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The Blank Planner Project – Collaborative planning on technology unit

Trevor Lindsay, grade 5 teacher, Riverstone International School, USA

Trevor Lindsay, grade 5 teacher, Riverstone International School, USA

Stacey Walker, grade 5 teacher, Riverstone International School, USA

Stacey Walker, grade 5 teacher, Riverstone International School, USA

Imagine beginning day one of a unit of inquiry with nothing but a blank planner. Learn how two grade 5 teachers pushed the limits of inquiry-based design by planning, communicating and implementing a completely student-developed unit of inquiry event with collaborative input from parents, students and administration.

For our third unit of inquiry How we express ourselves, we wanted to push the limits of inquiry-based design: develop a truly student-created unit with input from parents, teachers and administrators. After working diligently to gain endorsement from all community stakeholders (students, parents, administrators and specialist teachers), we made plans for a collaborative planning session on the first day of our unit: three rotations led by teachers and administrators featuring students and parents working together to produce a brand new central idea, lines of inquiry, and summative assessment based on the vague idea, “people express creativity with technology.”

We carefully balanced each group so that parent and student ideas were equally represented. Student engagement level rose as they started to see the unit developing as we progressed from central idea to lines of inquiry to the summative project. In the end, we blended the best of the ideas from each of the three groups and came up with the following, completely from scratch:

  • Central idea:  Technology enables individual expression while diversifying interactions with others.
  • Lines of inquiry: How different forms of technology give us ideas; How technology changes people’s interactions; and How technology use varies in different cultures.
  • Summative experience: Students will express themselves by creating through their choice of a technology platform, such as: blog, computer program, digital animation, video, website, etc. The students will then share this information internationally through worldwide connections. Students will work independently or in a group, with groups based on a common interest in a particular platform and will, hopefully, share their creations with people in different locations throughout the world.

As the unit began, we emphasized the student-created activities from the planning session, which led to a level of student ownership previously unprecedented in our experience.  Throughout the unit, students referred to it as “their unit” and were heavily invested in each experience.  At the end-of-unit open house, we created a video highlighting all of the learning experiences throughout the unit and students shared their summative projects, bringing the entire experience full circle. The student’s ownership of their learning and pride in what they had created was evident in every facet of the event, and we heard from parent after parent how much they had learned about the process; how much better they understood units of inquiry; their new-found appreciation of the PYP curriculum in general; and their understanding of the motivations for creating units and the connections between them. Our Blank Planner Project had been a success and everyone involved was able to identify a positive takeaway.

We used this experience to scaffold the necessary skills for the PYP exhibition at the end of the year. The Blank Planner Project allowed parents and students to develop one unit of inquiry for the entire grade. During the exhibition, our students worked under the theme Who we are, but developed many small group units of inquiry. Last year, we had 27 students who divided into 11 groups based on different central ideas and each child focused on one line of inquiry. Our students used this scaffolding to prepare for a successful, independent and inquiry-based exhibition process. During the eight-week exhibition, students completed 83 community-based action steps and displayed mindfulness of their growth as learners throughout their PYP experience!

In the end, there were clear, positive outcomes for everyone involved in the Blank Planner Project. Students enjoyed the opportunity to create their very own unit, displaying previously unseen pride and ownership in their learning experience, and were set up for success in the exhibition later in the year. Parents participated in the planning process of a unit and witnessed the successful end results, while gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for the Primary Years Programme and student-led, inquiry-based learning. Even our administration gained a new appreciation for what our students are capable of and the many ways we can continue to strengthen the connections between all constituents in our school community. Finally, we as teachers found this to be an incredible opportunity to stretch our own understanding of what is possible in inquiry-based instruction.  We hope that sharing this experience and our story inspires you to try new adventures and experiments with your own Blank Planner Projects in the future!

Trevor Lindsay has fourteen years of experience teaching in independent schools, including eight years of PYP. Stacey Walker has taught within the PYP for seven years, including an internship in South Korea. She is currently gaining a master’s in Educational Leadership. Between both teachers, they have taught all PYP grades, Kindergarten through grade 5. As a current grade 5 team, they have strived to create meaningful inquiry-based opportunities to prepare students for the PYP exhibition. They are passionate about differentiation, innovation and mastery-based education. Collectively, they are motivated to empower students to take ownership of their learning through inquiry and raise student achievement and engagement.


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28 Responses to The Blank Planner Project – Collaborative planning on technology unit

  1. A-J Fairey 1 June 2016 at 2:22 am #

    This experience sounds like the ideal Exhibition unit where students are given the opportunity to take ownership of their own learning.

    As a respected colleague said to me when I was preparing to lead my first Exhinition a few years ago …”Exhibition should be more like other units of inquiry… and other units should be more like Exhibition.

  2. Rubina 4 June 2016 at 11:10 am #

    wow…truly fab…it sometimes becomes necessary to take risks in IB and this risk of yours has been effective and successful. An inspiration to other IB schools and Teachers. Thank you for sharing it. will try implementing it.

  3. Shan Saberi 4 July 2016 at 11:25 am #

    I’d like to some of the elements of your initiative by accompanying my Year 4 students to develop the summative assessment in our upcoming unit. Thanks for sharing.

  4. John Nairn 20 August 2016 at 9:47 am #

    I’ve always believed that we should start with blank planners for each unit ever year then browse what has happened in the past so that we are fully prepared for each unit, for the expected and the unexpected.


  5. Meredith 22 December 2016 at 9:32 pm #

    The links to the resources to help others try out a Blank Planner Project of their own are not functional! Would love to see some of the documents you used to make this happen!

