The seed of a unit

This is not clear in my head, something I am working with. Help me out here....

I really like Sam Sherratt's idea of summing up the unit in one word. It is challenging, fun, and it forces us to focus on the underlying conceptual purpose of the unit. In a concept based curriculum, that is what we should be focusing on, correct? The concepts.

I have been wondering recently as I stare at our schools POI (I really want to look at it and understand it before we change it all) about where some of these units came from. From what egg did they hatch? Some of the units seem very conceptual in their wording, but others feel like a topic based unit that was turned into a conceptual unit. Some of them are not conceptual. I wonder what was the conversation history that led to the development of these units. The turns in the roads. The needs and wants. The personalities behind it and the philosophies that lay underneath. You can tell a lot about a POI by just really looking at it.

The seed of a unit, where it is born, where it springs into existence is important. It's like starting a long line of iterations, or evolutions in a species. Each one affects the previous ones. It grows and mutates and evolves. Here are some examples of what I mean, and be honest if you have been part of any of these conversations, because I think we all have:

1) Starting with Curriculum: We need a unit on "Earth and her layers" because our curriculum has that in there. How can we make this conceptual? That is not starting with concepts. That is starting with curriculum. And its a topic.

2) Starting with an old unit: This unit on Plants is not conceptual enough, lets change it to make it more conceptually based. Lets turn all the lines of inquiry and central ideas into "living things" instead of "plants". That is not starting at the concept either. That is starting from an old topical unit and moving to a new conceptual unit. The seed is topics.

3) Adapt it from another school: Lets just use another unit from another school and adapt it to our student population. First off, we have no idea where those units came from in the first place, so we have no context about the background history. It might be a very topical curriculum, or a rigid state-endorsed thing. It might be a fantastic conceptually based unit, but how does it fit into your schools overall POI, because it is not from your school? "Your" POI, should be unique to "your" school, like each temple in Kyoto is unique to itself.

I guess what I am getting at, if I am making any sense, is that what Sam is asking us to do at the beginning of this post, to sum up the unit in one word, is where we should be starting, not finishing. Start with the one word, the big concepts, and then let it grow from there.

How do we decide the words, concepts, themes, to be explored? I have no idea. I guess they must be negotiated as a school, put into some logical order or framework. It seems like a bit of a work, brainstorming and deciding on the most important concepts to study, and then setting them out in a organized way. There are so many concepts in the world around us, how do we put value on them, organize them, sort them, classify them?


Still, I think it might be an interesting way to go about doing a POI from the ground up. Start with the word, make the unit about that concept, and go from there....

This whole train of thought started when I was asked to make a Parent version of the POI (above) for our Meet the Teacher Night (which turned into an entire curriculum for parents). I asked myself, what is important for parents to know? The Central idea? Key concepts? Lines of inquiry? A key questions? Our Head of School suggested only the main idea, the one big concept that pulls it all together and a light went off in my head. Yes, that is a great way to communicate the POI, but wouldn't it also be a great way to create the POI?


  1. Really looking forward to using the lens your post suggests to view our POI.

  2. Anonymous25.9.14

    HI Craig
    Thanks for this and I really like this idea - but wonder if one word is enough? Is one concept, one conceptual lens enough to allow depth, understanding or make connections?
    E.g: family - would it be more meaningful or clearer to parents or the teachers designing the unit to have 2 or 3 concepts add depth? Family-Values. Family-Health, Family-Relationships, Family-Responsibility.

    I do really like Sam's approach in planning - to have a pre-planning session to ensure all teachers have a clear conceptual idea of the purpose of the unit. Discussion of the 'essence' of the unit will help all teachers facilitate and guide.
    As we also have our POI review this year - this may be a great way to start.

    I never thought of sharing with parents, but really like the idea - as part of the parent information evening, as long as they do not feel we are 'dumbing' it down for parents - but rather sharing the essence.

    I too, as I am sure many of us are, am not so happy with some of our current units, but my personal dislike is not enough reason to change things up. I believe the changes need to come from the practitioners and those in contact with the children - the reasons for change and adaptation need to be for the right reasons - and the reasons happy to be centred around the needs of our learners, our community and our environment.

    re: Conversations and developing units:
    1) Starting with Curriculum: Yep - done this. But more to try and cover the TD theme, or address some of the Science or Social Studies strands. we tried to force space - it was against our gut instincts - kids loved the 'topic' but was not inquiry, nor conceptual, nor successful. We reflected and moved on. planning to go in a more authentic direction the next year.

    2) Starting with an old unit: Yep - this too. we have a box of resources - can we use them ?Write the unit around them? Wrong reason to design a unit - wasn't successful, not enough depth, not enough student engagement. We reflected, and planned to revamp and redesign the next year.

    3) Adapt it from another school: Yep - this too. although, we have done this - as we've struggled with the right words. specifics for the central Idea. So we;ve looked at other examples, as a base - sometimes borrowed them, sometimes adapted them. Most the time, however, this has helped us with gaining clarity and then we've discussed concepts and developed lines of inquiry to follow.

    We've got some fabulous units that were written with a cohort of students in mind....they have gone brilliantly. We've written some units to 'shape' around stressful times, concerts, disruptions - They were designed around the situation and not the needs of the students - so were almost doomed to fail from the start, although the intentions were the best.

    Some schools lock their POI in - no changes allowed through the year. We start each unit design with discussions of the needs of the students. After pre-assessment : we review - are we still happy with CI, with LoI? will S be able to access the Summative task? or do we need to mix it up for the needs of our students?

    The beauty of our PYP is that we are a community of learners - we learn and construct together, celebrate together and sometimes 'trip' together. But as long as we reflect together we can continue to develop and grow. (and so can our POI!)

    This holiday, I'm going to review our POI and see if I can define our essence. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the essence can be culminated to be the overview of understanding of that year group?

    Thanks for sharing and stirring!!
    All the best

    1. Thanks for the long reply. Lots to think about.

      I don't think one concept is enough, if it is a broad term. Of course we still have the KEY CONCEPTS embedded in the design of the unit, but the idea of the unit, the shell so to speak, should be one. The concept of Family, or Systems, or Innovation, is a huge space to explore. HUGE.


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