Month: December 2017

#PYP “Pre-packing” vs. “Unpacking” the Central Idea: Design Thinking Based Approach to Writing Units of Inquiry.

#PYP “Pre-packing” vs. “Unpacking” the Central Idea: Design Thinking Based Approach to Writing Units of Inquiry.

Anyone who teaches the Primary Years Program knows preciously what I mean by the word unpack. But just for clarity sake, let me explain:

Unpack (verb): to explain and define the key conceptual understandings and “big words” used in a central idea and lines of inquiry, usually as a part of “tuning into” a new unit of inquiry.

Depending on the unit of inquiry, teachers can choose to go a more traditional path to explain the big words or they can create provocations that awaken the meanings. I suppose it depends on how much weight you want to give to these keywords or how long you want to dwell on them. Each unit is sort of unique in that way.

In an earlier post (#PYP The Sound and Light of Using Design Thinking To Write a Unit of Inquiry), I explained the experiment and struggle of using design thinking to construct a unit of inquiry. This past week, we presented two different “prototypes” of a central idea for a How The World Works unit that we are creating for our Grade 1 students. Here are the prototypes:

Version 1.1: Understanding energy can lead to discoveries and help us predict its behavior.

Version 1.2 Exploring light and sound can lead to discoveries and open up new possibilities.

When we presented these central ideas, we discussed them one by one and asked them what words they connected to and what did it make them think about. This was a very revealing exercise! The first reaction to the central ideas:

“Wow, that is long and hard sounding”

Second of all, only a handful of our 34 kids had much to say about the scientific concepts in either central idea, showing a deep need to develop real content knowledge.  Third of all, our English language learners preferred “light and sound” over “energy”, which was something that we needed to put a high emphasis on since we have a large group of them. Last insight was that they made the connection with the words exploring and discoveries to “finding out”, which then evolved into the idea of a “science experiment lab”–these words got an uproar of excitement in the group. They began seeing themselves as scientists, creating all sorts of investigations.

At that point, we voted on whether we would explore “energy” in general or if they wanted to just focus on “light and sound”.  The latter was the most popular with both our ELLs and our girls (which made me go, “hmmm….”) in high numbers for the vote.

So then I tried to capture the ideas that the students resonated with, while still honoring the nature of this transdisciplinary theme, and wordsmithed some new ones. Our grade level team discussed and debated them, which is an important aspect of using design thinking.

Central Idea, Version 1.3: Experimenting with light and sound can lead to discoveries and innovation.  

Team comment summary:

” I think it’s 1 dimensional, with the word experiment in it because there are many ways to explore light and sound that isn’t through experiments. “; 

“This sounds like an upper-grade unit because they can do more research into the innovation part”;

“Yeah, we’d have to unpack the word innovation and they don’t have much context for that concept yet”. 

Central Idea, Version 1.4: How living things hear sounds and see light impacts their experience of their world.

Team comments summary:

“Kids this age love animals, so I think they would really enjoy the learning.”; 

“Yeah, this is very Grade 1 friendly and we need to develop the concept of living vs. non-living”;

“Oh, and we could discuss sonar with underwater animals and how bats use echolocation. They’d love that!”;

“Would this have any scientific thinking and process skills though? They really wanted to do experiments and I think we’d lose the ‘science lab’ aspect if we made this the central idea. I mean, we could do experiments showing how living things experience light and sound differently but then it would just be proving scientific facts vs. exploring with our own original ones. In our original UOI, it was all about scientific thinking so maybe it covers a different TD indicator and this one definitely feels like an inquiry into the natural laws. But maybe we could write this into a line of inquiry”.

Central Idea, Version 1.4: Human understanding of sound and light can transform their experience.

Team comments summary: 

” This invites more inquiry-how many ways do humans experience light and sight?” 

“Yeah, when I think about this, I think about how humans first harnessed fire and this sort of discovery led to so many more advancements, as people tried to turn night into day.”

“Oh, totally– this has more of a transdisciplinary approach because we not only have the science bit with natural vs. artificial light but then you have social impact of candlelight to electricity.” 

