Re-thinking the PYP Planner

I originally wrote this for the IB's request for feedback on their upcoming program review. However, they are only looking for 350 word responses. Oh well. 

UPDATE: I have been informed there is an email address where longer responses can be sent.

Here is the whole thing. Please leave comments and thoughts. Am I the only one who feels like this about the planner? I would like to see it grow and evolve in new directions, so please share ideas.

My main interest in reviewing the planner is how we can make it more dynamic in its support of teaching and learning (I would also add knowing in there as well). At the present moment, I feel that the planner is more extra work than it is reflective tool. It also leads itself open to creating a plan for the next teacher or the next year, which is against the principles of inquiry learning. Inquiry learning should be driven by the learners questions. In my own practice, I do not find the planner to be a living document that is a part of the day to day life of the classroom. It is something I fill out at the end and put in a folder on the server because that is what I am required to do. I think this is a design problem, and if we are too make a new planner, it should be directly related to our what we believe about teaching, learning, and knowing.

“In the PYP, it is believed that learning takes place best when it is connected to what is genuinely a component of the world around the student, not merely what is all too often contrived and then imposed upon the student in school.”
(IBO, 2009a, p 6-7)

I wonder what it means “a component of the world around the students”. Imagination is an important aspect of learning, and inquiry, and some of the most engaging and learning filled moments in my class have been spent in the extreme abstract, not connected to reality and the real world at all. Still, I wonder if at the end of all this imagination and the detachment from the real world, if we need to explicitly bring it back and connect it to their world. What are we connecting? The content or the concept? Or something else?

Dan Meyer, math teacher and PhD student extraordinaire, has recently been blogging on the topic of “real world math”. The general conclusion is that “real” consists of anything that makes us stop and think, wonder, or itch to find out more. Perhaps when we say things like “connected to the world” and “relevant to the present”, what we are really talking about is fostering a sense of wonder and curiosity.

This has nothing to do with planner. Just a random thought.

Or maybe it does? Does our planner provide a space for us to inquire into our learners curiosity? Is it embedded in the document, or relegated to a box near the end? Does it flow with the unit, or is it work to be done?

I guess the main question comes down to; what does the PYP value above all else, and how it is reflected in the planner? If I were setting policy for a strong curriculum for the 21st century, this is what I would focus on:
  • Inquiry
  • Thinking 
  • Questioning 
  • Action (as a possible path traveled)

Inquiry is obviously a major part of the PYP, but the planner does not have a general view of inquiry. It is not set up to gel with one of the major inquiry cycles used in schools. I can understand why. We don’t want to impose an inquiry cycle on a school and force them to do it. Perhaps one of the solutions to this would be to set a core group of components that need to be on the planner, and let each school (or even grade level) design their own planner that meets the reality of their class, and how they choose to inquire. As it is, the inquiry cycle (how do we inquire?) is not so much an important aspect of the planner, and I think this may lead to a focus on other elements. How can we create a planner that is inviting to inquiry? How can we change the planner so that it is an artefact that is referred to by teachers and learners daily?

My major problem with the planner is this; its a bunch of boxes to be filled in. A unit of inquiry is not easily categorized as a box. That is a poor metaphor for what teachers do in an inquiry classroom, and I believe the words we use and the metaphors we apply to our systems have a huge impact on how that system grows and evolves. A better metaphor for a dynamic Unit of Inquiry would be a Story. How can we make the planner more like a story of the unit? How can we structure it so it feels less like a box, and more like a reflective journal? We could focus on the thinking skills that we used along the way, in conjunction with the inquiry cycle and use this as a reflective tool to help us plan further engagements. This is what good inquiry teachers do (or am I being arrogant by proclaiming that?) but it is not reflected in the planner. The planner does not give details about the shape or direction of the unit. It is devoid of story.

I think one of the biggest obstacles holding teachers back from truly integrating the subjects into a transdisciplinary unit of inquiry might be the use of package approaches like math textbooks, or literacy programs, as these create clear boundaries and separate realms for the subjects. I am not suggesting that these have no value, only that inquiry across subjects takes time and learners need to generate their own questions and answers, which is tough when the textbook asks the questions and requires an answer. Perhaps more attention needs to given to questioning skills, some way of assessing, categorizing, and tracking questions over time, not as an add-on but rather as a fundamental part of the PYP program. True, questioning is a skill that is included in a huge list of TD skills, but perhaps it needs to be given a prominent role, especially in the planner. As it is set up, the planner has a box for student initiated inquiries towards the end, but perhaps the planner should look more recursive and ask teachers to reflect on the questions that the learners ask, several times throughout the unit. A simple Visible Thinking learning strategy could be embedded in the document to provide teachers with a tool to inquire into their learners questions. Perhaps the planner should be driven by teacher reflection on learners questions.

