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!

Using SDGs as IDU entry points

I’ve been writing a lot about IDUs lately, partly because I’ve been working to help develop the ID learning programme with my school and that’s naturally where my focus has been. But I’ve also been taking stock of the global events that have been unfolding — either on my literal or metaphorical doorstep — and realising now more than ever that education must be focused on preparing students to solve real-world problems. Notice I did not say preparing students for the real world, which might have been something that I naively said early in my teaching career. Students are already living in the real world. As educators, we need to equip them with the knowledge and skills to tackle the problems that we are facing as a society — and, in the real world, those problems don’t get solved using compartmentalised, disciplinary knowledge and skills.

I’ve been consuming a lot of information lately, too. Not always in long stretches (with 3 kids and multiple plates spinning at any given time, my long-term attention span is not what it used to be), but I’ll read a few chapters here or listen to a bit of Audible or a podcast there. One of the subjects that has caught my attention is the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which I started looking into when they featured in the new DP English syllabus. As I’ve come to understand them a bit better, I’ve realised that the goals themselves are interdisciplinary so could naturally provide an interesting, real-world entry point into an IDU.

Click on the link embedded within the image to learn more about the SDGs and explore the wealth of resources available for all sorts of contexts. I had no idea so many great resources existed; there is an SDG Book Club and ready-made lesson plans for teaching the SDGs to children of all ages — translated into over 10 languages!

This focus on SDGs, provided it leads to an authentic assessment task, could explicitly reflect the form of integration of practical solution (page 19 of the IB’s Fostering interdisciplinary teaching and learning): “Students bring together multiple
disciplines to achieve a concrete, practical goal (create a product, find a solution or develop an intervention). Students begin with a very clear idea of the outcome and identify the disciplinary knowledge and skills they need to reach a specific goal.” The entry point to interdisciplinary planning would be through issues/topics/problems of significance (per the ID teaching and learning support material).

Focusing on SDGs grounds interdisciplinary learning in meaningful, real-life contexts and has the potential to link to other aspects of the curriculum — Service as Action (or CAS in the DP), the Community and Personal Projects. Progression of learning could be evidenced through students’ engagement with SDGs — not necessarily the goals themselves, but the action they take in relation to the goals and the critical and creative thinking that is required of them.

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.