Using an inductive approach to introduce MYP units

As the new term commenced, many MYP students embarked on new units. For years, my MYP unit introduction lessons followed a pretty standard formula: I would share the statement of inquiry, key and related concepts, and global context with my students. Then we would dive straight into the unit’s content, sometimes returning to those elements, but often as filler (“Remember our SoI…”) rather than as a deliberate strategy to help students develop connections or relationships between those elements. I even had a lovely (sarcasm intended) unit cover sheet that I would ask them to stick into their exercise book as a divider for all of the notes and exercises they would complete throughout the course of the unit. It was an easy way to frame a unit, but it was all very didactic and frankly not the most exciting.

The IB does not prescribe a particular method for introducing concepts, but often MYP lessons (at least in the introductory phase) are delivered deductively: we give the students the statement of inquiry at the beginning of the unit and spend the rest of the time (sometimes several weeks) validating that one generalisation. Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction embraces an inductive approach, which involves engaging students in examples or case studies to notice patterns, make connections and, ultimately, articulate their own understandings.

What if we did this with the statement of inquiry? Often, these statements can feel awkward or forced. By trying to adhere to the “rules”, they can come out bloated and not at all student-friendly. If we let students construct their own statements of inquiry, we honour their intellect, support their agency and give them an active voice in determining the purpose or direction of the unit. We can use the guiding questions to nudge them in the right direction, but think of how much more engaged they would be in this process than in the process of cutting and pasting into their exercise books a teacher-made unit cover sheet that they are likely to never look at again?

So… what would this actually look like? In my Grade 6 (MYP 1) English class, we recently explored the concepts of character, identity, connections, and perspective through an inquiry into different Greek myths as part of an introduction to our current unit, “What makes a hero?”. Students focused on the challenges that heroes overcome (or fail to overcome) and the lessons that we can learn from Greek myths. This inquiry provided an opportunity for students to develop some background knowledge that they will need in order to understand the cultural context of the Odyssey as well as to appreciate the challenges that Odysseus faced on his journey. We will follow this up with a more focused exploration of the defining characteristics of a hero (and test these against the character of Odysseus) and the stages of the hero’s journey.

Admittedly, this is the first time that I have had my Grade 6 students generalise and I was worried that they would not understand what to do or would struggle with constructing a coherent sentence that showed a meaningful relationship between concepts… but I was thrilled with the results. Let’s just say that some of their statements were better than that the one that my teaching partner and I wrote! Here is a sample. They’ll vote in our next lesson on the one that they want to be our shared statement of inquiry.

A few notes/suggestions:

  1. I was not concerned about whether or not my students’ generalisations fit the “formula” of an MYP statement of inquiry (and in fact the one that my teaching partner and I wrote probably doesn’t either). For reference, our key concept is connections, related concepts are character and intertextuality and the global context is identities and relationships (explorations: affiliation and leadership, identity formation).
  2. Having students construct their own SoIs can be exciting — but also a little bit intimidating. We do have to release a little bit of control in this process, but not too much. It may be a good idea to agree upon one SoI, from the students’ individual understandings, that will serve as the principle generalisation for the unit. This will ensure that there is a shared focus to the unit and that assessment is consistent.
  3. I have written before about viewing the statement of inquiry as a springboard to developing more disciplinary understandings. The SoI will frame our unit, giving us a broad purpose, but we have planned to develop the following disciplinary understandings within the 10-week unit:
    • Background knowledge and cultural context can help improve a reader’s interpretation of a text.
    • Authors create dramatic situations which test a hero’s courage.
    • Authors use different types of conflict to reveal character traits.
    • Authors can use illustration and imagery to make their characters more believable.
    • Readers develop their personal response to texts by considering different points of view.
    • Recognising patterns across genres helps readers analyse texts.
    • Effective presentations include elements of storytelling such as voice, narrative structure and emotional engagement.
    • Presenters use speaking conventions and non-verbal communication techniques to engage an audience.

