This article from Edition 6 of the PYP Essentials newsletter, was published by the New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory PYP network in December 2010. It was written by Tim Harris (Year 5 teacher) from St Paul’s Grammar School, Sydney, Australia.
We often hand-feed our students the big ideas we want them to learn. How many times have we said, “Here’s the central idea we’re going to be looking at” or “The concepts we’re going to focus on are…” or “I’d like you to think about the social skills you’re using this lesson.”
There is certainly a place for the explicit introduction of our big ideas and concepts. But I’d been reflecting recently about the possibilities of pushing the students’ thinking further. Having completed four units of inquiry with my class, I sensed the students were ready for something more.
Our fifth unit was science-based. The central idea was:
Humans have developed technology to enable them to manipulate their environment.
The lines of inquiry were:
- The properties of air
- The properties of water
- How humans have developed technology to move through water and air
But rather than introduce these the ‘usual way’, I decided to try something different.
The unit began with a fantastic afternoon of experiments. Some of these immersion activities included: testing pen-top submarines, placing balloons under upside down desks to experience air pressure, lighting empty tea bags and watching them rise into the air, trying to shape clay to float on water, as well as others. The students’ appetites had been whetted and they were hungry to learn more. We discussed each activity and made assumptions about the properties of air and water. The students were also able to draw on their knowledge from writing as we had been working on explanations and examining how submarines work.
I would normally introduce the central idea or concepts after such a productive start. But instead, I pointed to the front of the room and had the students examine the PYP concepts on display. “Tell me 5H, after an afternoon like this, what concepts do you think we’ll be looking at during this unit?” I had the students choose two concepts and justify why they made their nominations. These answers were recorded into their POI (programme of inquiry) learning journals. The responses were extraordinary:
- “Function because we’ve been looking at how things work like submarines and air.”
- “Connection because we need to know how air and water can connect to each other”
- “Function because we have to know how things work.”
- “Causation – why air and water are the way they are.”
- “Function – how air and water work.”
I projected the PYP planner for the unit onto the interactive whiteboard. I pointed out box 2 and showed the students the three desired concepts – function, connection and causation.
After congratulating the students, I then turned their attention to the display walls at the back of our classroom. We quickly recalled the previous four central ideas and then I asked the students to have a go at predicting our fifth. After about five minutes of lively discussion the students came up with something along the lines of ‘Understanding air and water is useful for making inventions.”
It struck me that this process demonstrated exactly what the PYP is about. The students were open-minded, reflective and knowledgeable in identifying the big ideas and concepts. They used this understanding to launch their inquiries. It also showed me that the students had developed healthy thinking patterns through years of exposure to the PYP at St Paul’s Grammar School.
Our summative assessment task asked the students to design and create their own forms of transportation for either air or water. Watching the students create and alter their inventions with such a close eye on the key concepts was very rewarding.
As I write this article our sixth and final unit is now in full swing. The students know exactly what the concepts are and we reflect on these regularly. We inquire under the scope of our central idea and, in turn, practise and learn skills with purpose and direction. Not only is the class learning journey humming along, but mine has joined in for the ride. Teachers are learners, too.