Friday, October 16, 2009

3 Steps to a Driving Question for Project Based Learning

In the last post of the Project Based Learning series, I introduced what project based learning is and the benefits of using Project Based Learning in corporate environments. Now that we know what PBL is and have seen an example of it's use in a corporate environment, let's dive into developing Project Based Lessons for corporate training. Project Based Lessons begin with what I believe to be the most critical aspect of the instructional design process, the Driving Question. Houghton Mifflin's "Project Based Learning Space" defines driving questions as;
"A driving question or problem that serves to organize and drive activities, which taken as a whole amount to a meaningful project."
The driving question is both the foundation and the blueprint that gets learners started and guides them throughout the project. A well designed project is based on a driving question that sets off an inquiry based learning process where the project activities, and objectives are all determined by the driving question. It's obvious that the driving question is make or break to the project based lesson, so how do you create a quality driving question that achieves all of this. This post breaks down the process of developing a driving question that organizes and drives activities in a project based lesson.

Step 1: Develop the Big Idea
Before you can begin constructing the driving question you need to develop the "Big Idea" that the project will be based on. This is where you need to be creative and come up with an idea or theme for the project that is intriguing, complex, problematic, and most importantly requires the learner to demonstrate the outcomes of the instructional objectives being taught in the lesson. While it's important to create a driving question that is intriguing, the main focus is to design a question that elicits the performance required of the learner upon completion of the lesson. When it comes to project based lessons in corporate environments it's best to come up with a big idea or theme based off of problems that the learners face in the workplace. A big idea that matches what people do in their daily work makes it easy to design a project based lesson that will improve the learners performance back at the workplace.

It can be all too easy to get carried away with an elaborate driving question that ends up having nothing to do with the performance described in the instructional objectives. The"Project Based Learning Handbook" suggests staying focused on the performance by asking yourself;
"Where is the content I am trying to teach used in the real world?"
A great way to stay focused on authentic concerns is to enroll the help of learners in the brainstorming process. Engaging the learners in the process of developing the big idea not only makes it easier to develop a "real world" concern, but it also ensures the learners "buy in" on the lesson. This is particularly helpful with adults in a corporate environment where the training facilitator may not necessarily be an expert on the subject at hand and the learners can add perspective that makes the lesson more effective.

It's helpful to see examples of driving questions to get you started but there is really not many examples available. The Selling Sleep Disorder Relief project based lesson is a corporate example that may help you get started especially if you are developing a project based lesson for sales professionals. Please leave a comment if you have any other examples that you can contribute.

Step 2: Rough out the Driving Question
Once you have the big idea or theme for your project based lesson you are ready to rough out your driving question. In this step you will be taking the big idea developed in step 1 and forming that into a realistic scenario requiring the learner to demonstrate the performance described in the instructional objectives. The "Project Based Learning Handbook" describes the goal of developing the driving question with the following quote:
"Once you have a project theme or a "big idea" for a project, capture the theme in the form of a problem or a question that cannot be easily solved or answered."
A great way to capture the "big idea" into the form of a problem is to present it as a realistic scenario that learners come across in the workplace. Think about what is going to happen on the job that will trigger the performance being taught and capture that in the form of a question or multiple questions. The driving question does not have to be told in a storyline but a good story is a great way to engage the learner while communicating the driving question(s) and guidelines of the project. In the Selling Sleep Disorder Relief project based lesson, I communicated the driving question through a story that caught the learners attention and was actually fun for me to write. The "Project Based Learning Handbook" has some great tips for developing driving questions with the guidelines below:
  • Driving Questions are Provocative
  • Driving Questions are Open Ended
  • Driving Questions go to the heart of a discipline or topic
  • Driving Questions are challenging
  • Driving Questions can arise from real world dilemmas that students find interesting
  • Driving Questions are consistent with standards (Objectives)
Once you have roughed out a driving question you are ready to put it through the final inspection to make sure it meets the goals you set out for in the instructional objectives. In the final step of the driving question design process you will improve upon what you started with by refining the driving question into a complex, engaging issue that requires the learners to demonstrate the performance described in the objectives.

Step 3: Polishing the Driving Question
Before considering your driving question complete there are some important factors to take into consideration that will help you polish the driving question you roughed out in step 1. The list below describes some questions to ask yourself before finalizing your driving question.
  • Is it open ended? If your driving question can be answered with a "Yes" or "No" then you will need to go back to the drawing board and ensure that it does not lead to an easy answer. Driving questions require learners to demonstrate higher level thinking.
  • Is it challenging? If the driving question does not challenge learners they will not learn as much from the experience. Give them a challenge that will allow them to confront difficult issues.
  • Is it realistic? A driving question depicting a realistic scenario that learners come across in the workplace will keep them engaged and help to ensure they retain skills that will actually be used on the job.
  • Is it complex? A broad driving question requiring multiple activities and open to many possible solutions will keep students engaged and allow them to demonstrate the higher level thinking required to achieve the instructional objectives. Ensure that your driving question is broad enough to require learners to make a number of different decisions.
  • Does it require a performance or artifact? This is the "Project" in "Project Based Learning." What will the learners be doing as a group or individually to demonstrate that they have achieved the instructional objectives. Do your best to make the performance or project that learners are completing as realistic to what they will experience in the workplace. Whether it be creating a business proposal or simulating a sales presentation the project should mimic what will be required on the job. This provides a fail safe opportunity to practice what they will be doing at work.
  • Is it consistent with the instructional objectives? Are you asking a question that requires learners to demonstrate the performance described in the instructional objectives. Don't get caught up over complicating your driving question and forget about what you are trying to achieve in the first place. Achieving the instructional objectives is your focus at the start of the project and needs to remain the focus through the end.
If you can answer yes to these questions then your driving question may be ready to put into action. Once you have polished your driving question you are well on your way to a quality project based lesson and are ready to finalize the details for the project or artifact that learners will be developing as a result of the lesson. In the next post I will cover the details of the project or artifact but before getting into that, what are your thoughts on developing driving questions for project base lessons? Do you have anything to add or modify that contributes to a successful driving question? If so, please leave a comment with your thoughts on driving questions for project based learning.

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