“But if we only focus on humans, then this unit might not be as interesting as the one with animals. The concepts within electrical energy would be better for older kids. Our 1st graders would appreciate more the context of how animals and plants have senses that detect light and sound in different ways.”

” Good point-How about we just drop the word ‘human’ so we can keep it open for other living things and see where this unit takes us?”

Nods in agreement……..

So here is the new prototype that we are going with for our UOI:

Central Idea (v. 1.5): Understanding sound and light can transform experience.   

Lines of inquiry        

  • How living things hear sound and see light (perspective)      
  • Transformation of energy (change)
  • Ways we use the scientific process (reflection)

       Related Concepts:  Energy, Impact, and Transformation

Attitude: Enthusiasm, Creativity, Curiosity                              LP: Reflective, Thinker, Inquirer

Although this process may have taken longer than we would have liked, it was important to reflect on the needs of our students as well as appreciating what fascinates them and promotes curiosity. When I think about how the PYP has been reviewed, I think this exercise in Design Thinking honors the new emphasis on Learner Agency. In the new IB documentation, it states:

Your understanding of the learner is the foundation of all learning and teaching and will influence how you support student agency, and how the learning community considers children’s rights, responsibilities and identities.

Agency is present when students partner with teachers and members of the learning community to take charge of what, where, why, with whom and when they learn. This provides opportunities to demonstrate and reflect on knowledge, approaches to learning and attributes of the learner profile.

The Learner in the Enhanced PYP

Even though I think this is our first iteration at developing learner agency through “pre-packing” the Central Idea with student thoughts and viewpoints, I still believe that we have honored the core of the PYP programme and moreover have really carefully considered our learners over pulling units of inquiry out of the archives to see which one might “fit”. For our team, we have a higher level of excitement going into this unit (and maybe a little trepidation), knowing that we can’t wait to surprise and inspire them with the provocations and challenges that this Central Idea will bring.

How does your team approach honoring student voice and choice? Have you ever “pre-packed” a unit of inquiry (other than Exhibition or PYPX)?

#PYP: What is a Provocation?

#PYP: What is a Provocation?

I love the International Baccalaureate but the jargon really can get you jumbled up, especially when you are new to the program. In the PYP, we use a lot of terminologies that others would just call “best practice”.  However, there is a word that pops up quite a lot: provocation.

Now someone might call it the “hook”, something that draws student’s attention into a lesson. But when I say “hook”, I don’t mean an attention grabber like a joke or cute anecdote or a routine of some sort that gets students on task. No, that’s not a provocation!   A provocation is thoughtfully constructed activity to get students excited and engaged, but a really powerful provocation creates cognitive dissonance that throws kids into the Learning Pit (of inquiry).  Students should be examining their beliefs and ideas as a result of the provocation.

Here is a list of questions that were shared by our PYP coordinator Chad Walsh which can help filter activities and perhaps refine them in order to transform them into provocations:

  • Is the provocation likely to leave a lasting impression?
  • Is there a degree of complexity?
  • Might the provocation invite debate?
  • Might the provocation begin a conversation?
  • Might the provocation extend thinking?
  • Might the provocation reveal prior knowledge?
  • Is the provocation likely to uncover misconceptions?
  • Does the provocation transfer the ‘energy’ in the room from the teacher to the students?
  • Does the provocation have multiple entry points?
  • Can the provocation be revisited throughout the unit?
  • Might the provocation lead learners into a zone of confusion and discomfort?
  • Does the provocation relate to real life/their world?
  • Is the provocation inconspicuous and a little mysterious?
  • Might the provocation lead learners to broader concepts that tend to carry more relevance and universalitMight the provocation be best during the inquiry, rather than at the beginning?
  • Does this provocation elicit feelings?

That is a very extensive list, isn’t it?

Well, let me share a  few examples of provocations:

How We Organize Itself, The Central Idea: Governments make decisions that impact the broader community.

Students come to class that morning and are treated according to the government system that is being highlighted. (Example, Totalitarian) This goes on for a week and each day students have to reflect on what it was like to be a citizen of this type of government.

Where We Are In Place and Time, The Central Idea: Personal histories help us to reflect on who we are and where we’ve come from.

