I spent last week in Napa at the first PBL World, a 5 day training by the Buck Institute for Education on Project Based Learning. While I had read a lot about PBL, there is nothing like five days of learning and working to bring it to life. The national faculty from the Buck Institute were there to lead 3 day workshops, PBL 101, on the basics of what a PBL project looks like and how to begin to think about changing standard curriculum into those kinds of projects. There was also work time, so each teacher was able to test out our new understanding and ask questions when we hit a wall. Thursday and Friday were then devoted to projects around specific topics. On Thursday, I went to one on building critical thinking into project and then one on PBL in language arts on Friday.
I was particularly struck with the challenge of creating Driving Questions that serve as the focus of the project. These are not teacher focused, but rather they serve to energize and engage the students. The standard Essential Questions that most of us learned in college or graduate school are replaced by questions that reach out to the students. They present a challenge that meets the students where they are, with their interests and needs. It draws them forward to complete a task. They create a place where the content of the class meets with real world relevance as well as relevance for the student. As a history teacher, I found the challenge to connect my historical content with the “real,” present today, world.
A significant aspect of a good Driving Question is that it creates collaboration. They often start with the words, “How can we….,” which forces students off of the sidelines and onto the playing field. We are going to create something. We are going to develop the skills and understanding to develop an answer to the question. Along the way, we will have a lot to learn, but it will be part of learning the 21st century skill of collaboration.
When it came to writing my own Driving Question, I decided to try to write one for the initial unit of the 7th grade history class. It is a unit that looks at two questions: What is history? How do we study history? It is a unit that the students have enjoyed in the past, but the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that it was because I had created fun activities that they learned from without really realizing that they were learning. I realized that to have it as part of a PBL, I needed a Driving Question that caused the students to start the work, knowing the goal rather than stumbling on it. They need to be more in the driver’s seat of their learning.
My initial attempt at this, which was done in the Critical Thinking workshop led by Jill Acker, came out as “How can we show why it is important to study history?” When I showed it to Jill, her response was immediate and cut right to the heart of what I needed to understand.
“Why would a 7th grader want to study history? Why would they care about it?”
Wow, my only response was, “Because they have to take a class in it.” I had no reason to think, on the first day of history class, that this question would excite any one of my students.
Back to the drawing board! Jill kept asking me questions, pushing me to think more deeply about the content I wanted to be learned and about my students. I slowly made my way forward. To Jill’s credit, she knew how to push me out of my comfort zone without leaving me stranded. She probed, encouraged and then when I was stumped, helped me to find the language that I needed. A great educator! She made me uncomfortable without making me feel alone or discouraged. A definite role model for moving students forward! It can be easy to back off when a student becomes ill-at-ease, rather than continuing the pushing with all the necessary support.
The end result of the work was: How can we, as ethnographers, understand people? Ethnographer was a new word for me. It is someone who studies the customs of people and cultures, and is Jill’s and now my, favorite new word! What was exciting about this was that it allowed me to create a study that started with the students. The first part would be about learning about themselves and then move beyond that to look at how they observe people in the world and then how we learn about people in the past. Middle school students love to think and talk about themselves! I could have them to reflect on their strengths and challenges and then learn new tools for supporting their learning.
Crafting the Driving Question is the challenge. It has to draw students away from passive learning. When they care about finding the answer, then they are energized and willing to take the time and give the energy to do the learning.