ACTION (as a possible path traveled)
Again, this represented on the planner by a box. Action has many moving parts and does not sit well within the confines of a box. It is hard for us to “hand it” the planner at the end of the unit and reflect on the action that has happened. The teacher might have initiated or planned some action, or it may have emerged from a learner, but the timescale we are talking about is too short. Perhaps the planner should be revisited months later.

My problem with more with Action itself, not how it represented in the planner. I just feel that if we get kids all excited about action taken and then move onto the next unit and leave it in the dust, it is sending the wrong message. Of all the elements of the PYP, I feel this one is most out of place. Of course I believe “Action” is important, but I think by speaking that out-loud, by making it a focus (which some read as policy, or requirement) we cheapen it. Was it part of the story, or not? How can we encourage action without saying we are encouraging action? In short, so what? And how is this incredibly important question (so what?) reflected in the story of the unit, and shared with others on the planner?

Learning is a story; it unfolds and enfolds and moves and flows and changes direction and stops and starts and jumps and falls and crashes and gets lost and gets found and breathes and lives. It is a dynamic system. 

In the past, the PYP planner was most certainly inspired by backwards design. This was a great system of planning, but I believe it is the past, and we should be moving on to something more dynamic, not looking backwards from what we want learners to learn, but looking forward to the unnamed and multiple paths the learners may travel. Learning is an adventure and a story, and we can’t write the end without experiencing the journey.


Book Review: The Third Teacher

The Third Teacher is a book about designing physical and mental spaces in schools. It was written by a group of designers who are passionate about education and community action. The book itself is a beautiful work of art, wonderfully put together and pleasing on the senses.

I found myself oscillating between being:

a) totally and utterly inspired
b) angry and disagreeing
c) living in a world of budget-less wonder that does not exist in most schools

It is well worth the read, even if there is nothing really that new here. It is a collection of research that teachers have known about for a long time but together in a pleasing way. That being said, if you are building a school from the ground up, or re-positioning a school for the 21st century, this would be a wonderful resource to go back to time and time again. It contains some great interviews with experts in various fields, and gives a picture of a very different and modern way of education that is inspiring, if not occasionally frustrating.

I loved:

a) the part about color in school
b) the use of outdoor spaces
c) the connection to the local community
d) the look and design of the book

I did not love:

a) the philosophy of the purpose of school (which was contradictory and mixed with clashing metaphors)
b) thinking about how much money this would cost a school on a tight budget
c) the lack of other examples to illustrate points (usually only one example and then onto the next point, made it rushed)


"New Math"

I was going to respond to this, but other bloggers have beaten me to the punch, and they say it perfectly.

Imagination enabling Inquiry cycle

I love this inquiry cycle. 
I love how it starts with imagine.
I love how it ends with imagine.
I love how it includes play.
The possibilities.....
This is not just for kindergarten. 


A Book Club Conversation: Growth and Fixed Mindset and Finding your Passion

I read a list of alternatives to boring PD about a week ago. One of the ideas that made me smile was the Book Club. At the beginning of this year I started a book club, and it has been a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration. But this Book Club is not with teachers, it is with Parents. Together as a group (we have about 4-6 regulars) we decide on a book, give ourselves a couple of weeks to read it, and then meet and discuss how it applies to our kids and how they learn. As parents (and I count myself as a parent ahead of a teacher) it has helped to give us new ideas for how to engage our kids in school and life. As a teacher, it has helped me bond with the parents, and it has been a wonderful source of ideas and different perspectives.

So far this year we have read:
  • Finding your Element, by Sir Ken Robinson 
  • The Giver, by Lois Lowry
  • Mindset, by Carol Dweck
And then something interesting happened.... 

While we were discussing Dweck's Mindset, we all felt that as much as we loved her message and the simplicity of the idea (growth versus fixed mindset), we all felt that is was almost too simplistic, and that it didn't take into account the complexity of personalities and the environment in which we find ourselves. Somebody suggested that perhaps there is a link between the Growth mindset that Dweck discusses, and the Passion that Robinson discusses (I can't remember whose idea it was, don't you love when that happens!).

Are we more likely to be growth minded towards a subject that we are passionate about? And fixed minded towards a subject that we do not enjoy? There are subjects I just find boring (algebra and calculus come to mind) and I wonder if it is not a matter of growth minded versus fixed mindedness, but rather if it is about passions and love? I feel more alive with the written word and the arts, and am more willing to make mistakes and reflect on my learning. When dealing with all those little symbols and letters in chemistry, I feel like falling asleep or picking up a book and escaping to a fantasy world. When it comes to abstract mathematics and scientific notation, I am very fixed minded. Don't get me wrong, I love science and I love math, just not the stuff they taught in school.

Is my lack of passion preventing me from being growth minded? Or is my fixed mindset stunting my possible passion?

