The “What?” of the PYP Exhibition at ISHCMC

To set up a PYP Exhibition so that students can all be successful is no easy feat. Far too often, everybody gets carried away and the best interest of the students get left behind, hidden by all the adult worries, the pressure, the community expectations, what Exhibition was like before etc… etc…

Some schools have learned the following:

  • Simplicity is powerful. Always strive to keep things simple for all the parties involved. If this involves re-educating the community and toning things down… do it.
  • Is it worth it? Teachers should continue to ask themselves this question when planning the PYP Exhibition. It may not be worth doing some of the things we make kids do. A good example is writing central ideas… if your students are used to the process of writing central ideas, or being involved in the writing of central ideas, make the most of that in the PYP Exhibition. If not, don’t. It probably isn’t worth it.
  • Process, not product. The exhibition is not a show. It should not be all about one or two days of “performance” and then it is all over. It is a process of learning, and one that should be sustainable and ongoing, even when the actual unit is “finished”. Help students to realize this and the learning becomes much more meaningful. Help your community to realize it and the learning becomes deeper than just what is on display in the actual “exhibition” part.
  • It is too late. Don’t get caught in the trap if trying to get the kids to learn and memorize all the elements of the PYP, like the key concepts, and the transdisciplinary skills and the Learner Profile etc… Focus much more on making sure their learning and their process is rich in these things. Make it your job to “notice and name” what the students are doing as they demonstrate them, not to explicitly teach them at this late stage!

To help us stay true to these principles, a number of key decisions were made about what the PYP Exhibition process, and end product, will look like. They are:

  1. We will work collaboratively towards one, teacher-created central idea.
  2. There will be four lines of inquiry. The first and fourth lines will be written by teachers, the second and third will be written by students specifically for their inquiries.
  3. Students are free to collaborate spontaneously and according to their needs. However, they will not be forced to cooperate in groups.
  4. The “staging” of the Exhibition will be simple. Each student will produce one piece of visual work to get people’s attention. Their process, their knowledge, their understanding and their emotion should then become evident to speakers through conversations.
  5. The timetable will remain as normal until two weeks before the staging of the PYP Exhibition. After that, students will continue to go to PE and World Languages but will remain in their classrooms for Music and Art. The Art and Music teachers will come and work with students in the classroom at those times. Students working on artistic or musical projects will do so in their classroom, not in specialist classrooms.
  6. Classes will open up for “Checkpoints” each week and parents will become active participants in the Exhibition process by attending as many of these as they are able to. There will be a focus each week and parents will be briefed about what they will see in the classroom and how they can be of help.
  7. There will be an informal mentoring system – members of the whole community are asked to drop-in regularly to see what students are working on and how they can make connections with them. Other people may evolve into mentors as students seek them out, rather than by them volunteering as a result of a school-wide appeal. This opens up the mentor role to people other than teachers – admin and support staff, parents, students and people from outside the school.

The “How?” of the PYP Exhibition at ISHCMC

Our PYP Exhibition will be conducted under the trans-disciplinary theme of “Where we are in place and time”. This decision was made as the Exhibition is such a pivotal time in the lives of these students, a turning or tipping point, and so it offers a great chance for them to consider where they have been and where they may be heading next. To consider their own personal histories, and futures. Giving them such a personal starting point, as in all inquiry, is the most powerful way to allow students to build on their knowledge and experiences.

The next step was to consider how we can set things up so that we do, indeed, provide students with such an experience. The key factor in this is the central idea. Having a powerful, yet open-ended, central idea is crucial for any unit of inquiry… but even more important for the PYP Exhibition. The central idea should offer the chance for all students to exceed their own expectations.

Our students will work towards a collaborative understanding of one central idea. Writing central ideas is not something these students have experienced before, so expecting them to do it now would be both forced and artificial, as well as time-consuming. During their planning retreat, the Grade 5 Team wrote the following central idea:

“Being retrospective and introspective empowers me to act on what matters.”

Some of the thoughts we grappled over with this were:

  • The words “retrospective” and “introspective” are difficult words. Despite these concerns, we felt that using advanced words does honour students and their ability to work with new vocabulary and concepts. We exhausted all other alternatives as they just seemed simplistic or patronizing by comparison!
  • Empowerment has been a common theme throughout our discussions since the start of the year and has cropped up in our Exhibition mission and in the central idea. The whole team feels strongly that PYP Exhibitions should be all about the empowerment of students – setting things up for them to be their best – and not, as is often the case, the disempowerment of students as they are forced to jump thr0ugh a series of hoops.
  • The use of “me” rather than “us” or “people”. In our recent IB Evaluation visit, we were criticized for the use of pronouns like “we” and “us” in central ideas. However, in our experience, the use of such pronouns gives units of inquiry a personal feeling and starting point and is, therefore, very powerful. So, we have gone one step further with the central idea for the PYP Exhibition and used the word “me” in the central idea! We feel this will give license to our students work very independently.
  • The idea of what matters comes from two sources – the Stanford University MBA admissions exam, and Angela Maiers’ “You Matter” movement. We want our students to believe that they matter, and we also want them to have the chance to consider – in depth – what matters to them.

