Why is the Sky Blue?
– an Introduction to Project-Based Learning

"Why is the sky blue? "

We have been asking this question since the beginning of time. Of course, I have no way to verify this. But it is the age-old question of inquisitiveness.

Why is the sky blue? represents the inquisitive nature of our youth. Maybe more than that, the question represents the inspiration for learning in all of us! Regardless of color, creed, nationality, or background, we all want to know: Why is the sky blue?

The question has remained a metaphor for curious minds. At a young age, our children begin to ask questions. Why . . . why . . . why? As adults, we admire this natural curiosity. Our youth are born with a need to know. Why? They need to understand the world around them. We want them to be curious, inquisitive, and inspired to learn. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, that curiosity wains. And they stop asking questions. But why?

PBL - A Growth Mindset

“…Lady Aberline focused her mental and physical energies on the task that awaited her.”


Project-Based Learning (PBL), along with its compatriot Inquiry-Based Learning, is a teaching philosophy (and methodology) geared toward getting our youth back into that inquisitive mindset! As adults, we call this: #growthmindeset. On LinkedIn and beyond, adults are engaged in learning, collaboration, and encouragement. We are a community of like-minded people wanting to see each other become successful! It starts with learning. PBL is the same growth mindset for the classroom.

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

PBL - The Probing Question

“It was their duty to follow orders.”

In PBL, the adventure starts with a probing question. Also called the driving question or the essential question, the probing question is designed to get us moving. When crafting the probing question for the project, there are some dos and don’ts. I will get the don’ts out of the way.

The probing question should not read like a thesis statement. Consider the following example.

After graduating from high school, all young people between the ages of 18 and 20 should be required to spend a minimum of two years in the Armed Forces to gain a sense of identity, build a social network, and earn money for college.

Although the above statement may look good for a graduate level research paper, and it requires research, it is not a call to action for young people. One of the goals of crafting the probing question is to inspire interest in the project.

I will take another approach. Do this.

How can young people transition successfully into adulthood upon graduating from high school?

High school students are pondering this question, even if they do not say it aloud. It is a question that lingers in the back of their minds. It is a real situation; it must be addressed. The probing question, now in context, does a few things for the high school student in a PBL environment:

  1. Reinforces their own reality.
  2. Forces them to face that reality.
  3. Provides them an opportunity to investigate their situation.
  4. Focuses their energies on the matter at hand.

This is exactly what the probing question should do.

PBL – Answering the Question: “Who cares?”

“…both the teacher and the student should be able to answer the ‘who cares’ question…”

After writing the literature review (basically, the research before the research) for my dissertation, my faculty instructor asked me one simple question: “Who cares?” The question was not asked as a criticism of my writing or my review efforts. The question was designed to get me thinking differently. I will consider the question based on its intention.

  1. Who will be impacted by my intended research
  2. Will they want to know more about the topic
  3. What value will my intended research have?

Again, who cares?

When creating the probing question for the PBL activity, both the teacher and the student should be able to answer the ‘who cares’ question based on the three criteria stated above. If you do not have clear answers to the supporting questions, then you need to rethink and restate the probing question.

PBL – A Time to Focus

How do you create focus through the probing question? To answer this question, I ask four more. Does the probing question address:

  1. A specific problem or need?
  2. A specific population of people?
  3. A starting point for the research?
  4. An answer to the question: “Who cares?”
Image by talha khalil from Pixabay
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

PBL - A Method for Change

“Many professionals are leading the charge!”

In academia, there is no mystery that a wave of change is upon us. This wave has been growing for the past decade and has not fully reached its height. Things need to change within the #k12 school system. Many professionals are leading the charge! We applaud their efforts. Now, with a pandemic upon us, the force for change has heightened. We must restructure the learning experience, or face losing the academic foundations that we so fervently adhere to.

Why is there so much excitement about PBL? For me, and for those that I talk to, PBL is grounded in exploration. Science, math, and all of #stem education are rooted in projects. The focus of science is to explore the natural world. Math explores the language of logic. Engineering explores the bridging of technology with science.

But PBL is much more than STEM education. Problems are all around us. We want to solve problems. And face it – adults see problems all the time. These are real world situations that impact our children. Why not get them involved in solving those same problems at a young age?

PBL – A Lifetime of Learning

What should you plan for, and expect from, the PBL experience? The answer is difficult to summarize because perspectives on the topic vary. However, at its core, we are trying to ignite – reignite – the passion for learning. Once that passion is ignited, we can then structure the learning process so that it has personal impact on the student.

Students will learn how to conduct research, talk to industry professionals, collaborate effectively with others, and produce a product that has an impact on their world. We do this as adults. We can effectively help our youth do the same thing!

As stated before, the probing question should motivate the student into action. Although teachers are motivated to ensure they comply with state standards, the PBL starting point should not sound like the reiteration of that measure. Yes, the standards are driving the content. Yes, the standards dictate the scope of the project. But the standards should not be in your students’ faces.

Again, “Who cares?”

This is an important question when considering how the probing question is phrased. Allow the question to have meaning at the personal, family, church, or community level. Ask your students how they see themselves compared to the question. If the question does not personally impact them, can they empathize with the people that are impacted? Either way, get them to feel the question, and not just think about it.

On to the next . . . Sustaining Your Students Interest in the Project!

#projectbasedlearning #pbl #k12education #projects #teaching #teachingredefined

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