The “mystery box” (which I think originated from the work of Kath Murdoch): inside a box (or a suitcase, in this example) there is a bunch of seemingly unrelated items that students have to guess what the unit might be about. This is a “tuning in” activity. And since this is a central idea about personal histories, it might include a family photo, an old toy, some cultural artifacts or relics of things we enjoy doing, a clock, a map.

Math Stand Alone, The Central Idea: Mathematical problems can be solved in a variety of ways 

The  “sealed solution“: there are 5 envelopes that have the sum of two numbers “sealed” inside them. Students have to use the digits 0-9 only once to create those sums. What could be the sums inside?

Hopefully, this is helping you to discern what a provocation might be. Even if you are an experienced PYP teacher, reflecting and refining our provocations is something that is critical to developing our student’s learning and sparking curiosity.  A well-designed provocation will not only make it to the family dinner table conversation that night but will have a longer shelf life in a child’s mind and ultimately develops important conceptual understandings.

What have been some of your favorite provocations? What questions or engagements have led to deeper learning? Please share in the comments below so we can all benefit from your experience! (Thanks!)

Clues that Apps in the Classroom are Actually Educational

Clues that Apps in the Classroom are Actually Educational

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversation about the use of technology in the classroom. At our school, we have to put app selection through the lens of the SAMR model before it can be purchased for classroom use.

Naturally, it got me thinking about what IS really an educational app. Is using SAMR as a filter really the best approach? Since I’ve been diving into different perspectives and strategies that make the biggest impact on literacy skills, I’ve been researching Ereading and online programs that are hailed as “effective”. After reading the report, Getting a Read on Apps, these researchers really got me thinking about the role of technology in our literacy programs and explained some of the challenges of sorting through the App Store. My biggest takeaways are the fodder for this blog post and I hope these clues unveil the mystery behind app selection for learning.

Clue #1: Does it contain the 3 Cs?

It’s hard to get a full understanding of the app’s design in its summary on iTunes, but teachers and parents have to consider how the app through the 3 C’s:

  1. Content: What is the knowledge base that is being developed?
  2. Context: How are teachers and parents talking about the media they are using?
  3. The Child: What are the interests and needs of the individual child?

Clue #2: Is there purposeful and successive curriculum embedded in the gameplay?

Educational apps that develop content knowledge should contain foundational skills and build upon it. For example, a “flash card” app of number facts is very one dimensional even if you add a story to it like Operation Math, but math apps like Dragonbox Big Numbers or Land of Venn include more advanced gameplay along with more complex skills in a sequential way. This engages more thinking skills so they get more “bang” for their brain cells. When playing, not only do the conceptual understandings grow but also the skills that they must employ to solve challenges.

Clue #3: Encourages joint media engagement or co-use

If you can add this on top of the other features, then an app gets a gold star. In fact, there is an increasing amount of research that suggests that reading ebooks with children can be more powerful than a paper book because of the parent/adult interaction amplifies the learning. Putting a child on an iPad and leaving them alone has no benefits but when you have reading partners and good app design, then that means more engagement for the child. An increasing number of apps are trying to embed “relationship-based” technology to improve learning outcomes. For example, an app like Martha Speaks Word Spinner is more fun with more people, while developing reading and vocabulary all the while. It gets a gold star, for sure!

I believe that as educators we need to be media mentors, not only to parents but to each other. Learning apps that are well-designed can help boost student skills but we must research how they support the curriculum we teach. Hopefully, this post will help you to evaluate apps more effectively and consider new ways that you can encourage co-use/joint participation.

What are your favorite learning apps? Did you notice any of these “clues” in their design?

