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40. Curriculum Series #4—Crafting a Compelling Driving Question

by Lindsay Lyons
July 27th 2021

Today, I am discussing an element of project-based learning that is often overlooked - how to craft a compelling driving question.⁠

I break down the differences between essential and ... More

we are diving into episode number four of the curriculum design series. Talking about creating a strong driving question, we will tackle questions like what's the difference between an essential question and a driving question. I'm gonna give you a bunch of examples and some really gold standard elements of a strong driving question to be able to use almost as a checklist as you are creating a strong driving question that's compelling to your students for your upcoming unit that you'll be designing. I'm so excited, let's dive on in. Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities. Take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a pro principal superintendent instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for teacher ship podcast, let's dive in.

According to PBL Works, one of the quote gold standard elements of project based learning is a challenging problem or question. So I want to dive in a little bit deeper and take a look at this element that is so critical but often overlooked or kind of skim through or you know, just seems confusing and so we don't really touch it or refine it that much. So let's talk about the driving question and the very first thing I want to do is distinguish it from an essential question. Grant Wiggins who is a co author of Understanding by design, you B. D. Many people will notice as distinguishes an essential question from a compelling question if that's what he calls it is the same I think as a driving question and he also distinguishes both of these from a supporting question as well. So he has a whole blog post on this. I can link to that in the show notes but he clarifies that an essential question is one that Rikers over time and points toward important and transferable ideas.

To me. An essential question is something that might be your entire grade team content to content area creates curriculum that enable students to address an essential question. It's transferable to different content areas. It could also be that your entire department in a given school year to year, students are grappling with the same essential questions again transferable to different contexts and time periods and all that stuff. Those essential questions are really broad or high level. They're used everyday kind of as a focus for curriculum from year to year. The other end of that continuum as supporting questions. And so these are at the lesson level. Grant Wiggins says they have agreed upon answers and they assist students in addressing their compelling or what I'm calling driving questions, all of these question types are really valuable, it's important to have essential question, it is important to have those kind of scaffolding or supporting questions that enable students to answer the driving project based questions, but they're all really different when it comes to the purposes that they serve.

And so it's just important to be clear. You can call them whatever you want, but just recognize that there are different levels of questions and an essential question as a driving question for a project is not gonna cut it, it's not gonna be super engaging, it's not going to be contextualized in a way that makes sense for the project. So students might be confused, they might just be disinterested a supporting or what I have been calling. The scaffolding question is just way too narrow and not something that students could really use to answer in any sort of depth. So it doesn't make a good project question either. So what does make a strong, compelling driving question? A strong driving question is the key again to the success of a project based unit. If students aren't excited to address the question answer the question, the project immediately becomes less effective. It is so important that we get this question right here are the criteria that formulate a compelling driving question, it's engaging to students, it allows for open ended responses.

So, again, just like we said with the supporting or scaffolding questions can't really go many places with that. If it's a question that opens up a range of answers and a range of responses that could be considered valid or valuable, then we're good. It also, and this is the important thing that I think essential questions, misc and a lot of teachers, including myself early on Miss this rooted in a specific context. So the driving question should be contextualized. It needs to have a bit of context to it or else it is way too broad and then becomes an essential question. The driving question should also be clear, meaning students understand what the question is actually asking. The language is clear, but also just the phrasing of the question is clear. So the question as a whole can be understood by students and I would add a piece that is not part of PPL works, which is that it centers justice as well. If we're creating justice centered units, we're creating projects that ask students to apply with their learning in the spirit of advancing justice, they're able to take action or resist oppression.

We need to be able to have a driving question that centers justice within the question, right? It should all be grounded in justice. And so we start that off with our driving question. Of course, it also should be aligned to learning goals. That's another thing that PBL work says, I just think that's pretty much a given at this point, but that is another thing to consider. We want to make sure that we're teaching what we need to teach. And of course the learning goals should be aligned as well. If you find yourself drafting a driving question and it doesn't meet these criteria or meet some of them, but not all of them, I would challenge yourself to rewrite, we do this with blog writing a lot. Rewrite a list of maybe five iterations before you settle on your final piece. Five iterations of the question I think is a minimum. If you can do like 20 iterations, if you can ask for feedback from fellow teachers, former students, current students, I think that's even better, but make sure that you're being really thoughtful about the step of creating a driving question because if you move too quickly, the whole project, the whole unit can kind of be upended because there's not a compelling driving question that students want to answer.

