How to Trigger Students’ Inquiry Through Projects

via Mindshift

Excerpt from Thinking Through Project-Based Learning: Guiding Deeper Inquiry, published by Corwin, 2013.

When students engage in quality projects, they develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that serve them in the moment and in the long term. Unfortunately, not all projects live up to their potential. Sometimes the problem lies in the design process. It’s easy to jump directly into planning the activities students will engage in without addressing important elements that will affect the overall quality of the project.

With more intentional planning, we can design projects that get at the universal themes that have explicit value to our students and to others. We can design projects to be rigorous, so students’ actions mirror the efforts of accomplished adults. They will feel the burn as they learn and build up their fitness for learning challenges to come.

There are several ways to start designing projects. One is to select among learning objectives described in the curriculum and textbooks that guide your teaching and to plan learning experiences based on these. Another is to “back in” to the standards, starting with a compelling idea and then mapping it to objectives to ensure there is a fit with what students are expected to learn. The second method can be more generative, as any overarching and enduring concept is likely to support underlying objectives in the core subject matter and in associated disciplines, too. Either way you begin, the first step is to identify a project-worthy idea.

We have condensed the project design process into six steps. After outlining the steps briefly below, we offer examples that show how one might use these steps to develop a germ of an idea into a project plan that emphasizes inquiry. Read the steps and examples all the way through before digging in to your own plan.

Step 1—Identify Project-worthy Concepts

Ask yourself: What important and enduring concepts are fundamental to the subjects I teach? Identify four or five BIG concepts for each subject.

Step 2—Explore Their Significance and Relevance

Now, think: Why do these topics or concepts matter? What should students remember about this topic in 5 years? For a lifetime? Think beyond school and ask: In what ways are they important and enduring? What is their relevance in different people’s lives? In different parts of the world? Explore each concept, rejecting and adding ideas until you arrive at a short list of meaningful topics.

Step 3—Find Real-Life Contexts

Look back to three or four concepts you explored and think about real-life contexts. Who engages in these topics? Who are the people for whom these topics are central to their work? See if you can list five to seven professions for each concept.

With that done, now think: What are the interdisciplinary connections? In what ways might the topic extend beyond my subject matter? For example, if your subject specialty was math and you imagined an entrepreneur taking a product to market, the central work might involve investment, expense, and profit analyses. The project might also involve supply chains and transportation (geography), writing a prospectus for a venture capitalist (language arts), and designing a marketing campaign (language arts, graphic design, technology).

Step 4—Engage Critical Thinking

As you begin to imagine these topics in the context of a project, ask yourself, what might you ask of students? How might you push past rote learning into investigation, analysis, and synthesis? Consider how you can engage critical thinking in a project by asking students to:

  • Compare and contrast
  • Predict
  • Make a well-founded judgment or informed decision
  • Understand causal relationships (cause and effect)
  • Determine how parts relate to the whole (systems)
  • Identify patterns or trends
  • Examine perspectives and alternate points of view
  • Extrapolate to create something new
  • Evaluate reliability of sources

Step 5—Write a Project Sketch

Now, step back and write a project sketch—or two or three. For each, give an overview of the project. Describe the scenario and the activities students are likely to engage in. Anyone reading it should be able to tell what students will learn by doing the project. The process of writing will help you refine your ideas. There are dozens of project sketches in this book (and all are included in the Project Library in the Appendix). Use them as a guide.

Step 6—Plan the Setup

Three small but useful elements are left, and together with the project sketch, they provide a framework for the project. Write a title, entry event, and driving question for your project.

Project title. A good title goes a long way toward anchoring the project in the minds of your school community. A short and memorable title is best.

Teachers at Birkdale School in New Zealand take their projects seriously. They not only provide them with proper names but also fly a special flag in the school’s entry when a new project begins. You might not need to go this far, but a good title conveys a sense of importance and helps make a project memorable. Let these project titles inspire you.

  • Lest We Forget—A project involving war memorials in New Zealand
  • Mingling at the Renaissance Ball—A social studies investigation that culminates in a celebration of human achievement
  • Lessons from the Gulf—A collection of collaborative projects by schools concerned about U.S. Gulf Coast devastation
  • AD 1095 and All That—Time-traveling students intervene to stop religious wars in medieval Europe.
  • Risk and Reward—Students acting as financial counselors present stock information to clients and advise on investments.
  • Stay or Leave?—Students examine economic factors that influence people’s decisions about where they live.
  • YouVille—Students explore past civilizations to design their own utopias.

Entry event. Plan to start off the project with a “grabber,” a mysterious letter, jarring “news,” a provocative video, or other attention-getting event. As we discussed in Chapter 4, make sure it is novel (to make students alert) and has emotional significance (to make them care). Read these examples and imagine how your students might respond. Then plan an entry event for your project.