Is my passion for the arts feeding my growth mindset? Or is my lack of passion for chemistry creating the fixed mindset?

Either way, there is a link here.

Is it unrealistic for kids to be passionate about every subject we teach in school? I wonder if I could have ever met a teacher who would have pulled me away from books and made me fall in love with abstract mathematics. Maybe.

Or maybe we expect kids to be passionate about too many things, thus negating the real passion that already exists. Maybe, instead of Schools Killing Creativity, we have a case of Schools Killing Passion. And once that passion is killed, we blame a fixed mindset, instead of the system that created it. Maybe.

Or maybe it is how we teach the subjects, the constant push towards more knowledge and following the script of the curriculum. Maybe we make it all seem to important, and we don't let kids pursue the things about the topic that interests them. We tell them what to learn, what we think is important for them to learn, and they eventually lose interest, and lose their natural curiosity which the growth mindset feeds off.

I don't know.

What I do know is this....

How do we kindle passion and allow the growth mindset to flourish?


Central Ideas should be questions

I have long asked for this. There is something more open and thought provoking about a well worded and well intentioned question at cannot be replicated with a statement. How do we know what the central idea of a unit is going to be even before we start investigating?

A moment today, as we were fine tuning Central Idea's for the upcoming exhibition, brought me back to this point:

Me: There is a great idea in here, but the wording is missing something.
S: Yeah, it is missing a focus, but how am I supposed to include anything before I have even started researching?

Now, I have thoroughly enjoyed the one on one process of sitting down with students and working on these statements. It has involved some fantastic thinking and the kids have shown incredible open mindedness in changing their ideas. They are letting the ideas flow, and going with the changes. I am very proud of them.

However, I think that we would feel the same way even if we were using this time to craft a question, rather than a statement. I also think that learning to craft and ask highly engaging and deeply interesting questions is a far important skill to practice.

Just my thoughts.

Any thoughts?



Sometimes the lesson yo have planned is completely the wrong way to tackle a topic.

Sometimes doing the wrong way is the only way to shed light on the right way.

Sometimes we have to make mistakes in order to move forward.

I had this lesson planned that I thought was wonderful. I thought it would focus their questions about Exhibition onto the essential elements on the Who We Are theme. I thought they would begin to focus their ideas down into manageable pieces.

I was wrong.

It confused.

During the whole ordeal, I realized something, the missing element. I almost kicked myself. It is something that I have been focusing on the entire year.


What is your story? What do you want to tell? What is the purpose of your story?

From here, I feel like we have new life, and can begin afresh and start to tell our stories.


Tuning into Exhibition

The PYP Exhibition
What are we learning? Why are we learning it?

This was an engaging activity that took the better part of an entire day. There were several layers to the organization of this;

  • first, a short class discussion about what each of the Key Concepts means
  • second, brainstorming how this concept applies to the PYP Exhibition in small groups
  • and third, collecting our ideas into a large class mind-map (made using bubbl.us)

I wanted to see what their perceptions of the Exhibitions of the exhibition were. I was also curious as to how much they understood the Key Concepts (I admit I don't do a great job of including them regularly in the class eco-system). I also wanted them thinking about the exhibition itself, as its own entity, before we just into out topics and research and all the other fun stuff that follows.

Why are we doing this? What is the purpose?

Before doing this I had no idea what it would be like. I was expecting to sit back, listen, and ride whatever trains of thought emerged. This is after all Tuning in (or diagnostic assessment or whatever teacher word you want to use here).

I was surprised (when do grade five students not surprise you) by the following observations:

  • The Key Concepts themselves are very loose, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I often found myself saying things like 'I think we already covered that point under Form' or 'that is very true but completely different from what we are talking about'. It led to many great discussions about the meaning of these words, and how they apply to something. We even discussed how they applied to past UOI's and how that interpretation was now different.
  • They had quite a good understanding of many of the concepts, and did not need prompting or support. They came up with their own basis and went with it.
  • They wanted to focus on the form and function and time and time again came back to this concept. This is not really surprising since this is the focus of many Units of Inquiry, inquiring into how something works and what it looks like. Perhaps we need to spend more time on other aspects, specifically connection and causation.
  • They get the point that this is about the process and the skills, and not just the topic specific knowledge. This is good and lets us move forward with those skills and focus on them.



Exhibition starts.

During the week off I have been avoiding thinking about it. I don't want to plan too much and have it to structured. I want to be more 'reacting' than 'controlling' their inquiries. Since the beginning of school we have been inquiring into our passions and what it is we love to do. From there, we have chosen a very broad topic that we care about. Next, we need to start to focus it down and decide what about it interests us, and what we are going to inquire into.

First off though, we need to de-construct the whole 'exhibition' idea. What does it mean? What is the purpose? Why are we doing this?

I don't know yet what the purpose of looking into this is, but I hope that we become visible as we start to ask ourselves these questions.