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…?

Finding some headspace after a hectic year

It’s hard to believe that we have completed the first full school year in three years. What once felt so normal, so routine, now feels like a novelty. Despite some individual hiccups, collectively we made it through three full terms, two parent-teacher conferences, countless parents’ evenings and events, and a return to trips (including some residential, both in the UK and abroad).

I did not anticipate how much headspace this year would demand — not just because I moved into a new role in senior leadership, but also because of the general adjustment to post-lockdown life and work. When I was stuck in it, I didn’t really notice; I was just on autopilot. Now, with the headspace to really reflect, it’s hard to remember an uninterrupted year. Being in perpetual motion is exhausting; after years on the treadmill, I think (I think) I’ve finally learned how to pace myself.

While I haven’t been keeping up with this blog so regularly, I did manage to write an article on the approaches to learning over the Easter holiday, which was just been published last week on Professional Learning International’s blog. There’s a lot more in my head that I hope to share next academic year; I just need the summer to reboot.

Shining the Light

Why didn’t anyone ever tell me this before? How could I have entered the classroom without knowing all of this? ” My colleague was sitting around my kitchen table with a cup of coffee in one hand, a cookie in the other, and literally having an aha moment. If you looked hard enough, a halo of light was shining above his head.

I had just recovered from Covid-19, and was trying to catch up on work for school. My friend and colleague who was at the time a sixth grade English teacher was always expressing the need for support in the classroom. He was long overdue for this session. The pandemic, the switch back and forth between online, blended, and face to face learning, meant my time was controlled by a virus and government lock downs. It meant that the time we spent mentoring teachers was now spent on tracking cases and close contacts, until one morning I became the case that needed to be tracked. So planning, coaching and counselling teachers, a long standing passion of mine, simply had to take the backseat.

But on this cold winter afternoon, with the tail end of Christmas lingering in the air, around my kitchen table, we were having a conceptual aha moment. Suddenly all that jargon that we throw at teachers: inductive inquiry, statements of inquiry/understandings, concepts, guiding questions, all came together for my friend, and he saw the light shine. Mind you, we were working on a unit for his class that he gave permission for me to use for one of my CBCI Institute courses.

Fast forward to this academic year, we are in full face to face learning, or I should say mask to mask learning. One of my colleagues is new to teaching. Exceptional in knowledge and content, but after a couple of visits to his classroom, I could see that direct teaching was all that happened. Students were restless or altogether uninterested. A few of them were taking notes as the teacher spoke, or played a video, the rest were waiting for the bell to ring, and plotting what chaos they will reek during recess.

In our follow up session, I asked him if he ever considered giving the students the driver’s seat for their own learning. He sited a few strategies and few exercises he used. All were great! And yes they were definite attempts at inductive inquiry, but what they lacked is the conceptual glue that will drive student understandings with breadth, depth and rigor. We started working on his unit planner, and quickly wrote up a lesson plan for the next two weeks. As students worked on building concepts of patterns, trends and periodicity through inductive inquiry strategies, the entire classroom seemed to shine with intellectual stimulation.

At the end of the two weeks, as students left for fall break having finally made a conceptual connection between these concepts and the periodic table itself, as they walked out they asked their teacher to never go back to lecturing. We learn better this way! said one student, I finally get it! Another exclaimed, and a murmur of agreement rushed through the class. As I observed the classes over the week and watched my colleague become more confident in his approach, once again i saw the light shine in his classroom. That same light that surrounded my English teacher colleague in my kitchen almost a year ago now.

Although it is too early to judge, and individual teachers will react differently to student centered methods, concept based learning, and inductive inquiry, I believe that once teachers develop a good understanding of concept based learning a light shines into their classroom, as warm and as stimulating as those first rays of spring sun streaming through the windows after a cold winter. They seem to be more intellectually stimulated, more excited to be with their students, and best of all more confident with the content they know.

