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Let’s build ownership through building a city

In this article you will read about how Primary Years Programme (PYP) students demonstrated choice, voice and ownership through making connections between two transdisciplinary themes. When ownership is given to learners, the results are endless and the learning is fun—that is what they discovered.

Our grade 1 students were inquiring into the transdisciplinary theme “where we are in place and time” with the central idea of “A city has many systems operating to support the people living in it”. During discussions, we reflected on designing an assessment task that would promote student agency. What ideas would best facilitate student understanding of their own city? Would we give ownership to the students to investigate their city at a deeper level?

We decided to take our reflections back to the students. As a class, we began with ideas involving tabletop clay models to show the services available to citizens in Mumbai. After exploring three lines of inquiry into their city (addressing characteristics, systems and responsibility), the students came up with the idea to build their own city in the classroom.

Initially, we felt that the task seemed difficult and over-ambitious, but through student enthusiasm and flowing ideas, we all started to freely visualize a model of Mumbai in our class. We introduced Google Earth to the students. The students quickly acted upon this and wanted to trace the land, learn about the seas and navigational points. The students gathered loose parts for modeling and collaborated together to lay the foundations to their project.

Google Earth enabled them to see that Mumbai is an island city, surrounded by the Arabian Sea. They located their city on a large-sized world map flowing in concentric circles to finally pin-point Mumbai. The students then decided that there was a need for a transport system. They focused on the two main roads of Mumbai, the eastern and western express highways. They formed the roads and were proactive with bringing in their own toys from home to congest the highways, as they wanted to represent their own experiences of traveling. They decided to add trees, as they wanted some greenery in this concrete city.

Students then reflected upon on our previous unit under the transdisciplinary theme “where we are in place and time” with the central idea of “Homes can be influenced by a variety of factors” and made the connection with Mumbai being densely populated and having a scarcity of space. They came up with many names for Mumbai: the city of dreams, the 7 island city, Bollywood city, concrete city, the city of cities and the financial capital of India, to name a few. Again using maps and Google Earth, the students determined the characteristics of Mumbai: beaches, train stations, tourist attractions, historical monuments, airport—their ideas were endless! Some students persuaded their parents to take them on a tour of Mumbai and send photographs back to class, enhancing the inquiry.

Finally, the grand city was completed. The learners collaborated with ease, they referenced research materials and conducted in-depth inquiries into banking, retail and transport systems. They took full ownership of their learning with enthusiasm and showcased their knowledge and understanding to the entire Primary Division. As teachers, we had to let go and go with the flow of their choices to become facilitators so that we could “see” their voice through the model city!

We were fully aware that this unit of inquiry would have not been so successful, had we not provided opportunities for student voice, choice and ownership. As Bruner (1977) and Vygotsky (1978) advocate, students need scaffolding from their supporting adults within their environment idem. We never thought it would be possible to hear about such intricate ideas from our students. They clearly proved us wrong! Learning clearly needs to be in the hands of the learner and we must become facilitators, not teachers.


Bruner, J. S. 1977. The Process of Education. London: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. London: Harvard University Press.

Shibani Banerji is a homeroom teacher for grade 1 at Singapore International School, Mumbai, India. Shibani has taught in schools in India and South Africa. She joined Singapore International School 5 years ago and is passionate about the early years. She is a Montessori practitioner and thrives on giving ownership of learning to children by allowing them to engage in hands-on activities. You can follow her on Twitter @chloebanerji.

Chantell Nawrocki is also a homeroom teacher for grade 1 at Singapore International School, Mumbai, India. Chantell has taught in schools in India and the United Kingdom. She joined Singapore International School this year. Her passions are to develop reading behaviours in young children. Although she is new to the PYP, her love for inquiry-based learning has encouraged her to quickly imbibe effective teaching and learning practices. You can follow her on Twitter @chantellnawroc1.


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