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 think in terms of the authentic challenge posed in a real-world setting — and then analyze the real problem to be solved. For example, this question looks good at first glance: ‘How can we as epidemiologists design an infographic that promotes the risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare in the Australian community?’  But the true test, if you are an Australian epidemiological team, is whether anyone will pay attention to the infographic. A quick fix?  ‘How can we as epidemiologists design an infographic that successfully promotes the risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare in the Australian community?’  

Remember, you’re challenging students, not covering the curriculum.  For example, a biology teacher posed this questionHow can we, as student scientists, determine if a simulation of the principles of INDEPENDENT ASSORTMENT in pea plants yields the same results as Mendel’s experimental data? What would work better? A real challenge: How can I use my knowledge of Mendel’s experimental data to improve my scientific thinking and distinguish science from beliefs?

 Match your Driving Question to your intention. Another way to say this is to draft and redraft your Driving Question until it feels right. I’ve found through deep experience that most teachers know the right Driving Question but need to talk it out and find it. It lurks there but needs to be surfaced. Here’s a good example I‘ve used many times. An 8th-grade Career Ed teacher had his students build birdhouses — exceptionally beautiful birdhouses — and posed the question as ‘How do we build a birdhouse?’ When I asked him why he was so enthusiastic about the project, he replied, “Because I love to see my students practice craftsmanship.” That was his intention, and he had found his Driving Question: ‘How do I become a better craftsman?’ It focused the project on the deeper learning goal.  

Be Future Focused. I’ve seen many good projects that use questions that invoke the future and challenge young people to think ahead, speculate, and dream. For example, instead of posing a question like ‘What technology powers my cell phone?’ a STEM PBL team decided on ‘Will my cell phone use the same technology when I’m fifty instead of fifteen?’ A variation of this that I like is to use the format ‘To what extent…”. This lends itself to humanities as well as STEM projects. For example, ‘To what extent will my childhood experiences still influence my life as an adult?’

I have an entire document I’ve collected on sample Driving Questions, showing how the first draft evolves into better questions. I’ll share those in July during Intrepid Ed News PBL Theme Week when we take on more PBL ideas and resources!

Thom Markham

Thom Markham, Founder & CEO, PBL Global, is a psychologist, educator, author, speaker, and internationally respected consultant to schools focused on project based learning, 21st century skills, innovation, and high performance cultures. He has authored two best-selling books on project based learning, the Buck Institute for Education’s Handbook on Project Based Learning and the Project Based Learning Design and Coaching Guide: Expert tools for Innovation and Inquiry for K – 12 Educators, as well as Redefining Smart: Awakening Students’ Power to Reimagine Their World. Thom has worked with over 300 schools and 6000 teachers worldwide to help establish transformational inquiry-based programs that integrate PBL with social emotional learning and design thinking. His intention is always to work collegially with other educators to discover, empower, improve, and succeed.

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