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The purpose of a central idea

Adam McGuigan4

Adam McGuigan, Hong Lok Yuen International School, Hong Kong

In this article you will find out what makes a good central idea.

EXTRACT FROM: The purpose of a central idea

For years I have heard many PYP teachers arguing about what makes a good central idea or that central ideas are often too broad or inaccessible for students (especially lower primary).

One thing that bugs me about central ideas is that it stifles any chance students have in making their own generalization about their inquiry. The teacher has already made the generalization for the students, so why should they even bother?!

Are we undoing all of the great thinking that students have by limiting to a teacher’s perspective?

Instead of spending time going through the motions of ‘unpacking’ the central idea, teachers ‘unpack’ the key concepts selected for the unit. Students do not have to try to understand a long, convoluted sentence. They just have to understand (the difference between) a key concept and a related concept.

Instead of using a key word or phrase for a line of inquiry, develop central ideas (or enduring understandings) for the lines of inquiry. These lines of inquiry are for teachers only. Use these stronger lines of inquiry to make stronger, conceptual teacher questions (using a ‘how’ or ‘why’ question). These are the questions to be displayed in the classroom and help guide students inquiry. They do have to be used wisely though.

Develop factual questions (what, when, who, where questions) to be the basis of your learning engagements, developed around the conceptual questions. Again, this develops stronger inquiries to scaffold student thinking. Using their knowledge developed from these factual questions, allow students to try to answer the conceptual questions in any form they wish. The factual questions allow teachers to feed in the content needed for the inquiry. An example can be seen here. Allowing the students to answer conceptual questions allows them to think deeper and allows the teacher to see if the student is reaching the conceptual level desired.

At the end of the unit, using the student’s conceptual understandings, allow them to produce a generalization summing up the unit. This will require some scaffolding through a thinking template or discussion. I have seen some success with this approach, which will only grow stronger as the students have more chances to make their generalizations.

The teachers shared their central idea at the end of the unit, prompting further debate with the students and the tweaking of understandings. Students were also given an opportunity to display their understandings of their own generalization in any form they chose (great summative task).

It may be time to see for ourselves who actually needs a central idea. Maybe the central idea is best kept on a planner.

Full article at Inquiring Minds.

Adam McGuigan is a PYP workshop leader and has taught in IB schools in Japan, Singapore and Germany. His passion lies in bringing forward different perspectives on inquiry-based education. You can follow him on Twitter @mcguiganedu.


9 Responses to The purpose of a central idea

  1. Kirsten 9 November 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    This reflects Lynn Erikson’s paradigm of an inductive approach to generalisations and increased emphasis on the use of concepts. I too have experienced too much wasted time over the ‘crafting’ of a central idea rather than focussing on what drives student learning

  2. Projestus Mutalemwa 10 November 2013 at 7:46 am #

    Thank you ADAM
    If i were to put my thinking in the mind of Ernst von Glasersfeld who defines radical constructivism by the following two basic principles:
    1. Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication, but is actively built up by the cognizing subject.
    2. The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the subject’s organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of an objective ontological reality.

    I would develop my argument beginning with this if contention;

    If constructivism comes in with the denial of existence of the objective reality then the focusing statements in the process of learning do not have any meaning. Moreover, the situational consensus, coherence, links and absolutism of facts in minor and remote contention in the learning aspect. One could argue however, that if the mind naturally wonders on both experiential and non experiential subjects of thoughts. We can then assume that the truth and reality is relative and by facts and experiences the learning is limited-thus a denial for central ideas displayed in the classrooms.

    In the other side of the argument, if the young mind is taken as the multitude of possibilities, the contradiction would be on the processing of knowledge. This would limit the extension and progression in discovery and wondering on what already exists. The enduring understandings make more meaning equally important as the central ideas if at all they roll on the learning rather than focusing it. if they flexibly extend the learning process without regulating it. if at all they create conceptual manipulations to search for satisfaction of wonders rather than creating bars to wonder on ontological reality or epistemological contradictions. They might be posted if they are catalysts of wondering elements or not if they are regulators of natural wonders.

  3. Naini Singh 19 June 2014 at 8:21 am #

    Your words echo exactly what has already been said here:

    I am surprised!

  4. Naini Singh 19 June 2014 at 8:23 am #

    Ah I see 🙂 It is your blog!

  5. Naini Singh 19 June 2014 at 8:36 am #

    I see it this way…

    Before students dabble with paint, try out different strokes, mix colours, make a mess (process of inquiry), don’t they have to start by simply observing the colours (waiting patiently in their bottles)? Before they start inquiring, they need to be exposed to something which can trigger inquiry. Before they can start looking into the lines of inquiry, or even better, make their own queries… they need to know the Benchmark or Learning Objectives or even the Big idea. (guided inquiry)Then as they slowly inquire, it suddenly… one fine day…makes sense!

  6. Bertha 11 March 2016 at 8:54 pm #

    Thank you Adam for sharing your ideas.
    Very timely for me, grateful.

  7. Paula 20 May 2017 at 1:54 am #

    I have used this approach, and was amazed how well even very young students were able to construct central ideas. Focusing on the concepts and developing enduring understandings through constructivism, students worked together to synthesize their understanding. A much deeper approach than the ‘usual’ PYP practice.

  8. Olga 25 October 2020 at 11:44 pm #

    Very interesting.
    Are there any studies comparing advance organizers to “regular organizers”?

  9. Olga 5 April 2021 at 5:37 pm #

    In research, the bottom-up approach attempts to develop theories based on facts.

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