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.

Practising affective skills: becoming effective learners by managing state of mind

It’s almost here: the second edition of Personal Project for IB MYP 4 & 5: Skills for Success is in production and scheduled for release on 27 August.

I wrote back in February about some of the changes to the Personal Project, but you can check out my latest guest blog post on the role of skills in the project on Hodder Education’s web site, where you will also find sample pages from the new book as well as content from my co-author, Laura England.

Reimagining IDUs

Earlier this month, the IB released the updated guides to the Personal Project and Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning, and there are some exciting changes coming from September! Two things seem clear in both guides: there is a greater emphasis on student agency and there is greater alignment between the core components of the programme: the MYP Projects, Interdisciplinary Learning, and Service as Action. There also seems to be a real push to use IDUs to grow school culture (with links to Social Emotional Learning). I wrote about the importance of establishing an interdisciplinary learning culture last spring, so it is really great to see this take on central importance in the new guide (see “Using interdisciplinary units to grow school culture” in “Interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP”).

Last May, I shared a model for a 3-day IDU, based around the inquiry cycle. I developed the idea in response to conversations I had had with other MYP educators (both within and outside of my school) in which we shared concerns about how to “make IDUs fit” within the curriculum and how to effectively teach IDUs concurrently. If time is intentionally set aside for IDUs to take place in every grade, ideally around the same time, it becomes much easier to develop a continuum of interdisciplinary learning.

In this newest iteration of the guide, there are only three objectives, which align directly with the inquiry cycle, making the 3-day model much easier to plan and implement.

Day 1: Inquiry (Evaluating)

The shift in language from Disciplinary Grounding to Evaluating as one of the three objectives is interesting. The previous wording might have implied a focus on subject area content. Now, evaluating invites students to consider real-world problems through an interdisciplinary lens.

Day 2: Action (Synthesizing)

Day 2 would be an opportunity for students, either individually or in collaborative groups, to create a product that communicates a purposeful interdisciplinary understanding.

Day 3: Reflection (Reflecting)

Day 3 would be an opportunity for students to showcase their interdisciplinary understandings, either through the form of presentations or mini-exhibitions, and to reflect on their learning.

Finally, I thought I would highlight the part of the new guide that really jumped out at me: “Students should become more self-directed in their interdisciplinary inquiry over time. It is suggested that in the first years of the MYP, depending on the context and the student’s prior learning, inquiry can be more teacher-determined and directed. As learners progress through the programme, interdisciplinary inquiry may be more student-led and open, for example, by focusing on inquiry questions generated by students as well as teachers, and/or by including tasks that allow students to be agents of change in creating a more sustainable, interconnected and peaceful world that brings the IB mission to life.” (IBO, 2021) So progression of interdisciplinary learning can be developed through the amount of agency students are given, not simply through complexity of content. This is a game-changer!

‘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.

The 3-day IDU: a simplified model

I’ve written twice now about developing IDUs but thought I would simplify my 3-day model here. I want to emphasise that there is no right or wrong way to deliver an IDU. The IB does not give a minimum or maximum length requirement, and different schools do things in different ways according to their individual contexts. Some IDUs are completed in a day, and some stretch on for weeks.

The model I suggest would be delivered over 3 days in a collapsed timetable and is based on the inquiry cycle, which itself is aligned with the interdisciplinary learning objectives. The cycle is reproduced below from the IB’s Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning in the MYP (2014).

Day 1: Inquiry (Disciplinary Grounding)

This would be the most teacher-led (but not teacher-centred) part of the IDU, where subject teachers provide disciplinary grounding and the subject-specific knowledge needed for students to synthesise their learning and take action.

Day 2: Action (Synthesizing)

Day 2 would be an opportunity for students, either individually or in collaborative groups, to synthesise their understanding of the two (or more) disciplines and work towards developing a solution in response to a real-world problem (authentic assessment).

*Note: The subject reports for the ID eAssessment have previously made reference to a need for teachers to provide students with opportunities to synthesise before the summative assessment. Formative assessment plays a crucial element in developing students’ interdisciplinary understanding, so a relevant synthesis task could be set as homework between Day 1 and Day 2 or completed in the classroom early on Day 2.

Day 3: Action/Reflection (Communicating and Reflecting)

Day 3 would be an opportunity for students to communicate their interdisciplinary understandings. These could take the form of presentations or mini-exhibitions. Students would then have the opportunity to reflect (again, either individually or collaborative). This part of the process could take place at the end of Day 3 or extend into time outside of class. As I noted in the slides I included in Fostering an interdisciplinary learning culture, many of the same tools or platforms could be used be used for students to communicate and reflect.