From my brief observations, I had the pleasure to watch the energy shift in the classroom from dull, cold and boring, to warm, exciting and full of life. The students seemed intellectually stimulated, excited to be produce their own knowledge, and the teacher was simply pushing their thrinking forward, driving their inquiry deeper. This must be the aftermath of synergistic thinking energy, not only generating conceptual thinking and understandings, but also radiating throughout the classroom making it glow like a hot piece of metal.

Teachers I have worked with report less classroom management challenges. They also report higher student performance, and a deeper understanding of the concepts and content covered. Students feel in control of their learning and report that they want to come back to class, that they look forward to their lessons now, and that they now understand better. They also express a deep satisfaction in the skills they pick up throughout the diverse inquiry based learning engagements.

There is still a lot of work to be done. Parents who still believe children must come home with a ton of homework and a notebook full of notes every day will continue to be a challenge. Those parents are also mirrored in their children, so bringing those few on board is necessary for any school wishing to switch to concept based curriculum and inductive inquiry. Many teachers who are comfortable with the their own style or set in their ways are also still posing a challenge.

But for now, I am going to basque in the light that is shining through those transformed classrooms and make sure that there is enough fuel to feed the fire of conceptual understandings.

The power of global collaboration: introducing three conceptually-driven educators

In October 2020, I embarked on the year-long Erickson and Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Trainer Certification Institute with Professional Learning International. I had had my eye on this programme for a few years — since I started looking “behind the scenes” of the IB MYP and delving into the work of H. Lynn Erickson. When the time finally seemed right to attend the institute, which was originally held in The Netherlands in July, the pandemic hit. That pushed pause on that plan — or so I thought at the time. Luckily, within a few months, the institute shifted to an online format, so I was able to complete the training earlier than I had anticipated — and all while immersed in my day job, so I could apply my learning immediately within my classroom context. I was officially certified as an independent trainer and presenter in June.

Throughout the training, I got to know lots of interesting educators from all over the world, but my collaboration with these three ladies has endured beyond the weekly Zoom sessions and the occasional email or social media post. Despite being based in different parts of the globe and working with different age groups and in different subject areas, we soon realised we had the same passion for using concept-based learning to amplify the student (and teacher!) experience. Let me let them introduce themselves here. They’ll be guest blogging soon.

Katie Langford
(Early Years)

I’m Katie Langford and I’ve been in international education for over 18 years. My career has weaved through many countries, curriculums and roles and I have worked with some truly remarkable educators passionate about early years.

I began my career in Hong Kong, moving on to the US, the UAE and currently Singapore where I am leading an Early Years section at an International Primary School. I have been lucky enough to work in schools that have shifted from traditional curriculums to a more 3 dimensional style of education bringing to life conceptual teaching and learning.

With a strong background in the IB, I am now delighted to be a certified Erickson and Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) trainer and consultant, specialising in early years.

Ruba M. Abi Saab

As I reflect back on my journey, I can say that teaching and shaping young minds have always been my number 1 passion. Being a lifelong learner helped me embrace a student-like mindset and be open to share and receive new ideas and perspectives from my students and colleagues. 

I have been in the world of education for nearly 9 years and currently teach PYP.6 in ARIS, Ghana. After teaching in a traditional setting for a couple of years and earning an M.A. in School Management and Educational Leadership, I realised that students are capable of achieving great things if given the ‘opportunity’. How do I provide them with a greater opportunity to own their learning? Helping students acquire new knowledge was one of my goals; but questions revolving around the purpose of their learning and how to help them think beyond the facts filled my head. This pushed me to explore what IB education entails. The world of IB, particularly the Concept Based Approach, was a turning point for me. As I put all the pieces of the puzzle together, I was able to understand and make sense of my role as a facilitator in my students’ learning. 

