Aligning transdisciplinary themes across school

This article explores a school’s decision to align the units of inquiry so that all classes explore the same transdisciplinary theme at the same time, and reflects on its impact on the school community.

Aligning transdisciplinary themes across school

By Naná Isa

“Our aim was to further strengthen the collaboration between classes, and for the community to become more aware of each transdisciplinary theme as it becomes the focus throughout the school. .”

The International School of Dublin is a small school, comprised of four multi-grade classes. This characteristic has an impact on the Programme of Inquiry, which used to be completely modified every year, until we adopted a Year A/Year B system more recently. The size of the school allows for a great amount of collaboration between classes. Both homeroom and single-subject teachers are aware of the units of inquiry being explored in all classes. Weekly assemblies and shared field trips are ways in which different classes interact and collaborate with one another.

In 2019-2020, we decided to modify the order of the units of inquiry so that all classes would work under a given transdisciplinary theme at the same time. The idea came from a staff meeting, and the first step was to discuss it with all staff, taking time to consider pros and cons of doing so. Our aim was to further strengthen the collaboration between classes, and for the community to become more aware of each transdisciplinary theme as it becomes the focus throughout the school. We did some research and found other PYP schools that had one or two units of inquiry that crossed across the school. However, we did not find a school that had attempted this before. After several discussions, we decided to do it for one year as a trial. We put together all the units of inquiry under each transdisciplinary theme, and analysed in which order we wanted to present them. It was quite clear from the start that everyone agreed on who we are and how we express ourselves as transdisciplinary themes that were best suited for the beginning of the year. This had to do with exploring identity, establishing a relationship between class members, and the possibility of using the tools for expression throughout the year. Once that had been established, the rest of the themes were put in order depending on how certain units of inquiry were best suited for certain times of the year.

Aligning transdisciplinary themes across school

How we express ourselves

The revised Programme of Inquiry was carefully discussed with all teachers. However, the new alignment was not discussed in advance with the students, but we rather chose to introduce the units of inquiry at a class level as usual, and observe the impact of the alignment, if any, throughout the year. Observations from members of staff were discussed during meetings, and the results were overwhelmingly positive.

Among the most mentioned advantages were the following:

  • Students were making more connections to the transdisciplinary theme. This was particularly noticed during assembly, where students would connect their learning experiences with those of other classes. Parents of siblings in different classes also provided anecdotal evidence of these connections being verbalised at home.
  • Teachers admitted putting a greater focus on the transdisciplinary theme when planning and evaluating.
  • Single-subject teachers (who work with all classes) expressed delight in being able to make more profound connections to the transdisciplinary themes and they also felt planning was easier as they could focus better.
  • Homeroom teachers were able to collaborate in more meaningful ways with other classes. Examples of this were:
  1. A doctor visited the school as a guest speaker for Kindergarten and G5,6 class while exploring Who we are. In this opportunity, the doctor visited the classes separately due to the age difference. However, it was easier for the teachers to coordinate one guest speaker together, and students were made aware that the doctor was visiting two classes to discuss the human body from different perspectives.
  2.  A whole school field trip was organised to Chester Beatty Library while exploring How we express ourselves. Each class had a different angle to explore the library, but the whole school went together and later discussed the reasons why. Kindergarten enjoyed reading stories from other cultures, Grade 1,2 explored antique artistic techniques, Grade 3,4 visited an Exhibition where stories were told through images, and Grade 5,6 compared and contrasted religious art.Aligning transdisciplinary themes across school
  3. Kindergarten and Grade 1,2 planned a joint Field Trip to Airfield Urban Farm while exploring Sharing the Planet but unfortunately, it had to be cancelled due to COVID-19.
    The shift to online learning due to the pandemic impacted the inter-class collaboration. Nevertheless, all teachers agreed that the advantages to this approach were strong and as a team we decided to continue organising the Programme of Inquiry in this manner.

“…the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, and as a whole we saw greater levels of collaboration between classes, a greater awareness of the Transdisciplinary Theme at all levels in the community (students, parents, teachers) and more natural interactions during whole school assemblies.”

Some of the challenges we faced when implementing this approach were the following:

  • Teachers had to be open-minded and willing to change the order of the units of inquiry at a grade level in order to align them across all grades. We had to try to accommodate requests for units of inquiry that might fit better at certain times of the year due to weather or special events.
  • Teachers had to adapt certain elements of the units of inquiry to suit the new order.
  • An important discussion was which units of inquiry we wanted Grade 6 students to engage with prior to Exhibition.

Nevertheless, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks, and as a whole we saw greater levels of collaboration between classes, a greater awareness of the Transdisciplinary Theme at all levels in the community (students, parents, teachers) and more natural interactions during whole school assemblies.

Our advice for a school considering doing this would be:

  1. First, list the pros and cons in your setting. How would this change impact students, homeroom teachers, single-subject teachers, parents? How would it impact your use of resources?
  2. Give teachers the Programme of Inquiry organised by Transdisciplinary Themes. Analyse, theme by theme, possible instances for collaboration that arise between classes.
  3. As a team, discuss how to decide on the order of the Transdisciplinary Themes. In our case, having Who we are and How we express ourselves at the beginning of the school year was decided unanimously. From there, each grade submitted their “ideal order” and we tried to respect that as much as we could.

Aligning transdisciplinary themes across schoolNaná Isa is the PYP Coordinator at the International School of Dublin. Naná began her PYP journey in Uruguay and has experience working in and outside the classroom. Naná is an English teacher and translator, currently undergoing a Master’s in Education with a focus on Inquiry-Based Learning. She is particularly interested in the learning process of multilingual children.

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4 Responses to Aligning transdisciplinary themes across school

  1. Sheeza 27 October 2020 at 3:54 pm #

    We also did that!

  2. CATRIONA TUIMAKA 28 October 2020 at 2:51 am #

    I have always loved this idea. So rich and so many possibilities.

  3. Jimena 28 October 2020 at 3:40 am #

    Congratulations on this very innovative approach!
    Thank you for sharing your insights and reflections .

  4. Melanie Minos 28 October 2020 at 7:56 am #

    We have been doing this at Shinagawa International School, Tokyo too. It is so engaging for teachers and students to share their learning and really helps to ensure a sequential development of ideas across phases. When we share learning in assembly and on our school displays, everyone can make connections to their own learning and teaching. Fabulous step International School of Dublin!

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