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Transdisciplinary theme and the exhibition

Jane Alston 2

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

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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32 Responses to Transdisciplinary theme and the exhibition

  1. Vandana Parashar 30 June 2015 at 7:43 am #

    Thanks a lot for this post! I had heard about a similar ‘daring’ move from our last workshop leader (from Japan’s Seisen international school); however they were only planning to go for it and had not attempted it as yet. Since your school has successfully implemented it, my queries are as follows:

    1. When did the students choose their TD Theme? Right in the beginning of the year?

    2. Considering different themes being chosen for the Exhibition, how did you it reflect in your school’s POI? Or you didn’t mention it at all?

    3. Did you fill up a separate PYP planner for all the groups?

    4. Were the student groups chosen first or the TD theme? How did this ‘choosing the theme’ happen?

    I would be grateful if you can throw some more light on this process as it is very fascinating. If you have any website, blog or wiki specific to this exhibition, please share that too 🙂

  2. Jane Alston 1 July 2015 at 6:49 am #

    1 The Exhibition unit is unit 5 so the idea of extending these students started to grow at the end of their first unit of the year when they demonstrated a high level understanding of the components of a UOI and the inquiry cycle. The groups chose their TD theme at the start of the Exhibition unit once students had been grouped according to their areas of interest and mentors had been assigned – in other words within the first week.

    2 We are still discussing how this should be done. It should, of course, be mentioned but we seem to be leaning more towards making it clear in the planner. We use ManageBac which would most likely help facilitate the planner over the POI.

    3 We are using one planner for all groups with differentiation within the planner. ManageBac makes this easier.

    4 Issues were brainstormed first and students identified the issues that stimulated them as individuals, then the relationships between the big questions and the TDT were discussed and decided upon.

  3. Iain Riley 1 July 2015 at 8:28 am #

    Thank you Jane for answering the questions. I would like to add on some information.

    1) To add on to what Jane has said. The students chose their own once they had decided on their issue. The benefit was how the grade 5 introduced the previous 4 units. The students were given the issue. Then they had to decide which TD theme it came under using the TD descriptors. Once this was done the students created their own central ideas, lines of inquiry and chose the concepts. This really helped prepare them for the Exhibition.

    2) I agree with Jane. The easiest TD to take out was How We Express Ourselves. This can be covered and documented throughout the year and other units. We included elements of HWEO in all units. Students could however still chose HWEO as a TD theme for Exhibition.

    3) We used one planner on Managebac but will look at different ways of doing it next year. I am keen for students to complete their own planners. In a way they do but we would need to create a more child friendly (language) version of the planner.

    4) Everything Jane said. Each child chose their issue then a blind vote was held after certain finding out to put students into groups. Each student after reflection chose which group they wanted to be in. This allowed for ownership. We had groups from 2 students up to 5.

    We did make professional books for each group. We would be happy to share but sadly is to big to send by e-mail. I will consider setting up a blog to share with the IB Community.

  4. vandana parashar 1 July 2015 at 10:03 am #

    Thank you so much for taking out time to answer my queries. It really helped me visualize the excitement and ownership which the students must have exhibited. Brilliant job done!

  5. Shailja 1 July 2015 at 2:08 pm #

    Thank you Jane and Iain, just a month back only we decided to do the same for our next exhibition i.e 2016-17. So this blog has been really helpful and most of my questions have been answered too. However, it will be of great help if you set up a blog to share the professional books

  6. Pam Green 2 July 2015 at 6:02 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing about your exciting and daring 5th grade exhibition. My school has just been accepted as an IB Applicant school, and I am currently taking an on-line course “Making the PYP Happen in the Classroom” after attending “Intro to PYP” in March.

    To introduce the program to the parents and students, each teacher created their first unit of inquiry at the end of our school year (April – May). As you can imagine, it was an exciting yet challenging time, connecting all the dots with limited training.

    My administrators are very keen on having my new group of 5th graders (starting in Sept.) complete an exhibition unit. I feel that they (& I) may need more experience with the program before this happens.

    I am planning on taking the PYP course on Exhibition Units as soon as possible, but I was under the assumption that the exhibition unit was all-student created, including choosing the theme and projects. According to your article, students with 6 years of PYP experience were the first to be fully in charge of their exhibition unit.

    Perhaps, my students will be able to have an exhibition with guidance and direction from me. What are your thoughts, experiences, and recommendations for new-to-PYP students and an exhibition unit?

    Thank you so much for your feedback.