As I dug deeper into the work of Dr. Erickson and Dr. Lanning, I realized that there are unlimited possibilities in unlocking a child’s potential by creating an environment that fosters the integration of skills, knowledge and concepts. I also experienced the power of questions and the impact it has on students’ learning. Our main role as facilitators is ‘asking’  rather than ‘answering’ questions. I enjoy seeing my students emotionally and mentally engaged as they inquire into various topics. Watching them move from the ‘What’ towards the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ they are inquiring into a particular topic/concept brings me so much joy and satisfaction.

Besides my teaching role, I have recently embarked on the journey of training and coaching my colleagues on the concept-based approach. I am enjoying every bit of it as I continue to learn, unlearn and relearn with them every single day. I strongly believe that great things happen when we work together. I can’t wait to share and connect with you!

Riyam Kafri AbuLaban, PhD (Secondary)

Hello fellow educators! My name is Riyam Kafri AbuLaban. I am an educator, writer and a lifelong learner. I have been in education twenty plus years, starting my teaching career as a TA during my PhD. I worked as an assistant professor of chemistry and taught philosophy and writing at the undergraduate level. Currently I serve as a school principal and academic leader at the Ramallah Friends School in Palestine.  

My journey in education has been full and exciting and I held different positions that contributed to my diverse skill-set. But the classroom remains to be my first love and passion. 

I am interested in how students learn, and how teachers can be supported to become the 21st century facilitators they are expected to be. In my work, I am focused on equipping teachers with the necessary approaches to learning and strategies they need to feel empowered in their classrooms. 

I am a recently certified Erickson and Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Trainer, as well as an IB MYP and IB DP Educator. I love teaching and teachers and consider myself to be a passionate teacher advocate and coach. I consider myself to be  conceptually driven and believe that concept-based learning shines light into classrooms and into student learning and teacher practices. 

I am excited to share my thoughts, work with teachers and schools and help everyone feel empowered to do the important work of teaching. 

Outside the educational world, I am a proud mother of two (twins), a foodie and a baker. You can reach me at or follow me on instagram @riyamkafri or Twitter: @riyamos. 

‘Macbeth’ 2.0: upgrading a 2-dimensional unit

I have probably taught Macbeth close to a dozen times over the years. It’s a great work, and I honestly haven’t come across too many students who have actively disliked it. But there are only so many different ways you can teach iambic pentameter.

I’ve been working on adapting our existing unit according to the Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction (CBCI) framework. The process of redesigning the unit with a more conceptual focus started with a colleague’s initiative a couple of years ago, when she brought in some poems by Browning and Tennyson to explore the concept of the archetype. I’ve taken it a little bit further and fleshed out 7 generalisations that amplify the statement of inquiry and add disciplinary depth to the unit. We’ve also added a film and media focus to expose students to a wider variety of text types in relation to the conceptual lens. It’s a work in progress, but the lessons are already so much more fun to plan and teach.

Unit Title: Villainous Characters (Grade 9 MYP English Language & Literature)

Key Concept: Connections

Related Concepts: Character, Intertextuality, Theme

Global Context: Identities and relationships (Consciousness of mind, motivation)

Statement of Inquiry: Archetypal characters act as intertextual links across time, place and genre.

