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How to Craft Driving Questions That Drive Projects Learning

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Craft Driving Questions

Driving Questions

What is driving questions?

A “mission Statement” of a project is called Driving Questions, according to Tony Vincent, author of “Crafting Questions That Drives Project“. Vincent (2014) believes “It captures the heart of a project by providing purpose using clear and compelling language.”

Driving questions pose simply state real world dilemmas. They pose predicaments that students find interesting and want to answer. The question drives students to discuss, inquire, and investigate the topic. It should push them toward a production or solution. Students learn important content and skills when investigating the question and sharing their answers, according to Vincent.

You can start with a topic or learn standards to develop a driving question. The driving question should require students to learn skills and content to answer an interesting question.

How to Craft a Driving Question

Andrew Miller, in his article “In Search of Driving Questions“, recommends ideas of how to craft a great Driving Questions, since teachers often get stuck trying to come up with a great one, because there are so many considerations in the design process that inform the crafting of an effective driving question.

Miller provides ideas for how to resolve these difficulties and craft a strong question for your project.


Teachers often ask, “What is the difference between driving questions and essential questions?” Miller (2017) answers, “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—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 focus 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.”

Miller believes the use and intent of a driving question 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, need not be the hook. A teacher might use every essential question with their students, but the driving question is always used with students during instruction throughout the project.

Miller (2017) states “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.”


Miller provides these suggestions for generating powerful Driving Questions:

Focus on Action: As I wrote in a previous article, verbs can be powerful tools for student engagement with 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 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 craft and refining driving questions for students. Test 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 The Right Questions to have students generate many questions on a topic or focus statement, and then help 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 fine to give students a driving question, but consider challenging them to be agents in creating it.

Art of Developing Driving Questions

Vincent (2014) provides Types of Driving Questions to help teachers find structure:

📐 Solve a Problem: There’s a real-world predicament with multiple solutions.

  • How can we stop phantom traffic jams?
  • How can we beautify the vacant lot across the street for $200?
  • What’s the best way to stop the flu at our school?
  • Design a better lunch menu for our school.
  • Design a safe and sturdy bridge to replace one in our city.

🎓 Educational: The purpose of the project is to teach others.

  • How can we teach second graders about helpful insects?
  • Create a campaign to teach senior citizens how to use an iPad.
  • What should the students at our school know about being respectful?

👍 Convince Others: Students persuade a specified audience to do something or change their opinions.

  • Create a public service announcement (PSA) that persuades teens to drink more water.
  • Drive yourself to define a question, and then prove it to your classmates.
  • Convince grocery shoppers to return their shopping carts.
  • How can we convince our principal that we should have a party in December?

🌏 Broad Theme: The project tackles big ideas.

  • What does it mean to read?
  • How conflicts lead to change?
  • How does math influence art?
  • How do writers persuade others?
  • How are good and evil depicted in different cultures?

💬 Opinion: Students need to consider all sides of an issue to form and justify their opinions.

  • Should pets be allowed to attend class?
  • Why has a woman never been a U.S. president?
  • What makes a good astronaut?

🚥 Divergent: Students make predictions about alternative timelines and scenarios.

  • What if Rosa Parks gave up her seat?
  • What if the world ran out of oil tomorrow?
  • How might your city change if the climate became an average of 10°F warmer?
  • What if the USA switched to the metric system?

🚀 Scenario-Based: Students take on a fictional role with a mission to accomplish.

  • You’re a NASA engineer, and you build a moon base. What are the ten most important things to include, and why?
  • Imagine you are King George. What would you have done differently to keep American part of England?
  • You are the CEO of a company designing a new social media app. Present a business plan to your investors that explains how your company will make money.
  • You’ve been hired to revamp your local shopping mall. Come up with a plan to increase business.
  • How would you spend $1,000,000 to help your community?

🚧 Scaffolded Around Framing Words: BIE has a tool to help you develop driving questions called a Tubric. It provides possible framing words, actions, audience, and purpose. If you’d rather not take the time to construct a tube, you could use Rhoni McFarlane’s Developing Inquiry Questions chart, or TeachThought’s PBL Cheat Sheet.

  • How can I create a campaign to reduce bullying in my school? (From Rhoni McFarlane)
  • How can we find a solution to permanently reduce litter in our school? (also, from Rhoni McFarlane)
  • How can we as first graders create geocaching sites to promote physical fitness in our neighborhood? (From Washington Discovery Academy)

So, the Big Deal IS?

Tony Vincent (2014) made a good point:

“A driving question guides a project, which can take days, weeks, or months to complete. It’s a big deal. You want to make sure your question is a good one. How do you know if a question will push students toward a quality project? Do the project yourself! If you do your own project ahead of time, you might encounter some bumps in the road that you didn’t anticipate, giving you the chance to refine your question or modify your assessment instrument. If you do your project alongside students, you can model thinking skills and perseverance. By doing your own project, you’re showing your students that the driving question is such a big deal, even if you want to answer it.”

Plaster You Driving Question

In the hall way, on the wall, on the door —.

Vincent says:

“As the leader of your classroom, you are in the best position to know what will work with your students. You know a lot about their interests and abilities. You know the time you have, the resources available, your curriculum, and the learning standards. Considering all this and concocting a meaningful question that will spur students to investigate and learn is no easy task. But, since a driving question can make or break a project, it’s worth the effort.”

Vincent cites Phillip Schlechty, who says teachers need to ask themselves, “What is it that I am trying to get others to do, and what reasons might they have for doing such things?” Answering a well-crafted driving question can be a terrific reason for learning!

The next blog explores integrating assessment best practices into PBL

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