Students presenting their projectIn a February blog post my fellow National Faculty member Al Summers identified the importance of student generated questions in the PBL process. These are the things students will need to know to complete the project. Al identifies student engagement and ownership of learning as key benefits. I would offer another benefit. The need to know list is a planning and assessment tool.

Project Launch

A typical project launches by giving students a challenging problem or question (aka driving question). This challenge or question should automatically create more student questions, which is the project’s need to know list. This list offers an opportunity for inquiry to be sustained across the many weeks of a project.

Here is an example from an elementary classroom. Mrs. Recchio, a sixth grade teacher, launched a project with this driving question:

“How can we help educate our community and others about the environmental dangers our Earth faces?”

When given that question, her sixth graders immediately started asking more question— the things they needed to know. Here are a few samples:

  • Where does our trash go?
  • Where does electricity come from?
  • Are there animals facing extinction in our area?
  • What are alternatives that can help?
  • What can we do to impact our own community?
  • What can we do?

What comes out of this process is a PBL teacher’s version of lesson plans. Besides the list of science and language arts standards she has already embedded in this project, Mrs. Recchio now has a list of deeper questions that will sustain the inquiry process throughout the project.
Immediately you can see some of the questions above will be easier to answer than others. Some will take a little bit of research, while others may generate more questions and will take some well-crafted lessons. Like my colleague Al identified, this process creates student ownership in the learning that is far more engaging than opening up the renewable energy chapter in the science book.

Sorting the Need to Know List

Mrs. Leipelt sorted the project need to know list by process, product, and content

Now imagine that collecting this list of student generated questions as planning and assessment data. While collecting these questions, they are sorted into categories. One idea is to sort them around the product, process, and content.

  • Product - What will we make to share our learning?
  • Process - How are we learning? How are we gaining new knowledge?
  • Content - What are we learning?

Let's look at another example. This time it's from a first grade project focused on goods and services. After asking the driving question, Mrs. Leipelt gathered her students and collected the project need to know list. This time, however, the teacher sorted these questions with the students into the three categories.

The sorting process results in a planning tool that helps clarify the lessons, activities, and experiences students will need to have over the course of the project to answer the driving question. Mrs. Leipelt may even have some new learning targets for the project. She can also get a better understanding by considering what was not asked. For example, she may learn that the project deliverables are too vague or the purpose may not feel authentic enough for the students. Regardless, the need to know list brings a great focus to the project learning outcomes.

The power of this as an assessment tool is fully realized throughout the different stages of the project. By continually going back to the need to know the list, the teacher is able to keep track of each student’s learning. This can be as simple as adding student initials to the need to know list or using the questions as learning targets to organize student groups via mini-lessons, workshops, or targeted small group instruction.

In returning periodically to the need to know list there is also an opportunity to sustain inquiry when new questions arise and the project shifts. For example, let's say the project is four weeks in and during this part the students need to start making their products (one of the project deliverables). This is a great time to go back to some of those initial questions on the product and generate new, more focused ones. With more content knowledge at this stage, students will generate deeper questions about the product. Engagement and student ownership increases, and if thinking of the need to know as a formative assessment tool, this is another opportunity to ensure each student is generating questions and gaining project learning outcomes.

Using product, process, and content, is just one idea. Consider other headings as they make sense for your project. For example, a project focused on animal habitats may have need to know list sorted by regions. Or going back to Mrs. Recchio’s Environmental Dangers project, the need to know list could be categorized around different types of environmental dangers, such as climate change, deforestation, or air pollution. This third grade class sorted the list and came up with their own heading: research, digital biographies, exhibition, and teamwork.

Ms. Peralta’s third grade class sorted the need to know list by student-created categories.Another idea is to do some planning for answering the questions on the need to know list.  Adding columns to the list such as where or how could lead to more focused research and give opportunities to incorporate different sources beyond textbooks and Internet searches like consulting an expert in the field or conduct first hand research.
Here is some more advice from the field:

  • Keep the need to know list visible on a project wall or posters. Add new learning and check off things as you go.
  • Use the QFT process (Question Formulation Technique) to generate and prioritize deeper need to know questions
  • Revisit the need to know list throughout the project phases to record answers and generate new questions
  • Use the need to know list to create additional learning targets and monitor individual student learning

Using the need to know list is a powerful planning and assessment tool. The questions students create lead to more focused learning targets, more responsive, student-centered lesson planning, and easier monitoring of student learning throughout the project. It will also ensure that each student whether a sixth grader in Mrs. Recchio’s class or a first grade in Mrs. Leipelt’s class are getting access to the knowledge and success skills they will need now and well into the future.

Principal of LeyVa Middle School(@leyvabulldogs) and former principal of Katherine Smith elementary (@ksmithschool).