Last week I wrote about my Project Based Learning assignment where my students explore the possibilities of what to do after high school. This may seem like a daunting question, but it is eased by self-awareness exercises we complete throughout the year. Additionally, students are supported in developing their own essential question. This is a critical part of the project. In fact, the essential question guides the entire learning process. I consider it to be the core of the project, as everything is built around answering it. Developing a quality essential question is imperative.

The essential question tells us what we are solving for or what specific decision are we trying to make. The question needs to be specific and solvable within the time frame of the project. A broad question such as “What career do I want?” may be too big for the project. Instead, I ask students to consider comparing a couple of fields they are interested in.

Students who struggle to develop a question benefit from Socratic questioning, asking the students questions to help them arrive at their essential question. To use this technique well, it is important to let go of my expectations for the question itself. I may hope a particular student asks a question about comparing colleges. However, I admit it is delightful when my questioning brings out an unexpected question. Here are some examples of questions I was not expecting yet find exciting:

  • What would it take to run my family business?
  • Should I transfer to a different college after a year or two?
  • How can I balance work, school, family, and fun?
  • How can I be a successful (job title)?
  • How can I determine what jobs are right for me? (This is a deep dive into self-awareness and the decision-making process.)

The joy and challenge of this type of project-based learning is watching students grow as they to take ownership of the questions, ownership of the research, and ownership of solutions and answers.  In this respect, planning and systems for accountability are key. But how much accountability and planning is too much?

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