In Search of the Driving Question

In Search of the Driving Question

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

Project-based learning teachers can choose from among many types of driving questions, but sometimes we get stuck when trying to come up with a great one because there are so many considerations in the design process that informs the crafting of an effective driving question.

Here are some ideas for how to resolve these difficulties and craft a strong question for your project.

Driving or Essential?
I’ve had teachers ask, “What is the difference between driving questions and essential questions?” It comes down to intent. In my discussions with Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design—the book that developed the idea of the essential question—he and I came to the conclusion that a driving question might fall in Stage 1 (Desired Outcomes) or Stage 3 (Learning Plan) of the Understanding by Design framework. The desired outcomes are focused on learning, and thus include skills and knowledge we want students to learn, as well as questions directly connected to that learning. An essential question is always in Stage 1, as it aligns to desired learning results.

However, when you dig into the use and intent of a driving question, it is intended to be a tool to engage students. It’s part of the learning plan and a hook to engage students. An essential question, while provocative and intended to lead to inquiry, does not need to be the hook—a teacher may or may not use every essential question with their students, but the driving question is always used with students during instruction throughout the project.

Teachers use driving questions in learning activities to direct the students’ inquiry and increase their engagement. In fact, the driving question operationalizes the challenge, which is part of the learning plan. A driving question may have many essential questions connected to it or that come out of the inquiry process.

Great Options
The best—though sometimes frustrating—part of driving questions is that there are so many options. Here are some of the most popular types of driving questions.

  • Philosophical or Debatable: These types of questions are honestly debatable and have complex possible answers. All driving questions should be open-ended, but philosophical or debatable questions by nature require rigorous thought and corresponding student products. Example: Should we build a new highway in the proposed area?
  • Product-Oriented: This is a great type of driving question to use if you have a specific student product in mind. It isn’t just about the product, but the purpose as well. Examples: How do we create a podcast to debunk myths and stereotypes of world religions? How do I create a marketing plan for a local business?
  • Role-Oriented: Students, even in high school, love to take on roles and pretend to be things they’re not. In this type of driving question, you give students an authentic or real-world role with a problem to solve or project to accomplish. Example: How do I as a scientist design an experiment to debunk a common scientific myth?

Generating Powerful Driving Questions

  • Focus on Action: As I wrote in a previous article, verbs can be powerful tools for student engagement when it comes to questions. While tell might be appropriate, maybe convince or advocate are better actions to take. Think about using powerful, action-oriented verbs.
  • Remember Age Appropriateness: One refinement consideration is the age and maturity of your students. A product-oriented question might be too wordy for younger students. And we don’t want the driving question to be too academic for students. For older students, we might be able to be more provocative with the questions. Consider what your students will understand and find engaging.
  • Try a Round Robin: Sometimes the best help is right next to us—our colleagues. One powerful strategy that helps us generate new ideas is a Round Robin, where we pass ideas around a table or large group. Write a driving question for your project and pass it to a colleague. That colleague writes another possible question. The paper is passed to another colleague, and the process continues until the paper is filled with driving questions. You can use the many ideas to affirm your thinking, adjust your question, or create a brand-new one.
  • Give the Question to a Student: We spend time crafting and refining driving questions for students, so test out the driving question you’ve created on students and see how they react. Take a small group of students aside for a focus group or just share it in a casual conversation. Will every student jump up and down about it? No, but we can at least have students say, “I guess that sounds cool.”
  • Create the Question With Students: If you and your students are up for it, take time to create the question in class. You might use a method like the Question Formulation Technique to have students generate many questions on a topic or focus statement, and then help to narrow that list to one overarching driving question. Or have students create questions, narrow them down to a short list yourself, and then have students vote on the one they should investigate as a class. It’s perfectly fine to give students a driving question, but consider challenging them to be agents in creating it in the first place.
Using PBL to Meet C3 Social Studies Standards

Using PBL to Meet C3 Social Studies Standards

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

Schools within the United States and around the world are in the process of adopting the new College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards, or C3. These standards seek to upgrade existing standards in the states, districts, and schools and to help strengthen the rigor of social studies education.

Our students are naturally curious, and the C3 framework works to foster that curiosity in the implementation of standards with a heavy focus on inquiry. Indeed, it’s easy to find resources that have “Inquiries” aligned to the C3 framework. Examples include kindergarten students investigating “Needs and Wants” using the question “Can we ever get everything we want?” and 10th graders using the question “Does development mean progress?” as they learn about the African countries of Kenya, Botswana, and Algeria.

Project-based learning can be a powerful tool to implement the C3, scaffold inquiries like these, and upgrade such inquiries to be even more authentic and focused on taking action.

PBL and the Four Dimensions of the C3
The C3 has four dimensions: one focused on questioning and inquiry; another on disciplinary knowledge and concepts relating to civics, economics, geography, and history; another on evaluating and using evidence; and a final one on communicating and taking action.

If you’re a PBL teacher, you can see the alignment to PBL. Both PBL and the C3 have a heavy emphasis on inquiry. Indeed, PBL requires sustained inquiry over time via a powerful driving question. PBL also requires students to learn content knowledge and skills in a variety of disciplines. PBL requires students to communicate their ideas through addressing local and global problems and engaging in the authentic work of adults. And PBL puts a heavy emphasis on presentation and connecting with the public.

While the C3 puts a more intentional focus on evaluating sources and using evidence, most PBL teachers would argue that their projects require both. Overall, PBL and the C3 align very well, and PBL can provide a practical framework for implementation of the C3 that truly engages students.