#PYP The Sound and Light of Using Design Thinking To Write a Unit of Inquiry

#PYP The Sound and Light of Using Design Thinking To Write a Unit of Inquiry

I’ve opened a can of worms. After our last Sharing the Planet unit, I felt exasperated and wanted to shift some units around so we could develop more conceptual understandings in science. We have 3 units left since it’s the end of the term, so the choices were: Where We Are in Place and Time, How We Express Ourselves, and How The World Works. We thought that How The World Works would be the best fit for meeting those goals. The Central Idea was: Thinking scientifically helps us to make sense of the world. A lively debate ensued between my co-teaching partner and I–is this the unit that students need?? What other options might we have? So we decided to dig up “old units” to evaluate what was “best fit” for our students–the old vs. the “new” UOI. This didn’t feel very satisfying either. We had to write a new unit.


ben franklinSince we had a planning retreat we started wordsmithing some new central ideas so we could “get down to business” when our team is all together but then I experienced a perfect storm of inspiration after reading “Agency” and the UOI and Being a PYP Teacher: Collaborate with Your Students.These perspectives got me thinking that I really need to ignite student interest by tuning into what scientific concepts fascinate them and putting them at the forefront of our planning of this upcoming unit.   I find that design thinking is a creative and effective way to problem solve, so I thought I would take the opportunity to apply this process to crafting a Central Idea because student interest would take center stage naturally.

So even before we had our planning retreat, I created a poll using Plickers to have students express what their level of curiosity around 5 scientific concepts that would be new to students and are developmentally appropriate:

  1. The purpose of physical structures of animals and plants (adaption).
  2. The properties of materials and states of matter.
  3. Growth and care of living things.
  4. Natural Cycles of the Earth and Weather.
  5. Light and Sound Energy.

We discussed what each one of these “big ideas” might entail as we explored it during a unit of inquiry. Students made comments and asked questions about what sort of things we’d be learning about. After the poll, the students had to put these concepts into a list of learning priorities that I represented visually, just to make sure I captured their interests accurately.


learning priorities
The English language learner-friendly rating system


design slideI was very surprised that light and sound came in first place with 12 students indicating it as their first choice, with materials and matter coming in 2nd with 8 students picking it as their main interest.  Armed with these results, I felt confident enough that this basic knowledge of our 1st graders was enough to begin using Design Thinking to draft a unit. Although there are different approaches to Design Thinking, I decided to go with the’s model.

Empathize: We began with thinking about how we perceive our students and discussing what we know about them as learners.  I shared the survey results and we considered how this unit could develop scientific thinking and experimentation.

Define: Then we began discussing the challenge of writing a transdisciplinary unit around light and sound that complemented a nearly equal student interest in materials and matter. This landed conversation us smack dab

Ideation: There are different ways to ideate but I chose to explore ‘prototyping’ as our framework for creating a unit of inquiry. We worked on our own and then collectively to come up with a “prototype” of what this unit could inquire into. Because we hadn’t designated a transdisciplinary theme indicator (ie: the natural world and its laws; the interaction between the natural world (physical and biological) and human societies; how humans use their understanding of scientific principles; the impact of scientific and technological advances on society and on the environment.), this broadened our swath of possibility.

“Ideation is the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. Ideation provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users.”
–, An Introduction to Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE

As we explored related concepts in various domains, we collated what could be “driving” transdisciplinary ideas in a How the World Works unit in order to “build” a central idea around. What emerged from the ideation process was the conceptual understandings of :

  1. transformation
  2. energy
  3. data
  4. communication
  5. process
  6. classification
  7. movement
  8. diversity
  9. discovery
  10. behavior
  11. properties

Prototype: After deliberating and scribbling out all the perspectives that could make this a powerful learning experience, we settled on the central idea:

Understanding energy helps us predict behavior and can lead to new discoveries. 

  • Types of energy (Form)
  • Transformation of energy (Change)
  • Ways of knowing (Reflection)

Energy=science (light and sound)

Predict= math/science skills

Behavior=PSPE (personal social and physical education)

Discovery=Social Studies

We started digging into the curriculum documents, thinking that we had “nailed it”. But one of our team members sort of sat there blankly as we started choosing the conceptual understandings and learning outcomes. Our PYP coordinator said, “now aren’t you excited to teach this?” And she clearly articulated that she had no idea what this unit was about, which stung a bit because we had sat there discussing ideas for so long. Then she added that the “kids wanted to learn about sound and light and do experiments and we’ve written a unit about energy”.  We’d spent an hour on writing this so there was justification–“light and sound are forms of energy” in which she retorted, “But if I am a teacher who hadn’t been involved in this planning, I would have no idea how I might approach this.” She was right. She was right on both accounts. We had designed a prototype which hadn’t met the needs of the “users”–the students AND the teachers.  She echoed a feeling I’ve written about before in Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them. We’d been too clever, too adult and created something close to gobbly gook. We needed to go back to developing a central idea based on honoring the students’ curiosities.

