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Transdisciplinary Yearning - My Hopes For The PYP Review

Original post 14/2/2016

The IB PYP is currently under review with a new set of principles and practices to be released in 2018. One of the features of the PYP which is up for review is transdisciplinary learning.


"For some schools, the role of the subject areas or stand-alone subjects and their relationship to the transdisciplinary components of the programme are neither well understood nor supported....The review will therefore consider current research and classroom practice to better illustrate transdisciplinary and disciplinary learning and its effective implementation within a diverse range of school contexts." IB (2014) p.2


This is a breath of fresh air to me as I've always been niggled by the transdisciplinary element of the PYP. Here I will outline the limitations I perceive with the current status quo and I will make some suggestions for improvement. 


1. Stop Being So Fancy



The PYP's explanation of transdiscipnary learning is  complex. The document claims that "The transdisciplinary model is radically different from traditional educational patterns''. It goes on to explain "engaging with the concept of transdisciplinarity forces a paradigm shift that moves most teachers out of their comfort zone". Statements such as these leave many readers feeling perplexed and inadequate. It needn't be presented as being so scary and complex.


Fortunately this time around the IB  are considering their audience. Most of us are not academics and many of us are non native English speakers. We come from diverse teaching backgrounds including developing nations.  I prefer guidelines and explanations which are simple to follow, easy to understand and which try to put me at ease about the changes we are facing. Such guidelines should avoid jargon and should help us to make connections to our prior experiences. I would prefer documents written in simple language, with step-by-step instructions. ​

2. Change The Name

The IB explains being transdisciplinary "is markedly different from the interdisciplinary approach of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Programme". They go on to claim that the key difference is that the PYP connects learning to the real world. Any MYP teacher worth his salt would likely scoff at this suggestion; MYP teachers  make connections to the real world via their teaching every day. 

For all intents and purposes the words interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary mean the same thing.  Which word should we choose? If we were starting from scratch I would perhaps say 'connected curriculum' for reasons I will explain below. But because IB is established I'd support 'interdisciplinary'. Spell checks actually recognize this word, it can be found in most dictionaries,  it ​is a term most teachers new to IB have heard of and it is already used by the MYP.  ​

3. Don't Obsess With The Programme Of Inquiry





There there's a general obsession in the PYP with the programme of inquiry being the sole place for integration. This is cultivating disjointed learning in some PYP schools. In some cases the IB documentation is to blame. For example in Making the PYP Happen and Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry the IB explains that all science should take place within in the programme of inquiry. This is both ludicrous  and impractical. Why would a PYP Music teacher who is teaching a 'stand alone' unit on pitch or timbre not approach that in an investigative,  scientific inquiry driven way? What a lost opportunity for inquiry. An artist is already undertaking science when they are experimenting with colour mixing. We should be celebrating these connections not extinguishing them. ​

The same is true of other subjects. Making the PYP Happen demands  an increased emphasis on the programme of inquiry as the context for learning Mathematics (p92). Yet Mathematics concepts such as Fractions and Pattern are central to Music. Measurement is a perfect accompaniment to Athletics. There are concepts shared between all languages and the arts which may not have the opportunity to meet within the programme of inquiry.   ​This fixation with the POI as the sole place for integration is also reinforced by the Authorization and Evaluation processes, perhaps by a default assumption rather than an IB directive. Whatever the impetus, this preoccupation with the POI is causing schools to make integration decisions which don't always make sense and are in some cases detrimental to learning. 


4. Explain Why We Integrate

The IB already does a pretty good job at  this, but one measure of success of the review would be that the new documentation helps us all to better understand these reasons. Good curriculum, good teaching and efficient learning is grounded in making connections. The moment we make a connection between something we have learned or experienced, be it in another subject, something which happened in the media or something which happened in our own lives, that act of making a connection facilitates our learning. Perhaps the ideal term for this sort of curriculum would be 'connected curriculum' as it encapsulates the full range of connections which are possible.  ​

5. Explain How We Integrate


There is a clear PYP expectation to integrate: "the responsibility for developing and teaching the units that address the required themes is not only that of the classroom teacher; it should be shared with all appropriate single-subject teachers."  (MTPYPH p32), But as Fogarty's article explains there are many different components of curriculum we could integrate and many different ways to connect these pieces. Which way is the PYP way? Recognizing 'appropriate single-subject' PYP integration is  still foggy. There isn't as yet an IB approved, published method describing how and what we should integrate. 