  • A newspaper article describes hazards associated with a clinic’s use of poorly refurbished X-ray machines.
  • Distraught warrior king Gilgamesh appears in class and appeals to his “subjects” to help him learn why an enemy’s technological prowess in battle outstrips his own.
  • A process server slaps student “witnesses” with subpoenas, compelling them to testify in an upcoming trial.
  • A letter from an elder describes her desire to capture stories before she and other storytellers are no more.
  • A television news story on “designer” babies kicks off an investigation about the ethical implications of genetic manipulation.
  • A forest owlet from a wildlife rescue center visits school bringing Owl Mail and asks students to investigate hazards to its survival.

Driving question. Kick off your project with a research question students will feel compelled to investigate. Imagine a driving question that leads to more questions, which, in their answering, contribute to greater understanding. Good questions grab student interest (they are provocative, intriguing, or urgent), are open ended (you can’t Google your way to an answer), and connect to key learning goals.

Consider how to write a good question based on these “remodeled” examples (Larmer, 2009):

  • What are archetypes in literature? à To increase relevance, you might ask à How do archetypes inform our culture today?
  • What causes tornadoes? à To add context, you might ask à How can we prepare for a natural disaster in our region?
  • What are the requirements to sustain life? à To add interest, you might ask àHow can we design a biome that is self-sustaining?
  • How can we purify water? à To increase challenge, you might ask à How can we advise a village in the developing world to choose an inexpensive water purification system?

One Last Step

Workshop your project idea, especially at steps 5 and 6. Colleagues, students, parents, and subject matter experts will ask questions that will clarify your thinking and contribute ideas you might not have considered.

For more about the book, check out Suzie Boss’s ISTE presentation.

Seeking Knowledge

February 16, 2015 “Human beings have always been seekers of knowledge. The minute we discover something new, we want to share it with others and move onto the next achievement. Since the beginning of recorded history (and probably before) we have always strived to discover the mysteries of the planet, of Earth and of ourselves. How has learning evolved over the course of human history and what might…

Traits of Successful People

January 17, 2015 Traits of Successful People is an interesting visual that delves deep into the  mindset of those who have embraced success in their lives. Setting aside the definitional problematic of success (for success can mean different things to different people) we can all probably convene on the idea that successful individuals do have many things in common at least on the conceptual…

Ultimate Guide to #hashtags

March 6, 2015 Hashtags are social networking phenomena par excellence. They originated in Twitter a around 2008 and since then they adopted and integrated into many other popular social platforms such as Facebook, Google Plus, and Instagram. We have already shared several posts covering the educational potential of hashtags, most popular among them all is teachers’ simple guide on the use of hashtags. Today…

5 Steps to Writing a Poem

February 27, 2015 5 Steps to Writing A Poem is a visual created by  Cambridge University and outlines the 5 major stages to composing a poem. In fact, the steps mentioned here are generic and can be used for writing any other genre, of course with a bit of tweaking. As a teacher you might want to share this work with your students and guide them through the different stages they need to follow…


Gordon Bethune is a character. He’s also one of the most accomplished American business leaders of the past few decades.

Now retired, Bethune is credited with resurrecting Continental Airlines, the flagging carrier he led from 1994 to 2004 that has since been acquired by United Airlines. Perennially ranked last among major airlines in customer satisfaction, Continental was losing hundreds of millions of dollars each year and fighting insolvency. Bethune, who was promoted from COO to CEO less than a year after he joined the company, successfully transformed the beleaguered airline into a profitable and respected industry leader.

What did he learn during his decade-long tenure at Continental? We recently had the good fortune to interview Bethune, who talked about his background and the lessons in leadership and management he learned during his time at the airline. Here are seven of those key takeaways, in Bethune’s own words.

1. Treating your customers and employees well is the right thing to do—and it’s good for the bottom line.

“I arrived in February of 1994, and Continental was consistently dead last in customer satisfaction metrics. And then, we consistently ranked first. To this day, we have a record for JD Power Awards. We were on Fortune Magazine my last six years for the 100 Best Places to Work in America. We were the most admired airline in the world, according to Fortune. Those are kinds of things that are long-built records. But I didn’t do it. The team did it.

How did we do it? We became America’s most on-time airline. How did we do that? We focused on that every day, and the record still stands. So, it can be done from a dispirited last place. We lost something like $600 million in 1994. In 1995, we made $225 million—with the same people and the same airplanes. So, it wasn’t anything wrong with the employees. It was the management—and it always is.”

2. Don’t forget where you came from.

“I used to be an airplane mechanic—that’s how I started off. And do you know how much faster I could fix an airplane when I wanted to fix it versus when I didn’t want to fix it? That’s where the money is. They don’t teach that at Harvard Business School. But they do teach it when you’re growing up. These are basic things, but I think too many companies forget it.”

