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.

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.

Concept-based lesson planning: from intent to implementation

I haven’t written a real lesson plan in years — except when I’ve had to for the sake of inspection or evaluation. After teaching for so many years, lesson plans become brief scribbles in a planner or bullet points on a digital file — or just mental notes about what to “cover” or “do” day to day. But as part of the Erickson and Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Trainer Certification Institute, delivered by Professional Learning International, I’ve recently had to develop concept-based lesson plans to demonstrate my understanding of how to move from intent (the written curriculum) to implementation (the taught curriculum). I never thought I would say this, but the process of writing lesson plans — often considered a burdensome task — has really recalibrated my teaching practice. In a sense, it’s getting back to the basics (what is important at the classroom level?), but with the added dimension that concept-based curriculum and instruction brings to the experience. As MYP teachers, we could so easily spend all of our time and energy crafting beautiful units, but that does not guarantee concept-based learning is taking place.

I can’t share the full lesson plans I’ve been working on here because they have been submitted as part of the certification process, but I can share the slides from one of my recent lessons. A couple of points of note: first, this particular lesson was delivered remotely, so it was not as interactive as it might have been in a physical classroom environment without COVID restrictions. Second, these are not the slides from the original lesson; like any good reflective practitioner, I revised them after seeing what worked and what didn’t. The slides don’t capture everything from the lesson (e.g., the classroom discourse is obviously missing), but they should give a good idea of the lesson content and guiding questions I used to structure it; for reference, you can read this post about the unit the lesson comes from.

I can share my key reflections on the lesson-planning experience:

1) A “lesson” isn’t necessarily confined to a class period. A lesson can take as long or as short as is needed to reach the learning goal (in this case, an understanding of the target generalisation).

2) The power of intentional, deep questioning is sooo underrated. I used to front load the unit guiding questions (tied to the statement of inquiry, which got repetitive after a few lessons) at the beginning of the unit, asking students to keep them in the back of their minds as we went through the unit because we would revisit them later on. We almost never did. Now, I use each generalisation’s guiding questions to structure my lessons, and there is no front loading. I drop them in at strategic points throughout the lesson to provoke student thinking and guide inquiry, and my learning experiences are intentionally designed around those questions. The purpose of those questions is to inductively lead students towards a conceptual understanding, not to deductively outline the lesson content. Well-crafted questions scaffold student learning — and help me as a teacher to structure the lesson.

*A further note on questioning: It can be tempting to start a lesson with factual questions, charting a nice linear path to conceptual and debatable questions, and I definitely did this in the first drafts of my lessons. However, sometimes beginning with a debatable question can provide an engaging hook for students. Or leading with a conceptual question might engage the brain and start to nudge students towards the learning goal (the conceptual understanding; more on that below). I realised as I was planning that as long as I let the target generalisation frame the whole lesson, I could be flexible with the sequencing of the parts.

3) Direct instruction does still have a place in a concept-based lesson, but it should not be the dominant form of delivery. In the Macbeth lesson above, we did have to pause and zoom in on non-verbal communication techniques. Some of these were common knowledge; others (like kinesthetics or proxemics), not so much. I had to equip students with a certain amount of knowledge before they could move forward and analyse how and to what effect those techniques were used in different performances. It’s all too easy to fall back on direct instruction because it makes us feel in control — and as a self-confessed control freak, this has been the most difficult aspect of concept-based teaching to embrace. But we have to trust our students and allow them to show us what they are capable of. We shouldn’t be doing the thinking for them.

4) Finally, learning objectives. It goes against my teaching style to write a learning objective on the board and ask students to copy it down in their exercise books. Sadly, this is common practice in many UK schools. I’ve realised that the issue I have with this practice is that it is inauthentic; it doesn’t provide students with the why. That is because a traditional learning objective is often treated as an end point, instead of a means to an end. In a concept-based classroom, conceptual understanding is the end goal (the why), and learning experiences are purposeful means of developing that understanding.

The experience of fleshing out concept-based lesson plans has certainly added to my cognitive load. In all honesty, I don’t think writing full lesson plans is necessarily sustainable on a full teaching timetable, but having the mental framework to help guide my instructional practice has allowed me to be more intentional — and reflective — in the thinking and planning process. Instead of setting off with a vague destination in mind and filling the lesson with activities to keep students busy as a means of addressing prescribed standards (although those will of course be interwoven throughout the lesson), I’ve been working to keep students engaged as they works towards an understanding of x, y or z. It’s a journey that will likely never really end as I continue to learn and reflect and refine — and repeat.

I highly recommend Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer by Lois Lanning and Tiffanee Brown for anyone (not just literacy teachers) who is interested in practical steps to bridge the gap between the written and taught concept-based curriculum. And I am eagerly anticipating Julie Stern and company’s Learning That Transfers (and so should you!), which is sure to add a whole new layer to concept-based instruction.

‘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.