How to Refine Driving Questions for Effective Project-Based Learning: Part 2


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 >


In my last blog about driving questions, we reviewed the purpose of the driving question as well as some tools to help you refine your driving questions. In addition, some sample, poorly written driving questions were given to have you practice. We will review them at the end of the blog and look for some exemplars from all of you.

There are many types of driving questions, but I like to break them down into three types.

Philosophical or Debatable: These types of questions are honestly debatable questions that have complex possible answers. Of course, all driving questions should be open-ended, but philosophical or debatable questions by nature require complex, rigorous thought, and of course corresponding student products. Be careful that you aren’t writing this type of question, but the answer obviously sways one way. If you have an agenda, and want students to get to a certain place, this isn’t the type of question to use.
Example: Can a dog live in the desert?

Product-Oriented: How do we create ______ to ______? This is a great type of driving question to use if you have a specific student product in mind. Notice that 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 an epic poem about an important episode in my daily life?

Role-Oriented: Students love to take on roles and pretend to be things they are not, even high school students. In this type of driving question you give students an authentic or real-world role with a problem to solve or project to accomplish.
Examples: How do we as architects design an outdoor classroom for our school? How I as a scientist design an experiment to debunk and common scientific myth?

I’ve had teachers ask, “What is the difference between essential questions (à la Understanding By Design) and driving questions?” In my opinion, essential questions, when created to their utmost potential are driving questions. Driving questions are just essential questions that are high on caffeine. They demand authenticity and rigorous problem-solving, which essential questions can do, but don’t always. In addition, essential questions are often created to be more like enduring understands or learning targets. Those are great, but shouldn’t be confused with driving questions. Essential questions that sound like enduring understands are not exciting and do not DRIVE the learning, which brings me to my next point.

We spend time crafting and refining driving questions for the student. The student! Just because a question sounds interesting to you, it may not be to a student. Driving questions must be accessible to the students and engage them. I’m a big nerd, and so love learning. Enduring understandings and questions that mirror them appeal to me, but to the reluctant and marginalized students we are trying to reach, they are not. So remember, it’s all about the students. Try testing out the driving question you have created on a student and see how they react. Will every student jump up and down about it? No, but we can at least have students say, “I guess that sounds cool.”

One last point, be culturally responsive. Some driving questions may not be appropriate depending on the students you have in your classroom or in the location you teach. The driving question, “How do we create a game to cheat people out of their money without them knowing it?” may not be culturally responsive. A Hindi student might find that question offensive, because it is contrary to cultural values. However, the driving question “How do we create a fun chance game for the neighboring fourth grade classroom?” might be more culturally responsive. Just keep that in mind.

Rewriting Last Week’s Poorly Written Questions
Now let’s see how I might transform some of the bad driving questions from from last week:

What is epic poetry?
Can be rewritten as
How do I write an epic poem about an important episode in my life?
You will notice that the project will be more relevant and challenging. Yes, they will learn epic poetry, but in order to write about themselves.

How have native peoples been impacted by changes in the world?
Can be rewritten as
How do we create new policies to honor the culture of the Snoqualmie tribe while allowing for casinos?
Here the question is local. It also demands innovation for a complex task.

How does probability relate to games?
Can be rewritten as
How do we create a new gambling game to cheat people out of their money without them noticing?
Here the question is a bit subversive and quite engaging. Content about probability will be learned for an authentic purpose. A quick note, this question may not be culturally responsive, as it demands behavior that may be contrary to certain cultures. In that case, you might make the question, How do we create a chance game to engage elementary students?

Why is science important and how can it help save people?
Can be rewritten as
Should we allow for genetic engineering to prevent diseases and illnesses?
Here the question is contentious and debatable, and it is focused on specific topics so that the scope isn’t too large.

Well, there you go! Two blogs with tips, tricks, and tools to create great driving questions for your projects. Keep working at the “beast” of driving questions, and you will find yourself able to spout them off at will to your colleagues as they build their PBL projects.

Before Including Test Scores, Reform the Structure of Teacher Evaluation Itself


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


I’ve had the privilege of talking to many participants who attended and organized the Save Our Schools march that occurred in Washington D.C. Teachers are angry, and the biggest point of contention is student data being factored into student evaluation. But do you really want to know why teachers are angry about reforming evaluation and tenure? Besides the issue of high stakes test and data, there is a major movement that needs to occur before teachers will come to the table and negotiate new forms and criteria for evaluation.

