students working together on an assignmentI coached high school basketball for 31 years. One of the huge concerns every year was carry-over. Our players worked on drills that would prepare them for the situations they would be faced with during competition. Now that I am a Project Based Learning coach, I have the same concern with the teachers who attend my workshops and trainings.

In my work with these teachers, one of the biggest concerns is student engagement.  They understand what all of us in education understand: students who are truly engaged with their work are going to learn more effectively and take the learning to a deeper level. From my own practice, I have examples of projects with a very good entry event and driving question that still did not get the traction needed for all the students to sustain that energy and inquiry.

One of the keys to energetic, enthusiastic, deeper learning lies in the ownership of the learning. When I used to plan in advance the questions that the students should explore (yes, I felt that I knew what they needed to learn) they often did the work simply because it was required of them. It is not enough to “hook ‘em” with a creative entry event and driving question; that may pique their interest and get them started, but we still need transfer that ownership of learning from us (teachers) to them (students.)

The Key: Transfer Ownership of the Questions

"need to know" on a flip chartTo me, the real key lies in the next step.  As the students consider the task at hand, they need to generate the questions that will lead them to answers that will help take their learning deeper and often will cause them to ask more questions. This technique is modeled in BIE’s PBL 101 workshops and it is a critical one for teachers to utilize in their classrooms.

The creation of the “Need to Know” list (or sometimes the KWL chart, for primary grades) is our opportunity to transfer that ownership to our students. Yet, I have seen teachers skip that step because they had never done it before and they were nervous about it. They, like the teacher who created the list himself because he “knew what they needed to learn,” missed the activity that will determine the success of the student engagement and thus the sustained inquiry.

Asking Better Questions

A cursory look at many of the lists of student-generated questions will reveal that a vast majority are closed-ended questions. That leads to another technique that we need to help our teachers acquire and hone: helping our students ask better, open-ended questions. Again, we don’t want to change the questions for the students but every time they create questions we can coach them to ask better and better ones.

A helpful resource can be found in this article about the Question Formulation Technique. Although I have cited this article in all my trainings, I am now putting much more emphasis on it and working with teachers as they practice the technique. Just like I wanted my basketball players to be able to carry over what they learned into the collaborative nature of team play, I hope that the teachers I work with will master techniques that they carry over to the collaborative work of learning in a project.