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.


  1. Hi, Craig
    I so agree with you on this. The planner starts with your final culminating task , but this boxes you in right away. I tend to list about three or four different tasks , but in the end pretty much leave it up to my students to decided how they want to show me their learning and add it to the planner afterwards.
    I have been adding my inquiry cycle to boxes 3 and 4 planner. Why does every section of the planner need its own special box. For examples shouldn't the transdisciplinary skills be listed beside the task it is connected to in box 3 and 4 ? I am very visual so I have actually done my planning with a mind map connecting provocations and learning tasks with the key concepts and TD's they are suppose to related to. I am really hoping with the big changes coming up they will also change the planner.

  2. I would love the planner to incorporate more visible thinking strategies into it. Mindmaps, thinking routines, pictures of student artefacts... in this day and age there is no reason why the planner itself can't be a portfolio like entry... almost like part of the schools portfolio... interesting thought!

  3. We do ours on google docs so we add links to a lot of artifacts. It is funny the IB had a big stick 3 years ago about people modifying the Google docs version. Our was color coded and made a lot of sense , but then they made us go back to their static one. The new lady in charge seems to be more forward thinking from what my coordinator says .

    1. The visual learner in me gasped at the idea that you were asked to remove the colour coding. If your colour choices aid in the communication of the planner, then I struggle to see why colour would be a problem.

  4. Anonymous31.3.14

    Argh... I need to talk to you! I haven't the time or energy to write a long response and I don't have a short one. Meanwhile, I'm wondering how your collaborative planning sessions look. I invite you to come to one of ours (Skype is fine). And I'd like to see how your planners look - can you send me an example?
    We do our planning in Managebac, which allows for uploading photos and work samples... becoming more of the story you talk about.
    FYI, I would hate the planner to refer to an inquiry cycle - I'm surprised you'd even consider it :) - Inquiry looks so different in every class and can't be planned in advance - that's the point, no?
    That'll do for now...

  5. I'm pretty sure I said that we would NOT want to force on inquiry cycle onto a planner. That would be a terrible idea! I would like to see a certain type of flexibility in the planner so that we could edit it and make it our own, personalized to each teacher and each unit. A set of core elements would be in place, but after that each teacher/School/grade level is free to make it their own...

    I have no doubt your collaborative planning sessions are amazing! Am looking for ideas for next year! I have no experience with Managebac; is it dynamic? Does it make the planner a part of the learning, or it is an end of unit thing to be filled out? That is my biggest issue with the planner as it is. We do all this great collaboration and ideas, but the planner is not part of it. It is just a thing to be filled out at the end, not a real artefact of on-going reflection....

  6. I think the inquiry cycle is a good thing to add to the planner as long as it is the one you are using and it is optional. I like adding my own cycle to my planner , so I can go back and look at my thinking and the language I used. If you have a school with high ELL needs modeling the cycle explicitly with a common language throughout the school is imperative for them to quickly pick up the language and process.

  7. Anonymous31.3.14

    I too have a long comment but not on the right device to reply properly. I'd love the planner to truly reflect the natural way we plan and move through our units. We plan provocations and preassessment and put these in box 3&4 but then we tend to write what our next steps were in tuning in. I'd love to see instead... So this is what we saw, hard, found out about our students... Then we decided to go this way... And this is what we heard, saw, found out, so we thought we should go this way... But some of our kids wanted (or needed) to go this way.... I love the box 1-8 layout, as it keeps us from planning activities instead of waiting, waiting to see where the inquiry takes us. But I'd love to see the plan-reflect -plan. and maybe another "name" is it a planner?or a reflection?

  8. A thought provoking post - thank you. I love the idea of the planner as a story and I think that, when the philosophy of collaborative planning and inquiry teaching & learning are deeply ingrained in a school's culture that is how the planner is used (or that is my hope). As a reflective tool to help teachers share the experiences of their students, a platform to share what worked well and what didn't, a place to record 'ah'ha' moments and ideas for continued inquiry. Uploading student work, videos and photos to document the process or learning path is also a very useful addition to the planner. At my last school we used the Google Doc version of the planner and all of the teachers in the year level agreed to have it open throughout the unit. We would add thoughts and links (including student work, photos, videos, provocations...) as we went through a unit and were able to use the comment section to have an ongoing conversation that could be referred to during our collaborative planning meetings.

    I think the way the planner is set up does lead to some problems. Having the reflection at the end of the planner implies that we leave this to the end - rather than guiding the development of the unit. Perhaps the reflection 'box' needs to be moved to sit along side the assessment and engagement sections. All of these things take place concurrently (formative assessment, student questions/inquiry/ learning engagements (provocations), reflection). Learning is a story - I love the idea of a planner capturing that.

  9. I did not even know what a PYP planner was as I started reading this, but I love (and want to quote your closing argument/statement, "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."

    I am working in a UbD school division and this is exactly where I think we are hung up. It makes sense to have a vision and plan(ish) of where you are going, but it is the journey/adventure that you take with the students that makes the learning rich.

    My two cents...

    Thanks Craig!



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