Let's take a look at an example. This is probably my favorite one. I think this comes from john Larmer at PBL Works who wrote a blog post about creating a compelling driving question. The first draft of this question is, how is Matthew's basketball Statistics? This is a very common type of question that I would say it's probably an attempt at contextualizing an essential question of like how is math used in life, right? And then they apply basketball and now we call it a driving question, but that's not really a compelling question that students are going to be excited to answer? That's kind of a pedagogical question that asks the teacher will how can you create projects or activities that invite students to apply statistics in a basketball context? That's a question for me as an educator, not for students. The second draft that is student facing might be is Lebron James the best basketball player ever. I have asked this question not just to students but to educators, to adults and our virtual workshop chat just kind of devolved into arguing about this.

So it clearly is compelling, right? It's clearly way more compelling. People are gonna have opinions about it. And as a math teacher, you could break down how statistics can be used to be able to address and support that question and your answer to that question. Now, I think there's another component here that is missing for our purposes of creating justice centered curriculum, which is where is the justice in that piece? So we might actually create another level or another draft of that question. And I am not saying this is a great question, but I've been kind of playing around with this example, but might look something like what's the formula for calculating the best basketball player of all time? Right. So is there some sort of formula that gives us the best basketball player of all time? And I think what that gets at is what statistics are missing from the debates of whether Lebron James is the best basketball player ever. Are we just using his in game statistics? Are we just using his points, rebounds, assists, Right.

All these things that we typically use when we talk about basketball? Or are we also creating a lens of justice to look at this quest through and ask, what does Lebron James do for intersectional justice? What does he do for racial justice? What does he do for gender justice on the court off the court in his context as kind of a public figure? What is he doing to advance justice as a human being? Is that an important consideration in terms of what makes the best basketball player of all time? Is it just his basketball performance or is it him as a person who happens to also be an athlete? This could create a little bit broader conversation. Certainly we're still using a lot of statistics, but we could also bring in concepts of racial justice and what Lebron James has done for racial justice efforts to be able to speak really intelligently and broadly on that topic. You're going to need to do a little bit more research into the context and statistics of these other issues that he might be talking about.

So I think that is an opportunity for people to add a layer of justice thinking back to this kind of checklist of what the driving question needs to have. It is engaging, is Lebron James the best basket player ever, Certainly more engaging than how is Matthews in basketball statistics. It allows for open ended responses, you can say yes or no to the question of is he the best when you open it up in that third draft of like what's the formula for the best basketball player, then we have even more open ended opportunities. Whereas our first is kind of a yes or no, but I have a lot of avenues to be able to support the yes or no. So I think it still fits an open ended response requirement. It is rooted in a specific context. So we are not only saying basketball is important, but we're asking about Lebron James specifically. So I think that is really specific and that third draft thinking about calculating the formula, it is contextualized, but it might actually lose a bit of context realization as we're trying to broaden the open ended responses.

So there's a balance there for sure. I think the Lebron James question, is he the best right that is clear. Students understand that question, they're going to immediately be able to jump into a conversation and then over time kind of curate all the research necessary to support their position in the third draft, we get kind of away from that clarity and so again, these are all kind of a bit of a balancing act and certainly we try to center justice in that last piece as well when we're thinking about this list of qualities that are driving questions should have. You'll want to write out each of the questions and then have the list of qualities handy as you kind of check each of your drafts of your driving question against the list. I often feel like I just want time to, as I'm listening to podcasts to be able to think about what is being said without noise and sometimes I can't hit that pause button because my hands are occupied and so I'm going to give us a little bit of time here. I want you to write a compelling driving question for a unit idea in your mind. Let's just take a minute and get a unit idea in your head.

It could be a unit you've done before, it could be one you've dreamed about doing. Let's just get a general topic in your mind. Once you have that, I want you to draft at least five possible driving questions, you can write it down, you can think about it, but let's just take a moment to just brainstorm at least one driving question, I'm sure you will need more time. So you can feel free to press pause if you're able, but I want you to have at least one in your head and then let's go through the checklist first, I want to invite you to think about, is it provocative, does it enables students to kind of jump in and answer So recall your question and ask is it something my students are gonna kind of scramble to answer if it's engaging and provocative students are excited to answer it.

