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Understanding or Misunderstanding in the IB PYP?

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Original post 22/5/2016

Understanding The Issue

The PYP is currently under review with a new set of Principles & Practices set for publication in 2018. One of area I hope the IB addresses is the notion of teaching for understanding and the related pedagogy - concept based learning. If you search for the word 'understand' within the contents of Making the PYP Happen you will be rewarded with 453 hits. Conceptual understandings are prerequisites of our written curriculum (IB Standards and Practices 2014 p.11) and enduring understanding is the goal of our unit plans (IB Making the PYP Happen 2009 p. 37).

Teaching for understanding is  assumed, but it is also one of the least understood aspects of the programme. There's some irony there. To some understanding might rank low in our list of priorities  in the PYP review, however in this blog post I argue that it matters. Planning and teaching for understanding (often badly) is already taking up a huge chunk of our time. The current guidelines generate problems during collaborative planning and in terms of developing understanding they can even be be counter productive. 

Central Ideas Driving Us To Tears

When it comes to understanding in the PYP most of us know that central ideas are statements we want students to understand. Teachers spend hours debating and rephrasing these sentences. They are are the stimulus for many an eye roll at the planning table. We would all have the right to be grumpy if central ideas weren't worth the effort - right? Well, I like to be provocative in my blog posts so here goes...

​Central ideas in the current PYP framework are not facilitating understanding. Learning in the PYP is incredibly rich of course, but most students in PYP schools don't actually come to understand their central ideas. And if you asked a set of students to reflect on what do they understand now from units in previous years, they would have difficulty articulating their understanding of their former central ideas... (This could make a great research topic for the IB Research Team).... This makes any elusive understanding they might develop far from enduring. In short, although they have huge potential, in their current form central ideas are more often than not little more than a waste of time. 

You may think what I am stating here is outrageous and grossly untrue.  But  any debate about my claim would end in stalemate as there is noIB definition of understanding for us to turn to and (grasping our assessment evidence) say 'See, look, you're wrong!" So... the first thing we need from the PYP Review are definitions.

Conceptual Understandings

Conceptual understandings (PYP), enduring understandings (UbD), central ideas  (PYP), statements of inquiry (MYP), understandings (TfU) generalizations/principles (Erickson/Lanning) and big ideas (Randall) are synonyms. All these words describe a statements which express something we want students to understand. The literature agrees that such statements should be timeless, globally transferable, worth knowing, applicable to all learners, and should be phrased in a certain way. Being able to recite a conceptual understanding statement doesn't mean a learner understands it.  A conceptual understanding merely frames the desired understanding as a sentence. 

Defining Understanding

There is no IB definition of understanding. In that absence we can look to  Understanding by Design (Grant Wiggins & Jay McTighe) and Harvard University's Teaching for Understanding (David Perkins Tina Blythe and others). The PYP planner was based around the principles of Understanding by Design so UbD's perspective is particularly relevant.  ​Understanding is  much more complex than one paragraph in a blog post can give justice. But with that caveat, here is a synopsis of how the big wigs define understanding. To understand is more than a thought process - it is a performance. It is the ability to 'think with' knowledge and to perform flexibly. In order to understand, learners have to transfer and transform knowledge in novel, new ways. They have to perform flexibly in unrehearsed, unfamiliar contexts. The more flexibly a learner performs, the deeper the understanding. Understanding by Design categorizes these ways to perform flexibly using their six facets: seeing perspective, applying, explaining, empathizing, interpreting and having self knowledge.  

Pause for a moment. How well do you understand a central idea you have recently taught? Can you: draw it? Can you create a model to explain it?  Can you show it using manipulatives? Can you you state it in a different way? Can you describe several people's perspectives  about it? Can you role play what others are feeling about it? Can you state specifically what you don't yet understand about it? Can you teach somebody about it? Can you explain it in more simple terms? Can you flexibly debate it responding at will to questions and criticisms? Can you  transform it into a newspaper article? A flow chart? A narrative? A bar chart? A computer program? A persuasive essay?  (etc etc. etc.) Could your own students perform flexibly in this way? If in doubt read on... 

The solution?

