Minding their Ps for Better DQs–Possibilities for Taking Inquiry to the Next Level of Work

It’s been two years since I wrote “Minding your Ps and Qs for Better DQs,” and the idea is gaining some traction among those who find writing questions to launch a project or design challenge to be a challenge in its own right.

Over the last few years I’ve seen teachers take this idea and do some interesting things with it, and I think I’ve seen enough to share the next level of work when it comes to writing questions your students will actually choose to keep exploring. In this installment, we’ll shift the burden of writing a good question off the teacher’s plate, and onto the students where it rightfully belongs.

Can students actually write questions they’ll follow through to the completion of the project? Yes, I think they can if you help them to understand that YOU as the teacher made choices in writing your initial, or “launch” question that got them started. For two years, I’ve had teachers draft a question, and then move, musical chairs style, form one question to the next in order to respond to prompts organized around the five Ps. If you missed the earlier blog, here’s a recap:

PERSONA: As you craft your question, be sure to avoid generic words like “we” or “you.” Make sure that you’re giving students clear guidance about the Persona they will assume during the project. Will students work as themselves, or will they be playing a role? If they’re playing a role, make sure that you’ve planned for them to learn about that role as part of the project. Better yet, help them to discover what that role requires by confronting them with a…

PROBLEM: Project-Based-Learning is something more than Problem-Based-Learning. It implies that students are doing something more with their learning than simply proposing a solution in a white paper. That said, the quality and clarity of the Problem you are posing for your students are both essential to a good Driving Question. Without a clear and engaging Problem at the heart of your Driving Question, your project may just be an assignment, and it might even lack a…

PURPOSE: A good problem does more than open up the things students will “Need to Know” (and be able to do) in order to solve the Problem. Students also “Want to Know” why they need those things: they want to know the point, or Purpose, of solving the problem as students. There are a lot of problems in this world, but not all of them are important enough, or manageable enough, to appeal to students. A good Problem is one that generates a Purposeful student response, and it’s one that leads students to a quality…

PRODUCT: A good PBL teacher will tell you that there is only one survey you need to conduct in order to determine whether a Project was well-designed from the student point of view: did the students leave their final Products in the classroom, or did they want to take them home, or share them with the community? Every good project has a Product, and every good Driving Question drives students to that Product by specifying it, without over-determining it. How will students know how to achieve your objectives, let them turn to…

PUBLIC AUDIENCE: The final, and perhaps most important “P” to mind in your DQs is the larger Public Audience, the “who” as in “who cares?” Yes, of course parents care, but most parents would care if all the students made were a finger painting! Give your students the specifications they need to complete the Product by helping them find an authentic and appropriate Public Audience, preferably one close to home.

Over the course of ten to fifteen minutes (one round on each P for two to three minutes), teachers have been writing down all the possibilities (another P?) that they can think about that might fit into each of these Ps. When the rounds are done, teachers have a piece of paper with their initial question, and whole range of of possibilities from which to choose to draft their launch question. This initial question is tremendously important for launching inquiry, as it frames the specifics of the project or design challenge a teacher hopes that students will pursue. However, I’m frequently asked the following two questions at the end of these revisions:

1) What if the question doesn’t engage ALL the students?
2) What if the students tire of that question before the project is done? i.e., what if it wasn’t sufficiently “driving” to sustain inquiry?

These are real, practical questions, and though I’ve shared a few favorites, in the end even a great Driving Questions may not be able to address one, or both of these questions for the duration of a project. So what are teachers doing with that piece of paper that can help take their students to the next level of work–genuinely student-driven inquiry?

Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. With this list of possibilities, teachers have a menu of options that, while not exactly the same as the question with which they launched inquiry can be used as a booster to get it going again. Typing up all those possibilities under each P prompt, teachers have a handy sheet that they can give to the team that isn’t all that excited about the first question, or to a team that seems to be burning out. Offering that menu to the team, and allowing them to see and explore options opens up new possibilities that, while not exactly the same, still offer students a chance to work toward mastering the standards that align to the question by taking on new “Personalities,” addressing a different “Purpose,” or targeting an alternative “Product” to a different “Public Audience.”

For example, if students don’t like “How can we, as students, design healthy cafeteria meals other students will actually want to eat?” they might select from the menu of possibilities to craft a question like: “How can we, as cafeteria workers, understand our students’ dietary needs and tastes to serve them better meals?” or “How can we, as restauranteurs, design meals that could compete with our cafeteria in terms of nutrition and cost?” The first alternative challenges the students to take on a Personality, that of their cafeteria workers, and to understand and empathize with the challenge they face, rather than just criticize the food cafeteria workers currently serve. The second questions offers those of a more entrepreneurial bent the chance to design their own restaurant close to campus, but does so in a way that forces them to acknowledge the constraints that exist in a competitive market economy when their is an economical alternative nearby. As a result, it might add some standards related to economics that make the question more interesting to that particular team.

Thinking about Launch Questions this way opens up a lot of space for student choice, and student-driven inquiry. Each question still gets at the basic standards of nutrition, and costs, but it acknowledges that different students, or different teams of students, may actually find these challenges more relevant to their interests than the one the teacher launched at the start of a project. In the end, the students are all working on the same core standards (while those who want MORE of a challenge may actually ADD a few standards to the project), and all of these projects can be assessed using the same standards-based rubric. If standards need to be added, that can be done easily by adding another row to the rubric–like something on supply and demand for the more entrepreneurial example. It’s not much extra work for the teacher, just for the students, who’ve found an authentic challenge that they feel is worth pursuing. As I always say, if the students are working harder than the teacher, project-based learning is probably happening. So, a teacher equipped with a menu of question choices is ready, when needed or when students no longer need a single Driving Question, to differentiate their instruction in a way that leaves every one feeling satisfied.

So, the next level of work for teachers tired of having everyone follow the same question might be, “How can we, as project designers, offer our students a menu of options so that every student–every team–has an authentic question they are driven to answer?” I hope you’re up for this challenge! Give it a try and let me know what YOUR students choose to do when you let their inquiry lead the way!

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