GeneralisationsGuiding Questions
1) Archetypes allow audiences to recognise patterns across texts.F=What is an archetype?
F=What common archetypal characters appear in literature and film?
F=What are the characteristics of a typical villain?
C=What makes the character of “the villain” so compelling?
C=What is the difference between an anti-hero and a villain?
C=Are some archetypes culturally specific?
2) Ambition and a desire for power can drive a person to commit morally questionable actions.F=What is the definition of ambition?
C=Why does the word ‘ambition’ sometimes have a negative connotation?
D=Is evil born or learned?
D=Is there a universal understanding of what is morally right and wrong?
3) Authors reveal characters’ motivations through internal and external conflicts.F=What is the difference between an internal and an external conflict?
F=What motivates Macbeth to kill King Duncan?
F=What is Lady Macbeth’s motivation and what does this reveal about her character and her relationship with Macbeth?
C=How do authors reveal characters’ motivations?
4) Writers employ figurative language to enable readers to make inferences about texts.F=What are some examples of figurative language?
F=How does Shakespeare use figurative language to develop his characters?
F=How does imagery appeal to the senses?
C=How is figurative language used to convey tone and mood?
C=What inferences can readers make about texts by examining figurative language?
5) Playwrights/dramatists use soliloquies to communicate a character’s thoughts, feelings and motivations with an audience.F=What are the conventions of a soliloquy?
F=How does a soliloquy differ from a monologue?
F=What is blank verse?
C=What can a soliloquy reveal about character that dialogue cannot?
C=How can a soliloquy elicit an emotional response from an audience?
6) Performers use non-verbal language to convey emotions.F=What are some examples of non-verbal language?
C=How do performers use non-verbal language to convey emotion?
C=What can non-verbal language reveal that verbal language cannot?
7) Media platforms can manipulate language to shape public perceptions of individuals and groups of people.F=What language devices are used on media platforms?
C=How can media platforms shape public perceptions of individuals and groups of people?
D=Is it morally justifiable for the media to villainize certain individuals or groups of people? When might it be justifiable to do so?

Why the IB framework is not a roadmap to conceptual understanding

Lockdown 3.0: As we start our second period of full remote learning (please, God, let this be the last!), I am reflecting more and more on the value of concept-based learning. And the conclusion I have come to is this: the IB curriculum framework (PYP, MYP or DP) does not guarantee conceptual understanding. For many years, I thought that, just by nature of the fact that I was teaching the IB, I was a concept-based teacher. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Because even if the written curriculum is concept-based, that does not mean that the pedagogy is. A well-intentioned 3-Dimensional curriculum can too easily fall back into a 2-Dimensional mode of delivery. (This is probably especially true in a remote context, when often we are just trying to find activities to keep students busy.) And that has a further knock-on effect: if we aren’t supporting the written curriculum with concept-based instruction, then how can we possibly assess students’ conceptual understandings?

Conceptual teaching — and conceptual learning — is a mindset. It involves intellectual effort on our part to lead students on a journey to construct their own understandings. It’s not enough to expect this conceptual learning to happen because it is written in the unit planner; we have to intentionally create opportunities for students to develop conceptual understandings. And if we are only focusing on the MYP statement of inquiry (which is often generic in nature) as our main vehicle for conceptual understanding, then we are not maximising opportunities to develop disciplinary depth and breadth of understanding.

To really get to the heart of the MYP (or DP) curriculum, we need to look at the philosophy(ies) that underpin it. I first stumbled upon Lynn Erickson’s work when the MYP Next Chapter came out. As I read through the subject guides, I kept seeing her name pop up in reference lists. Who was she, I wondered, and why hadn’t I heard about her? So I started my own inquiry and realised that this (Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction) was where the real meat was, not the subject guides themselves. The subject guides merely lay out a framework. And if a framework is all you ever work with, using the concepts as afterthoughts but delivering the content in the same way as you always have, you aren’t utilising CBCI to its full potential. If you are an IB teacher and you haven’t already read the work of Erickson and Lois Lanning, you owe it to yourself and your students to do so. (The influential/inspirational work of Rachel French, Tiffanee Brown and Julie Stern has also informed and guided my exploration of concept-based pedagogy, and they are worth checking out.)

Even though I have been involved on many different levels with IB curriculum and assessment for 12 years, I am really in the beginning stages of my concept-based teaching journey. I plan to share more in the weeks and months to come, including resources I am developing for my classroom. I hate to think of all of the missed opportunities in my first decade of IB teaching, but I suppose I shouldn’t dwell on negatives. As reflective practitioners, there is always the opportunity to deepen our own understanding and aim for better. It’s never too late to amplify one’s practice.