  7. Iain Riley 3 July 2015 at 7:57 am #

    Hi Pam

    Exhibition is a hard unit as the students need to know the five essential elements through and through. One thing that may help you is Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle. I you google it, it is is the colourful inquiry cycle with questions to prompt the children. This has made a huge difference in our school.

    From my experience in a number of IB schools, the TD theme is chosen by the teachers. The students then chose their issue. It depends where your school is in the IB journey. In previous years we have used the TD theme of How We Express Ourselves and also given them a geric central idea to promote thinking. This was ‘creative expression can affect the way people think and act’. The students then created from their issues their own central ideas, lines of inquiry and concepts. This seems to be the norm in the school I have visited to view the Exhibition – the teachers give them the TD theme. The most common TD themes for an Exhibition are Sharing the Planet and How the World Works.

    With this being your first year (and your schools), I would take it slowly. It is diifficult enough for teachers to understand the PYP and the five essential elements. This year I would set the TD theme for the Exhibition and review your POI on a annual basis. You will know when the kids are ready to take the next steps. Language also plays a big part of the decision. Our school has a large number of nationalities so language can be a huge issue. Where is your school based? I would be happy to share my e-mail address and give you more advice if needed,

    Hope this helps

  8. Brian Lalor 4 July 2015 at 2:49 am #

    Hi Pam,

    You do not have to do the exhibition until a full year after your school has been authorised by the IB. If you look at your action plan you will see this in the section related to the exhibition. It is massive and like Ian said the students really need that prior knowledge to succeed.

    Ian & Jane,

    I am starting a new role as PYPC in August and am very interested in your work. If I am in Shanghai, could I come to visit you and learn more? If the timing worked for you of course.

    Brian (Xi’an Hi-Tech International School)

  9. Pam Green 4 July 2015 at 3:58 am #

    Thank you Iain and Brian for your helpful answers. I am hoping that I can convince my admins to allow time for the students to gain knowledge and a strong understanding of the IB program to ensure a successful exhibition…

  10. Iain Riley 4 July 2015 at 9:52 pm #


    Thank you for your comment. I would like to wish you all the best next year as PYPC next year. A great challenge ahead. I (and I know Jane would be happy to share more information with you. Please stay in touch via my e-mail


  11. Iain Riley 4 July 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    Hi Pam

    Good luck next year and as IB educators, we are always free to offer advice and support each other. Please see my e-mail above.


  12. Sue Tyldesley 5 July 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    We’ve always done our exhibition this way with great success. It gives ownership to the students and makes sure that they drive the exhibition , not the teacher , and surely that’s the whole point?

  13. Iain Riley 5 July 2015 at 6:00 pm #

    Hi Sue

    I agree. How do you record this on the IB planner if you are not covering all six TD themes with all students? Each group picked their own TD theme. It was not generic across the board. Can you please explain how you did this.


  14. Yuniarti Santosa 6 July 2015 at 7:23 am #

    Hi Jane and Ian,

    Thank you for sharing this. I have been a mentor for PYP exhibition at least 4 times. I have experienced the exhibitions which were organized differently (with one transdiciplinary theme and with different transdiciplinary themes).

    The PY 5 teacher (this is the end of PYP in our school) started preparing for exhibition at least 3 months before. At my current school, we usually have the exhibition in May and the preparation has started in February. However, students are always encouraged to connect learning to PYP exhibition since the beginning of academic year. The teacher discussed and shared the timelines with the kids. She let the kids think and choose a topic that they are interested in. Once they came up with the topic, she put them in to groups which similar topic and let them brainstorm. A group of 2-3 student would then decide which transdiciplinary theme best described their topic. They had to find the connection to the aspects of the TD theme. The students continued brainstorming and connected the topic to the concepts, transdiciplinary skills, attitudes and LP attributes, basically this process is similar to how we as teachers develop a unit of inquiry. Students then came up with a central idea and lines of inquiry that would guide them to inquire. The process is then completed by ACTION which is a part of the 5 essential elements and the most important part of the PYP exhibition.

    One thing that I think we teachers should always remember that PYP exhibition is not an instant product which means their understanding of how the 5 essential elements work and how the unit is done should be developed since the beginning of PYP. This concept and knowledge would be introduced and develop throughout PYP. By the time they are doing the exhibition, they know how to apply the knowledge and skills to take action.

    It’s always a great experience for students, teachers and parents as well. It’s basically the whole school community.


  15. Iain Riley 6 July 2015 at 1:00 pm #


    Thank you for your detailed post. I totally agree with everything that you have said. The PYP is a journey that begins in PR in many cases and runs to either Grade 5 or 6. The Exhibition is not a stand-alone unit and brings together everything they have been inquiring into and the five essential elements over those years.

