Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A crash course in writing good driving questions

One of the most difficult things about planning a project-based learning unit is writing the driving question (DQ).

And no wonder! According to the Innovation Unit’s guide to project-based learning, a good driving question is a question that:
  • people ask in the ‘real world’
  • has no single, easy answer, and stretches students’ intellectual muscles
  • ignites students’ imaginations.
The question should also address content from the curriculum and allow for the development of 21st century skills. Students also have to be able to answer it thoroughly with the time and resources available.

Add all that to the fact that the whole project hinges on a good driving question, and you can understand why DQs are not only very important, but very challenging to create. There’s a lot of pressure to get it right!

But let’s start with the basics. First, a reminder of what a driving question is:

A driving question is the ‘big’ question that provides the stimulus for a project. 

According to the Buck Institute of Education (BIE), there are 2 basic types of driving question:

     1) A DQ that specifies a product to be created, a task to be done, or a                     problem to be solved.
     2) A DQ that focuses on a philosophical or debatable issue, or an intriguing           topic.

Where can we find inspiration?
Creating a question that fulfils the criteria listed at the outset and has enough power to drive the project as far as you want it to go is not easy. It’ll take time, trial and error, and lots of discussion with your colleagues.

Some of the best DQs come from the students themselves. Do this by introducing your class to the topic you’d like to be the focus of your project – it should be presented in a relevant, thought-provoking manner, perhaps through a current news article.

For example, in recent news, we’re heard that doctors are rapidly running out of medicines to treat infections, as certain strains of bacteria are growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics. This could mean that in the very near future, a minor scratch or infection after a routine operation could kill. Think of the implications of this! By discussing the issue and doing some relevant research, students can come up a question that will guide a project along this theme. For instance, ‘How might running out of antibiotics affect our daily lives here in the UK?’ or ‘How did past civilisations cope without medicines for infections and other common ailments?’

Driving questions that are specific to your local area can also be very effective. Recently, one science teacher at a school in the San Francisco Bay Area teamed up with art and government teachers to implement a project on the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. They chose the driving question: ‘Who is to blame for the oil spill?’ Because the students lived in the area of the spill, and could remember it happening, there was an immediacy and a connection to the people most affected by the disaster that helped engage them in the topic.

And there can be more than one driving question! As the project develops, you may find that other questions need to be asked and answered before the final, overarching question can be explored to its fullest extent, or for the desired curriculum content to be fully covered.

For example, in the oil spill project cited above, the teachers realised their students needed a greater understanding of the impact of the disaster and also the clean up efforts afterwards before they could take part in the final exhibition - a simulated town meeting in which students played the various roles of residents and other stakeholders deciding how to deal with the oil spill. Thus, students also investigated the best strategies for cleaning up oil through scientific experiments, and explored the impact of the spill on the Bay’s wildlife through art and sculpture.

Creating your driving question
You can find a raft of driving questions on the internet to be adapted according to your needs. Some of the best example questions we found include:
  • Is war ever justified?
  • Should present governments apologise for the wrongs of past governments?
  • How do communities evolve over time?
  • Should we allow for genetic engineering to prevent diseases and illnesses?
  • What is the impact of climate on civilisation?
  • How do maths and science influence artistic expression?
  • How can an idea be transformed into a product that could make us millions?
  • Are we and our technologies a product of our ancestors?
  • Why do humans need to protect the earth, and how can we as 12-year-olds play a role in this?

You can use the table below to practice writing driving questions by framing initial words, people or entities, actions or challenges, and audience/purpose. It’s also available to download as a tubric template from BIE.

Framing words
Person or entity
Action or challenge
Audience or purpose
How can…
I, We
Build… Create… Make…
Real-world problem
How should…
We as (roles/occupations)
Design… Plan…
For a public audience
Town, City, County
For a school
State, Nation
For a classroom
Community, Organisation
Propose… Decide…
For an online audience

So there you have it! A basic guide to writing a good, solid driving question. For more information, follow the links embedded in this post – there are some really brilliant resources out there to make use of.

What driving questions have you come up with? Share your examples by commenting below.

Don't forget to come back for the next post in this series! Due out next week, it will focus on the main things you need to consider when planning your project.

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