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Revising central ideas: Adopting a transdisciplinary perspective

Sara Croucher, the PYP Coordinator at Dwight School Seoul in South Korea

Sara Croucher, the PYP Coordinator at Dwight School Seoul in South Korea

The author of this article shows how a central idea was rewritten to become more transdisciplinary in nature.

Who plans the units of inquiry? Is it homeroom teachers writing central ideas from a homeroom perspective? Is it a PYP coordinator with an overview of the whole programme of inquiry? Is it a collaborative group of teachers from different disciplines? As we reflected on our collaborative planning process, we realized that homeroom teachers, with guidance from the PYP coordinator, were writing the units with their own subject disciplines in mind. So we decided to make a conscious effort to rewrite the central idea from a transdisciplinary perspective.

Our grade 1 unit of inquiry, How we express ourselves, about poetry as a means of creative expression, proved engaging and challenging. Students loved reading and writing poems and benefitted from the integration of Korean spelling patterns and poetry. The librarian supported the students’ inquiries with poetry books. But other than students developing conceptual understanding and knowledge and skills in languages, this unit of inquiry was clearly not transdisciplinary. So we asked ourselves, “What is the concept at the heart of poetry that could be better understood by exploring it through other disciplines?”

As the group of subject specialist teachers reflected on this unit, each shared ideas about how a student’s understanding of poetry might be enhanced or expressed in the different subjects, and we concluded that patterns should be the focus. Our revised central idea states: “We appreciate both the patterns that occur in the natural world and the ones that we create”. Looking through the subject scope and sequence documents, we identified several conceptual understandings and learning outcomes to be developed within this unit of inquiry. We selected some Approaches to Learning skills that would help the students work through their inquiries: observation, analysis, and communication skills. All PYP subjects now support the students in developing and communicating their understanding of the central idea.

Students analyze stories and decide if they follow patterns and then identify and evaluate created patterns in poetry. They write poetry and use rhyme and patterns to spell new words. By reciting poems, students further develop listening and speaking skills. iPads enable the students to apply viewing and presenting skills while communicating what they know and understand in a format including visual images, text, drawings and voice recordings.

Students with advanced reading and writing skills inquire into the use of onomatopoeia and mimetic words in Korean poetry, while beginners explored Korean words with similar and differing patterns to help develop their vocabulary and learn spelling and pronunciation patterns.

Mathematics (Pattern and Function, Shape and Space)
Students investigate number, shape and color patterns to establish how patterns can increase, decrease or repeat. They inquire into the rules for patterns in mathematics to better understand how patterns occur in everyday situations and can repeat and grow.

Science (Living Things)
Students investigate Fibonacci’s Sequence in nature, and they identify other naturally occurring patterns (spiral, packing, meander, branching and explosion). This helps them develop their observational skills and deepen their appreciation for living things and the environment.

Social Studies (Social Organization and Culture)
Students inquire into how patterned cloths represent a group’s cultural identity.

Personal and Social Education (Identity)
Students create cultural cloths to represent individual identity and they compare cloths to notice commonalities within the class.

Physical Education (Games)
Students identify, create and apply various attacking and defending patterns in invasion games to further develop their understanding that using critical thinking and working together can help a group achieve its goal.

Visual Art
Focusing on pattern, variety and emphasis, students respond to the artworks of Henri Matisse, Romero Britto and Gustav Klimt. They investigate patterns found in nature (spiral, packing, meander, branching and explosion) and use these to create artworks of their own.

Students create rhythmic and melodic patterns using voice and percussion instruments. They present to classmates and respond by keeping the beat to demonstrate their understanding that a relationship is developed between the artist and the audience.

The PYP teachers who planned and reflected on this unit of inquiry were pleased with the students’ ability to understand the central idea. Assessments revealed that students spoke about patterns across disciplines; something they found on a nature walk in a park became inspiration for an artwork, a melodic pattern created in music was spontaneously sung in homeroom and had lyrics added in both English and Korean, and a mathematical pattern was used as a plan for a story about how numbers can grow and change. The Approaches to Learning skills we had planned for: observing, analysis, and communication skills, were developed in a truly transdisciplinary context, helping students and teachers alike to recognize their long-term and immediate value. The collaboration worked better in some subjects than it did others. Inquiries in beginner Korean and in Personal and Social Education did not particularly enhance students’ understanding of the central idea; these somewhat thematic links are being re-thought by the teachers. Inquiries in Science, Music, Mathematics and Visual Art were stronger and will be planned for again next year.

Sara has been working in IB school for more than fourteen years. She is a PYP workshop leader and is currently working as the PYP Coordinator at Dwight School Seoul in South Korea.