I have previously shared my thoughts on why some teachers are still resistant to or reluctant to engage with IDUs, and one of those reasons is the time they take. With this model, students might lose out on a maximum of 3 lessons in any given subject over the course of a whole year (depending on a school’s timetable), but they would gain approximately 12-15 hours of interdisciplinary learning within a condensed timeframe. There are several ways to structure units, which I have outlined in my presentation slides. Writing the units will take some initial heavy lifting, but once the framework and units are in place, that work should pay in dividends over the years to come.

Fostering an interdisciplinary learning culture

Say the letters I-D-U in a crowded staff room and I bet you’ll see a cluster of MYP teachers scatter to the winds. For some reason, The IDU has taken on a beast-like persona. Perhaps because teachers see it as an extra burden? Perhaps because they feel that they the lack time and resources to effectively plan and implement an IDU? Perhaps because teachers are naturally territorial and think of themselves as English teachers or Chemistry teachers rather than MYP English teachers. Perhaps all three of these — or something else? Let me unpack each of these possibilities one by one and offer a solution — albeit an idealistic one.

The IDU is an extra burden: Actually, the IDU (I’ll abandon the capital The now) is an MYP requirement, just like the Personal Project and Service as Action. It is not an option or an add-on, and shouldn’t be treated as one — especially for schools who administer the ID eAssessment. So IDUs need to take priority within a school’s overall scope and sequence. They are also perhaps the most creative element of the MYP (in my opinion!), but school leaders at all levels (senior leaders, heads of subject and heads of year) need to show enthusiasm for them to get teachers to “buy into” them and see them as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The IDU takes too much time to plan and implement: I won’t argue that an IDU does take time to develop and implement, but it needn’t be that labour intensive. Arguably, the planning stage is the biggest challenge; many teachers find it difficult to make time for collaboration, and I’m afraid I don’t have a solution to that one because each school has its own timetable constraints. But in terms of delivery, schools have relative freedom. The IB does not stipulate a minimum or maximum length of time for an IDU to take place, so they can really be as short or as long as a school or teachers see fit. We have done IDUs in a day before, and some of our IDUs have stretched over a few weeks. I would advocate for a 3-day collapsed timetable approach which mirrors the inquiry cycle. Below are slides I developed which outline a framework that I think could work.

The IDU takes time away from my subject/discipline: Let’s face it, teachers are territorial by nature. We often speak of my subject or my classroom or my students, and, even in the most collaborative of schools, tend to work in disciplinary silos. Again, it’s about flipping one’s thinking and considering how an IDU can enhance one’s subject, not take away from it. That might mean sacrificing a little bit of content from other units, but the student engagement that an IDU can promote will be well worth it.

From my experience writing and examining ID eAssessments, I came to the conclusion that the most successful students came from schools who prioritised interdisciplinary learning and made it part of the school culture.

COVID-19: An interdisciplinary experience?

There is a very tired saying that we learn by experience. The learning that results from an experience is not compartmentalised; we don’t naturally think in disciplines, do we? Well, we are currently living through an unprecedented (another word that has been overused recently) global experience in the form of COVID-19, and look at all of the learning — for better or worse — that is coming out of that experience: musicians are connecting with global audiences via concerts they are hosting from their living rooms, actors are streaming live “performances” of Shakespeare, ordinary citizens are participating in yoga or cooking classes with a global community — and all of this is taking place while we learn to adapt to new forms of technology or, in some cases, we adapt new forms of technology to meet our changing needs in a world of self-isolation. Conceptually, we are grappling with change and finding ways to connect and communicate (locally and globally) in ways that may be challenging or unfamiliar. The lockdown environment might be affecting our relationships (positively or negatively) and perhaps even giving us a new perspective on things.

All of this got me thinking: why not use the current situation as a learning opportunity for students? So I started to put together some interdisciplinary ideas. These are just entry points, not full units, and they are not perfectly polished. Feel free to use them as a springboard for designing a full IDU within your own context. (There is a certain irony in the fact that I have created IDU ideas, which are collaborative in nature, in isolation, but I’m hoping people will accept the exceptional circumstances and appreciate the spirit in which I share these.)

There are three main entry points into an IDU: through concepts, global contexts or content. I have outlined the process I went through to create each of these integrations below.

I started with the content or topic, which is COVID-19 (or, more generally, pandemic). I then viewed that topic through each of the global lenses (contexts) and considered key concepts that seemed best aligned to each context. From there, I suggest the disciplines that might lead to the most effective interdisciplinary experience; I started with disciplines that share the same key concept and then considered others that might work well as an integration. I don’t suggest that all of those disciplines listed need to be integrated into a single unit (although they could!), but listing several opens up multiple opportunities.

Obviously, the current global situation is an emotive one, and as educators we have to tread carefully and consider the emotional needs and wellbeing of our students. This topic may not be suitable to address with all students in all schools at this time. However, I think the SoIs are general enough to be able to adapt using any global event as the core focus, which could still lead to some meaningful interdisciplinary learning outcomes. Equally, you could adapt the framework to work with any topic of interest.