After our meeting, we homeroom teachers continued this discussion and spent an hour debating if “sound and light” were topics vs. concepts. (Good lord, you know you’re a PYP teacher when you care so much about nuances.), examining curriculum documents.  We created a refined version that would require less “unpacking”:

Exploring how light and sound works can lead to discoveries and open up new possibilities.

  • Light and sound as forms of energy (form)
  • Transformation of energy (change)
  • The use scientific thinking in everyday life. (reflection)

Because I have never considered so thoughtfully the interests of our students, it is hard to say if this central idea meets the prototype criteria from’s Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE:

  • the most likely to delight
  • the rational choice
  • the most unexpected

Nevertheless, I am going to push these versions of the UOI through to the students and move onto the next step of the process.

Test: On Monday, we will present both prototypes of the unit to the students and observe their reactions and collect their responses. Hopefully, this will provide greater clarity of how this unit could be shaped. I reckon that we will continue to refine this unit and engage in more pedagogical conversations.

So, this is what might be considered “first thinking” when it comes to “designing” a unit vs. “writing” a unit of inquiry. I feel very grateful to be a school that allows us to challenge how we approach our curriculum. Sometimes people in leadership can be more focused on efficiency vs. innovation in planning and implementation of our curriculum, desiring to tick off boxes rather than dig deep into what and, more importantly, WHO we teach.

“To create meaningful innovations, you need to know your users and care about their lives.” ,’s Design Thinking PROCESS GUIDE

There is an award-winning designer, Onur Cobanli, who says that “great design comes from interaction, conflict, argument, competition, and debate”.  As a team, we are definitely in the throes of some of this. But I’m wondering if anyone has any suggestions or comments that might help enhance our approach.

Mathematics in the Primary Years Program (PYP): Negotiating Transdisciplanary Vs. Stand Alone

Mathematics in the Primary Years Program (PYP): Negotiating Transdisciplanary Vs. Stand Alone

In the purest sense of the PYP, everything is the Unit of Inquiry (UOI), right? One of the greatest suppositions of transdisciplinary learning is to try to create enduring understandings that connect as many dots with the discrete subject areas. For example, when we think about how young children learn, when they play with blocks, they never think that they are “doing math” or “creating art” or “testing hypotheses”.  So it is our duty to match their curiosity and creativity which curriculum that is relevant, meaningful and engaging. However, as children develop and their thinking matures, we need to challenge them with more complex ideas in our inquiry-based and concept-driven approach to learning. But with Math, it is probably the one subject area that can be the most difficult to naturally incorporate into UOI and make transdisciplinary due to the demands of the mathematical concepts. 

For example, here is a How We Organize Ourselves UOI for students age 5-6 years old that works great for math:

Systems help us to make meaning and communicate.

  • systems in our community
  • ways we use systems
  • our responsibility within systems

Now, this is probably a great unit to develop the conceptual understanding that numbers are a naming system and, for a set of objects, the number name of the last object counted describes the quantity of the whole set; which can then help students to connect number names and numerals to the quantities they represent. (Phase 1, Number Strand of the IB Math Scope and Sequence).

 But then, in this same year group, you have a How We Express Ourselves unit like this:

Creating and responding to art develops an understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

  • what art is
  • how the arts communicate different messages
  • ways we respond and react to art
  • the different ways that can express ourselves through art

At first glance, you are probably thinking, duh!–this is an “art” unit, it’s gotta be Pattern…….or maybe Shape and Space for Transdisciplinary Math (TD)? I could do both, right?

Well, you could, but then you would be “exposing” students to these ideas but not necessarily really developing their conceptual understandings. To further demonstrate how challenging this decision is, think about this conceptual understanding: Shape and Space Strand: Shapes can be described and organized according to their properties;  Pattern: understand that patterns can be found in everyday situations, for example, sounds, actions, objects, nature. So now I am wondering which what part of the central idea or lines of inquiry supports either one of those strands?

