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…?

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.