The next question is does it allow for open ended responses? The wording should not suggest a correct answer. Can multiple answers be shared? Is it rooted in a specific context? So is there a relevant context provided? Or can students choose a context if you're thinking about it in the context of a unit where students can go one of three different paths and students can determine which path they want to go down. But there is options for context provided, basically this idea of context gives them a clear why? So why am I answering it for the Lebron James question? Why am I even thinking about the question about math and basketball? Right, Why is that even important to me? Well, now I've contextualized it, so I have the why have the motivation to answer? Take a moment to think about? Does your question have a clear why, meaning a relevant context that would excite students to answer that isn't too broad. Next ask, If the language is clear, Can students actually understand your question meaning each word in your question, but also the question as a whole. Does it make sense? And you may want to test this out with different people because sometimes we could just say, oh yeah, that makes sense because we wrote it.

Maybe run that by a few people but take a moment ask of each of the individual words as well as the question as a whole makes sense and then ask does it center justice? Is justice at the core? Often I think it's hard to embed justice into a question that was inherently not about justice. So the Lebron James example is one that I took from john Larmer article and then tried to apply justice way harder I think to do something like that than to create from a standpoint of just so if you're struggling with this, I would say kind of start again, brainstorm a unit idea or topic idea from the beginning, the centre's justice and that becomes a lot easier. The other things are a lot easier to adapt because they're more linguistic issues than the content itself. And a final check that speaks to something we said earlier, can this question be answered in one minute? It shouldn't be, this should require a strong understanding of course knowledge and skills to be able to answer it.

Okay, if you have just done that activity and you're like whoa, I need to start again from scratch or if you're thinking wow, I couldn't even come up with a driving question, no worries. Of course this takes much longer. So feel free to really listen or pause and come back to this later, but I do want to share a couple of formulas with you as well as some example driving questions that might provoke a little bit of creativity or innovation in terms of getting started there. The Buck Institute for Education. They came up with what they call the two Brick, basically a formula to create a driving question and I think it's a little clunky to be honest, but it's great if you're just getting started. So they suggest starting with a frame, for example, how can we, should we the first word or two of the question then a person or an entity. So how can we, we would be the person, how can our class, our class would be the person, how should this government, the government would be the person. Right, so an actor or an entity frame the person then an action and then a purpose or an audience.

So for example how can we solve that's our action. A particular problem littering in our school would be the purpose, we take an audience view for that last segment. It might be how can we create a product? So create a product would be our action for our first period math class. That would be the audience that we're creating for going back to the government example, should this government pass a particular law to address a particular problem? The first few words of the question, a person or entity, the action that we're going to take and then the reason we're going to take it like is it solving a problem. Is it creating something for a particular audience? To me that feels a little bit clunky. I think it's better to create organically, but again if you're stuck it's a nice starting point. And even simpler formula I think is april smith who came up with how can I as the frame, how can I and then challenge audience.

So how can I plan a school carnival that will raise money for our school? Right so our school needs money and the creation the challenges that I need to plan a school carnival to raise money and the audience is our school. So that's another one that you can use. I want to talk a little bit about some subcategories of driving questions really quickly I think of them in two big categories. My most successful driving questions have either been debatable questions. The Lebron James example is a great example, it's not what I've used but it's kind of a yes or no and then we can have an argument about it or it's to create a product or solve a problem and that's kind of what the buck institute and april smith's formulas speak to, we're creating a product to solve a problem. A debatable question might be why has a woman never been a U. S. President super open ended, it's an opinion question but we can debate why all day long now we can use course concepts to be able to understand why that is.

We can use it to support an answer. But really we're talking about kind of a debate. It's not a debate in the sense that we would think about Lebron James debate where there's a right side and the wrong side. It opens up opportunities for a lot of different positions. Can a dog live in the desert? Definitely a yes or no. Head to head debate or another kind of version that I would put under debatable questions is an alternate reality. What if something happened? So for example, what if the world ran out of oil tomorrow? What if something that happened in history didn't actually happen? How would life be different? It's kind of an opinion. It enables students to debate, oh, that wouldn't happen, that would happen. And it's kind of a fun twist. But in terms of an authentic product when we're going back to authenticity and those gold standard PBL elements, we don't necessarily have a final product that advances justice. But what I do think is really important. And what kind of afrofuturism has taught me is thinking about alternate realities as innovative cream creative potentials for seeing the possible for seeing the possibilities for advancing justice for seeing how oppression is not inevitable.

