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.

Looking for the Cultures of Thinking in our school

Cultures of Thinking


Over the last two days, I spent some time in Grade 1 and walked away with a strong sense of the importance of these two principles of the “Cultures of Thinking Project”.

  • In Monwei’s classroom, I really did get the feeling that the “classroom is a curriculum in itself” (I love that idea!). Students clearly feel very relaxed and at home in their classroom. But, beyond that, there is also a very strong and palpable sense that it is a place of purposeful learning. Students move thoughtfully and carefully around the room and preserve a sense of calm. Students have a variety of options available to them so they can make independent decisions about their learning – in my time in her classroom, I was not asked “what do I do next?” once, and neither did I hear that dreaded line… “I’m done, now what do I do?”. Students who had completed the tasks Monwei and I were working on with them just simply moved on to something else.
  • Robert, Ms. Ha and I began to make thinking visible as the students collected their knowledge about the food they eat. We interviewed the students as they were working and tried to find out how far their knowledge went tin terms of where food comes from, how it gets to us and where it (and its packaging) goes when we are finished with it. All of the student’s knowledge and thinking went on to the wall as we were working, showing the students that their thoughts are valuable and also making sure we, the teachers, are able to refer to it so we can figure out where to take them next.

These two principles are incredibly important and powerful. Students need to be immersed in a culture of learning, and they also need to be immersed in their own thinking.


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.

Writing and Refining Central Ideas

Roman Proverb

It is amazing how often teaching teams begin – and even complete – units of inquiry without ever really knowing what the unit is all about.  Investing the time, energy and professional pride in order to create central ideas that really are relevant, purposeful and powerful enough to provoke genuine student inquiry is really a non-negotiable in good IB schools. The “oh… that’ll do” mentality is really not good enough!

Here are the central ideas currently being developed by teaching teams here at ISHCMC. Teams are required to think about the following considerations when writing or evaluating a central idea:

  • Does the central idea really mean something?
  • Is it more than just a simple statement of fact?
  • Is it going to be relevant to the students?
  • Is it going to provoke genuine inquiry?

Some of these central ideas are in pretty good shape, some need a little more work. If you have any suggestions, please make a comment.

“Animals share our planet”

“Light and dark impact our world”

“A community depends on all people working together.’

“We can express messages through stories.”

“Humans are motivated to explore the unknown.”

“Understanding rights and responsibilities helps us to understand how and why people seek change.” 

“Learning about the origins of beliefs and values helps us to understand people.”

What is concept-based learning?

This video isn’t up to much visually, but it does hammer home many of the most fundamentally important points about concept-based learning and how it is different to thematic or topic-based learning. Understanding these points is vital for anybody working in a PYP/IB school.

  • What is new to you?
  • What have you already experienced in your teaching practice?
  • What is most interesting to you?
  • What confuses you?
  • What questions do you have?

Creating Unit of Inquiry Maps

The initial stages of planning are crucial. For this very reason, they can be extremely difficult. I often use this Roman proverb as a way of explaining what can, and often does, happen when teachers start “planning” the teaching of a unit before they actually figure out what it is really about.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead there.”

I have been part of countless meetings in which teachers thrown around numerous ideas for teaching, or activities, without really having a strong sense of their purpose. This is potentially an eternal conversation as teachers are experts at coming up with lots of great ideas.

In my role as PYP Coordinator at International School Ho Chi Minh City, I am determined that teaching teams will develop a shared understanding of what the essence of each unit of inquiry really is, where they they are hoping to take their students and what they are looking for from their students. This is not a simple conversation!

If teachers can reach the point where they have a shared vision for the unit of inquiry, they are then able to allow their own teaching style and the learning interests and styles of their students to dictate what happens afterwards. They do not need to sit at a table and all agree on how they will teach the kids as it may, and probably should, look very different from one classroom to the next. Of course, sharing things that work well is a must as the unit progresses!

These “Unit of Inquiry Maps” give structure to those first conversations about the units, and show how there is a flow from central idea through to key concepts, enduring understandings, conceptual understanding rubrics and lines of inquiry. The “One Word” in the middle forces teachers to really think about the essence of the unit and is often a much harder challenge than would at first appear. In some cases, teaching teams have been horrified to find that units of inquiry that have been taught for years may actually have been about nothing at all, or about far too much!