Before reforming the criteria of evaluation, the processes and structures of evaluations must be reformed. In most schools, the ways teachers are evaluated is terrible, and the main thing is it isn’t their fault. They often don’t have any sort of power over the structure of the evaluation including pieces such as time and frequency. The traditional picture of teacher evaluation is what I call “drive-by” teacher evaluation. The administrator comes in once at the beginning of the year to see how teachers are doing. The teacher is then told what he or she is doing well and what needs to be improved. At the end of the year, the administrator returns for the official evaluation to see how the teacher is doing and to see if he or she has met the criteria.

The first problem here is frequency. How can you judge a teacher practice based on two observations per year? Even if the administrator has a good understanding that the evaluation is just a moment in time, and that the whole picture of teaching and learning is not being seen, a few visits to at teacher’s classroom hardly warrants a comprehensive evaluation of the teachers effectiveness. Frequency needs to increase.

Now before teachers start getting angry, there are many provisions that need to happen in order for frequency of visits and evaluation increase. The culture around evaluation needs to be reframed. It needs to be viewed with the proper lens of formative and summative assessments, just like when we evaluate our students. Not all observations and evaluations should “count.” Instead they should be used as they are intended, to provide feedback and goals for the teacher. Teachers need to understand and unpack the criteria. This rarely happens. Teachers don’t use the evaluation rubric because they don’t own them. The criteria must be tied to the mission and vision of the school as well as individual teacher professional growth plans. Those evaluating must engage the teachers in analyzing the criteria and targeting professional development that is truly needed.

Professional development must be occurring in the year between the evaluations in order to arm the teacher with the skills he or she needs to be an effective teachers. Instructional coaches and leaders must be readily available. The problem is this is often the first area of funding that is cut. How can we expect teachers to improve if we don’t provide ongoing professional development and coaching?

If you really want teachers to come to table and even consider using student data as part of their evaluation, then the processes and structures of evaluation must be reformed first. Currently, they are ineffective for both the administrators and the teachers themselves. Instead of being a “hoop to jump through,” let’s make it an authentic part of the teaching profession as I know some schools have.

Writing Effective Driving Questions: Part One


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 >


Driving questions (DQ) can be a beast. When I train teachers, they say the same thing, “Writing the Driving question is one of the hardest parts of an effective PBL.” I agree. When I am constructing a DQ for a PBL project, I go through many drafts. It’s only now, after implementing many projects and having coached countless teachers that I consider myself adept.

To get a better sense of this, I encourage you to watch some videos at the Buck Institute for Education’s “How To Do PBL” playlist on their YouTube Channel before we dig in.

Our Driving Question Now Is: How do we write an Effective Driving Question?
First, we need to understand why we have them. Driving questions are there for two entities, the teacher and the student.

For the teacher: A DQ helps to initiate and focus the inquiry. Remember the project shouldn’t be trying to solve the world’s problems. Instead, it should be a focused action, and focused inquiry; the goal is to ensure the students are focused. The teacher needs to help focus the teaching and learning, and the driving question help with that.

It also captures and communicates the purpose of the project in a succinct question. When reading the driving question, the teacher and student should be clear on what the overall project is as well as its purpose. Also for the teacher, it helps to guide planning and reframe standards or big content and skills. I will say more about this later, but the driving question should not sound like a standard reimagined in the form of a question. Instead, use the driving question to reframe the standards in ways that are accessible to both you the teacher and the student.

For the student: Ultimately, the driving question is for the students. It creates interest and a feeling of challenge so that even the most reluctant student thinks, “Hmmm, I guess that sounds kinda cool.”

It guides the project work. All work for the project, including the culminating project and daily lessons and activities, should be trying to help students answer the driving question. Whether it’s a lesson on commas, or implementation time, or drill-and-skill with math problems, the work needs to connect to the driving question. Why? The seemingly “boring” activities of the day-to-day have reason, relevancy and purpose, and then guess what? They aren’t boring anymore.

This relates to my next point. It helps student answer the question: “Why are we doing this?” This is the Golden Question that many administrators ask students when they are visiting. If your driving question is good, it can help connect that work so that students can articulate the reason behind daily lessons and activities.

My driving question is posted all over my classroom. It’s on worksheets, the project wall, and the online blog. It is continually referred to while we are working on the project so students are reminded of the purpose of the project and daily work.

The Tale of the “Snarky Kid”
I must tell the story about “Snarky Kid.” Snarky Kid is the kid who pretends to hate everything in school or your class, but still shows up and does work. In my class, we were doing some comma practice sheets in class right after a direct instruction lesson. Our driving question was: “How do we get a government official to preserve both casinos and the culture of local native peoples?”

My administrator, of course, came up to Snarky Kid, and asked, “What are you working on and why?”

Snarky Kid replied, “We are working on stupid commas.”

“Oh, I see,” said my administrator. “Why are you working on commas?”

“Because we are writing letters to the senator to make her change her mind, and we don’t want our letters to suck. We want her to read them, and not look bad.”