And so I do think there's kind of this creative writing element or creativity element to this alternate reality scenario that does advance justice if you look at it through that lens. And so that's why I would consider this part of a justice based question. The other piece is creating a product or solving a problem. And so driving questions might look like I'm gonna pull from a couple different places here. So Maryland's East Public School, which is in Australia. They had students answer this driving question, which is kind of a two parter. What can we as young scientists do to convince policymakers and governments of the threat of climate change? And part two, what solutions can we provide to minimize the effect of climate change on the environment? Here's one from Washington Discovery Academy. How can we as first graders create geocaching sites to promote physical fitness in our neighborhood. So you can see these use the formula a little bit more. Right? How do we as an actor solve this problem for this audience? Other kind of subsets of this idea of creating a product or solving a problem could be that we're teaching others about something or we're convincing others to change their behavior.

So convincing one might be how can we persuade teenagers to drink more water? A teaching one might be how can we teach senior citizens how to use an iPad and communicate with their grandchildren, other categories that I've heard put out there and I'm not a huge fan of include the broad themes. So for example, how does math influence art? Again, I think that's not a driving compelling question. I think it's an essential question because it's too broad, but a math class and an art class could consistently go back to that question unit after unit throughout the year and just think about how that question relates to what they're learning super helpful. Not a great project based question, right? Not a driving question, it's not at that level, it's too broad. Another one that I'm not super jazzed about is a fictional scenario. And I say that because I think there are opportunities for us to create scenarios that are real and not fictional. So for example, you're a Nasa engineer, you're in charge of building a moon base. What are the 10 most important things to include and why?

That is probably a really cool question to answer. And so if engagement is your priority, go for it. But I also think that we could frame this as you're not a Nasa engineer, but you are an emerging scientists, right? You're in a science class and Nasa might be building a moon base or they might be going to MArs and that's a real thing that's happening in our society. And we're talking about this stuff that's that's a real life thing that needs an answer. What do they need to include as they go do this thing. You can actually have students send a report to Nasa. So it's not just that they're doing this for the grade, but there is a real audience at the end as you go send whatever you're sending to. Mars, here's what you need to include and here's why you need to include it. There are so many times throughout history where we've seen brilliant people or organizations just forget or skip over something that it seems really obvious. Maybe to a child though there's a real opportunity here to make a report that could actually benefit humanity or be innovative or see something through the lens of a child that an adult at Nasa didn't see.

I mean, these are real opportunities to just slightly pivot a project and make it more authentic. The final thing I'll say is once we start bringing these driving questions into the class evidence of a strong, compelling driving question when students have a bunch of sub questions that immediately emerge. So something like, you know what if question, what if we had a chicken house at our school could lead to a lot of sub questions that we have to answer to be able to answer that driving question? What should the house be like, how many can live in a house do chickens live with their families? Do they need sunlight? Do we need to have playtime for chickens? What do chickens eat? How will we pay for their food? How often do they eat, Who's going to feed them? There's all sorts of cool branching questions that students will be able to gen if it is a compelling driving question. So that's another great check is just kind of throw out a question to your students and see what comes out if there's not a lot of engagement, if there's not a lot of questions generation, that kind of branches from that driving question, you might want to rethink or revise our question.

Alright, that was a very deep dive into driving questions as a free resource for this episode. I'm going to give you my backwards planning template which does have a mini checklist around driving questions as well as a lot of other things including a proposed unit arc which we're going to get into in our next episode of the curriculum development series. Just a reminder that curriculum boot camp, my online self base course is available for purchase for individual teachers or for school leaders who want to purchase it for their department or grade teams. I also have a live component. If you are a school leader who would like me to come in and help your department to your grade teams, spend two days developing one complete unit start to finish. If you are a teacher who is a little cash strapped looking for just one piece one module of the curriculum bootcamp course. I got you, I have heard a lot of people ask for it, I've been resistant to give it up as its own thing because I think the whole package is really important. I am going to drop a link into the show notes for you to just purchase the protocols module of curriculum boot camp, including all the templates with it.

Get excited for next week's episode or we'll be diving into the creation of a unit arc and protocols that are in that module I just mentioned. Thanks for listening. Amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth Alliance or labor review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it to continue the conversation. You can head over to our time for teacher ship facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time leaders continue to think Big Act brave and be your best self.

40. Curriculum Series #4—Crafting a Compelling Driving Question
40. Curriculum Series #4—Crafting a Compelling Driving Question
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