Author: Judy Imamudeen

#SOL: Looking Through a Window of An Open House

#SOL: Looking Through a Window of An Open House

As I locked the door and closed all the curtains, I wondered what emotions were stirring in the children – were they excited, were they nervous, or were they blase to share their learning?

Where is MY planning sheet?

Today was their opportunity to present their knowledge and efforts in our unit, how did that make them feel?


At three o’clock, another door swings open and a head of a beaming student pops in, “Can I come in, Ms. Judy? Can I show my mom?”. I look up at the clock. “It’s 3pm.  Time to get started! Come on in!-What are you going to present to your mom first? Can you find your planning sheet?”


Showing how to use Book Creator app. 


Before you know it,  students start piling in with their loved ones: moms, dads, brothers, aunts, and grandmas–they all show up to see what their child has been up to in 1st Grade.The noise of the activity is fun to observe. We start grabbing iPads to document the interactions.  We want the parents to remember this moment, this moment of wonder and curiosity; hopefully a proud moment, a moment when they realize that their baby is growing up, a moment when pride wells up inside.

As we look on, some of the interactions are gorgeous. “C’mon”, squeaks one girl. “I want to show you how to play this game. It’s called BANG!”

Playing a Word Game.

Enthusiasm has flooded the room. It is four o’clock and a desire to show off their favorite things in class has yet to cease after an hour.


We asked students to choose five things to present to their families–touching a bit on math, language, technology, and unit. One girl has checked off the entire list. We tried to avoid this from happening since we know that the adult’s time is busy. One mother struggles to get her daughter to stop playing a game.

thomas and charlotte
Playing the “Sound Detective” Game.

“This is the last round, okay?”, she beseeches.


Over in the corner, a sort of game of tug-of-war seems to be in process, in which there is a tension between their interaction, as a loved one is challenging and pulling out the learning from their child, questioning and critical. The child pulls back with counter arguments and claims, then relents. These interactions are difficult to watch from the eyes of a child, but the teacher in me also feels a bit grateful for the pressure that is being applied, hoping that it will make the student more focused in their work. (Today I will find out who has really won this game–has this really changed any habits or behaviors?)

kathyIt’s 4:30. Students start to come back to me to report that they have finished.  As they hand me their planning sheets, I direct a question towards them, “How do you feel about presenting your learning?” Most smile and reply, “Good!”.  I give a high five. I want them to have some small acknowledgeable that what they did today mattered. That the learning they have done up until now and the effort they put into presenting it was important. As I look up to say my goodbyes and thank yous to loved ones, in my head I am wondering and hoping that this experience opened a window into the lives of the learners; that the parents and family members gained some valuable insight and perspective into their unique and wonder-filled child. In my heart, I am hoping that the learners left feeling a sense of pride and recognition; that this has further developed their confidence and self-esteem.

It’s nearly six o’clock before I leave school, exhausted yet content.

#PYP : 5 Things You Should See in a Successful Unit of Inquiry

#PYP : 5 Things You Should See in a Successful Unit of Inquiry

Sometimes I wonder why we spend so much time discussing and deliberating Central Ideas and the nit-picky debates over the conceptual understandings. Why not just copy the sample Programme Of Inquiry that is inside the Making the PYP Happen document or other go-to places to find tried and true units of inquiry? We would be done and dusted, right?  But then we would lose the magic of the PYP–the ability to shape our curriculum based on the students’ interests and culture of our schools! That’s the challenge of every school–Who are WE and what defines our community of learning?

Well, as we wrap up our current How the World Works unit, we are reflecting on how much time and energy we put into creating our Central Idea. As teachers, we brainstormed ideas based on scientific concepts that the students need developing and cross-referenced science standards from a variety of sources (like national and independent curriculums other than the PYP Scope and Sequence for Science). We then pitched the ideas to the students with a general interest survey using a Design Thinking approach and then did some pre-packing of the Central Idea. We knew after all of that effort that we had a solid unit of inquiry ahead. What we ended up with was:

Understanding light and sound can transform experience

  • How animals hear sound and see light
  • Transformation of Energy
  • Ways we use the scientific process

Although our central idea was ironically very similar to a unit at NIS, the lines of inquiry and adding the word “transform” made it unique to our students because of what we had been learning about in performing arts and visual art classes. We really wanted to make a strong link to go beyond this being a “science unit” and make it transdisciplinary. This sort of intention really showed in the learning.

In the Enhanced PYP,   there is a shift in developing learner agency, and I can appreciate how it might build upon the idea of Action as we reflect our the design of our school’s Programmes of Inquiry.We spent a few lessons on gauging student interest and “pre-packing” the Central Idea of our unit before we even launched it to capture student voice and choice involved.

