toy car on a map

If the purpose of co-creating driving questions with students is to increase student voice and engagement through greater authenticity, I decided to ask myself a question: Despite all the purported challenges - or maybe because of them - why shouldn’t I co-create driving questions with my students as well?

My students, you should know, are four and five years old.

Though I tend to follow my students’ lead when designing projects, I had always created our driving questions myself – until last spring. Our throughline for the year was  “Environment.” When several children said they noticed trash on the ground, backpacks fallen off the hooks, and pencils unsharpened, this seemed like a good place to start. What would our exact driving question be? I wasn’t sure yet, but I knew I could wait for children’s questions to guide us.

Our entry event involved walking around our yard and classroom to observe problems and generate questions. My idea was to look at their observations and questions, find themes or commonalities, and then craft our driving question together.  Observations included water bottles and food wrappers on the ground and chalk drawings on our playhouse. Children asked, “Who is not throwing their trash away?” “Why are backpacks falling off the hooks?” “How can we clean up the playhouse?” We listed the questions and I asked, “What do you notice?” Or, a little extra scaffolding: “What is the same about these questions? What are many of us wondering?” When we noticed commonalities, I said this would lead to our “Big Question,” one that I needed their help to come up with.

Someone said, “All of these questions are about what we can do to take care of our environment.” So our first stab at a co-created driving question became, “How can we take care of our environment?” We left it there until the next day, when a child reminded me that other classes used the yard. He asked, “How can we get them to help us?” I brought that to the group: “Should we add this to our driving question?”  The class liked the idea, but I thought the word “get” sounded a little aggressive – like we were forcing people to do something.  I asked, “Is there another word you know that could replace ‘get?’” In our class, we often talk about being inspired by our friends. So someone suggested the word “inspire.” Our driving question became, “How can we take care of the environment and inspire others to help us?”

“What do you think?” I asked. Nods and smiles. It was time to get to work. (Note: You can watch a video of this project here.)

Begin with Listening and Observing

The process of co-creating a driving question with young children begins with listening and observing their interests through play and conversations. This year, I noticed students playing “library” at recess using blocks. “What was that about?” I asked. They said they wished our campus had a library. We started a “Need to Know” list that day – “What questions do you have about making a library?” After looking for similarities and themes, they came up with the question: “How can we make a library at our school?”

This winter, children found a dead butterfly outside and we discussed how it might have died. Many of their questions were about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, which seemed like a short-answer question that wouldn’t lead to sustained inquiry. I challenged students to think about how they might find the answers – for example, “How might we find out how or why the butterfly died?” and “How might we learn more about how caterpillars turn into butterflies?” The children then exclaimed, “We could make a butterfly garden!” We can, and we did, exploring our driving question: “How can we make and take care of a butterfly garden?”

When co-creating a driving question with young students:

  • Listen to and observe play and conversations that happen during unstructured times like lunch and recess.  Bring the topic back to the students in the form of “I heard some people are interested in…” or “I saw some of you playing…” Ask students to share questions about that topic, and create a Need to Know list. 
  • Read students’ questions and highlight recurring words or phrases. To scaffold the discussion, ask “What is the same about these questions?” or “What are a lot of people wondering about?” or “What words do you hear over and over again?”
  • Pull together similar ideas or phrases and read them aloud to students. Ask “Is there anything you want to change? Does this question say what you want it to?” You can scaffold this by sometimes offering your own ideas, for example saying “This question seems like it would take a short time to answer, or we could just get the answer from a book.  How do you think we might make this a bigger question?”
  • Revisit the driving question over two or three days. Make changes according to what your students say.

While teachers can always develop their own driving questions with students of any age, co-creation can be tool in classrooms of all ages. By denying younger students’ ability to co-create driving questions with their teacher, what are we implying? That young children can’t or don’t ask questions? Not only can young learners ask questions… what they usually do more than anything else is ask questions.

But what about the fact that their critical thinking skills and their knowledge base is only just emerging? Well, that’s why we are there, to support students and “co-create.” As early childhood teachers, we can scaffold these skills to ensure true student ownership of projects. Creating driving questions with young children leads to authentic, engaging projects that sustain their interest. Crucially, it also ensures that questions will be posed in the language of children, not teachers – a goal for all driving questions. Though it seems challenging to embrace the ambiguity, trust in your students to lead the way.

Sara Lev, National Faculty – West
Sara currently works at Larchmont Charter School in Los Angeles, where she is developing and teaching the school's first stand-alone Transitional Kindergarten program. Sara has worked in public, private and charter school settings as an early childhood educator for the last 13 years. She received her Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College in New York City.