Are you too busy to improve?

I recently came across this image…


I came across it when reading 10 Tips to Become a 21st Century Teacher and haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since! To me, it perfectly sums up the paradox experienced by new-to-PYP teachers. At my school most of our teachers have taught in the PYP for less than 5 years (myself included) which means we all have a lot to learn about inquiry-based, concept-driven, student-led, internationally minded teaching and learning.

However, much too often these are the comments I hear:

“I just don’t have time to go on blogs.”

“When in my day am I supposed to find time for my own learning?”

“I am too busy with my teaching responsibilities to have time to go on Twitter.”

“When are we ever supposed to have a free moment to go on OCC or read IB documents?”

I always find this way of thinking so ironic. The very practices that clutter our time as teachers – finding worksheets, photocopying, “marking”, planning “activities”, finding resources for students, coming up with summative tasks, writing rubrics, mapping out 6 weeks of a unit – are the very practices we would start to let go of and approach differently if we had a deeper understanding of inquiry-based teaching and learning.

My advice? Make the time to learn about the round wheels. You will thank yourself later. Go on blogs, join Twitter, read the IB documents. Once you understand how the round wheels work and how to use them, I promise you will find that beautiful balance in inquiry-based teaching and learning where the students’ learning and engagement goes up and your “prep” and “busyness” goes down. It is a wonderful symbiotic relationship and when you experience it, you will know it. It’s enjoyable for the students and equally enjoyable for the teachers!

But in order to get there – and find that enjoyable, smooth ride that is made possible by the round wheels – you have invest the time to learn, let go of old practices and be willing to try doing things a new way.

Are you too busy to improve?

If so, be prepared to keep being exhausted as you pull your cart along with square wheels. 

We tuned in!

Before our Units of Inquiry started, grade-level teams inquired into “tuning in” (with the help of  this post from Kath Murdoch). Many teachers walked away with a new, or deeper, understanding of the purpose behind the “tuning in” phase of inquiry. Teachers were excited to put their new learning into practice… here is how it turned out in our Grade 1 to 5 classes:

Grade 1: Peaceful relationships are created through mutual understanding and respect.

Students tuned in to problems and solutions:


Students tuned in to the concept of numbers:



Grade 2: Citizens build communities.

Students tuned in to the concepts of “community” and “citizenship”:



Grade 3: Decisions impact conseqeunces.

Students tuned in to “decisions” and “consequences”:


Students shared important decisions they made in their life:


Students tuned in to decisions made by readers:


Students tuned in to the decisions they make as mathematicians:


Students tuned in to the number of decisions they make:


Teachers tuned in to the type of decisions they make:


Grade 4: Relationships are affected by learning about people’s perspectives and communicating our own. 

Students tuned in to the concepts of perspective and relationships:



Students tuned in to different representations of numbers:



Grade 5: Relationships among human body systems contribute to health and survival. 

Students (and teachers) tuned in to the concept of systems:



Students tuned in to what they think they know about body systems:



I love that the students’ thinking is front and centre!

I love that the students’ thinking is visible!

I love that students were able to demonstrate their thinking in a variety of ways!

I love that teachers tuned into conceptual understandings, not just topic knowledge! 

I love that transdisciplinarity is evident!

I love that teachers were acting as inquiries themselves… doing reconnaissance to find out about what their students bring to a Unit of Inquiry!

The feedback from teachers about “tuning in” has been great! Teachers are excited because they have learned about their students’ prior knowledge, their misconceptions, their interests and their questions. It has not only provided them with diagnostic assessment data, but also a road map that illuminates “where to next?” based on students’ needs and interests! I can’t wait to see where these inquires lead!

How do you “tune in” to your students’ thinking?

What does an inquiry-based, first week of school look like?

During this year’s staff orientation, we used inspiration from two blog posts (sowing the seeds of inquiry & 10 things to do on the first day of school) to move towards a more inquiry-based, first week with students.