So really it shouldn’t be a surprise that when we examined whether students were really engaged and invested in their learning, we found several tell-tale signs. This was some of the evidence we saw:

  1. Students challenging each other’s ideas, particularly when they were generating their scientific questions and hypothesis.
  2. Students bringing in outside resources that added to the conceptual understanding of the unit.
  3. Parents reporting that students are reading and researching the concepts at home.
  4. Students wanting to extend their learning, either at home or at school.
  5. Students asking deep questions and a compulsion to test out their conjectures.

These are just 5 things that we observed throughout the unit. I hope others can add to the list because I think identifying what success of a unit is an important component of every school’s Programme of Inquiry. We need to take a look at our Central Ideas and begin to wonder who is this unit for? And will student action naturally and authentically develop? And when you think about it, the word inquiry means “a search for knowledge” and “a request for truth” so student initiative isn’t really the high bar we should expect in learning, but truly the bare minimum of a successfully designed unit. If we touch a nerve and truly spark interest, then a commitment and motivation to learning should ensue. If I was to be truly critical of whether or not we nailed student agency in this unit, I would say that tuning in and shaping units around their needs and interests were only the tip of the iceberg and we need to challenge our team a bit more to develop this feature in our community of learning.

However, I hope sharing this experience will help ignite some deeper thinking and reflection about designing units of inquiry. If you have any more “symptoms” of a successful unit, please share below. The more conversation we can have around this, the stronger our school programmes will become because we put our learners first. Please add your perspective in the comments below.

#SOL: 2 Minutes is All You Need to “Catch a Bubble”

#SOL: 2 Minutes is All You Need to “Catch a Bubble”

“Think about it– we (teachers/educators) have never left school. What does that say about us?”, Chad Walsh leans in to tell me. Chad is always asking provocative questions, and his curious idea lingers in my head all day long as we explore collaboration during our professional development days.

I’ve never heard of the work done by Neil Farrelly but after we had a week-long visit from him, he’s hard to forget. He got our PYP team to playfully share our stories, explore the boundaries of our imaginations,  investigate uncomfortable places and consider different perspectives. We did this through a variety of drama tasks, which, unto itself is an unusual way to explore collaboration. This was not a passive act. We were full-on the whole time.neil

During our reflection about the week, we all had to go around quickly to discuss how we might apply some of our learning into our classrooms. Although we had lots of ideas, what “bubbled up” for my Grade 1 partner and I was to share in the “big group” a simple idea of using the “black box” to create a tuning in activity as we inquire into our line inquiry about what makes a home a home. Because we had such a short amount of time to explain, we were brief and concise.

After we shared our gleanings, the performing arts teacher excitedly comes over to tell the other Grade 1 teacher and I that she “caught our bubble” and has a bunch of lovely ideas for our upcoming unit on homes and journeys. Our presentation was maybe 2 minutes long, but Julie’s hand had ideas scrawled from the top of her palm, reaching below her wrists. It made me think about how important 2 minutes can be when sparking imagination and collaboration. How simple it can be to connect when we are listening and open to each other’s ideas.

When I reflect back to Chad’s question about what it means to “never left school”, it makes me think that we are still eager to learn, that we acknowledge that there is a fine line between ignorance and expertise and we are always exploring that edge to deepen our understanding.



Kick in the Pants: Slice of Life Challenge

Kick in the Pants: Slice of Life Challenge

Everyone needs a kick in the pants sometimes. Recently I went on a Writer’s Workshop professional development training in Yangon, Myanmar. Since I’ve been in the Early Years for such a long time, it was fantastic to get a refresher course on this unique philosophy and approach to teaching writing and reading. I love it because it really has a lovely inquiry-based approach to examining texts and using those craft moves in our writing.  But honestly, I took for granted the cornerstone piece of being an effective writing teacher is to be a writer yourself–to read materials from that perspective of a writer (whether for professional or personal reasons)  and dedicate yourself to a life of writing.

slice-of-life_individual.jpgIt was during this time that I was reminded of the blog, Two Writing Teachers, and I immediately fell back in love with all the helpful and insightful posts in there. I noticed that they have a Slice of Life challenge coming up, which is another wonderful nudge to write consistently, if not daily. Being an authentic Writer’s Workshop teacher is probably less about the method and more about a lifestyle of close reading and practicing the craft of writing; so if I am to take this on seriously, then I need to stay committed to developing habits around writing.

So with that in mind, I am accepting this kick in the pants and publicly announcing that I am going to take this challenge personally.  However, since this is my professional blog, I reckon that I will make my “slices of life” come from my classroom.

writing quote.jpg

The truth is that I have been a writer all my life, from the moment I could form my ABCs until this very moment here with you. Now in my 44th year of life, I am finally acknowledging this fact. It’s quite liberating and invigorating really.

And I hope you will join me in this quest to turn what may seem like a mundane task into an exciting turning point in your career, moreover your life. We can hold each other’s hands as we enter into the writing life together.

writing quote.jpg


writing quote.jpg

Oh to Capture Thoughts and Ideas: The Writing Life!

Oh to Capture Thoughts and Ideas: The Writing Life!


