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June 18, 2014


Project Based Learning: What if we didn’t start with a question?

by Peter Skillen

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.


28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jun 18 2014

    My favourite teaching moments happened when I let the students brainstorm until they thought themselves into corners or contradictions, and then took it further by asking questions like, “wait, how CAN it be both x and y at the same time?” or “How DO we know this when we don’t know x, y, and z?” The understanding went so much deeper than if I’d just asked them a question and they tried to find a single, predetermined answer to it. I loved watching the light-bulbs go off when they figured it out for themselves; they were becoming aware of *how* they were thinking about things, not just the *what*. Of course, I was often teaching poetry when this happened, which may have been more naturally conducive to this kind of mental play, but they realized they could apply that kind of problem-solving/exploration to other areas. And you could see their confidence grow when they figured out the questions, not just the answers.

    The first time I did this was when I read a class the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky”, from Alice in Wonderland. I started by asking a conventional question: “What is this poem about?” They all very confidently told me what they thought, and they were in agreement with one another. Then I asked, “What’s a Jabberwocky?” and no one could tell me. They started asking more questions and soon realized that they didn’t know what at least half the words in the poem meant (“all mimsy were the borogoves”…). Yet, they were confident they understood the poem. So this led to “How?” and “Why?” and a great exploration of how meaning is constructed.

  2. Jun 19 2014

    Ann, love these thoughts about ‘mental play’. 🙂 The arts – and arts teachers – have a lot to teach us (as my colleague Brenda Sherry would say). So true here.

    • Jun 19 2014

      One of the reasons I’m such an advocate for arts education is that it engenders the type of creative thinking that is necessary no matter what field you go into, especially today. I see the concept of a “driving question” as very linear, even if the question is “open-ended”. But creativity and even collaboration aren’t linear.

      • Jun 20 2014

        Good points.

        I like the concept of ‘driving question’ – the way it is formulated by folks (I have some references elsewhere here about that) – and I truly appreciate the deep conversations kids can have in getting to that question in the beginning days of a PBL.

        I just don’t see one way as the only way. 😉

        My friend and colleague, Brenda Sherry, discusses the arts and PBL in PBL Experts are Among Us –

        You might like this.

  3. Jun 20 2014

    Thanks – I love Brenda’s article.

  4. Jun 22 2014

    Reblogged this on orgcompetet and commented:
    Project Based Learning: Don’t Start with a Question

  5. Jun 22 2014

    Reblogged this on I am a teacher and commented:
    Thought provoking article by Peter Skillen from his The Construction Zone Blog. Let’s teach and learn innovatively.

  6. Jun 22 2014
  7. Jun 22 2014

    If we start with tinkering or “play”, the question(s) that float in our (and students’) minds are continually refined, becoming much more sophisticated than those that may have been there at the outset. This makes complete sense considering the construct of the Four Stages of Competence. I’m wondering if maybe Stage 3: Conscious Competence) is the sweet spot for questioning. The questions students ask then will be far richer and more complex than those we try to come up with at Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence when we don’t know what we don’t know. But what about Stage 4 (Unconscious Competence)? Are we then too far in it to question deeply? Hmmmmm

    • Jun 23 2014

      Carina! I wrote a big long reply to this yesterday from my phone – but it’s gone!! Lost in the ether!! 😦

      First of all, thank you for your reply. 🙂 I appreciate your helping me to think about this with this lens of the Four Stages of Competence. I hadn’t considered this model in this context. I have thought about it in relation to Alfred Whitehead’s construct of ‘inert knowledge’, and to Ausubel’s ‘advance organizer’ and to the more current ‘minds on’.

      But, most of all, I guess it was a bit of a reaction or antidote to the unquestioning acceptance and implementation of models in general. We see this repeatedly as new models or constructs arise in popular education culture.

      Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly appreciate all those awesome educators who have developed PBL models and who have detailed the benefits of the ‘driving question’ within those models. What I hope for is that educators will not just take a PBL recipe, lesson plan or worksheet and turn ‘questioning’ into a dull exercise to be completed.

      I speak often of a ‘way of being’ – and so in true constructionist/constructivist flavour – I believe educators should work hard to construct their own meanings and infuse them into a ‘way of being’ in the classroom that reflects the meta-beliefs they hold. They can therefore rise above the recipe. This, I realize, comes with some experience and expertise. The novice may need greater scaffolding.

      Thx Carina! We need to yak more!


  8. Nov 7 2014

    ALL constructs are human made. Sheesh!

  9. Tinkering and exploration are wonderful but I wonder if the danger in what you’re suggesting isn’t a loose connection to content learning (however that may be defined) and a lack of clarity around product, purpose and audience? Ultimately you may be seeking a different goal than what you’d get with PBL done well.

    • Nov 9 2014

      Hi Drew,
      Point well taken.

      Actually, my main intent of the post is to get people to recognize that models are merely models that should not be followed as a recipe without deep thought.

      And, to tell you the truth, the ‘tinkering’ idea–in my mind–ultimately leads to a decent driving question that may arise out of creating some background knowledge through that exploration. You’ll see from many other posts in this blog that I am a strong advocate of ‘questioning’.

      I really want folks to come to construct their own meanings for decent PBL–in true constructionist fashion–and I hope some provocations will move us all closer to that.


      • I appreciate your points, especially the first two, in your reply. I’d say that teachers and students experienced in PBL can certainly use a “tinkering” process to arrive at a challenge or problem which could/should be framed with a quality Driving Question. In my experience training teachers in PBL this isn’t something that those new to PBL would likely be successful doing. No doubt, models and rubrics, etc. should be open to interpretation but I will say this, as PBL gains momentum many will say they’re doing PBL and some will even claim to be doing PBL training when in reality they’re not. The danger there is that the PBL experience for those teachers and students is unsuccessful and PBL gets a bad name and fades into the lexicon of abandoned buzzwords. In pursuit of constructivism, I wonder if your blog post might have been more accurately titled “What if we didn’t start with a question?”

    • Nov 10 2014

      Hi Drew,

      Once again, I am in agreement with you. I do believe it is extremely useful for beginners to be scaffolded by a framework such as that from BIE and/or Edutopia. These are excellent resources.

      I also agree that there is a danger that the term PBL can be poorly implemented and then become an historic buzzword. Indeed, this is happening–as I am sure you witness regularly. I see countless instances of ‘pbl’ where it is anywhere on the continuum from laissez-faire to micromanagement–where ‘doing projects’ is equated with good pbl.

      We see the same thing with ‘inquiry’ and, indeed, with constructionism–where constructionism is equated with ‘learning-by-making’.

      This is, of course, why I am engaged in provoking deeper conversation about PBL.

      I think I titled the post as is because I did want people to stop in their tracks–to create some dissonance. It seemed to meet that objective considering the number of reads.

      Having said that, it is more ‘provocative’ than ‘evocative’.

      (This is something I am working on in my own personal growth!)

      It would, as you suggest, be more in line with a constructivist approach with the title you suggest.

      I thank you for your efforts in engaging me.


  10. Jun 17 2015

    Reblogged this on Adventures of a Teacher Nerdfighter and commented:
    “…models are merely models that should not be followed as a recipe without deep thought.” YES!


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  3. Project Based Learning: Don’t Start with a Question | Cycling Through Ed Tech
  4. Reflections on Tinkering-Based Learning & the Power of Play | Etale - Life in the Digital World
  5. PBL: Where to Start | Ontario School and System Leaders Edtech MOOC
  6. ‘Making’ Does Not Equal ‘Constructionism’ | The Construction Zone
  7. PBL: Where to Start | ~ Mark's Musings ~
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