Conceptual understandings in the PYP exhibition

Chris Beddows, Associate Head of Lower School and PYP Coordinator, Dwight School, USA

This article illustrates a PYP exhibition journey from the reflection on facilitation to allowing students making sense of their topic through a driving conceptual lens.

I get it. I have heard it before. ‘Why should we change things when it has been going well for years?’

When I reflected on how we had been facilitating the Primary Years Programme (PYP) exhibition, the culminating task of a PYP student and doorway into the Middle School years, I did think we had been doing it well until I talked to former students who had been through the process. It transpired that what they remembered was not a lot about the content of their ‘projects’ but more about the working together, researching, finding out and presenting. It seemed that the facts they had memorized had slipped away, like most do, unless underpinned by a robust set of skills and strong driving concepts. It was time for a shift.

I reflected on how we plan our units of inquiry outside of the exhibition and it struck me as very different to the way we would guide students through the exhibition process. In order to plan a unit of inquiry we focus on the big, driving concept for the unit as a starting point, and provoke and pre-assess around this concept. Following this we think about how to pre-assess the focus skills for the unit, but not once in these early discussions do we stress over the facts. These would come later once the unit got rolling. The notion of using concepts to focus the unit gives more longevity, meaning and transferability. Moreover, assessment data about conceptual understanding can, and should, be passed on from grade level to grade level with more meaning than facts.

Adapted from a template by Sam Sherratt, International School of Ho Chi Min City.

Lynn Erickson, seen as somewhat of a pioneer in the world of concept-based learning said that “traditional Curriculum Design” has been more “topic-based” rather than “concept-based” and our exhibition did feel traditional. This led to the students knowing but not really understanding. A more three dimensional model of learning would ensure that we are not coverage-centric resulting in an “inch deep, mile wide” philosophy where facts do not transfer or students do not meet the intellectual demands of the 21st century.

This brings me to two years ago when we, at Dwight School, shifted our exhibition away from factual presentations about global warming, endangered animals, etc to a more conceptual nature. It became apparent that when we had students in groups based around like-minded topics, there was a tendency for some students to become passengers letting others research facts for them. Their presentations to the parents became repetitive with the same facts about equal rights being churned out by a group of 3-5 students, with these facts soon drifting out of their consciousness once the exhibition was over.

Instead, we now spend a good amount of time at the very start of exhibition process allowing students to make sense of their topic through a driving conceptual lens. They select one big, driving concept to focus on and this leads to groups being formed around these concepts. The students then independently research conceptual questions before coming together as a group to synthesize their topics under one umbrella concept. The result is intellectual depth in thinking and understanding, despite the initial and inevitable ‘why are we together as a group?’ question. Exhibition presentations are  now varied, interesting, engaging and diverse, as students share their understanding about topics and how these connect to the bigger conceptual lens. An additional benefit of this method is that students become truly independent researchers before coming together as a group.

We continue on our journey to refine and develop the shape and direction of our exhibition. This is not, and should never be considered, a perfect model/template but it is one that is becoming more in line with our thinking of education today. Ditch the regurgitation and repetition of factual information…it just does not stick.

Chris Beddows is the Associate Head of Lower School and PYP Coordinator at Dwight School, New York City. He has taught in a range of schools in the America and Europe regions of the IB. He is a life-long learner who enjoys seeing the students pursue their own inquiries in the PYP and use the local environment as an extension of the classroom. Chris enjoys connecting with educators and schools around the world including through #pypchat on Twitter, as part of the International Baccalaureate’s Educator Network (IBEN) and at a  range of conferences.  You can follow him on Twitter @mrbeddows.

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