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PYP early years series: Concept based learning (ep. 2)

In the second of a series focused on the PYP support material ‘The early years in the PYP’, IB voices spoke to Anne van Dam and Kathryn O’Connell, 2 early years educators who have worked in local and global contexts, to explore what concept based learning looks like in action and to discuss some of the tensions educators feel when working conceptually with young children. Read a summary based on the podcast conversation.

PYP early years series: Concept based learning

“The IB has identified play as the primary driver for inquiry, as it reflects the holistic and authentic way in which children explore, grow and learn. Play offers learners the opportunity to learn through multiple sensory experiences, which other forms of learning might not. Through play, learners draw on their existing knowledge and understanding of concepts to explore, think, test and extend the ideas about the world around them. Focusing on conceptual understanding helps learners to make connections to real life experiences, recognize and classify patterns, make generalizations, predictions and connections across their learning and to transfer and apply understandings.”


Can you describe what concept based learning looks like in your context? What are some of the ways children express their conceptual understanding and what would I see and hear if I walked into one of your classrooms? Anne, I’d like to offer that to you first.


Sure. We write conceptually based units. When we look at these documents, we also document sort of emerging lines of inquiry and emerging concepts. So although we have identified concepts before we start, we also acknowledge that through that inquiry, new things may arise. One of the big things for us, is that we document children’s learning during play and that we really see play as inquiry and as a way making sense of their world. Through those interactions with materials, with each other, with spaces, we identify emerging concepts.

Form and function come into play very often. So when we meet, we bring our documentation and we discuss this. We look at our photos, our videos and our anecdotal notes and we talk about the children’s learning. And we really aim to link the children’s investigations to certain concepts. For example, we’ve got this group of children who are really interested in how things flow, outside with water and inside with sand, and we’re thinking about how does it work? There’s also something sensory about this exploration, but also about causation as the children are also thinking about ways that they can manipulate the flow of the water. Then we use a concept map to map out these concepts with an online tool called Miro, where we make connections visible between certain concepts. It really helps us with having this overview and having a look at how things are connected and how things evolve.


I agree with everything Anne said. If we start from a point of belief that children are conceptual thinkers and that they’re testing concepts and wondering about concepts all the time, then our job is a little bit different than being a traditional teacher. It’s being a conceptual guide. As teachers, we love to tell kids things and instead, if we can stop telling and start asking, we’re on our way to being conceptually based. Not just looking for how are children conveying what they know, but how are they trying to make sense of the world.


Yes, it is important that we build over time the children’s understanding of what concepts are. I think it connects with that question, ‘what would I see and hear if I walked into one of your classrooms?’ We might say things like, “you’re thinking about responsibility”, or ”you’re thinking about roles” or, “you are creating a system.” And I think it’s in that language that we’ve noticed that children start using that language as well.


And can I add to that Anne? I often think it is naming, noticing and exploring. Those three things can happen in any order, but if we are truly the conceptual guide, then we can be talking about the concepts we’re thinking of and that modeling does help children internalize it. They’re able to more concretely talk about the concepts and they realize that they’re conceptual thinkers.


I often find that there is that sort of ethical feel for documentation where we have to check in with children. Like this is what I think about your thinking, but what you think about your thinking?

“When we start seeing the child as competent, perhaps we will have less of a tendency to tell and more of a tendency to start listening.”


What are some of the tensions an educator can feel during concept based inquiry? What is the role of the educator?


Documentation, observation and being a conceptually driven inquiry-based teacher requires that educators are vulnerable, and it requires that they are a co-learner with their students, which is different from the way that we learned as kids. It also requires that we suspend judgment. So my advice to teachers is when they’re feeling the tension, I know exactly what this needs, to go stop yourself. It’s a journey that requires that you are completely open-minded.


When we move towards a more child centered curriculum, that’s actually a really complex process and it requires complex cognitive processes.  I think it really starts with really seeing and believing the child to be a competent person. So that means that we really have to go back to our own image of the child, our own construct of who children are, what their rights are, what their responsibilities are. Do we see young children as learners, as thinkers, as constructors of meaning? Do we see them as inquirers through play?

And that’s where we get to the documentation. We have to make this visible. It provides the future possibilities for us to either reject a certain idea or build on it or further explore it with the children.

When we start listening and documenting, and having conversations with other educators about their point of view, thinking about the best way to support these theories, these curiosities, these fascinations, then we can start thinking about what kind of situations we set up that help children to either deepen or extend, or even perhaps confront some of their own ideas. When we start looking at the children, and following their thinking, we will stay more connected with them. Then, the inquiry process becomes just so much more powerful.

Anne Van Dam

Anne van Dam has worked as a teacher, coordinator, head of school and vice-principal at international schools in China, Singapore and Switzerland. She joined Eton House International Pre-School in 2007, drawn to the school for its vision to centre learning around young children’s competencies in making meaning and establishing relationships. In August 2011, Anne became the Assistant Principal at the International School of Zug and Luzern(ISZL). At ISZL, she supported the development of a new shared vision for learning in the early years, placing a strong emphasis on relationships, play, learning spaces and documenting learning.

Anne moved back to the Netherlands in 2015. This has given her the opportunity to collaborate for two years with the PYP development team at the IB regional office in The Hague. She has been working on the IB PYP review focusing on learner agency, early years, inquiry and several aspects of ‘the learning community’. Anne still works for the IB as a workshop leader and collaborates with international schools as an independent educational consultant. Since May 2019, Anne also learns alongside 4,5 and 6 year olds at an inner city, local PYP school in her home town The Hague.

Kate O’Connell is a passionate educator and lifelong learner with 25 years of experience in teaching and leading. She has worked and consulted in 30 schools, in 12 countries on 4 continents. This experience includes teaching various grade levels and leading as a PYP coordinator, Principal, and Head of School. She is currently teaching at The Australian International School Phnom Penh.

She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education and Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction from Michigan State University. She is currently pursuing a Certificate of School Management and Leadership through Harvard Business School and Harvard Graduate School of Education.

She leads and writes workshops for the International Baccalaureate, Compass Education, and online she has coached courses through Harvard Graduate School of Education’s WIDE World.

She is unapologetically passionate about children and education.

Kate O'Connell
Sue Tee

Sue Tee is a PYP curriculum manager with responsibility for early years and the arts, based in the IB global office here in The Hague. Originally from the UK, she has worked in a number of international schools in Hong Kong and The Netherlands as both a class teacher and administrator. Whilst she has worked across the primary age range, her heart belongs with the early years and it is here she has spent most of her time, learning from and with amazing educators and children.

The early years is designed for PYP students ages 3-6. To learn more about the PYP early years implementation strategies and Programme outcomes, please click here. 

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