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50 Responses to Revising central ideas: Adopting a transdisciplinary perspective

  1. Daniela Kemeny 16 June 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    Excellent example of a transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning, this article will be a great resource to share with our staff. Thanks!

  2. Brian Lalor 17 June 2015 at 8:03 am #

    Sara, this is a very interesting post. It has really given me a deeper understanding of the possibilities of the transdisciplinary nature of the program. Thank you for Sharing the PYP!

  3. Clare Hubbard 18 June 2015 at 10:37 am #

    Thank you for this very topical article, Sara. It’s great to read about the very collaborative approach to the planning process but also the reflections that take place as you and your team seek to develop true transdisciplinary teaching and learning. Great to hear from you again! Hi from New Zealand!

  4. Vandana Parashar 23 June 2015 at 2:10 pm #

    Fantastic post, Sara! This is truly transdisciplinary and something to share with our teaching community. It’s so inspiring as well as practical that we are also re looking at some of our central ideas this year! Thanks for sharing this.

    One question: did you reword just one central idea or more than one? How much time and effort did it take to come up with the modified CI?

  5. Ma. Fernanda 29 June 2015 at 8:40 pm #

    Sara, thank you very much for your post. It is a clear example of the process PYP staff must go through. We are in our first year of trial implementation as a candidate school , just developing the POI for the first time. It is great work done by all teachers but it is first move. By the end of this year we must review C.I.s and your example is very clear to reflect on and take the second step. Warm regards from Uruguay.

  6. Louise knight 1 July 2015 at 9:23 am #

    This central idea and unit look thematic to me. The central idea lacks a powerful concept. ‘Our appreciation’ is entirely subjective, there is no ‘big idea’. Pattern takes different forms in the different disciplines – it is a linking theme – what is the real new understanding that the children acquire?

  7. PYP development team 6 July 2015 at 4:45 pm #

    You raise an interesting point, Louise. What do you mean by ‘linking theme’ and what can you suggest that might make the central idea become a ‘powerful concept’ or big idea?

  8. Louise knight 6 July 2015 at 11:18 pm #

    ‘Pattern’ is a thing that exists/appears in different forms in different contexts/disciplines – an appreciation of this (We appreciate both the patterns that occur in the natural world and the ones that we create) doesn’t really lead us anywhere. An example of a central idea that has an understanding of pattern at its heart might be ‘People use pattern to find solutions to problems and to express ideas.’ This would enable all the disciplines to explore pattern, the form it takes how it is used etc within their own contexts. For me the solutions to problems part is the science, maths, history, geography areas and the expressing ideas is the art, music, poetry etc. Neither the original CI nor my example represent a clear poetry focus though. It might be a personal thing but I prefer to see poetry and other language forms used as tools rather than forming the learning focus. I think it is more authentic to use them in that way. For example I had a unit ‘Access to opportunities affects equality’ in Sharing the Planet. I used poetry in this unit to explore equality issues – there are plenty of poets writing about such issues – and the children learned about types and styles of poetry (cinquain, sonnet, etc etc) and myriad of poetic devices, including the different forms of patterns (rhymes, verse, syllables etc) – we focused on Benjamin Zephaniah as a poet who uses poetry to express his views in an entertaining way – the children learned some poems by heart for recitation and they wrote sonnets on their choice of equality issue. The unit culminated in a poetry cafe. The poetry really helped the children to understand the central idea.

    I think the key is to take care not to let the framework and the terminology become the drivers – What we actually want the children to understand, know and do must determine the learning and the PYP framework is a great tool to help us facilitate that learning in the most effective way. The central idea must contain powerful concepts from the disciplines in order to give direction. Sometimes the central idea can be slightly modified to make it specifically music or visual art etc while the main concept remains the same. That is another post though. Its now bedtime.

  9. Michaela 13 July 2015 at 4:38 am #

    I can connect to how they weaved the notion of ‘pattern’ into various subject areas. It reminded me how this approach enables students to gain a broader understanding of a concept when applied multiple disciplines. It encourages flexibility in their thinking, and can lead to a deeper/more complex understanding of the concept in focus. Inspiring.

  10. Sanjay 14 July 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    A wonderful example of how the CI can lead to such authentic conceptual integration.


  11. Sara 10 August 2015 at 8:43 am #

    Hi Vandana!

    Once realized we wanted to explore ways that single subjects could contribute to students’ understanding of the central idea, we reworded many CIs. It took us one collaborative meeting (approximately 50 minutes) with single-subject and homeroom teachers to reword this central idea. In other UoIs, it has taken longer and sometimes the central idea’s wording becomes clear only after students have explored the UoI and given us their feedback on what they think their big understanding is. As with everything, it’s a process, and we are still reflecting and improving.

