This article talks about the journey of a Primary Years Programme (PYP) exhibition and the role of student agency in designing inquiry and research.
As the IB rolled out a PYP enhancement about learner agency, the grade 5 team at International School of Tanganyika thought about how to incorporate agency into our PYP exhibition. Unpacking the understanding of agency and thinking about its implication in this major event in the life of a fifth grader was a challenge.
Our first step was to break out of our preexisting notions of group dynamics and setting an expectation that each student would eventually work in a group. As the grade level central idea “Through our interests we can gain a deeper understanding of what matters in our community” was rolled out, the students were asked to inquire into an interest that they would like to learn more about. The enthusiasm to inquire into what they were genuinely passionate about paved way for more choices about the nature of groupings. At this stage, teachers chose to step back and let the students take charge. Students made choices about what they wanted to focus on after a few weeks of research and narrowing down their choices, which authentically led to forming groups based on common interests.
Choices of topics ranged from conventional ones like deforestation, gender equality, recycling, poaching and endangered sea life to more unconventional topics like guitar, mathematics and chronic kidney disorders. After an initial engagement with the grade wide central idea, students crafted their own central ideas based on their interests, developed concept questions and made choices about the transdisciplinary theme under which to place their inquiries. A focus on three key concepts drove the inquiry deeper. Some students decided to branch off from their umbrella group into working independently on ideas that excited them.
To combat the challenge of providing mentor support for each group/individual, the fifth-grade team decided to try a ‘floating mentor’ system. This enabled the mentors to visit classes and support various groups/individuals in the allocated times. Traditionally our school had allocated a mentor to each group, but with more flexibility this year, the mentors were able to support the groups/individuals that were hungry for “more”. This model provided more time and efficiency to be able to scaffold the learners based on their needs.
Learner agency was gradually taking shape and students were more in control of their learning. It was exciting, yet unnerving at times for us as we sometimes struggled to see what the “end product” was going to look like. It was truly amazing to see students taking on their learning and demonstrating the approaches to learning as PYP learners. The power of student agency was on display. Teachers now have a better understanding of learner agency beyond its literal meaning as we got real life professional development from our “learners”.
One of the students reflected on the process and commented that “During the exhibition I displayed self-management, commitment and independence. I learned that I was often asked the questions in the group and I often felt like the leader in the group. But with this position comes responsibilities, because lots of people are counting on you.”
Designing an inquiry into personal interests was definitely successful and we hope to continue being able to enable students’ choices about areas of interest. As the PYP enhancements are released next school year, we feel more and more excited to take on the role of learner agency into all areas of curriculum development.
Rehana Jasani has been a PYP practitioner for over 13 years. She is a PYP workshop leader, school visits team member and a PYP consultant. She currently teaches grade 5 at International School of Tanganyika, Tanzania. Prior to this, she was a PYP coordinator for 7 years at Aga Khan Schools, Dar-es-Salaam. Rehana is a lifelong learner who is passionate about inquiry based learning and believes in empowering students to take action as part of their learning. You can follow her on Twitter @Rehanajasani.