1. Create a Primary School Definition of Understanding

Both Understanding by Design and Teaching for Understanding were developed out of middle and high school education. Their definitions of understanding and their associated curricula models are most easily applicable to more mature learners. For example I have some reservations of Understanding by Design's 'Six Facets of Understanding' being developmentally appropriate for all elementary school grades. I believe we need a primary school definition of understanding which is developmentally appropriate and realistic for our particular group of learners. I don't personally have the solution. It's very easy being on the back benches critiquing from afar but another thing altogether coming up with the solution.  I don't envy the IB curriculum teams.  I do hope that IB asks an understanding expert for assistance. We need a tangible description of flexible performance which suits our younger students. Perhaps David Perkins or Jay McTighe could assist the PYP Review in this regard? Another possibility might be Solo Taxonomy (John Hattie's take on this).

2. Help Us Understand That The Early Years Are Different 

Expecting four or five year olds to apply and explain their learning both flexibly and in unrehearsed, unfamiliar contexts  seems unrealistic  to me. Piaget's fixed developmental stages may have been disproved, but there is still developmentally appropriate practice. Early childhood is awash of imagination and play. A place where reality and fantasy intermingle.    It seems to me that 'understanding' in the early years if it exists at all is more about making connections and imagination than tangible, flexible performance. Are we trying to fit a square plug into a round hole? Let's agree that the early years is different. It is a pre-understanding phase of schooling and therefore we should not be teaching for nor assessing understanding.  I hope the new PYP helps us all understand this. 

3. Drop Conceptual Understandings In the Early Years 

Logically if understanding isn't appropriate in the early years then neither are conceptual understandings. Early years teachers have the greatest challenge with central ideas. Is having pre-determined understandings developmentally appropriate in the early years? I'm not convinced it is. I'm more for a project with emergent 'understandings'. Lilian Katz in the red version of the Reggio book - Hundred Languages of Children makes a beautiful point, she mentions that the sorts of 'understandings' our youngest learners construct they would grasp regardless by the time they are seven years old: just by being alive! It's as if they don't need us to pre-plan any particular understandings at least in science and social studies. Perhaps early years project-based learning should be about the dispositions of inquiry not big predetermined 'central ideas'. If we do predetermine them, then are factual statements developmentally appropriate as Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins state here? 

4. Include Several Understandings Per Unit

I hope during the PYP Review the team consider adding scope for several understandings. Educationalists all apparently advocate for several understandings in a given unit. Erickson explained this at her IB AEM 2011 Conference keynote in the Hague. The IB seems to be the only concept based curriculum which only advocates and makes room for one central idea. Doesn't that seem odd?

But more than being just unusual, having just one central idea actually inhibits understanding! Let me explain... In order to come up with just one, workable statement broad enough to encompass all the learning (and disciplines) in a unit of inquiry, teachers all over the world are writing obtuse, wishy-washy central ideas. Such understandings are intangible, difficult (if not impossible) to understand (using the definition above) and they cause all sorts of assessment challenges. Many are not worth knowing at all. This isn't the teachers' fault, this is a symptom of being confined to one sole, central idea.  Lynn Erickson (the world leader in concept based curriculum) advocates that we put our conceptual understandings through her leveling process. This leveling process produces conceptual understandings which are well articulated, worth knowing, specific, and tangible. Importantly such conceptual understandings can actually be understood (performed flexibly) by our learners in the way I described earlier.  These understanding performances can also be easily observed and assessed. But If you try putting a single central idea through Erickson's leveling 'hoops', you end up producing a  focused conceptual understanding. At the same time this generally narrows the scope of the unit to the point where the inquiry would be just a week or a few days. The solution is very simple - allow for more conceptual understandings per unit of inquiry. This allows for meaty, understanding rich units - understanding which is tangible. In response to my recent post, some readers expressed that more 'must dos' like these  are the last thing the PYP needs. I do empathize. One option would be to erase conceptual understandings, reference to understanding and central ideas from the standards and practices, planner and the new Principles and Practices. However if the goal of understanding and conceptual understandings do remain in the revised  documentation, then I argue there does needs to be a user friendly definition of understanding and better guidelines. ​​​As Grant Wiggins said; understanding needs to be achieved by careful design not chance and that means revised instructions.

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