Design-Based Teaching

The Problem-Based Question (Part 2)

(Note: This is part two of a post on The Problem Based Question.  Click HERE to read part one.)

As I mentioned in my last post, I found myself reflecting on the essential questions that I had been using in my classroom.  Essential questions have a time and place in the classroom but I wanted my students to delve deeper into the content, solve-real world problems, and answer questions that mattered to them.

So, I started asking myself – how can I develop AND help my students develop deeper questions that were truly centered on solving real-world problems and focused on student interest?  How do we develop something beyond the essential question?

Enter….the problem-based question!

A problem-based question is a grade level appropriate question that promotes content-specific skills while capturing student interest, tackling a real problem, and evoking empathy from the students.

As you can see, this type of question will be much deeper and richer than an essential question. It is a question that will require our students to be problem-solvers who address real-world issues and dilemmas.

What’s an example of a problem-based question? Let’s take a look!

Content Area: 8th Grade Math

The Prompt: On average, each person in the United States generates 4.4 pounds of trash per day.

Problem-Based Question: If this amount of trash were continues to generate of the next twenty years, what kind of impact would this have on our cities, country, and the world?

Let’s break this down to see if it will truly be a problem-based question:

Is it content specific?

While not expressly discussed in the prompt, it is clear that the teacher will be using math specific content for the students to calculate.

Potential topics could include:

  • Calculating the trash per day, month, or year for the entire United States.
  • Calculating the trash per day, month, or year for the entire United States if the amount generated were to increase.
  • Developing graphs and analyzing data.

Is it grade level appropriate?

Absolutely. The teacher can easily align the math content to the standards. However, the bigger question might be – is the topic appropriate for this age of students? Again, absolutely! Students are aware that there are issues of trash generation, littering, etc, so it will be an appropriate their age and grade level.

Are students interested in this question?

This one can be a bit tricky because there are many different students in your classroom with a variety of different interests. However, most students will be interested in this question out of the sheer curiosity of understanding how much trash is generated per day.  Include some interesting facts, a fun video, and bam! Your students are engaged.

Does it tackle a real-world problem?

Definitely – this is a major conversation in our world that will have an impact on their future.

Does it require empathy from students?

Absolutely. Students will be required to think about how this affects their city, state, and country. They will have to determine how this will affect other people, not just themselves.


As you go into your week, I challenge you to keep these five questions in the back of your mind. Not every lesson needs to have a problem-based question but, if we want to encourage our students to be problem-solvers, then we must begin creating more opportunities for students to answer these kinds of questions.

Do your students answer essential questions, problem-based questions, or both in your classroom?  What strategies do you incorporate to help your students become problem-solvers?

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