  6. Bhargavi 16 December 2017 at 11:23 pm #

    Lovely approach apt for the td theme of how we express ourselves.
    I was just having one question, about the summative assessment. Did the students get to create anything that would be ongoing for example the blog or website is still active and ongoing or computer programme was tested to see if it was working? How will they take it further?
    Since I am doing a unit of technology and human ingenuity under the td theme Wwaip&t, I thought your idea of a blank planner would be appropriate for the kids… Thanks a lot.

  7. Gayathri 14 March 2018 at 9:38 am #

    Hi have a query? Do we still put on the topic in the IB PYP Planner?

  8. Jeff Underhill 21 October 2018 at 1:38 pm #

    Hi Trevor and Stacey,

    Your project provides so many solutions to the problem of student agency and investment, community investment and understanding, and just how to solve these collaboratively. I’m curious the structures provided to get started, and how this was communicated and scheduled with stakeholders outside the classroom?

    Thanks for your model!

  9. Kristen 28 May 2019 at 3:40 am #

    This sounds great. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach upper primary in a PYP setting as yet however, in kindergarten we downloaded videos on to a private youtube channel of the students expressing one thing that is unique about them. I generated a QR code for each of them and shared their short video with the class and their families. This is a start to technology and how we can share experiences all over the world.

  10. Kristen Fryer 28 May 2019 at 3:43 am #

    Apologies if this is a duplicate but looks like my previous one didn’t send.

    This sounds like a great plan. I haven’t had the opportunity to teach upper primary in PYP setting however, in kindergarten we did videos of how we are unique and saved them to a private youtube channel and downloaded them onto a QR code to share with each other as well as their families. A great way to introduce children to the internet as well as using it as an opportunity to learn cyber safety.

  11. Abhishre AG 29 May 2019 at 5:20 pm #

    Hi !

    Such an amazing process! Is this your exhibition unit or one apart from that ?

    If it was apart from that, how did you integrate language and math learning outcomes? When implementing such a process, how do you ensure a balanced curriculum delivery to all students?

    Also, your links are not working ! Would love it if you can fix that !


  12. Joanie Conley 30 August 2020 at 10:27 am #

    I was encouraged to read this blog during my “Making the PYP Happen” online learning course. I found your desire to push the comfortable limits of your school community and allow the input of everyone to develop your unit inspiring! It was also very helpful for me to see how to connect parents, as well as help them to understand the inquiry process. I’m still learning and new to PYP so these shared experiences are supporting my level of understanding twofold!

    Thanks so much for sharing,


  13. Laryce 26 October 2020 at 3:19 pm #

    I loved how the teacher collaborated with other teachers, students and parents to work on the planner. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  14. Laryce 26 October 2020 at 3:27 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this information. Hopefully, if we have to due a blank planner at our school we will be able to follow your helpful format.

  15. YoungSook Park 24 November 2020 at 9:48 am #

    How to make exhibition in the nature?\

    Yours in Art

  16. Rebecca Jones 24 January 2021 at 12:31 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring post! What a positive experience of collaboration from everyone in your learning community!!
    Thank so much for sharing.

  17. Michael 22 May 2021 at 9:34 pm #

    I like the idea that they started off with a plank planner. That was a great idea to gain endorsement from all students, parents, administrators and specialist teachers. Then having each group equally balanced. The outcome was a successful. As I am new to the PYP, I would like to try somethings similar to this. A very interesting article.

  18. neelam choudhary 23 May 2021 at 4:53 pm #

    Thank you for sharing amazing and thought provoking ideas thanks.

  19. Jacqueline 25 May 2021 at 5:02 pm #

    I agree with starting with a blank planner at the beginning of each unit. Also to get the information from previous teachers and co-teachers what worked well in the past and also what did the learners enjoyed the most. Then take it from there and keep it an open document to adapt if needed. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Jacqueline 25 May 2021 at 5:06 pm #

    I must admit your post is very inspiring, especially to even involve the parents. I would’ve never thought of that. Thank you for widening my horizons.

  21. Angela 25 June 2021 at 10:08 pm #

    Thanks for sharing. Nice write up.

  22. Allan Webb 23 October 2021 at 2:42 pm #

    Thank you for the post. Being new to this I found it very useful.

  23. Isaad 29 October 2021 at 11:29 am #

    I find it is great for students to participate in the planning process, I find that they have to possess a certain level responsibility and skills, as well as requiring some guidance to be able to do this successfully. It is certainly not smooth sailing to achieve that result for everyone of them.

  24. B.Linda TUNA 29 November 2021 at 2:27 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring post.

  25. Iwona Banerska 22 January 2022 at 5:31 pm #

    For me your example of the “empty plenner”, which after a while was an “overflowing plenner”, is a metaphor for the developing sense of empowerment and effectiveness in a new child in IB school. Gradually, the child takes responsibility for the learning process and thus develops undiscovered layers of creativity.
    Congratulations!!! You have a wonderful achievement!!!

  26. Amurnissa 19 February 2022 at 11:05 am #

    I am new to pyp. just joined Grade1 as a AT. Thank you for sharing innovative ideas to make teaching and learning more effective. IB pyp is a inquiry based leaning. I like collaboration in planning and teaching.

  27. Hala Alfred 24 October 2022 at 9:08 am #

    Wow! Very inspiring!
    I wonder how parents were first reacting to their deep engagement. I’m glad they put time and effort to make it happen.


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