As an educator in the fast-paced, digital era of the 2000s I feel fortunate to be a teacher at a PYP school where inquiry, curiosity and student-centered learning is celebrated. I remember seeing a meme on the Internet a few years back about how readily information is available to people in today’s world. It depicted a math teacher from decades ago saying to his class of students who were sitting in well defined, compliant rows, “Now you better memorize this because it’s not like you’re going to be carrying a calculator around with you in your pocket every day.” Enter a picture of a pocket-sized smartphone.
The Primary Years Program says that “concept-based inquiry is a powerful vehicle for learning that promotes meaning and understanding, and challenges students to engage with significant ideas.” It is a way for learning to be built around big ideas that transfer across subject areas and can be applied to new situations. The seven Key Concepts defined by the PYP are form, function, causation, change, connection, perspective and responsibility. Teaching through these concepts allows me to help students construct mental models of how things work and connect throughout the world. It is a way to connect new, abstract, or complicated learning with things that students already know and to extend their learning to new ideas and topics.
An example of this is when I taught first graders about addition through the concepts of change and balance. While addition can feel complicated and abstract for students, I was able to help students explore the idea that an addition sign will change a number by adding more to it or making it bigger. We also explored the idea of balance when thinking about the function of an equal sign. The equal sign is often thought of by kids as meaning “the answer”, which is a narrow way of thinking and has implications for future learning when it comes to more complex math topics, such as algebra. Additionally, we looked at the concept of balance so that students understood the idea that both sides of an equal sign had to be the same. Looking at addition through the lens of balance helped our students make the connection to the idea of “same as” instead of just “equal to”. For example, we read basic addition as 2 + 2 is the same as 4 rather and just 2 + 2 = 4. Now, as an intermediate teacher I value conceptual teaching even more as I see how much more successful a student can be when he or she is able to make connections to previous learning and transfer past knowledge to new situations.
In general, concepts help guide the way I construct learning experiences in the classroom and they help my students think critically about big ideas. They are a launching point for questions around a topic and help students develop their curiosity and understanding. When key concepts are too broad, related concepts act as way to explore concepts in more detail or to add depth to an area of study. Related concepts are narrower and more focused, often addressing content specific information, or standards that must be addressed on a more local level.
Knowledge is accessible nearly everywhere in today’s world, but true understanding of the world is the heart of what a PYP teacher’s role is in preparing students for success in school and beyond. Key and related concepts allow teachers in today’s age to root essential learning of skills, facts and knowledge in concepts that are deep, transferable, broad, abstract and not locked in place or time, so that students are able keep pace with a fast-moving world, full of complex systems and relationships.
As a PYP teacher I feel I get to address the evolving needs of students in an environment that encourages me to think about the enduring understanding I want my students to walk away with. An area of action for me is to be more intentional about teaching conceptually in stand-alone units or in content areas that do not align directly with a unit of inquiry. This might look like writing concepts on my “Learning Targets” bulletin board, or leading a lesson with questions about a topic that are concept driven. It might also look like backwards planning an ELA or math unit thinking about the long term concepts or deep understanding I want my students to understand and creating lesson content that will drive towards deeper conceptual understanding of a topic.
As a school, PYP buildings have a unique opportunity to provide students with common language that develops the skill of conceptual learning. All teachers, from kindergarten through intermediate grades, can teach students to recognize patterns in learning and talk about content in terms of key concepts. This can be supported through collaborative time for team teachers to plan units and lessons that align with concepts that will provide students with common and rigorous learning experiences and through vertical alignment of content so that conceptual understanding begins at a young age and is carried on through a child’s PYP experience. Furthermore, PYP coordinators can work with their teachers to develop skill as writers of curriculum and help craft lessons and units that are conceptually driven and be provided with support for developing inquiry opportunities that support students’ ability to access curriculum in a way that connects to their natural interest and prior knowledge.
The PYP Curriculum Framework. International Baccalaureate Organization, 2005-2018, <https://resources.ibo.org/pyp/works/pyp_11162-51681?c=2972d4b6>