Fantastic, right!?! Despite the crass answer, Snarky Kid was able to articulate the immediate relevance of the task. I’d like to think that maybe the driving question helped that student to answer the administrator’s question.

In my next blog, we will explore different types of driving questions, look at some transformations from bad to good driving questions, and look are some further criteria. In the meantime, I’m leaving you with a task to practice refining driving questions.

Practice Refining Driving Questions
Watch the video on the Tubric, a useful tool to help create effective driving questions, and then follow this link to create one of your own. (courtesy of my colleagues at the Buck Institute for Education)

Even nerdy activities have their place in the classroom. (Can I get an amen?)

Next, use the Tubric to refine the poorly written driving questions below. It’s true, you have not yet received all the tips and tricks I have to share, nor do you know exactly what the PBL projects are that connect to the driving questions presented. However, you can still practice, and maybe come up with questions of your own around creating effective driving questions. (Hint: I’m modeling part of the PBL process in this exercise.)

Here are some driving questions for you to refine. Feel free to pick one and focus your work. I’ll be covering some of the tips and tricks to refine driving questions in my next post.

What is epic poetry?
How have native peoples been impacted by changes in the world?
How does probability relate to games?
Why is science important and how can it help save people?

Online Education: A Word of Caution


This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post, an internet news and commentary website. The Education section features updated on college, teachers, and education reform, where I regularly contribute. View Original >


Online education is becoming a legitimate and viable option for education systems around the country. Both colleges and secondary schools are offering classes to students. In fact many states and schools are requiring students to take some method of mode of online learning. New York made major changes around seat time and face-to-face contact between student and teacher. The state’s intentions are good. They want to move away the focus from seat time, and they want to offer courses that might be hard to offer in certain areas of the state to all students. With all these innovative systemic changes, one might think we are completely on the right track. I offer a word of caution.

Online education is in danger of replicating a system that isn’t working. Yes, I wrote it. With all the potential for innovation that online education has to offer, we have fallen into the pitfall of replication. The keyword is “danger.” There is much that online education can do to innovate the education system, and much that has already been done as a result. Yet most of the actual courses and pedagogical structures that are in place are simply replicating the traditional style of education.

What’s the biggest positive effect of online education? It is causing schools to reevaluate and seek to answer the question: “Why do students need and want to go our schools?” In addition, online education is focusing on the learning, not time, a movement toward competency-based pathways, especially those championed by iNACOL, and moving conversations about student achievement in the right direction. Teaching and learning can be tailored to the specific student. Students complete work at their own pace and seek feedback and instruction as they need, rather than when the teacher decides. Students are immersed in a variety of technology tools and media, allowing for different ways to learn content.

With all these positive implications and results, what is missing? The pedagogical structures for most online courses is traditional and does not meet the needs of all students and the variety of learning styles that they come with. Although there might be a variety of media types, such as videos or music or reading, the lesson design is still in the “sage on the stage” mode, where the course knows the content and pushes it out on students. Although students might be asked to show what they know in different modalities, from a collage to a podcast, they mimic low-level performances of regurgitating knowledge for the teacher to assess. Grading practices are often poor, with arbitrary point values being given, rather than focus on the standards. Well-designed rubrics are not present for students, and if they are, the students are left to their devices to understand it. Revision mimics a typical essay from school, where only one draft is required. Although there might be discussion boards or other social media to collaborate, collaborative assessments and work are not present to create a true need to collaborate. Discussions boards, for example, are treated as a summative assessment, points in the grade book. Shouldn’t it instead be used for the purpose is was created? It should be a place where collaboration and wrestling with rigorous questions can occur, not a punitive measure to “cattle prod” students into doing work. Courses are often not culturally responsive, nor are teachers trained in culturally responsive teaching and what it looks like online.

The good news is that there are some innovators out that are truly looking at online education to implement proven pedagogical practices that seek to engage students. Some schools are using project-based learning as their focus to create a need to know the online content and demand that students innovate and collaborate together, whether fully online or in a hybrid model. Game-based learning courses are starting to be developed where students engage in missions to learn important content and skills where timely feedback and incentives are the norm. Some online courses are completely standards-based, where students are graded on learning targets, not simply time and work.

What should you take away from this? We can do better. Parents should be asking tough questions around these concerns when they consider signing up their student for online classes. Course providers should be trying new and innovative practices and consider culture in the course design. Teachers need to trained in these new pedagogical methods, so that professional resources includes not only strategies and tools for teaching online, but a push toward an innovative art of teaching. All stakeholders should be actively involved in collaborating on courses with the content developers and push back when they see “the same old thing.” Our students deserve the best possible education, not simply a replication of a system that has not served all our students.