Minding your Ps and Qs for Better DQs

Over the last few years I’ve seen a variety of strategies employed when it comes to drafting and revising Driving Questions (DQs) in Project Based Learning (PBL). I’ve watched brainstorm sessions, revised and revised with participants, and even played around with the Buck Institute for Education’s (BIE) “Tubric,” a manipulable that allows bodily-kinesthetic learners to discover their inner verbo-linguistic brilliance. At last, however, it seems that a simple old rule of logic is all you need. Want better Qs? Mind your Ps!

BIE’s “Tubric” set me to thinking, logically and categorically, about what makes a good DQ. After playing around with it, and with some DQs over the last two years, the Ps you need to mind seem to be…

PERSONA: As you craft your Driving 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.

So, there you have five Ps to mind for better DQs: Persona, Problem, Purpose, Product, and Public Audience. If you mind your Ps, you’ll find that a good Driving Question might have a structure something like this:

How could [PERSONA] address [PROBLEM]/[PURPOSE] with a [PRODUCT] useful to [PUBLIC AUDIENCE].

That doesn’t mean that you need to follow that structure as a formula, however. If you do, too often your Driving Question will result in a mouthful. For example:

What kinds of tests [PRODUCT] could students [PERSONA] conduct so that our school community [PUBLIC AUDIENCE] can decide [PURPOSE] whether we should pay for bottled water or drink tap water that may be polluted by hydraulic fracturing [PROBLEM]?

Simply following this structure doesn’t mean you’ll get something snappy that fits on a T-shirt, which means it’s probably worth mentioning one final P that is very helpful when writing better Driving Questions: Polish, Polish, Polish! It takes some time, but with a little polish, the above example was transformed by a teacher in West Virginia to:

“How will YOU decide whether or not to drink the fracking water?”

This remains my all-time favorite Driving Question because, in plain and catchy English, it contains or implies all five Ps behind a strong Driving Question. Play with it (another P that deserves to be taken more seriously!) and I think you’ll see how. If not, I’ll be back soon with a follow-on blog to unpack the five Ps contained within.

For now: mind your Ps, polish them (with, or without your students), and I think you’ll find that your students get into better Driving Questions PDQ.

2 Comments to "Minding your Ps and Qs for Better DQs"
  1. Kristie Horn says:

    Hi Tim,
    I could not believe how timely it was for me to have happened across this blog. I am a Gifted Education teacher in Georgia. I teach both 3rd and 5th grade gifted students in a Resource Pull-out model. I attended a Professional Development this past summer (Summer 2014) that discussed PBL. Fortunately, I have been implementing PBL in my gifted instructional delivery for 5 years now. I have believed for quite some time, that learning must be authentic to students in order for them to want to have a greater depth of knowledge in whatever they are working on or being taught. In my personal opinion, the best way to provide that kind of authenticity, is to have students working towards a presentation of their creative product for an audience. I loved how you gave described the five P’s as a means for improving DQ’s. (Where I work, we still refer to the “driving” questions as the Essential Questions or EQ’s). I am also a graduate student, currently working on my Master’s. One of my assignments this week was to find a blog relevant to what I am trying to improve within my own instruction. PBL may be something I have been implementing for years, but I know that there is always room for growth and improvement. The idea of teaching “Persona” as part of my development of better essential questions, as well as the information about “Tubrics” was very beneficial. I just wanted to thank you.

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