    Thanks for making it clearer than I did.


  16. Yuniarti Santosa 7 July 2015 at 8:13 am #

    Thank you, Ian.

    I also like the idea of letting the students using the unit planner to plan and record the exhibition. Great sharing!


  17. Iain Riley 8 July 2015 at 2:16 pm #


    Thanks. I totally agree. I feel that if we teach the students the five essential elements from PR onwards and also introduce the planner to the students in a simplified form at the end or middle of grade 4, this will give them the skills required to complete a full IB planner. If you use Managebac, the teachers should complete a main planner and then the student planners could be attached to the main planner for evidence purposes. The PYP Exhibtion books that we made per group also worked very well for evidence but also summative assessment comments.


  18. Yuniarti Santosa 9 July 2015 at 7:50 am #

    Hi Ian,

    Thank you for clarifying how the planner is used in the PYP exhibition. Students are given a PYP exhibition handbook which contains the rules, agreements, how to cite (academic honesty), etc. They are also provided with a booklet that can be used to record their thoughts and journey throughout the exhibition. Students use the booklet to record the 5 essential elements, mentor meetings, reflection,etc. The parents get a PYP exhibition handbook so that they can be better support their kids throughout the exhibition process. Our school is not using Manage Bac. We are using atlas mapping curriculum and I think we should be able to attach the student’s planner under the exhibition planner.

    What the PY 5 teacher has done in order to prepare students for exhibition is to encourage students to use/connect to the 5 essential elements in any learning experiences they do. I remembered when my class (PY 1- 2) and PY 5 students did a collaboration activity. The PY 5 students taught my class about what a poem is. The teacher asked them to plan an activity. As they planned, they connected to the concepts, skills and action. This ‘mini’ lesson somehow has helped students to practice and develop understanding of how the unit works. I know that the PY 5 students have done a few ‘mini lessons’ to other classes last academic year.

    The other thing that we should emphasize more is the involvement of specialist teachers. Giving opportunity to students to decide which transdiciplinary theme they would like to focus on is a good step for both students and teachers in exhibition process. Specialist teachers (PE, Music, Art, First/Second Language, etc.) are encouraged to be engaged throughout the process. For example: Students who choose ‘Who we are’ may want to see the issue from the individual’s well-being point of view. This means PSPE teacher should be actively involved in supporting the group. Students who choose ‘How the world works’ may want to collaborate with the MYP science teacher to have a deeper understanding of the concepts and knowledge of the issue.

    ‘Sharing the planet’ and ‘how we express ourselves’ seem to be commons themes that students would most likely choose. I wonder how you somehow ‘guide and steer’ students in broadening their thinking when they start scratching their ideas and list down the issues that they are interested in.


  19. Iain Riley 9 July 2015 at 1:20 pm #


    Thank you for your additional information in your new post.

    I totally agree with everything that you say. In Grade 5, we prepare the students from unit 1 – making sure that they truly understand the TD themes, how to write central ideas, lines of inquiry, concepts and also the action components. However, this is not just started in Grade 5 but in PR. It is a journey and Grade 5 Exhibition is the culmination of the learning from previous years and Grade 5.

    We try and get our whole school community involved with great success. Each group this year had one western and one Chinese mentor plus their homeroom teachers. In the future, I would like to see our single-subject teachers more involved in this process – this is our goal for next year. In addition, we would like to look more in-depth at the student planners and the Exhibition.

    Thanks for sharing.


  20. Yuniarti Santosa 9 July 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Thanks for the additional information, Ian! I totally agree with you. Perhaps our schools can share their exhibitions process and results (using skype, etc.) next time.


  21. Iain Riley 9 July 2015 at 2:52 pm #


    I think that would be very beneficial. My friend was leading the Exhibition workshop in New Zealand last night and I did a 30 minute question and answer session over Skype to explain the process. It was very beneficial to all concerned.


  22. Yuniarti Santosa 9 July 2015 at 3:16 pm #

    Hi Ian,

    Sounds awesome! I am thinking of connecting our students when doing the exhibition. Last year, we had a chance to see other PYP schools exhibition on Skype. It was a great experience for our students to see how exhibition is conducted in other schools.


  23. Louisa Gerlach 11 July 2015 at 12:35 am #

    Hi Pam,

    One book that really helped me with the Inquiry Cycle is called “Classroom Connections: Strategies for Integrated Learning.” Kath goes over the inquiry cycle and gives detailed strategies/ pictures of different activities at each phase. When I first started out, it really helped to decrease the stress and guided my thinking.



