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Transdisciplinary theme and the exhibition


Jane Alston is the Head of Primary and previously PYP Coordinator at Shanghai United International School


Iain Riley is the Grade 5 Coordinator and Assistant Head at Shanghai United International School

This article shares how a PYP school explored Grade 5 students choosing their own transdisciplinary theme for the exhibition.

This year the staff of Shanghai United International School wanted to take the Grade 5 exhibition to another level by allowing students to choose their own transdisciplinary theme.

Although in the past we have used only one transdisciplinary theme, this year we decided to experiment and let the students choose which transdisciplinary theme their group would like to inquire into. This particular group of students are capable of doing this as they have been with the school for six years and their understanding of PYP and all its elements are high.

Teachers have done a lot of work preparing the students for this task. At the start of every unit, students break down the theme we are working on and the main ideas we are going to investigate. Students get involved in creating a central idea, lines of inquiry and concepts. This process empowered the students to have greater ownership of their learning.

The result of allowing students to choose their own transdisciplinary theme for their PYP exhibition was quite amazing. The big questions which they explored were more varied than previous years. Examples of what they looked at include poverty, e-waste, abandoned children and adult stress. Students took complete ownership of their unit. Their deep involvement was also aided by the fact that we could supply each group with two mentors including a local member of staff (Chinese) who can provide support in accessing local resources.

The feedback that we received from visiting schools, heads and PYP coordinators was extremely positive. Many of them come to our exhibition every year and many said this was the best ever. When we explained how we had made the change from one transdisciplinary theme to allowing students to choose, it was agreed that it had made a great difference to student engagement.

We were lucky that we were able to document the exhibition so we can share this with other schools. In addition, teachers and mentors made a book for each group showing the inquiry cycle through photos and teacher/mentor comments. At the end of the book is a final summative comment from the mentors and teachers. This book fully documents the exhibition experience—for the teachers, it is a tool to assess student learning and for the students, it is a way for them to remember their exhibition.

This is probably not suitable for all schools especially those at the start of their PYP journey. We believe that, as a school, we have taken an innovative and creative approach to the exhibition. Experimental?  Yes, but with a very interesting positive result.

We would be very interested to receive feedback on this approach from the IB and other schools who may have thought about doing the same thing or have done a similar thing. If you are a school who is thinking about doing it, our answer to you is to do it. It is a great deal of work and a lot of preparation is involved but the end results are incredible with students effectively showing their understanding of their issue, inquiry cycle, five essential elements and inquiry.

Jane Alston has worked at IB schools in Shanghai China since 2005 as a teacher, PYP Coordinator, workshop leader and site visitor.  She is currently Head of Primary and vice-principal at Shanghai United International School, HongQiao campus.  She enjoys looking for creative ways to approach the PYP and encourages colleagues to take risks and try new approaches.  Originally from South Africa where she was an educator for over 20 years, Jane has found working in China a beneficial challenge.

Iain Riley has worked at IB schools in Turkey and Egypt and has been in Shanghai since 2010. He has been a teacher for over 10 years and is currently Grade 5 Coordinator and Assistant Head and Head of Pastoral and Academic Tracking. He enjoys being a risk-taker and trying new things in the classroom. Iain is originally from Scotland and has found working around the world in different IB environments a challenge but rewarding.

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