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The Power of Essential Questions in Project-Based Learning



Imagine if we cold unlock the synergistic potential of  PBL simply by committing to our essential questions.


I've participated in numerous one-day PBL projects intended to offer a taste of the PBL process. While these projects generate enthusiasm and introduce PBL components, they often miss illustrating the depth and interconnectedness of a full PBL experience, feeling more like isolated activities without a clear 'why'. I previously believed this was an unavoidable trade-off due to time constraints. However, a recent project was a revelation. Many PBL initiatives, both short and long, lack a robust essential question and a design built around it. Our latest mini-project instead prioritized the essential question throughout the entire project and the outcome was outstanding. Let me explain what I mean by describing the project in detail:

 

The Essential Question

Our project centered around the question: "How do we make history come alive?" Effective questions are open-ended, ignite deeper thought, and promote sustained inquiry. They should resonate with students, necessitating evaluation and synthesis. In PBL, such a question should also drive the project it should be the project's heartbeat.

 

Hook

Our project was hosted at Kongernes Jelling, a museum in Jelling, Denmark, dedicated to the Viking Age. The museum's mission beautifully echoes our core question. Their website states, “Kongernes Jelling invites you on a journey through tales told with flickering flames to an age of Vikings and Valhalla warriors and the nation's transition to Christianity. Here you also learn about the Danish kings, from Gorm the Old to the present royal family. All told in a way that inspires children and adults alike with unique experiences.” Choosing this location emphasized that our aim went beyond presenting simple answers. We sought to delve deep into the question's complexities and create our own interpretations.

We facilitators dressed for the day as Vikings. The schools leaders kicked the day off by performing  a shortskit depicting frustrated students in a dull lesson that is abruptly and dramatically interrupted by a time-traveling Viking king who posed our central question as a challenge yelling defiantly “How do we make history come alive?" This was our initial attempt to grapple with the essential question. We thought making history come alive might be accomplished by playfully immersing ourselves in it.  

 

Planning Phase and Production Phase

The product was introduced to the participants as a challenge. Working in teams, each team was given several historical elements of Viking history - a combination time periods, places, people, events and practices. The team’s product they needed to bring those elements together in a short performance that would make their historical elements come alive. They had a variety of Viking era outfits and props to use. They had free reign of the museum to use for research and inspiration and they had volunteers at the museum who were passionate experts in Viking history to use as resources. The planning phase began with guided tours of the museum by volunteers who passionate about the museum and about Viking history.

The product directly addressed the essential question, focusing on a specific historical era with an open-ended deliverable. The challenge was framed in a way that encouraged teams to devise creative ways to make history come alive, be it through a skit, song, dance, or comedy routine. Feedback was conducted in pairs, with one team collaborating with another. This structure allowed for an undivided focus on the effectiveness of the product in bringing history to life. Both the creators and reviewers were consistently brought back to the central question: "What makes history come alive?" The tight time schedule might along with a playful spirit might have helped some experience a livelier connection to the historical content they were engaging with.

 

Exhibition Phase

The exhibition attempted to answer our central question in real time. By presenting all skits in a curated order with narrated transition, we hoped to contribute to an understanding of the question.  The teams were both performers and audience members, as they knew what they would perform but were unaware of what the other teams would do. We also invited the volunteer tour guides back to see the performances.

Reflection: When we asked participants to reflect on the purpose of the day, they consistently referred back to the essential question. They connected the activities and products to that question. They discussed which factors made history feel alive and which did not. They also thought of ways to further deepen their understanding of the essential question. If you've read this far, I'm sure you can too. The sweet spot in a project is to understand the essential question more deeply, while also recognizing that the question has even more depth than initially realized.

 

Essential questions are at the heart of deeper learning.

Essential questions allow us to ask complicated questions and wrestle with them iteratively and  through various lenses. When we use products to deepen our comprehension of the essential question, we create the opportunity to use the head, heart, and hand to transform content knowledge in new and meaningful ways. What separates PBL from other pedagogies that it borrows from is the synergistic relation between a solid essential question and products designed to understand them better.

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