PBL Pro Tip: How Are Essential Questions and Driving Questions Used in PBL?

Many teachers who use project-based learning use an “essential” or “driving” question to focus a project. But they’re not always easy to create.

One theory I have is that, unlike other aspects of PBL, coming up with an essential or driving question is in large part a writing task–and not everyone’s a writer. And some projects, or some subject areas, don’t always seem like a natural fit for this kind of question. Thankfully, many PBL curriculum providers these days are including essential or driving questions in their projects, which is very helpful for teachers new to PBL.

Another issue is confusion over the terminology: edu-jargon strikes again. So let’s define the two types of questions, explain similarities and differences, and review some examples.


Essential Questions

I first ran across Essential Questions (EQs) back in the 1980s when the term was coined by Ted Sizer in his book Horace’s Compromise. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe ran with the idea in creating their Understanding by Design framework. Here are some examples they give for EQs and questions that are not EQs–you can tell the difference:


Essential Questions: Not Essential Questions:
How do arts shape, as well as reflect, a culture? What common artistic symbols were used by the Incas and the Mayans?
What do effective problem solvers do when they get stuck? What steps do you follow to get your answer?
How strong is the scientific evidence? What is a variable in scientific investigations?
Is there ever a “just” war? What key event sparked World War I?
Who is a true friend? Who is Maggie’s best friend in the story?


Wiggins and McTighe laid out seven criteria for a good Essential Question:

  1. It is open-ended; it will not have a single, final correct answer.
  2. It is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.
  3. It calls for high-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, and prediction. It cannot be answered simply by recall.
  4. It points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.
  5. It raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.
  6. It requires support and justification, not just an answer.
  7. It recurs over time; the question can and should be revisited again and again.

Essential questions are typically used to frame a unit of instruction, not a lesson, and not an entire course (even though some questions might be worthy of a semester’s exploration). That’s where PBL comes in since a project is often like a unit. Some EQs would work fine as the focus of a project; you can imagine a product students could create that connects to the examples above.


Driving Questions

I’ve advocated for the use of driving questions (DQs) in PBL for a long time. They help focus a project and guide inquiry. Not all projects absolutely must have a DQ. Some can have a “challenge statement” or “problem statement” that serves the same purpose–for example, “Build a prototype for a Mars landing device” or “Propose a solution to the traffic problems around our school parking lot.” And some projects can have relatively straightforward DQs that are easier for teachers to write, while others have DQs that are “bigger” and basically like EQs. Got all that? I’ll say more in a moment.

A DQ shares pretty much the same features with EQs, although #4 and #7 above do not apply to some DQs. I use these three criteria as a shortlist for a good DQ:

  • Open-ended. It has more than one possible answer, which is complex and not “googleable” by students.
  • Engaging for students. It is understandable and even inspiring; it does not sound like a teacher’s or a textbook question.
  • Aligned with learning goals. To answer it, students will need to gain the targeted knowledge and skills.


I see two basic categories of driving questions:

1. Questions that specify a product to be created or a problem to be solved.

This type of DQ is easier for teachers to write. One drawback is they can sometimes feel less engaging for students and simply restate what their task is–although that might be helpful, especially for focusing on younger students. This type of DQ can be used in any subject area, and work especially well for STEM projects.

For example:

2. Questions that explore a “philosophical” question, a controversial issue, or an intriguing topic.

This type of DQ can be more challenging to write, but they are often the most engaging for students. As you can tell in the examples below, some of these are basically like Essential Questions.

For example:

  • Should a medical patient’s genetic information be shared?
  • Why do gasoline prices go up and down?
  • Was President Truman guilty of a war crime for dropping the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II?
  • What is the balance between freedom and responsibility in a democratic society?


Using EQs and DQs in PBL

No matter what type of question you use for a project, it serves the same basic purpose. If you ask students, “What’s this project about?” they will have a ready answer. It helps launch a project by sparking curiosity and generating student questions. Here are a few tips for using them:

  • Share the EQ/DQ with students at the beginning of a project. Use it to help generate a list of sub-questions with students, for aspects of it they think are worth exploring.
  • Consider co-creating an EQ/DQ with students, to increase their sense of ownership.
  • Post the question on the classroom wall, to keep it foremost in students’ minds.
  • Revisit the question at various points during a project when adding more questions to the list for student inquiry.
  • Ask students to reflect on the question at various points during a project, to see if their thinking about it is evolving. At the end of the project, have them reflect on the answers they arrived at.

About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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