Using the MYP related concepts to develop disciplinary understandings

Just over two weeks ago, I had the privilege of presenting at the IB Global Conference in The Hague. It was great to connect with people whose names I recognised from WhatsApp groups and meet in 3-D individuals who had been postage sized through a Zoom lens for the past two years. I didn’t get to see much of the city in the daytime, so I’ll have to trust the IB’s image below.

My presentation, “Taking the statement of inquiry further: Developing disciplinary understandings in the MYP”, focused on how to leverage the Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) model to go beyond just one understanding in a unit of inquiry. I started to explore this topic here and here last year, but in my presentation I outlined the steps to enhancing the conceptual level of a unit.

Step 1: Identify Disciplinary Concepts

So you have your statement of inquiry, which is a big, broad, transdisciplinary idea. But in order to develop disciplinary rigour, you need to move beyond the statement of inquiry and develop additional understandings that transfer within the discipline. The first step towards developing these understandings is to brainstorm a list of concepts that are relevant to the unit. Starting with the related concepts helps, but many of these are still considered macroconcepts. For example, character in Language & Literature is a broad concept; drill down further to microconcepts such as protagonist, antagonist, dynamic character, static character, etc. Or style could have a sharper focus on concepts such as tone, mood, diction, figurative language. The brainstorming stage is important, but you’ll sift through all of your ideas and zoom in on the most important concepts in the next step.

Step 2: Develop Disciplinary Understandings

A concept-based unit should have 5-9 generalisations. If we only focus on the statement of inquiry and don’t work to develop multiple understandings, we are missing out on the opportunity to develop students’ disciplinary expertise. The statement of inquiry should frame the picture, but it isn’t the whole picture. What connections do we want to support? What understandings do want students to be able to transfer to new contexts or situations?

Step 3: Write Disciplinary Guiding Questions

Once you have developed your list of understandings (and this can take some time!), you’ll need to write guiding questions for each generalisation. Each generalisation should have a list of 3-5 factual and conceptual questions. Across the whole unit, you should aim for 1-2 debatable questions. Unlike the questions linked to the statement of inquiry, your disciplinary questions can link to specific unit content.

Step 4: Design Concept-Based Lessons

This is perhaps the most challenging part of the process. You might have a solid, 3-dimensional unit, but how do you translate that to classroom practice? It’s so easy to default to a 2-dimensional delivery of content (or skills), but to really develop students’ ability to think conceptually, we have to teach conceptually. There are several models for concept-based learning, but they all embrace the constructivist approach: students need to be able to abstract to from the concrete. Too often, we might tell the students what they should understand at the end of a lesson or unit, and they spend their time validating our understandings. A concept-based approach honours student intellect and gives them the opportunity to construct their own understandings; this is the inductive approach. There is no set formula for this (although I am partial to Rachel French’s concept-based inquiry model, which provides a very clear framework), but the key is to encourage students to see patterns and make connections.

So what does this look like in practice…?

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