Recently I had someone grilling me about writing journals, and I was deeply surprised and amused since we have so many notebooks and journals for our students that they can’t even fit into their cubbies. And yes, sure, it’s a common practice to have students hold their ideas in a journal, but I believe writing is thinking; and sometimes our thoughts are trivial and sometimes they are elaborate, they come into the mind through questions, phrases, lists, arguments, epiphanies, and regrets. Our writing life is a bit like that too and a journal is only one way to get a hold of these ideas. writer world

As a 1st grade teacher, I feel incredibly anxious ensuring that our students feel confident as readers and writers. I want them to stare at a blank sheet of paper and be able to imagine how it might be filled with words, taking the pencil into their hands and devouring the empty space with their ideas. I want them to stand back and experience reverence for words when they look at a poem or examine the pages of a book. But sometimes I feel incredibly challenged by how daunting the task is: to not only make students competent with reading and writing skills but develop these attitudes towards literacy that motivate them to choose writing. I want them to have agency, not shove writing down their throat, demanding that they create so many perfectly spelled and punctuated sentences a day, a week, a month. I want them to be true writers: reacting to life and wanting to capture its joys and downturns with words and pictures so that they may communicate their experience with others.

Also, I want them to make connections between our literacy block and our time spent in Math and Inquiry. I want them to know that lines on a paper are an invitation to share their thinking, whether it be with words or numbers or both.

Maths is a subject of words and pictures not just numbers. -Lana Fleitzeig-

I want them to write down a question on their paper and stare at it, considering the reading and writingvarious ways that one might approach its answer. I want them to think, then reach for a book, a website, a magazine or ask someone so that their curiosity can be nourished by the support of other human beings. And then realize that they too have something to share, which makes them reach for the pencil or tap on a keyboard. I want their minds overcome by the desire to write.

So, just like in real life, students may create lists or books, use sticky notes or scraps of paper, whatever they can get their hands on, including their writing journal to document their ideas and moods. Today it may be a sign-up sheet for a game of tag, but tomorrow it may be a wonderful tome on Cheetahs. Who knows what the heart of a child wants to share with others!  But for them to see themselves as writers, no matter how prolific they may be inside their journals, is more important than any spelling and grammar lesson that I may give them. Perhaps it is more important to ask students not how much or how well you wrote today, but did you write today?–not because I am your teacher and I have educational aims that you must reach to be “meeting expectations” but because your soul demands expression and I am here to support you answer its call.

So, although the mechanics of syntax and grammar are my learning goals for the day, my real overarching goal is for students to naturally and organically write, to feel the pull and lure of an empty space that can be filled with their ideas.

I want them to live a writer’s life.


#Inquiry: Transforming Learning Objectives and Intentions.

#Inquiry: Transforming Learning Objectives and Intentions.

I had an Aha-Moment this week and I am bursting to share it! You see I grew up and was trained in the American school system so most of my pedagogical schema is steeped in a Standards-Based Approach to teaching and learning. Lessons must have learning objectives, which usually are framed around the State’s curriculum or nowadays there is the Common Core. When I write or state the objective on the board, there is a magnetic pull that drives the learning towards meeting that goal. I get tunnel vision and achieving this standard becomes a primary focus, if not for the day, then for the week. But can we still attain the skills and knowledge in the curriculum without letting the learning intention be the end-all/be-all in our lessons?

Let me just set the stage for my lightbulb moment:

One of my colleagues had said earlier this year that she feels like when you do inquiry it seems like you have to always make the students guess what they are learning about. It’s as if learning intention is a mystery. And so herein lies the challenge with inquiry-based learning when it meets the standards-based curriculum training. Is there a happy medium? And I think I found the answer and the answer is YES!

Compliments of the wonderful teachers at VIS, Mr. David, and Mr. John!

Did you catch that? In the example above, they just open up the lesson  with a question and it naturally covered standards that would be typically on the board or stated as you tell your students what they would be learning about in that 4th-grade lesson:

  • Use the four operations with whole numbers to solve problems. (Common Core)
  • checking reasonableness of answers. ( Singapore Mathematics Syllabi)
  • Know multiplication and division facts for the 2× to 10× tables (Cambridge)

If you’re a PYP teacher then we are always packing our unit planners with “teacher questions”.  I already was well aware that questions are vital for inquiry teaching and learning. But it never occurred to me that I could or should turn the learning intention/objective into a question. It totally changes the dynamic of the lesson, in which a clear path of learning is set yet there is still enough space for curiosity and divergent thinking.

So I’m going to start transforming my WALT (W.hat we L.earning T.oday) into questions so that students have a goal and purpose for learning. And then I’d like to end with a student reflection: Did we answer the question? Why or why not?

I think when we shift from Telling To Asking, we start moving away from didactic approaches and move into curiosity and student agency. I’m going to test out this tweak and I invite others to do the same so that more student interest and inquiry can be sparked.

#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.

Like Minded? Let's Stay Connected!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 762 other subscribers

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.

Personal Links

View Full Profile →