3. Make a real effort to get to know your employees.

“I communicated a lot during my time at Continental. I did a voicemail that was 3-5 minutes that basically told everybody what was going on, and what they could expect. The twist was that you could voicemail me back through the phone service, and they could tell me what was on their minds. In any case, it was a secure, frequent, respectful voicemail to employees.

You ever watch a football team when they have a huddle before a play? It’s not just the big shots in the huddle. It’s the team. Everybody’s got to know what we’re doing. That kind of respect for your employees—they notice that.”

4. You can’t outsource employee relations. It’s up to the CEO to create a team atmosphere. 

“Your employees and their attitudes are the differentiating competitive edge you have, and I think we utilized that extensively while I was at Continental. You have to gain and earn the trust of your employees. But not only that, you have to make them feel rewarded in order to get your product at a level that it can beat the competition. Everybody’s looking for better fuel burn and all these accounting tricks you can do, and all the cost savings you can do. But having employees that want to do a good job is invaluable.


When I was at Continental, I would always go to the airport an hour-and-a-half before my flight, and I would visit Continental employees in the crew room or break room or baggage room. It’s the same as going to somebody’s office and thanking them for doing a great job. CEOs don’t normally do that. They try to delegate that to their HR departments, but you can’t. If you want to be the leader, then you have to appreciate and respect your employees. One way to show them that is to get off your ass, go to their office—which might be a cockpit—and say hello and thank you.” 

5. If you ask your employees to make sacrifices, then you should make them, too.

“One thing I did that differentiated me was during the holidays. In particular, Thanksgiving and Christmas were tremendously high-stress days because, of course, everyone wants to be with their families and it’s a maximum travel time in America. I would go out to the airport and work on those days—I would load bags, do work behind the counter, greet customers. I’d make an effort to tell them when I was out there that I appreciated them working on Thanksgiving, and that I appreciated their work in general.


You can’t imagine how much goodwill that you earn when your team knows that you’re willing to give up your holiday because you’re asking them to give up theirs. You become a true member of the team then. You’re not the manager. It’s a team. The quarterback doesn’t necessarily enjoy any more prestige than the right tackle, and if you go to the Super Bowl then everybody gets a ring. That’s just the way it works. You can write notes all you want, but it’s better to get off your ass and get out there.”

6. Listen to your customers, even if your competitors aren’t.

“In 1994, the United States had already passed a law that you couldn’t smoke on domestic flights. But we flew in Central and South America and Europe, and those were smoking flights since international flights were exempt. I would have customers complain about smoking and, of course, if you were a working flight attendant, and you worked the back of the plane, it was a different atmosphere—it was cloudy, grey, and smoke-filled. I was on a flight down to Costa Rica, and I walked back there, and I said, ‘We are going to stop this.’ We had the senior VP of international sales writhing on the ground in my office because they were all convinced that we were going to lose our business.


And, you know what? We picked up more business doing that than anything we did. We had so many people ditch Alitalia or Air France to fly on us because we were non-smoking. And while it angered some customers, we got more customers because of the rule. We trail blazed the international non-smoking flights by listening to our customers and listening to our own employees. We made a lot of money because of it, too.”

7. Consumers want one thing—and it’s not what you think it is. 

“All good airlines are always looking for a way to differentiate their product. But the best way to differentiate your product is to be consistently reliable and dependable. I think people value that the most. They’ll say, ‘Screw the movie, but don’t lose my bag!’ I’ve seen airlines debate crazy things, like whether the flight attendants should wear Kate Spade handbags or another brand. And I said, ‘Who gives a shit?’ Why don’t you give them their bags? That’s what they want!’ ”

The Power of Educational Infographic…

December1, 2014 Today as I was curating  a list of tools to use for creating infograhics in class, I came across this interesting visual created by  Anethicalisland.  The visual provides a succinct overview of what infographics are, reasons to use them in class, and some of the benefits behind using them in instruction. For instance, using infographics for learning is supported by…

The Internet of Things Explained…..

November 27, 2014 Internet of Things (IoT) is a relatively new concept that is making such a buzz online. I have come across it in several instances but never really inquired deeply about its meaning. However, today I read a really interesting article by Jacob Morgan entitled ” A Simple Explanation of ‘The Internet of Things’. In this article, Jacob defined IoT as “the concept of basically connecting…

25 things successful teachers do differently

December 9, 2014 Here is a good visual that features some of the things successful teachers do differently. This infgraphic is based on an article written by Julie DeNeen which I would refer you to for more details on each of the 25 ideas included below. Read the list and see the ones that resonate with you and also identify the ones missing in your teaching pedagogy. Here is a quick round-up…

How educators can assist learners in developing a growth mindset

December 10, 2014 Here is another interesting work from one of our favourite blog authors : Dr Jackie Gerstein. Of course you know her I have shared several of her beautiful visual in the past. Today, and as I was wading through my Twitter feeds I came across another of Jackie’s infographics on growth mindset. In this visual, Jackie features a number of ideas and tips that educators should adhere…