Amazing how much meaning can be contained in the words of a central idea, isn’t it? Which is why it is so important for all teaching teams to get those words right. We owe it to our students.

The “Why?” of the PYP Exhibition at ISHCMC

No other group of teachers and students in the Primary School comes under such public scrutiny as the Grade 5 teachers and students do during the PYP Exhibition. The eyes of the whole community are upon them as they make their way through the culmination of a PYP student’s time in primary education. As a result, it is vital that the teachers are provided with plenty of meaningful time in which to lay down plans for how they will set up a powerful context for the students and guide them through it.

This week, the Grade 5 teachers spent an afternoon out of the school so that they could begin work in earnest. Suzanne kicked this process off by taking the team through the process of designing a PYP Exhibition purpose, or “mission”. Having a clear purpose – beyond the expectations set out by the IB – gives the PYP Exhibition a very strong grounding and creates a foundation for all decision-making. PYP Exhibitions can get out of hand as the expectations of the community seem to inflate each year! As a result, very often, the true purpose can be lost.

After much thought, deliberation, negotiation and compromise, the Grade 5 team wrote this mission statement for the PYP Exhibition in our school this year:

“The PYP Exhibition exists to provide students with the time to initiate a personal, self-directed and empowering inquiry that celebrates, values and reflects their life and learning so far.”

Creating the Conditions for “Action”

We recently discussed the “5th Element” of the PYP – Action. Often misunderstood, Action is a pretty abstract notion that many schools find hard to pin down. In our discussions, we came to the following understandings and agreements about it:



Would you have anything to add?

Learning in the Real World

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Learning in the Real World, a set on Flickr.

Taking the Grade 4 students for a walk around the neighbourhood, as always, turned out to be a remarkably simple yet incredibly powerful experience for us all.

With enough adults to be able to split the class into small groups of three and four, it was possible to go in different directions and focus on different aspects of life as we walked around. Students need to learn the “art of looking” and really benefit from being given a specific lens to look through when doing something like this. My group had selected the lens of “globalization” as their focus. Naturally, they found it hard to “see” globalization and that is where the role of the adult/teacher becomes so important. As we walked, I was able to help them see the evidence of globalization, such as Coca Cola signs and bottles, the rubbish caused by the packaging of multinational companies, Japanese cars and motorbikes, international construction companies and so on.

By the end of the walk, because the students had the chance to actually look for, and see, the evidence of globalization, their understanding of such a complex concept was much more advanced than it would have been if they were simply researching it on Google!

It is so important to give our students these experiences. The learning experiences they have just from something so simple are powerful on many different levels, as long as we, as their teachers, are aware of how multi-faceted learning actually is. I will list here just a few aspects of the learning I saw:

  • Increased conceptual understanding of globalization
  • Increased awareness of where they live
  • Increased ability to look for details and notice things
  • Increased curiosity about life
  • Increased ability to make connections to prior knowledge
  • Increased confidence about being out on the streets
  • Increased willingness and ability to speak to people
  • Increased understanding of how to ask questions
  • Increased understanding of how to take a good photo
  • Increased understanding of the etiquette of photographing people
  • Increased understanding of how to take notes
  • Increased resilience when walking in the heat

So, are you taking your students out and about soon?

Tuning in to Grade One


To find out what students already know or think about themselves as consumers, we are asking them to consider what they eat, buy and use.

We kicked this off by asking them what they had eaten for breakfast this morning, and dinner last night. Each student has loads of blank tags with their photo on for use at times like this:

Then, we started to interview them as they were working, scribing our conversations exactly. We asked questions like:

  • Where does that come from?
  • What is that made of?
  • How we get that to our homes?
  • Where does that go when we’re finished with it?



Sometimes, like the example just above, it is best to represent the student’s thinking visually, helping them start to see these things as “processes” or, as in this case, a “cycle”

Getting the thinking from the students in a simple way, displaying it, scribing conversations, honouring their words and thoughts and capturing it all so it can constantly be referred to, expanded upon and developed is a very exciting process. It will guide students towards and though inquiry. Their prior knowledge, the gaps in their knowledge and their misconceptions are quickly revealed, showing teachers the next steps that each student needs to be guided through in order to develop their knowledge and develop a deeper understanding of themselves as consumers.

Strategies like these are most effective when students can be independent – accessing materials easily, not worrying about spelling, moving on to something else when they are ready. This independence means that teachers can focus on one student without interruption or distraction.

For the full Storify showing the process of these sessions, click here

Grade 1 Trip to Snap Cafe

Grade 1 went to Snap Cafe as part of the culmination of their unit of inquiry. The focus of the unit was on the relationships between daily choices and our well-being. The students were given choices of food, drinks and play options. Teachers observed them to see if the unit had affected the choices they make.

Click here for all the photos.