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Promoting student agency through Individuals and Societies

By Ismat Sheriff, Natasha Haque, Stephan Mulder

As teachers, the best aspect of the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) is the opportunity for teachers to design their own units. In our Individuals and Societies teaching team we have debated, collaborated and developed a number of unique units which always brings a buzz and excitement to our work lives. What if our students could experience those same joys (as well as the frustrations) of designing their own units? What would that look like?

For the last three years, students at Dar es Salaam International Academy have been doing just that. Students explore the MYP framework and develop their own units. Initially this was designed as a way to introduce the MYP to the incoming students. After developing the unit, students pitch it to their class and vote on the topics they would like to learn about.

It was such a successful journey for our students that the unit was adopted across all years. Every September for the last three years students have planned their own Individuals and Societies units and there has been a marked improvement in the units they develop and pitch to their friends. Some students end the unit already reflecting on the unit idea they would like to develop the subsequent year!

The most effective lesson I learned by writing a unit plan is …

“The most effective lesson I learned by writing a unit plan is how to construct good inquiry questions”—Ifighenela

“I learned that teachers have a hard time making units and the conceptual understanding makes it easier to write the statement of inquiry.”—Hadee

“I learned how to structure words properly.”—Jewels

“I learned that it is not easy to make your own unit plan and takes a long time and effort.”—Beatrice

“This unit taught me more about the global and key concepts and my self-management skills.”—Kheirat

Promoting student agency and interdisciplinary links

Through this framework students get to inquire about areas of interest and it helps them to conceptually understand the different elements of the MYP particularly the key concepts, the global contexts, the statement of inquiry and writing developed factual, conceptual and debatable inquiry questions. For their summative assessment, students complete unit planners using the IB template. Thus, they create summative tasks and learning engagements that can potentially be taught.

Students appreciate the thorough planning process that teachers undergo in creating the units. They also understand the conceptual nature of the MYP allowing them to build interdisciplinary links much more easily when they identify that the same key concepts are explored in two different subjects—e.g. systems in both the Science and Individuals and Societies subjects—and then they develop their research and thinking skills by asking critical questions.

Promoting international mindedness

One of the lessons to kick-start the unit explores what topics are traditionally covered in Individuals and Societies and what other topics could be covered. Students explore and debate who decides what history or geography we learn in school and why; which perspectives dominate, and which are hidden. To promote critical thinking another lesson explores how different sources can bring out different perspectives on an issue. Students then realise that choices have to be made when designing curriculum. This unit gives them an opportunity to have a say and express what they think is important and why.

Objectives and assessment

Students were assessed through two summatives.

  • First, a writing task outlining students initial ideas which needed to include framework terminology: MYP Year 2 carried out a terminology quiz and MYP Years 3-5 answered questions that required application of their conceptual understanding. This enabled the students to assess Objective A: knowledge and understanding.
  • Second, creating an MYP unit plan on a topic of their choice. The process of drafting inquiry questions and a statement of inquiry, as well as learning engagements, enabled students to assess Objective B: Investigating.

By completing the unit plan and pitching it in an oral presentation to the class in a mock competition students assessed Objective C: Communication. And, finally, Objective D: Thinking Critically was assessed through the breadth and depth of inquiry questions and learning engagements in the unit plan.

“The hardest part of writing a unit plan was finding good inquiry questions.”—Emile

Grasping the MYP

When students are new to the MYP, this hands-on introduction to unit planning allows them to grasp the MYP concretely, especially when they make connections to the Primary Years Programme (PYP).

Making subsequent units easier to understand

It is also a great vehicle for teachers to introduce and build student engagement with the IB learner profile, ATL skills, concepts, and global contexts making subsequent units much easier to explain and grasp allowing for deeper understanding. For example, an inquiry into what it means to be open-minded may result in responses such as listening to others without judging, taking turns,

valuing the opinion of all members of the class. And the same inquiry in MYP Year 5 sparked a discussion on how being able to think in different languages allows one to be more open-minded.

Promotes student agency

The unit promotes student agency every step of the way—by prioritizing topics that students want to learn about, by requiring them to develop their own questions thus developing their thinking further on the topic, and by taking ownership to complete their unit plan and pitch it to their friends. This develops confidence year on year until, finally, students lead three classes on the topic selected by the class in MYP Year 4 and 5. This year MYP Year 4 chose to learn about Feminism in one stream and the Industrial Revolution in the other, and MYP Year 5 chose to learn about poaching.

And we have witnessed a development in the quality of units as individuals from more skeletal unit plans in year 1 to more detailed plans as they progress through the years. This year, students even created infographics as an #ArTech Integration to visually represent their units.

The hardest part of writing a unit plan is

“… to create a summative assessment.”—Alefiya

“… just the amount of thinking you have to do and you need good questions that link to your key concept, global context and related concepts.”—Niel

“The global context is an important aspect, it is an aspect that interconnects our units to the res of the world, it is also the connection between every unit and between every other subject.”—Steve


Ismat Sheriff, Natasha Haque and Stephan Mulder are IB educators at Dar es Salaam International Academy in Tanzania.

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