  24. Iain Riley 11 July 2015 at 6:11 pm #

    Hi Yuni

    It is always good to see how other schools deal with the Exhibition. I have visited many schools and it is so interesting to see the different approaches that they take and how far the school is with the PYP. Collaboration and sharing is the key to success. .


  25. Sanjana 12 July 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    Hi Jane & Iain,

    Thank you for sharing an interesting post on PYP exhibition. It’s indeed courageous to give the students a choice to select a TDT for the exhibition. But I am sure that must have required humongous collaboration & planning. I really liked the idea of how students mapped their topics with the TDT and came up with the CI & LOI of the previous 4 units.
    I am curious to know the following;

    1. How old is the school offering PYP framework?
    2. How many sections are there in Grade 5?
    3. As Jane mentioned that Exhibition unit was the 5th unit. Which TDT was the 6th unit? I was under the impression that the Exhibition unit has to be the last unit.

    I have been appointed as PYP coordinator this June. Eager to learn from experienced IB educators. If you could please consider sharing the resources through your personal blog.

    Amazing sharing!


  26. Pam Green 12 July 2015 at 7:36 pm #

    Thank you for the recommendation, Lu. I will look into purchasing that book. Many thanks!

  27. Iain Riley 12 July 2015 at 7:57 pm #

    Hi Sanjana

    Thank you for your comment on the post. Please find below the answers to your questions.

    1) Our school has been accredited fully for the IB programme since January 2010.

    2) In terms of classes in Grade 5, this year we have 3 PYP classes with around 22 in each class (generally) and next year we will have 4 PYP classes.

    3) Unit 6 is under the TD theme of ‘Who we Are’. We look at physical, emotional and intellecutal change perparing them for Grade 6. Most of the schools within our region tend to do the Exhibition for Unit 5.This allows for a deeper reflection and allows students and teachers to record their action and for students to make sure it continues. Most schools also tend to extend the Exhibition from 6 weeks to 7 or even 8 as this allows for deeper inquiry and a better understanding of the 5 essential elements and the inquiry process. The Exhibition Guidelines do not state that the Exhibition has to be the last unit.

    In terms of planing and collaboration, it did not take a great deal of extra work as we had already prepared students from Unit 1 (if not from previous years). Having a strong mentoring system really helped and took a great deal of pressure of the Grade 5 team. My advice to you would be, make sure that you prepare the students well from Unit 1 (if not previous years), are your teachers secure enough with their own knowledge of the PYP to let go and let the students guide their own learning and finally, establish a school wide mentoring system including single subjects and leadership to allow pure collaboration.

    I hope this helps. If you have any questions, please get back to me.


  28. Iain Riley 12 July 2015 at 8:12 pm #

    Hi All

    Can I also suggest that you take a look at Kath Murdoch’s inquiry cycle – you can goodgle this. In many places it is also called Kath Murdoch’s Big 6. There are two different versions one designed for upper primary and one for lower primary. They are both complex however. I would suggest that if you work in an international school that you look closely at the lower primary inquiry cycle as many of the language learners may not be ablet o access the more advanced one.

    Hope this helps.


  29. Kate 30 July 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    We will be doing our exhibition the same way this year with the kids choosing the TD theme. This is a new way for us too so I will keep you posted as we get into it. We created an inquiry planner for each student to use and manage. It was something we adapted after having Kath Murdoch come to our school for some professional development.


  30. Marianna Hakobyan 27 November 2015 at 8:02 pm #

    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience. Actually, it’s very precious to give children freedom of choice. This is the 4th time we are going to have Exhibition this year in our school. We’ve had an experience so far in the scope of one of the transdisciplinary themes when learners were choosing the directions they were interested in on their own. But the transdisciplinary theme is always defined instead of them. I have been wondering so far:

    1.if we can choose any of the 6 themes, or there is a restriction
    2.if it is really appropriate to have such kind of a work with the 4th graders’ age group

  31. Rebecca 27 January 2016 at 7:07 am #

    Thank you for sharing. This gives me a lot to think about. I am particularly interested in the book which was created showing the inquiry process. Would you be willing to share this?

  32. Colleen Anning 9 June 2017 at 3:33 pm #

    Hi, I was hoping you could clarify what to do with the POI for the year. Obviously if the students are all under a different TTheme then what should be reflected in the POI. Doesn’t it matter that some students won’t cover all of the themes over the year and could double up on one theme? What IB document explains all this, as I can’t find that in the exhibition guidelines.

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