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Kick-start projects with good questions

By Jane Krauss
February 16, 2015
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This is the second installment in a four-part blog post series on project-based learning from the co-authors of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age.

In our first post, Suzie Boss considered the big ideas at the heart of great projects. Today I'll contemplate: How do we craft questions that spur students to investigate matters of significance and construct new meaning?

Project-based learning usually starts with the teacher posing a question that gets at the heart of the topic students will study. A well-crafted question captures students' imagination and focuses their attention.

Imagine you are a student. Would your curiosity and drive to learn be stimulated if you got the chance to investigate questions like these?

  • What is the best bioremediation strategy for ridding our school parking lot of oil?
  • How do stories from the past define who we are today?
  • What mathematical principles describe the spread of disease? How can we mathematically model an epidemic?
  • What new monument or museum should be built in our city to enhance the lives of our citizens and visitors?
  • Which hybrid car should join the city fleet?
  • In what ways can I change the injustices I witness?

Think about the big ideas and enduring understandings such questions represent. Notice that they connect to the larger world. Scientists, city planners, historians, civil rights activists and other experts wrestle with questions like these. Students deserve opportunities to grapple with authentic questions too.

But how do we design high-quality questions? Good questions usually come out of a larger project planning process. Start by asking yourself: What big ideas will the project address? Then consider: What evidence could show what students understand or can do as a result of their investigations? From there, decide: What question can I ask to drive the kind of learning that leads to the development of such evidence?

Consider the topics you teach. Who in the wider world cares about them? What would they want to know? Let your answers to these questions inform the projects you design and the driving questions you ask. Instead of asking your students to study geometry discretely, design a project that lets them learn geometry through architecture. When student " "architects" " investigate the driving question How can we design an environmentally sustainable [bank branch, school, grocery store] while staying within a budget? they learn about geometry in architecture while making interdisciplinary connections to physics, finance, climate, materials science and other subjects.

Project questions are not easy to Google and regurgitate, and that's the point. They ask students to arrive at new conclusions or judgments. Instead of just asking What? aim for a higher order by asking Which one? How? What if? Should? and Why? Instead of having students research a specific disease, such as diabetes, ask: Which serious disease most deserves research funding?

As you plan, remember that a question by itself won't inspire a need to know or an urge to investigate. Many teachers " "hook" " students with an entry event before posing the project question. An entry event could be an imaginary letter from a CEO seeking a solution to a product design problem, a bag of curious artifacts from an archaeology dig or a provocative soundscape from the civil rights era. That type of creative and sensory introduction paired with a good question sets the stage for eager learners to make projects their own.

For more resources on driving question design, check out:

Jane Krauss is co-author of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. Check out the new expanded second edition of this best-selling PBL guide.