6. Declare We Integrate Conceptually 


PYP describes itself as a concept based curriculum model. Concept based integration assumes that we organize planning around interdisciplinary (macro) concepts. Interdisciplinary concepts are shared by several disciplines.  For example the concept of a fraction is alive in Mathematics but is also alive in Music (beats in a bar, quarter notes, half notes).


7. Provide A List Of Useful Macro Concepts





Currently the only macro concepts we have in the PYP are the Key Concepts. I'll explain in a moment why those particular concepts are not useful for integration. The IB would help us if they provided an extensive list of macro concepts with examples of subjects which share those same concepts like these pictures above and to the left have begun to illustrate.


​8. Drop The Key Concepts



I realize that what I am suggesting here is likely to ruffle a few feathers. But as I've said in the past I'm not a fan of the PYP Key Concepts. Please read the FAQs at the bottom of this other post if you are interested in critiquing my view about the PYP Key Concepts generally.



​ In the context of integrating curriculum I'm also not their devotee. The PYP Key Concepts are simply too broad to be useful as a conceptual lens. Take Lynn Erickson's quote above. Remove her example of force and replace it with any one of the key concepts such as form, function or causation. Just as Lynn explains in her example, the result of using a PYP Key Concept would be exactly the same obtuseness and a lack of coherence. A child discussing the causation of a good long jump at the same time as the causation of World War Two won't make the connection. And remember, those connections and benefit to learning are the reasons why we are integrating in the first place! The only PYP Key Concept I think might be useful for integration purposes is perspective. 


9. Declare We Integrate Skills & Strategies


Although conceptual integration might be the most in vogue approach to integration, it is not the only useful approach we need to encourage.  Applying the skills you have learned in one subject to investigate or to sort out your understanding in another subject is equally important. Classic examples would include: reading and writing about your unit of inquiry, using mathematical skills such as measurement during athletics, using dance as a means to express your understanding of a concept in social studies or using a bar graph to sort out information when inquiring into another subject. None of these are examples are conceptual integration, but each example is application and transfer and is thus very worthwhile.


10. Modify The PYP Planner


If there is an expectation to be interdisciplinary, and there is an agreed approach to integration there has to be a system in place on our planning and or learning management systems to support that. At the very least there should be a place on interdisciplinary planners to write the conceptual lens.  ​

11. Allow The Early Years To Be Thematic


The term 'thematic' has been looked on with distain in PYP circles over the years. But in the early years (ages 3-5) there is nothing more natural and exciting as a project as a means of knitting together a unit and sparking curiosity and inquiry. There is nothing (necessarily) conceptual about a pond or a garden as a theme for a unit, but such projects are absolutely appropriate in the early years. This is an age when the most important thing in education is instilling a love of learning, learning dispositions including their natural curiosity.  ​


12. Stop Pretending The Transdisciplinary Themes Are Transdisciplinary


How the World Works is Science, Where We Are In Place And Time is History and Geography and How We Express Ourselves is the Arts (including Language Arts). Assuming that these themes are helping schools to be more transdisciplinary is ignoring the elephant in the room. Several of them remind us of the traditional subjects we learned at school. Until we change them, remove them or at least take the onus off them as being catalysts for integration, then they will be  little more useful than traditional subjects.


13. Be Flexible With The Timings Of The Themes


If the themes must remain then I hope there is flexibility with their timings and thought given to the disciplines they encourage. The average primary school class has exciting Art, Music and Language lessons happening each and every week sometimes involving specialist teachers. When we add an extra six week block of How We Express Ourselves within the academic year we boost the time awarded to The Arts at the expense of other subjects. I'm all for The Arts don't get me wrong, but to quote the Learner Profile; right now the PYP itself is not balanced! Whatever people or workshops claim about the ease of placing science across the programme of inquiry, in reality it's not that easy. The status quo as it stands is not facilitating enough science in most PYP schools and something needs to be done.



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