Creating Strong Driving Questions for Inquiry Learning
Both inquiry-based and project-based learning use questions to engage students in learning about topics and ideas that interest them. These questions are called driving questions (also referred to as “essential questions”).
A driving question is an open-ended question that is used to stimulate interest and create authentic learning experiences for students. The most successful driving questions are engaging, open-ended, and include elements of cross-curricular learning.
In this article, we’ll go through what makes a good driving question and provide some examples that can be used in both the elementary and secondary classroom. We’ll also show you how to teach your students how to write a good driving question themselves.
What makes a good driving question?
First, there are a few essential elements that make up a good driving question:
1. The question needs to be engaging
In order for students to be switched-on about their learning, the topic or question needs to be relevant to them. Driving questions should ignite student curiosity and encompass ideas that students find interesting and important. Furthermore, they should motivate students to ask more questions and make sense of the answers they find in a context that is relevant to them. There are always multiple paths of learning a question can take. However, these are pointless unless students are motivated to pursue them.
2. The question needs to be open-ended
In order for a driving question to be accessible to all students, it needs to be open-ended. Driving questions go beyond basic researching and presenting. Instead, they should encourage students to approach the question from a unique angle. They should spark discussion or debate, and raise further questions that align with students’ own passions and wonderings. The table below models how open-ended questions should look, and offers some simple switches.
3. The question needs to relate to curriculum expectations
Well-written driving questions should connect with learning goals that are set out by the curriculum. In fact, using driving questions allows teachers to utilize a cross-curricular approach in their teaching, where the goal is to bring together the main ideas and skills from more than one subject simultaneously. Cross-curricular approaches are a great way to get students to see the connections that exist between various subjects. We’ve written an extensive guide on using cross-curricular learning approaches to help plan this aspect of your inquiry units.
Teaching students to write good driving questions
In my experience, teaching students how to write high-quality inquiry questions can be a bit tricky. They need to understand what makes a good inquiry question and how to formulate a question that they can pursue in-depth. Furthermore, students need to understand that driving questions often do not produce a single, “correct” answer, and that learning for the sake of regurgitating isn’t true learning. Below are some steps I’ve taken to introduce students to the process of creating rich, high-quality inquiry questions.
Use a provocation or invitation
A good place to start teaching students about driving questions is to use provocations and invitations to stimulate interest in the topic. For example, if you want to begin an inquiry about skyscrapers and buildings, invite students to browse photos and blueprints of famous buildings. In addition, lay out building blocks or other materials so that students can make their own structures. We’ve written about how to create learning provocations that get students excited to make this process simple and fun.
If you’re looking for wooden skyscraper blocks to use at a provocation table, these are a great option that include 35 high-quality wooden blocks.
If your students are a bit more creative, challenge them to build a full treehouse cottage with a crane, stairs, and slides (pictured to the right).
Once students have explored the topic or subject, begin asking open-ended questions about what they’ve made or discovered. Encourage students to write their questions down on whiteboards or sticky notes and add them to a wonder wall or Q-matrix. I sometimes refer to this as “question-storming”, where students simply write down any and all questions they have and stick them on a q-matrix. This way, they can pour out their curiosities and see what their peers are thinking about too.
Refining student driving questions
Gather students together and discuss their wonderings about the provocation. Then, read their questions and have them share their thoughts with classmates. As you do this, think about ways to tweak their existing questions into more open-ended and flexible questions that could serve as a driving question. The challenge here is that the question should aim to incorporate both learning standards and student wonderings. It will likely take a few inquiries before you feel confident doing this on the fly, as it does take practise to fuse the two together.
Types of driving questions
The majority of driving questions can be categorized by the type of thinking that is required to explore the question, or the kind of product or service that can be created. Below are a few general categories that most driving questions can be classified by:
Questions that solve problems
These types of questions aim to solve a real-world problem. Often, students delving into these questions will need to contend with multiple solutions to determine the best course of action to take, or the most comprehensive solution to apply. Here are some examples:
- How can we repurpose vacant buildings in inner-cities?
- What type of bridge can we build to replace an old one in our community?
- How have natural disasters affected Canada and the world?
Moreover, we’ve created a free PDF containing 50 nature and environment questions if you’d like some more ideas!
Questions that tackle big ideas
Questions that address issues like social justice, homelessness, sustainability, and infrastructure tend to be fairly large in scope and depth. For example:
- How can we bring positive awareness to diversity in our society?
- What makes a good citizen?
- How are good and evil depicted in different cultures?
Scenario-based learning is an approach to learning based on an authentic scenario that mirrors real-life situations, issues, and decision-making. In my experience, students love digging into this type of learning because they can really be creative and come up with interesting ideas:
- How might we reduce the amount of plastic in our landfills?
- In what ways could we balance our needs and wants with sustainable resource development?
- How would introducing a Universal Basic Income work in Ontario?
Furthermore, we’ve written a complete guide on using scenario-based learning in the classroom if you’re looking for more ideas and guidance!
These types of questions are similar to scenario-based questions, but they differ in their approach. For example, while scenario-based questions invite students to think about a potential situation and how they would approach it, alternative-reality questions tend to focus on a specific change in circumstance. Here are some examples:
- What might have happened if Rosa Park didn’t give up her seat?
- How might our community change if the average daily temperature climbed 10 degrees warmer?
- How would the United States look if a third major political party was introduced?
Further interesting alternative-reality questions can be found in our article about writing stories of the future.
Examples of driving questions
Remember that driving questions are used to engage students; they should accompany students throughout the inquiry or project, and should increase their overall engagement in the process.
Below is a table full of question prompts to use in your classroom. You can also download them as a PDF here.
(1) A driving question is an open-ended question that is used to stimulate interest and create authentic learning experiences for students; they should also be cross-curricular in nature to reap the most active learning opportunities.
(2) Good driving questions need to be engaging, open-ended, and align with curriculum expectations; the goal is for students to feel motivated and to see the value in their learning and contributions.
(2) Teaching students to write rich, high-quality inquiry questions can involve the use of provocations and invitations (read about the difference here), brainstorming questions, and also explicitly teaching the question-forming process.
(3) Finally, there are different categories of driving questions depending on the type of thinking required and what you want the final product to look like; these categories include questions that solve problems, tackle big ideas, involve a scenario, or involve an alternative reality.