What’s the Problem in PBL? It Could be Your Driving Question… | Thom Markham | 4 Min Read

One of the enduring conversations PBL educators have about project-based learning is how to differentiate a project from PBL. One distinguishing marker—probably the best differentiator—is that PBL uses a Driving Question to frame the inquiry and set up an objective (or what I call a ‘true north’) for the project. Projects emphasize doing, but PBL integrates doing and knowing by posing a clear problem to be solved, supporting students as they seek solutions, and then assessing the quality of their answers. That’s the function of the Driving Question.

In my last article, I pointed to the ‘clear problem’ method as an easy self-test for PBL teachers who wonder about the quality of their Driving Question. Many people trace PBL to John Dewey and his ideas on projects, but PBL has deeper roots in problem-based learning, which originated in the 1960s. Remembering this puts a PBL teacher in the right mindset: At the heart of every PBL experience is a problem to be solved. Asking yourself ‘What is the problem?’ before project launch is a simple reminder but often forgotten in our desire to explore big ideas and themes in PBL. 

So, why do we see so many projects with a weak Driving Question? For the most part, I think it’s because, other than the self-test and a formulaic recommendation, How do we, as a ______, create a __________, for _____________?, no clear, well-articulated guidelines exist for crafting a Driving Question. It’s an organic process embedded in the unique nature of each project, so this is not an easy gap in PBL best practices to fill. But I’ve found a few tips that can help you shape your question to fit the exact needs of your project design and intent.

Avoid thematic questions. It’s important to avoid settling for thematic questions, such as ‘How does art change a community?’ or ‘How can we live a healthy lifestyle?’ or ‘How can we solve the problem of climate change?’  Sure, these are problems, but they’re so global that they invite coverage and broad research rather than testing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Keep in mind another function of the Driving Question: To drive deeper learning.

Think ‘wicked problems.’ A solid problem always has constraints. This is the essence of a ‘wicked problem’, which means it is complex and not easy to solve. One way to get to the ‘wickedness’ is to…

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Thom Markham

Thom Markham is an educator, positive psychologist, and global entrepreneur. For over 25 years, Thom has pioneered the worldwide buildout of project-based learning and human development programs for youth. Thom is the author of Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World. Currently, his work is focused on turning schools green through deep sustainability. As of mid-August, he will begin publishing the Open Heart, Whole Mind newsletter, designed to prod human thinking beyond convention and assumption.