  12. Sara 12 August 2015 at 2:31 am #

    Hi Louise,
    Thanks for your comments and suggestions. We are certainly reflecting on the collaboration of the various subjects to ensure they are not thematic but that we are supporting conceptual understanding and the exploration of significant and relevant ideas. I will definitely share your suggested CI with the Grade 1 team as we plan for this year’s inquiries. Thanks again!

  13. Sara 12 August 2015 at 2:34 am #

    Hi Claire! Good to see you online. I hope you are well. Our teams continue to reflect on whether we are developing thematic units of inquiry or using subjects to help students explore and understand conceptual CIs. The collaborative discussions (in school and here on the blog) continue to help us refine our approach. Take care in New Zealand!

  14. Kirti 6 November 2015 at 9:00 pm #

    Very informing post! Got a deeper understanding of transdisciplinary approach. Thanks for sharing .

  15. Estela Proano 28 May 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    Thank you Sara for sharing this wonderful experience with us. We wanted to ask how much time (approximately) it took the whole team to plan this unit? How much time do homeroom teachers have with students in the week? How much time with ‘specials’ teachers?
    Thank you so much for all your help.

  16. Divya 20 May 2019 at 12:38 pm #

    Hi Sara,

    I a glad to read this post as it gave me immense knowledge of how an inquiry has to be dealt by means of different subjects like mathematics,social studies science etc,.dealing a single inquiry in different ways makes children to think out of the box and come up with new ideas and how it has to be explored more by means of their experiments.


  17. Nenad Ancic 1 July 2019 at 8:28 pm #

    Being a music teacher myself, I couldn’t agree more. After many years of collaboration and planning with PYP Coordinator and teachers, we all discovered and agreed that planning actually starts from the end, looking at what we want our students to present for a summative assessment. In that sense, the central idea becomes much clearer and more focused on conceptual learning rather than simply factual learning or gathering of information. We basically think the same.

  18. Aline Maximo Bezerra 5 July 2019 at 12:58 am #

    Thank you for sharing this post, It is one of the most didactical explanations to how the transdisciplinary learning should work.

  19. Ollie 26 August 2020 at 2:40 pm #

    This is incredibly useful, thank you so much.

  20. Laryce 16 October 2020 at 1:35 am #

    Hi Sara,
    I loved that you talk about what the concept is at the heart of poetry and its relevance to language.

  21. Linda McClure 19 October 2020 at 3:24 pm #

    This is similar to how our units are developed. The team comes together for planning and collaboration. In my department, we look at the central idea, Lines of Inquiry, Key Concepts, Related Concepts, Learner Profile, Subject Area State Standards, and the State Standards for Gifted Education.

  22. Linda McClure 19 October 2020 at 3:59 pm #

    This organizational format was very helpful for clear and concise understanding of what you are doing. Thank you!

  23. Linda McClure 19 October 2020 at 4:02 pm #

    I am fortunate that in my position as a Gifted Education Resource teacher I am able to create transdisciplinary units for my students that go along with the units being presented in the their other classes.

  24. Katie Bible 31 October 2020 at 1:50 am #

    I love how you broke down and gave examples of transdisciplinary learning in each subject. I think it is so important to take a central idea and add in the UOI. My school is new to IB and it is nice to have other teachers perspectives of integrating IB into the classroom.

  25. Heba Karima 12 December 2020 at 11:54 pm #

    I liked the way you presented the transdisciplinary approach to learning and teaching, it’s informative and incredibly engaging. My thanks and appreciation .

  26. Seema Dabas 14 February 2021 at 11:07 am #

    Seema Dabas

    Hello Sara,

    This was a wonderful example city for transdsciplinary learning. After reading this piece of information , I could very well understand how patter was weaved and and integration was done to explore and foster the thinking out of the box. Great Job

  27. Candice 15 February 2021 at 8:50 am #

    I like how you teach them a variety of subjects as well as the theme.

  28. Olga 11 March 2021 at 2:05 am #

    Great planning to share and implement with my ESL team. A great opportunity for English language learners to learn English in a more proactive way.

  29. HARISH K SHARMA 16 May 2021 at 8:57 am #

    Worth Sharing Sara… The way you integrate all the subjects is truly amazing and easily understandable .

  30. Pooja 22 May 2021 at 3:04 pm #

    Wonderful Sara,
    The way you shown an integration of all the subjects and focussed on the enhancement of particular skills of the learners is commendable.

