Note: This post was originally called: Project Based Learning: Don’t Start with a Question. However, through an excellent discussion below with Drew Perkins, I have changed the title to: Project Based Learning: What if we didn’t start with a question? See the comments for the rationale.

 End with a Question through Tinkering-Based Learning

Do you have to start project-based learning (PBL) with a question?

(Oh, wait a second! Am I starting this post with a question?)

This is something many people ask. I understand why this is so. Often teachers who are learning about Project Based Learning are encouraged to help students to develop a ‘driving question’ to guide their project. The Buck Institute, for one, suggests that PBL ‘is organized around an open-ended Driving Question’.

Tinkering-Based Learning (TBL)

Awesome graphic: Page by Giulia Forsythe – @grantpotter Tinkering, Learning & The Adjacent Possible

I am going to suggest we consider an alternative I will call TBL – Tinkering-Based Learning!

‘PBL’ is a human-made construct

As I have said elsewhere, ‘PBL’ is a human-made construct. And, whoever defines it, does so with a bias—from a set of beliefs. Do you think, perhaps, that starting PBL with a question is derived from our deeply engrained western, scientific approach? Or perhaps if we consider PBL to be solely inquiry based, we might think that a question, or formulation of a problem, is most definitely the beginning step?

Don’t get me wrong! I love ‘questioning’. It is important that teachers learn how to question effectively—to ask ‘fat’ questions, to provide ‘wait time’, to ensure that everyone in the class has a chance to think deeply rather than selecting the student that has quickly raised her hand. It is equally important that students learn to generate ‘driving questions’ and not merely ask simple questions. They should be thinking ‘fat’ questions – not ‘skinny’ ones!

…students should learn to generate ‘driving questions…

Nor am I knocking the scientific method – I merely think that is one way of approaching learning and solving problems and becoming an educated person. It has a significant role in education.

However, I don’t think that generating a question is the only way to begin effective project-based learning. It likely depends on your purpose—on your learning goals for the students.

Is writing a poem a project? Is creating a song a project? What about creating a multimedia artifact? Painting a picture? Building a Lego car and making it run? Is building a computer program with Scratch a project? Constructing a paper maché volcano?

…let projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering.

Starting out PBL event in your classroom might begin with a passion, a curiosity, or maybe a wondering. Or maybe it’s just a result of tinkering. Perhaps, projects are sometimes play? Or perhaps projects emerge out of play—out of tinkering?

Flipping PBL

Okay here’s an idea. How about flipping PBL? Instead of starting with the question, why don’t we end with a question? Start with tinkering and encourage the emergence and evolution of fat questions related either to their processes of learning or to the content/subject matter at hand.

Let the goal of your project be to formulate questions.

After all, many say that ‘to question is the answer’. If so, then should kids not come out of excellent project based learning scenarios with great questions? Should the product not be a deep and driving question?

Perhaps these questions are focused on assisting them to develop their metacognitive abilities—to help them understand how they learn, how they approach tasks. Are they linear? Are they ‘multitasking’? Do they like ‘mucking around’? How do they deal with ambiguity? Do they like ‘hands on’ or ‘minds on’? How did that approach work for them? What would they do differently next time?

Perhaps the questions that emerge are related to the content or project artifact.

reflective thinking
Adaptation of the Rolfe Reflective Model:

Reflection is generally considered excellent educational practice and is often included in PBL. I have often used ‘reflection starters’ to assist students in thinking deeply about their learning. You could tailor those reflections to evoke questions.

  • Now I don’t understand…
  • Questions I now have are…
  • A confusion that has come up for me is…

Perhaps they could do a ‘wondering’ – individually or collectively – to reflect on their project.

“I wonder…how the potato production in Prince Edward Island is being impacted by global warming?”

Their responses could then be discussed and crafted into significant questions that may, or may not, be pursued.

Ok. So maybe you are saying to yourself, “I always have kids reflect at the end of a project.” That’s great! It is a significant step and can promote the consolidation of learning and perhaps also the transfer of learning to other domains or problems.

I think it is a superb way to end a project.

Don’t keep the lid on too tight!

I just don’t think you have to start a project with a driving question. Set up a context. Design an environment. Invite playfulness. Encourage tinkering. Nurture curiosity. Don’t keep the lid on too tight!

Tinkering Based Learning may lead to results you never could have predicted!


Share with us an occasion where this has happened in your teaching/learning.