Here is a glimpse into what it looked like in classrooms from KG to Grade 5…

Students helped set up their learning environment:

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Students helped choose what to do for the first week:

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Students explored the school:


Students’ questions were honoured:

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Students and teachers learned about and connected with one another:

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Students and teachers discussed what it means to be ‘students’ and ‘teachers’:

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Students shared what they want to learn about in the coming year:

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Students thought about and shared their learning preferences:

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Students explored the learner profile, PYP attitudes, key concepts and action:

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Student constructed essential agreements:

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Students reflected:

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Students played:


The week was a success! The feedback from teachers and students was overwhelmingly positive. Students loved being included in the planning and set-up for a new school year and teachers felt the more ownership they handed over to students the more positive and enjoyable the learning community became.

There is a definite buzz around our elementary school. Enthusiasm… fresh ideas… confidence… inquiry… I can’t wait to see where all this amazing energy takes us this year!

What does your inquiry-based first week of school look like?



Rethinking the Way We Plan

At our school, we realized we had very comfortable thinking about the way we plan for Units of Inquiry. We know what we plan, we know how we plan, but we’re not sure about the last time we slowed down to think about why we plan the way we do. So we thought it was time to rock the boat and disrupt our comfortable thinking about planning and focus on the why.

We used parts of Kath Murdoch’s Inquiry Cycle to structure a teacher inquiry into planning. Here is how it went:

Tuning In: How do you think a collaborative planning meeting should be structured in order to plan for a Unit of Inquiry?

Teachers tuned into their own understanding of planning for inquiry and sketched out a sample agenda of a collaborative planning meeting. Teachers then put these agendas aside to act as a time capsule, which would allow them to refer back to how their thinking about planning changed over the course of the meeting.

Sorting Out: What are you reading that connects, extends, and challenges the way we currently plan for inquiry? 

Teachers were given the following links to a variety of blog posts about planning for inquiry:

Assessing Understanding in the Planning Process

Planning for Learning

How Do You Plan?

Planning in RESPONSE to Learning

Planning for Inquiry

Planning for Inquiry: Example

How Healthy is Your Team Planning?

Planning for Concept Driven Learning

Reflecting on PYP Planners

Teachers spent 15 minutes independently sorting through these resources and recording their own discoveries based on the Visible Thinking Routine – Connect, Extend, Challenge.

indep inquiry 2 indep inquiry


Then, teachers had the opportunity to share their thoughts with one another and discuss. Common observations included:


  • we start from the end and decide the conceptual understandings we want our students to have
  • we design rubrics based on the key concepts
  • we take time to share successes and struggles in our classrooms
  • we spend time discussing and unpacking our own understanding of the big idea


  • We plan one provocation, but we should be planning a range of powerful provocations
  • We reflect at the end of each unit, but could involve students in that reflection process
  • We “tune in” to students’ prior knowledge but might want to pay more attention to their initial misconceptions


  • We should plan in response to learning based on students’ questions
  • We should explicitly plan for the development of transdisciplinary skills
  • We should resist the temptation to fill in the whole PYP planner before a Unit starts

Going Further: What parts of the PYP planner should be filled out before, during and after a Unit of Inquiry?

Thinking about the term ‘planning in response to learning’, teachers looked at a blank copy of the PYP Planner and identified which parts should be discussed and filled in prior to starting a Unit of Inquiry, which parts should be filled in on an ongoing basis throughout the Unit of Inquiry and which parts should be filled in after a Unit of Inquiry has finished. Teachers also identified the parts of the planner that should be kept from year to year and the sections that should be wiped clean.

collaborative reflection pyp planner 2 collaborative reflection pyp planner


Making Conclusions: As a team, design the agendas for collaborative PYP meetings before, during and after a Unit of Inquiry. 

My fellow PYP Coordinator and myself realized that as long we were creating the agendas for collaborative meetings, we are the owners of that planning process. So we wanted to give grade-level teams ownership over creating meeting agendas based on their own understanding of what planning for inquiry should look like. Each team’s collaborative meeting agendas were different and reflected their team’s understanding of how to plan for a Unit of Inquiry.

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We then posted all of the team’s planning agendas in our Elementary Multipurpose Room, to allow teams to see the conclusions their colleagues made about planning for inquiry and hopefully inspire and challenge their own understanding further.

Taking Action: Now that you know what you know, what are you going to do about it?

I noted two, authentic, learner-initiated pieces of action that resulted from our inquiry into planning!