  31. shweta 12 August 2021 at 11:02 am #

    Hi Sara,

    I a glad to read this post as it gave me immense knowledge of how an inquiry has to be dealt with by means of different subjects like mathematics, social studies science, etc,.dealing a single inquiry in different ways makes children think out of the box and come up with new ideas and how it has to be explored more by means of their experiments.


  32. Shweta 15 August 2021 at 4:37 pm #

    Hello Sara,

    This was a wonderful example city for transdisciplinary learning. After reading this piece of information, I could very well understand how the pattern was weaved and integration was done to explore and foster the thinking out of the box. Great Job!

  33. Shweta 15 August 2021 at 8:22 pm #

    I liked the way you presented the transdisciplinary approach to learning and teaching, It’s informative and incredibly engaging. My thanks and appreciation.

  34. Sanya Madaan 16 August 2021 at 3:32 pm #

    Wonderful work
    That was really detailed and would definitely help us to integrate at such level.
    Gave a really good example.

  35. Sandra Attoh 17 August 2021 at 5:54 am #

    HI Sara, thanks for sharing, have gotten deeper understanding on the transdisciplinary nature. Good job!!

  36. Rabia Imran 12 October 2021 at 4:32 pm #

    Thank Sara , an inspiring essay . It is of great help . I was mentoring a group of young IB learners for their PYP exhibition, in which we were to create effective central ideas to lead our inquiry .I would keep in mind these details to help them in future .

  37. Gillian Guilhermino 17 October 2021 at 5:05 pm #

    Hi Sara,
    I’m in my second month of PYP teaching and your article gives me a better understanding of Transdisciplinary learning.
    I value your article very much and will refer to it as I develop myself as a a PYP teacher.
    Thank you

  38. Gillian Guilhermino 17 October 2021 at 5:09 pm #

    Hi Seema,

    I’m very new to PYP and this article does give me a good idea and example to follow moving forward as a PYP teacher.

  39. Gillian Guilhermino 17 October 2021 at 5:18 pm #

    Hi Shweta,

    I also like the revised Central Idea and I agree with you how the the inquiry is utilized in different subjects to extend the students learning to make it their own.
    A great example for me as a new PYP teacher.


  40. Amira Ismail 15 January 2022 at 8:59 am #

    Sara, Thank you for the post, it was extremely beneficial as it deepened my understanding of how to foster the transdisciplinary perspective and implement the central idea in a way that operated in all subject matters, with a very smooth yet coherent approach. Sometimes I feel that some subjects are challenging to incorporate, but the post inspired me to the fact that all concepts can be tailored and implemented to all subjects. I just wonder what do you do if you are challenged to integrate a certain central idea into some subjects.

  41. Begoña 9 February 2022 at 5:29 pm #

    Thanks so much for this article, it was very informative. Is great to see the collaboration between all different subjects areas to ensure students work

  42. Begoña 9 February 2022 at 5:48 pm #

    Hy Sarah , thanks so much for the very informative post. It is good to see the collaboration in between different subject to help students work

  43. Sandra Paris 13 February 2022 at 9:35 pm #

    Thank you Sara for sharing transdisciplinary perspective. The information you shared is very informative. I have a better understanding on picking a transdisciplinary theme and central idea. The way you gave example for each subject will be very helpful for my team. Thank again for sharing.

  44. lina 12 March 2022 at 2:13 pm #

    Hi sara, wonderful way of expressing the transdisciplinary nature.

    Thanks for sharing!

  45. Jennifer Beckwtih 15 May 2022 at 6:54 am #

    Thank you Sara for this post and information. Being brand new to the PYP curriculum, it helped my understandings as to how the Central Idea, Key concept and related concepts align and organize.
    I appreciate your expertise and insight.

  46. Nisha 15 May 2022 at 9:54 am #

    Hi Sara,

    A wonderful and detailed way of expressing transdiciplinary nature

  47. Richy Rondal 16 December 2022 at 9:51 pm #


    Excellent perspective of transdisciplinary teaching. It helps my understanding. Thank you for sharing Sara.

  48. omnia 15 January 2023 at 11:54 am #

    thank you Sara, the link between the subjects was really effective and expresses the use of transdisciplinary.It really helped me move forward to start work .

  49. Omnia 15 January 2023 at 1:24 pm #

    Sara, Thank you for the post, it was extremely beneficial as it deepened my understanding of how to foster the transdisciplinary perspective and implement the central idea in a way that operated in all subject matters

  50. Brittany Beasley 17 January 2023 at 4:45 pm #

    Excellent breakdown and explanation of transdisciplinary teaching. Transdisciplinary teaching can take some getting used to especially when you are coming from a traditional school setting. Thank you for sharing!

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