You can see that unless you write central ideas and lines of inquiry that consciously make an effort to incorporate math, it can easily get nudged aside during UOI

Now, this example is in the early grades, imagine how difficult it gets in the upper grades! How would you write a UOI that could be a “good fit” for teaching decimals, the conversations of fractions and understanding exponents? You could, but you’d have to have a POI that leaned toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and have staff that is incredibly skillful at writing this curriculum so that Social Studies, the Arts, and PSPE don’t get sacrificed in the process. Most schools don’t go to such efforts. 

So thus we create “Stand Alones”, which are separate subject-specific units of inquiry, that we put into the PYP planner. There are many schools that do this for Math. Some schools do one-off or piecemeal planners for certain mathematical concepts that don’t fit into the transdisciplinary units while other schools just do this for upper year groups, yet others create a whole school Programme of Inquiry for math. (I won’t open up the conversation of how you might create a scope and sequence for math for these stand alones but please check out this blog post that details one school’s struggle to do so.)

In our school’s case, it was decided to create a POI that focused merely on Number and Pattern & Function Strands since these are the most difficult to incorporate into UOIs. With that in mind, most grade levels have TD maths running simultaneously with our Number/Pattern POI. As a disclaimer, it’s our first thinking on how we might approach improving mathematical thinking and learning at our school, so be gentle in your judgment. To create a POI for math is a daunting task, and there is no doubt that we will reflect and revise on ours.

In Grade 1, we are starting to encounter challenges when we look through the number of conceptual understandings and learning outcomes that need to be developed so we stopped and had a whole planning retreat to delve into this. As we looked through the IB Scope and Sequence and referenced the learning outcomes from other national standards, we wondered how much classroom time would it take to accomplish both Stand Alone AND TD Math?  Furthermore, is having essentially “2 Maths” (2 Math Strands) going co-currently a sensible idea-and how might we make it fit better? At the end of our discussions and debates, we mapped out the rest of the year’s TD Math. In one UOI (Where We Are in Place and Time, CI: Homes reflect cultural influences and local conditions.), we decided to not make a TD Math link because it might be “a stretch” to do so and instead to just focus on Number. Here is the Number central idea and lines of inquiry that we will cover during that time: 

Numbers often tell how many or how much
1. The amount of a number determines its position in a numeral
2. How we know when to regroup
3. How grouping numbers into parts can help us find solutions.

CONCEPTS – Function, Change, Reflection
ATTITUDES – Integrity, Confidence
LEARNER PROFILE: Knowledgeable

You can see that this unit has place value and regrouping strategies for addition and subtraction–one of the foundational conceptual understandings that must be well developed in Grade 1 and so needs more attention and time devoted to it. 

Likewise, we decided that we would make one of our units (How the World Works, whose CI we are rewriting), heavy on the TD Maths and a little lighter on the Number POI because we needed to really spend more time on developing the conceptual understandings within the Data and Measurement Strands. This is the Number UOI during that time:

Patterns repeat or grow
1. The ways patterns can be represented.
2. We use pattern to infer and to make predictions.

CONCEPTS – Form, Connection
ATTITUDES – Creativity

As you can see, our examination and reflection process is just beginning when it comes to negotiating classtime with TD Math and our Number POI. Sharing our grade level’s experience in this blog does not only reveal a bit of our thinking process but perhaps you are contemplating your school’s struggle with striking a balance between Stand Alone Math and TD Math and have an idea that would help navigate this challenge.

I’m deeply curious what kinds of conversations your school has regarding Math and what have you done to address “coverage” of concepts. Since our school is in the early days of developing and refining our Number POI, sharing perspectives and theories about using the PYP framework would be helpful to discuss and debate in our larger IB community because all of us are striving to create the best learning experiences and outcomes for our learners.  No pressure, but I’m hoping you will comment below. 🙂


Does your school have UOIs that were particularly successful at incorporating Math so that it was transdisciplinary?

How does your school balance TD Math and Stand Alone Math in the curriculum?

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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