways. Each category requires students to approach the PBL differently. Therefore, even though I have presented the types of driving questions as four separate categories, it is permissible to combine them to achieve the desired learning and performance objectives.

1. The big question- This type of question allows students to ponder deep philosophical or debatable questions in our culture. Like the big idea seen above pertaining to immigration, the big question challenges students to think profoundly about issues that matter to them. Some examples of big questions include: are we free to choose? Is it ever right to have a revolution? What is the citizen's responsibility to fight injustice?

2. Role play- This driving question requires students to assume an imaginary identity to engage in a real-world problem or address an important issue. Research indicates that role-playing can lead to better academic achievement, increased motivation, and creativity (Chan, 2012). An example of a driving question involving role-play is "Pretend that you are a Center for Disease Control scientist studying COVID-19 in Las Vegas. What recommendations can you give to the local government to stop the spread of the disease? Students love to engage in activities in which they can explore new identities and use their imaginations in creative and productive ways.

3. Solve a problem- This type of driving question requires students to tackle a real-world problem that is relevant to them. Students must provide plausible solutions to vexing issues while considering feasibility, limited resources, and the practicality of implementing change. For example, students at a local middle school want to address the problem of environmental pollution. An example of a driving question that requires students to address the problem might be, "how can our school become a better steward of the environment?" Research indicates that problem-based learning activities are associated with increased academic achievement (Akınoğlu, & Tandoğan, 2007).

4. Design challenge- Like the solving a problem driving question mentioned above, the design challenge driving question requires students to create a design or generate a solution that addresses a real-world problem with a practical working solution or prototype. Driving questions in this genre usually begin with "how might we?" For example, "how might we as a community address the issue of homelessness?" In response to this driving question, students could design and build a mini house to convince local political leaders to build and provide temporary shelter to the homeless.

Step 2 create a rough draft of the question

The second step of writing the driving question is to create a rough draft of the question. Looking at several examples of driving questions before writing your rough draft may be helpful. Usually, the driving question begins with the words How? What? Or If? Here are 14 driving question stems to help you get started (PenPal Schools)

1. How can ______ improve _______?

How can studying flags improve our understanding of communities around the world?

How can robotics improve the healthcare industry?

How can access to clean water improve communities in developing nations?

2. How can _______ be applied to ________?

How can geometry skills be applied to cartography?

How can economics be applied in our daily lives?

How can ethics be applied to solve environmental problems?

3. How can _______ change ________?

How can individuals change their communities?

How can fashion change culture?

How can human behavior change the environment?

4. How would you design a new _______?

How would you design a new school?

How would you design a new system to purify water?

How would you design a new flag for your community?

5. How does _________ affect __________?

How does immigration affect communities around the world?

How does fake news affect our community?

How does food affect our daily lives?

6. What impact did/does __________ have on ________?

What impact did humans have on the environment during the 20th century?

What impact does war have on art?

What impact did the media have on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election?

7. What makes a good/effective _________?

What makes a good flag?

What makes an effective school?

What makes an effective robot?

8. How do/does __________ impact my community?

How does racism impact my community?

How does the food grown in our region impact what people eat?

How does geography impact my community?

9. What is the relationship between _________ and ___________?

What is the relationship between geometry and architecture?

What is the relationship between economics and history?

What is the relationship between transportation and trade?

10. What would __________ be without __________?

What would our school be without classrooms?

What would the Earth's climate be like without the atmosphere?

What would the world be without art?

11. If you were in charge of ____________, what would you change?

If you were in charge of our school, what would you change?

If you were in charge of our national parks, what would you change?

If you were in charge of Facebook, what would you change?

12. How can you use __________ to inspire ________?

How can you use poetry to inspire change?

How can you use storytelling to inspire people take better care of the environment?

How can you use science to inspire people to eat healthier food?

13. What if _______________?

What if you could go back in time, what would you change?

What if America did not have a public school system?

What if the world lost the internet for one year?

14. How might your community change if ______________?

How might your community change if it were twice as big?

How might your community change if it rained every day for a year?

How might your community change if every person were given $1 million?

Additionally, PBL Works designed a handy tool called theTubric to help you write great driving questions.

Step 3 Polish and refine the driving question.

The final step in creating your PBL driving question is to polish and refine your rough draft. An excellent way to do this is to work collaboratively within your professional learning community (PLC) or with other trusted colleagues at your work site. Just as in editing a paper, it is beneficial to have "fresh" eyes read your driving question to see if it is communicating what you want it to. As you polish and refine your driving question, it is essential to remember the seven attributes of good driving questions. Please see part 1 of this blog for more information about the seven characteristics of effective driving questions. Use the driving question checklist to help you craft an excellent driving question.

Driving Question Checklist

My driving question is…

Challenging and complex- Students must go beyond superficial and simplistic answers to seek complex and nuanced solutions to real-life problems. yes/no

Real World- Students can investigate matters that have meaningful, relevant consequences. yes/no

Open-ended- Driving question might have more than 1 “right” answer. yes/no

Actionable- Actionable projects have significant value beyond the classroom by calling students to take action. yes/no

Relevant- Driving question connects with students' personal lives, home cultures, families, and communities. yes/no

Substantial- Driving question gets to the heart of a discipline by requiring students to think about the big questions in the field of study. yes/no

Provocative- Provocative questions hook students by generating interest in the topic by posing questions that stir students' emotions. yes/no

Questions for Reflection

1. Why is the driving question so crucial in PBL?

2. What are the seven attributes of effective driving questions?

3. What are the four main categories of driving questions?

4. List in order the three steps of writing a driving question.


Akınoğlu, O., & Tandoğan, R. Ö. (2007). The effects of problem-based active learning in science education on students’ academic achievement, attitude and concept learning. Eurasia journal of mathematics, science and technology education, 3(1), 71-81.

Chan, Z. C. (2012). Role-playing in the problem-based learning class. Nurse Education in Practice, 12(1), 21-27.

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