Using PBL to Scaffold Inquiry
PBL doesn’t just engage students in inquiry—it gives students the tools to become skilled inquirers. All projects have a driving question to focus the learning and work. The C3 includes standards that have students write their own “compelling questions” individually and with other students and explain key ideas, questions, and content connecting with their compelling questions. Teachers implementing the C3 can use PBL’s driving questions as their compelling questions to engage students and support their inquiries.

In addition, as students become more skilled inquirers, they can write their own driving questions for projects that are co-created by teacher and students. In addition to the tool of the driving question, the “need to know”—or student question list—can help scaffold the inquiry process. When teachers launch a project, they solicit students’ questions. Students also revisit these questions, revise them, and come up with new questions. PBL can support students learning the skills in this first dimension of the C3.

Essential Disciplinary Knowledge
One possible misconception about the C3 is that one needs to give equal time and attention to every standard included. In fact, the C3 leaves it up to schools to determine what is essential and when it is taught. The C3 provides four subjects in Dimension 2 to focus on—civics, economics, geography, and history—and allows for companion subjects such as anthropology and religious studies. The standards are a framework for teachers and schools to make decisions about what is taught.

As teachers use PBL projects to implement the C3, they must decide what is essential for students to learn. PBL requires a backward design process of identifying content and skills students will learn in the project. Teachers can use PBL to help them focus on the essential learning of the C3 rather than trying to do it all.

Authentic and Meaningful Claims and Evidence
As a project creates a list of “need to know” content and skills, it also creates a need to make claims and use evidence to support those claims. Two teachers in my school recently implemented a project aligned to the C3 framework and the psychology companion subject. In the project, students created guides on the psychology of teen behavior. They developed opinions about how parents, adults, and their peers could work effectively with each other, and used psychological content knowledge and sources to back their ideas up. The project created an authentic need to make claims about working with teams as well as citing important sources to back up those claims.

Dimension 4 of the C3 requires students to take informed action and communicate their conclusions. Students are required to do this collaboratively and to critique each other’s ideas. PBL likewise includes critique and revision, and students engage in multiple stages of feedback that takes on many forms, including teacher conferences, peer review, and critique protocols.

Also, PBL requires students to share their learning with the public, and the best projects have students actually making a difference in their community. One elementary school project I’ve seen had students investigate important people in their community and celebrate them. Students made presentations and had voice and choice in the person or career they wanted to investigate. PBL provides a context for communicating and taking action that engages students.

PBL is an effective framework that not only aligns to the C3, but upgrades implementation with authenticity, scaffolds inquiry, and focuses on essential learning.

It’s OK to Say No

It’s OK to Say No

This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >

I just finished my first year at a new school. I feel like that sentence is enough—anyone who has just completed their first year anywhere knows how challenging it can be. Adjusting to new students and colleagues as well as new structures and curriculum is a big task.

With all these moving parts, it’s easy to get caught up in constantly being busy. In fact, I recently read an article in The Atlantic that resonated with me. “‘Ugh, I’m So Busy’: A Status Symbol for Our Time” articulates what many of us experience and how “I’m busy” is an all-too-common phrase these days. I’ve been extremely guilty of this. When I run into colleagues, I feel the need to explain how busy I am, with too many tasks and numerous meetings.

Being busy is seen as a good thing, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, as we transition to a new school year, we have an opportunity to push back on that narrative and not focus on being busy, but instead slow down and take stock of ourselves and our purpose.

What’s Your Why?
Because the first year in a new role is a whirlwind, it’s easy to lose track of why you decided to take on the challenging role of educator. It’s easy to get discouraged with the many tasks and the overall state of being busy. I’ve learned to take time to center myself and remember why I’m doing the work I’m doing. Some might do more formal mediation or even reflective journaling.

Regardless, taking the time to remember your why is important. Why did I get into teaching? Why do I believe in the power of elementary education? Why is what I do every day important to my students? These questions can inspire you and encourage you to look past all the hustle and bustle of daily work in education to your true purpose.

What’s the Why?
As with our reasons for being an educator, we should never be afraid to question traditions and normal day-to-day tasks. Traditions are powerful, so powerful in fact that questioning them can seem awkward or even offensive. Traditions are traditions because they have powerful meaning to many people, but we must also remember that changing times might require traditions to adapt or perhaps be discarded.

At my school, we’ve had some challenges with our exploratory program, where students get to spend school time investigating and exploring topics and tasks of their choice. The program generally yields great results, but recently the results have been inconsistent and called into question. This is completely normal. Sometimes programs need to be analyzed and refined. A team was formed to do just this. From the meetings of this team, we created a clear purpose statement for exploratory. We rediscovered our why for the program, which will help us make decisions as we move forward and will give us a sense of purpose and meaning.

As you start a new school year, make sure to consider the why of the many things that occur in school. Doing so will allow you and others to ensure that what you’re doing is focused and not just busy work.

It’s OK to Say No
We can’t do it all. In fact, I push back on the narrative that teachers are superheroes. Teachers are amazing, but the pitfall of being a superhero is taking on too heavy a burden. In that spirit, be OK with saying no to offers. Take on leadership roles, be part of committees, and coach, but also know that too much work can take its toll. Take stock on your many jobs, roles, and activities, and go ahead and say, “No, thank you. I have a lot of great things I’m working on, and I don’t want them to suffer if I’m stretched too thin.”

Similarly, feel free to look for others to take on roles or jobs you may no longer want. I have a colleague who recently became a proud father. He was a leader of many activities and coached every season, but he decided to give up some leadership opportunities to spend more time with his child. When he explained this to his principal, the principal completely understood. Explaining your priorities can make saying no a lot easier.

I’d like to hope that next year I won’t be so busy. I look forward to meaningful work, but not the pressure to do more and to be so busy that I lose sight of my sense of purpose. As educators, we have an opportunity to change the narrative from “being busy” to “being productive and purposeful.”

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