  • one teacher printed out a copy of the meeting agendas and posted them in her room so that her team could use them during informal planning meetings (without the facilitation of the PYP Coordinator)
  • a different teacher printed out a copy of the meeting agendas for her grade level and put them in her PYP Binder so she could bring them with her to any planning meeting she attended (formal or informal)

In the coming year, we plan to “live it, not laminate it” and actually use these agendas to structure each team’s collaborative planning meetings. Hopefully, as our collective understanding of inquiry grows and changes teams continue to reflect on and amend their planning agendas.

I wonder if any team included that process in their planning-plans? Maybe that will come about next time we reflect on and refine our collaborative planning processes!


Concept-Based Unit Mapping

Back in the fall, all of our teachers participated in an Inquiry workshop. Every teaching team seemed to walk away with two common goals:

  1. More purposeful and effective collaboration between teachers

We have a huge teaching staff and we have tried many models of collaboration in the past. Most of which have presented logistical obstacles or ended up not being as effective as we had hoped. So the general practice at our school ends of being that the homeroom teachers sit down together and plan the unit of inquiry and the single-subject teachers pop into the meetings for a few minutes at sit at the back of the room and listen… and maybe present a few ideas that they had planned to share.

  1. More purposeful and meaningful connections for the students between disciplines

The PYP is meant to be a transdisciplinary program, but as we reflected on our program we realized that for most of the year, each subject is working towards their own central idea. Which means our students can be working towards 6 different central ideas in one day!


We discussed these goals with our workshop presenter and he suggested using a Concept-Based Unit Map as a way to address both of these areas of concern.

What is a Concept-Based Unit Map?

A Concept-Based Unit Map is a planning tool that allows teachers to plan for and document both macro concepts (broad concepts that can be applied across all subjects) and micro concepts (subject specific concepts).

Great examples of Concept-Based Unit Maps can be found in Lynn Erickson’s Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul.


Why is a Concept-Based Unit Map helpful?

It allows all teachers to share the common focus of one central idea through concept-based connections, while still honoring their individual disciplines and curriculum standards. It also allows teachers to work on it in stages, so all teachers from one grade level do not to be in the same room at the same time.

So our Grade 4 team gave it a try and here is what happened.

First, our homeroom teachers planned and recorded their central idea and the macro (key) concepts for the unit.

Grade 4 Concept Unit Map Work

Then our homeroom teachers mapped out the micro concepts for language, math, social studies and science. The goal here is to pick out the related, discipline-specific concepts that allow teachers to delve into the specific curriculum expectations for that subject through that conceptual lens. Since this is the first time we have planned this way, I provided the teachers with a reference sheet that has a collection of subject-specific concepts to pull from. The list is a work in progress that I have been building and is by no means, a comprehensive list of every concept for each discipline…. but it was a great starting point.

Micro Concept List

Then, when the homeroom teachers were finished with it, the single-subject teachers took turns working on it and mapping out the micro concepts for their disciplines. Once it is complete, the plan is to post it in our Multipurpose Room (where we hold weekly staff meetings) for all to see (to hopefully engender further connections and collaboration).

Grade 4 Concept Unit Map

Here is what we noticed about this process:


  • Logistically is was manageable, as each teaching team was able to work on the map during their planning time
  • It forced all of us to focus more on planning with the concepts in mind
  • It made it much easier to make meaningful transdisciplinary connections (ex. It was a lot easier to have every subject working towards the concept of “position” from their discipline’s perspective [PE – position of players in a basketball game, Art – position and placement of focal points in visual arts, Math – position of shapes on a coordinate plane] than to try and force a topical connection [PE – plays a game about explorers, Art – paints a picture of explorers, Math – solves a word problem about explorers])
  • It easily allowed teachers within the same grade and across grades to become more aware of what was going on in each class
  • It sparked authentic conversations between teachers to further collaborate on a common task or project for the unit


  • Each team (homeroom, PE, Art, etc.) worked on the map in isolation so initially there was no dialogue between teams
  • It’s on paper and our school uses Atlas Rubicon as a collaborative unit mapping program

Now we are going to use this map and continually refer to it throughout the teaching of the unit and then reflect on this process to see if it was effective in meeting our two goals of improving collaboration at a very big school, and making more meaningful connections between disciplines for our students.

We would love to hear your feedback about this process or any other tools that have been helpful in facilitating collaboration and concept-based learning at your school!