I will be expanding on these ideas in an IB Educators Chat that I am facilitating on MYP Interdisciplinary Learning on Wednesday, 13 May at 19:00 GMT (that’s 20:00 London time). During the meet, I will offer some practical suggestions for how to coordinate the logistics of one or more of these IDUs (in either a remote or classroom setting) and provide an opportunity for global discussion and collaboration on how to make interdisciplinary learning happen in our current online environment. Follow the link below or email me for more information.

Approaches to learning: aligning skills with concepts

One of the things that I love about the IB Middle Years curriculum is the different pieces that fit together to create the big picture. It is a rich and layered curriculum that, if managed strategically, can add depth and breadth to a student’s learning experience. The key word here is strategically. Any of the various elements of a unit (key and related concepts, statements of inquiry and inquiry questions, global contexts, and approaches to learning) can be treated superficially, and perhaps the easiest component to neglect is the approaches to learning (AtLs). We’re all doing it, of course, merely by teaching our subjects, but it’s not always explicit — and it should be.

I’ve been looking at ways to make our integration of AtLs within the English Department more purposeful, as opposed to merely plucking a skill from a list of over 200. I created an AtL tracking document several years ago which maps the skills that we teach in each unit in each year, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s kind of pointless because it’s merely a tick list. We don’t have a systematic way of integrating those skills across the subject. We already work backwards from the summative assessment task and consider those skills which students need to demonstrate most to achieve success, but I still wouldn’t consider that strategic.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Lenny Dutton’s Excited Educator blog, and she had a post which was really thought-provoking; in it, she advocated for aligning specific skills with subject group objectives. This makes good sense: aligning skills with disciplinary objectives seems a much more organic way of embedding AtLs within the curriculum; in this way, the skills are essentially derivatives of the course as opposed to a tick box exercise.

Over the past couple of months, as we have worked on tightening up the conceptual focus of each of our units, it has struck me that, if skills can be aligned with objectives, they can surely be aligned with concepts. In fact, the IB states that “The most effective way to develop approaches to learning is through ongoing, process-focused disciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Teachers can use key and related concepts along with global contexts as vehicles for teaching effective learning strategies. Likewise, approaches to learning can be powerful tools for exploring significant content. This dual focus (content and process) promotes student engagement, deep understanding, transfer of skills and academic success.” (Emphasis is mine. I cannot find the original source of this material, but it can be easily accessed here.) This seems compatible with Lois A. Lanning’s Structure of Process, which is summarised nicely here.

So I have started playing around with this idea and have aligned the key concepts for Language & Literature with what I think are the most compatible AtL skill categories and clusters. Of course, there is some overlap as some AtLs align with more than one concept, and this is definitely open to interpretation (for example, someone else might think that thinking skills also relate to the concept of perspective, and that would absolutely be valid).

This could of course be extended further to the related concepts, highlighting those related concepts which link to each specific skill strand. I have demonstrated some of the skills within the communication cluster below and how they might align with related concepts. As above, this is also open to interpretation, and this is just that: my interpretation. I’m also not a design expert, so this may not be the most attractive way of presenting this information, but hopefully it serves its purpose.

So in practice, we can choose a skill which aligns with a unit’s key concept (and/or one of the dominant objectives since units should ideally focus on 2-3 skills which are explicitly taught) and supports students towards success on the summative assessment task. Learning experiences, including opportunities for formative feedback, can then be designed around that skill to support students towards mastery of that skill. For example, a recent unit my Grade 9 students completed on archetypal characters and themes in Macbeth centred around the following SoI: Many characters, situations and themes connect with universal voices across time, place and genre. The summative assessment task was a comparative essay. Students had a choice of topics; either comparing the treatment of female characters in Macbeth and Robert Browning’s poem “The Laboratory” or comparing Macbeth to the principles of Machiavelli or simply arguing who was the real villain in Macbeth by comparing and contrasting the main characters. In completing the task, students had to demonstrate critical thinking by gathering and organising relevant information to formulate an argument. The nature of the task required students to demonstrate their ability to evaluate similarities and differences by connecting features across and within genres and texts (Criterion Aiv); in doing so, they had to address the related concept of intertextuality, which links to the key concept of connections.

Each school has different ways of coordinating AtLs at the school-wide level and integrating them at the subject level, and I would never advocate for a one size fits all approach. Indeed, nothing about the MYP should be approached in a linear fashion. This is one way to integrate AtLs in a disciplinary context, which may or may not work for more knowledge-focused disciplines. However, I do think aligning skills with concepts has the potential to help frame AtLs within the bigger picture so that they feel less like a bolt-on; making these deliberate choices forces us to treat these skills more explicitly.

Note: Sometimes, an AtL is obvious. I’m not suggesting that we should always engage in some contrived route towards choosing AtLs, but often just the process of mentally aligning a skill with a concept can facilitate conceptual thinking.