Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them

Central Ideas: The Good, The Bad and The Messy. How the Primary Years Program Can Rethink and Define Them

The Primary Years Program is a challenging curriculum. As you work in this framework, it forces you to put all of your educational values under the microscope and really analyze what you truly believe about how children learn best.  Often the ideas sound good on paper but can really be a struggle in practice, especially depending upon the constraints their school puts upon them with math and literacy programs. As a coordinator who works with new-to-IB staff, getting them to “drink the Kool-Aid” isn’t always an easy sell, especially at first because all the jargon overwhelms them. But I think that the first step to convincing new PYP teachers that this is the best approach to learning out there is the central idea. Well written central capture students interest and make for powerful inquiries.

So how do you know if your central ideas are “bad”?  Here’s the main clue: Your teachers say “huh, what does this mean?” when they look at it.  I’ll share an example to clarify:

Natural materials are used to inspire and express ideas. (How We Express Ourselves)

This is bad for all sorts of reasons–it’s ambiguous yet narrow focus on “natural materials” and the words “inspire” and “express” seem to be subjective in this context. These are two things that jump out at you. But what did you say after reading this? Let me guess:  “huh, what does this mean?”    Yep, that’s the hallmark of a failed attempt at a central idea.

What about messy? Well, I love this handy-dandy guide to developing a central idea that I’m pretty sure ever PYP school references at some point in their review of their Programme of Inquiry (POI). It’s well-intentioned and tries to be thorough, but when you put pen to paper, you can really get some gobbly-gook.  This part, below, is what causes some major mumbo-jumbo in our fabrication of central ideas:

How do I know if I have written a good Central Idea?

 Did you include two or more concepts in your statement?

 Have you used an active, present-tense verb?

 Did you avoid using proper and personal nouns?

 Did you avoid the use of to be (is, are) and have verbs?

 Did you write a complete sentence

You couple this with the advice in the Developing a Transdisciplanary Programme of Inquiry, and you can really have some creative wordsmithing. I say this all respectfully, especially since the PYP is undergoing a big review at the moment, but put yourself in the shoes of a new IB educator.

developing a transdisciplanr
From the publication: Developing a Transdisciplanary Programme of Inquiry

It takes a sharp eye to see the delineation between the 2 versions and you got to remember that this is a central idea for a 1st grader/Primary 1 student–words like organization, endeavor, and enterprise take a week (at least) to unpack before you get to those 4 lines of inquiry. You can totally appreciate why new IB teachers are absolutely overwhelmed with the notion of writing or revising a central idea. Furthermore, you can understand why a candidate school would just copy a sample POI that is either posted on the Online Curriculum Centre or on another IB school’s website.  Just the other day I was having a coffee with a candidate’s school appointed PYP coordinator. At first, I didn’t quite understand her intention- her school’s POI looked fine, decent central ideas- but after an hour I came to understand that what she actually wanted me to help her with writing lesson plans for her teachers. Her teachers needed help with lesson planning because they personally hadn’t gone through the process, they had no skin in the game and definitely no understanding of what it means to do an “inquiry into…..

But this goes back to the point I was making–a good central idea should generate more possibilities. If a teacher can’t look at a central idea and come up with a place to start, then the inquiry is going to get messy.  Just look at that central idea above: People create organizations that solve problems and support human endeavor. They will probably just fumble around for at least a week instead of hitting the ground running doing a bonafide inquiry because they can’t get past those words. The words–the ones that the summative task is supposed to be built around–is a major stumbling block, especially for a 1st-grade teacher. Let’s be honest, right?If the central idea is messy than it typically demands that we put a stake in the ground at some point and say, “ok kids, this is where you need to go with your inquiry–it’s nearly summative time!” I know IB understands these challenges, which is why it is painfully taking a knife to the PYP and rethinking how we can approach central ideas.

Let me give you another example from a 2nd-grade unit at our school:

The population of a community can determine the structure of its organizations within it.

When we wrote that central idea under How We Organize Ourselves theme, we followed the handy-dandy aforementioned guide. I’ve highlighted the concepts that we pulled out the IB Social Studies Scope and Sequence. The purpose of this unit was to help students start gaining an understanding of government and economics that was lacking in some of the future P4 and P5 units. The summative task is to have the students form a “city council” and create a community with a given population, using a budget to provide for its goods and services. So that was the intention of this wordy central idea. This year, when a new 2nd-grade teacher came in and looked and looked at this unit, her response to the central idea indicated that it was messy. In our last meeting, we discussed how well the kids, who LOVED this unit, understood the central idea. She said that she spent more time focusing on the lines of inquiry because of the wording of the central idea, but that ultimately yes they understood the relationship between population and community design. The fact that she circumvented the Central Idea is definitely a symptom of a messy central idea. So we thought about ditching all those big words and simplifying the central idea to reflect a more kid-accessible central idea:

People design communities to fit the needs of its population.  

(I think we have transformed it into a “good” central idea–or at least a better iteration.)

So, a perfect central idea isn’t so wordy and nebulous that you can’t find a place to start, nor creates an exhausting level of teacher content delivery or misguided student research. What do I mean about this? Look at this:

Signs and Symbols can be used to communicate messages through different media.

Screams transdisciplinary right?–Instantly specialists want to jump in and connect with the ideas of signs and symbols, and it’s an easy link with literacy, social studies, technology, and math. Not to mention that it’s got friendlier language so we can dive right into the inquiry. And assessment organically emerges, with the kids being able to contribute to what a summative task might look like. It’s interesting, it’s engaging and student action is prominent.

So let me summarize my definition of a “good” central idea:

  • Transdisciplinarity ( I don’t know if that’s a word, but it is now!) can happen organically.
  • It is easily understood by the teacher so they know how to start the inquiry.
  • The students can access its language.
  • A clear summative task naturally arises and students can provide input into how it can be assessed.
  • It connects students to concepts that will be needed in future units of inquiry.

Now, perhaps you share my opinion about central ideas or you may want to lambaste me. This is a hotly contested area between educators. Fair enough. But as a coordinator, I make a good stab at being knowledgeable and reflective, however, the only thing that I am certain of is my experience as an educator with this framework.  Perhaps your experience matches mine or maybe you think I’m speaking blasphemy–fantastic! Let’s debate! I’d love to hear your definitions–what are the attributes of a “good” central idea?

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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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