Starting with a blank slate

– bloated planners

– too much content/ too many ‘activities’

– forced fit

– little reflection

– little authenticity

These are all phrases that I’ve been hearing in the past couple of months from our teachers. Too much content means that we cannot allow for any opportunities to get to any depth in one idea or understanding, because we’re too busy with, “I don’t have time. I need to move on to the next activity in the planner, or else we’ll get behind and have to make our unit longer” Why?? This is what I call the TSN turning point at our school. Our teachers have been immersed in the PYP long enough now, that they are beginning to see that changes to their practice need to be made. Not based on the fact that what they are currently doing is ‘wrong’, but that they can see that they are ready to improve. When we first started on this journey, there was so much information, and so many elements for our staff to consider in terms of PYP. This, of course, is natural. Anything that’s worth doing well, takes time to develop and refine. We are now entering the refinement stage.

Our curriculum naturally sets us up to think of topics (Think of science – wheels, pulleys and levers, rocks and minerals, crawling and flying animals, electricity) – so what? What are the broader concepts that encompass those topics? I hear it all the time, “there’s no time!!”, “How do we get through all this stuff??” Simple solution…look…and I mean REALLY look at what we’re doing in our units – are the activities we’re trying to get through REALLY getting at the CONCEPTS? The essence of the unit? This might mean that we have to let go of some of those fun activities that we’ve become married to – those ones that take up some of our valuable time, but don’t really get at the root of the conceptual focus.

Last Friday, we had a school-based PL day where we focused on developing our understanding of concept based learning and teaching. In preparation for that day, I read a couple of blogs that I wanted to share with our staff to get their wheels turning. I also participated in the week’s #pypchat where we discussed aspects of the PYP that we like and aspects that we would change, if we could. It was an eye opening, and refreshing chat – knowing that there are other PYP educators out there that I could relate to in terms of the elements that I know are meaningful and critical to student-centred learning, as well as the elements that I’m a little bit on the fence with. Knowing that you’re not alone, on a larger scale, beyond your school walls is a powerful thing!

One of the blogs that I read, was Edna Sackson’s post on Letting Learning Happen. I’ve been hearing from staff that the planners are becoming too confusing, because there’s content in them from previous years that has never been removed, even if they don’t do it anymore. They continue to grow in length, but it’s beginning to feel like they’ve lost the authenticity in their learning engagements. They’re not letting the learning happen, because there’s too much stuff to get through in the planner. This was music to my ears! Here’s the opportunity to begin with a blank slate! I proposed (cautiously) that for coming planners, they start completely with a blank planner. I need to re-iterate here, that because we are essentially a brand new PYP school, our staff for the first couple of years felt that they needed to have a copy of the previous years’ planners to work with when developing this years work. They didn’t want to lose sight of some of the elements that they hadn’t quite gotten a grasp on. However, they began to rely on previous years’ activities to drive this years inquiry. Which, wasn’t allowing for authentic, student-driven inquiry to happen. The fact that staff were now coming to this realization on their own made me feel like such a proud momma-bird! I knew we’d get here.

The idea of starting fresh was met with a resounding enthusiasm. Yes, it will require work to re-think some of the engagements we provide to our students, and placing more emphasis on directly addressing the concepts with our students. But teachers are recognizing that it is necessary. So then, I threw out another suggestion that I believe lifted a lot of weight off of the teachers’ shoulders. It came from a few different conversations I’ve had over the past few months, but mostly from @ChezVivian’s blog about Ditching the Central Idea. I have a huge respect for Lynn Erikson’s work around concept based learning, and I’m so envious that Vivian was able to participate in a workshop with her. I’m so thankful that she shared her thoughts and revelations from that workshop in her blog. Again, it allowed me to feel that I wasn’t alone in my thinking in terms of some of the elements of PYP. If you haven’t read Vivian’s post, I’d advise you to stop reading mine for a moment, and read what she has to share.

Back to the suggestion I threw out to my colleagues – Don’t fill in the entire planner before the unit even starts. How does that allow for authentic, student driven learning to happen? When you have every stone of the path paved and set, that seems pretty counter-intuitive to the whole idea of letting the learning happen. Yes, it’s important to know the concepts and generalizations that we desire our students to get to, but how we get there shouldn’t be pre-planned every step of the way, before it has even occurred by the teacher. There is no possible way that we can take into account what our students will glean from every lesson that we plan. So why plan everything right from the start? If we thoughtfully and purposefully plan out a few rich, engaging, authentic learning experiences that are concept-based, we can let the learning happen from there. And allow the planner to be where we document that learning journey, rather than be the prescription for it.

The other question I posed to staff was, “What if we didn’t share the central idea with our students on day 1 of the unit?” What if we kept it within the confines of the planner – so we know as educators what the big idea of the unit is, but allow students to generate the understanding naturally, through the rich learning engagements that we plan, and the discussions that we have along the way. Wouldn’t that be a powerful summative assessment at the end of a unit, to allow the students to generate their own central idea, for us to see how deep their understanding become through the learning experiences? And what a powerful tool for reflection on our part, as educators. If they weren’t able to generate a central idea that was similar or related to the teacher planned one, why was that? Was it that we didn’t address the concepts clearly enough? What can we do in the next unit to try to improve?

These conversations opened the flood-gates for possibilities for our grade teams to start being more creative in their delivery of their units. There was excitement buzzing around the room. Teachers are beginning to feel more comfortable and confident in allowing their students to drive the learning. They were really tuned in to generating related concepts for the different subject areas, and then using the Key Concepts to generate questions that stimulate more higher order thinking in our classrooms. Those higher order thinking opportunities will drive our inquiries and ensure that students develop a deeper understanding within the Units of Inquiry, as well as allow them to drive where the learning goes beyond what we have planned.

So now we enter a new chapter on our PYP journey. Relflection, refinement and moving forward. It is so refreshing to be involved in this process every step of the way for our teachers.



  1. Pingback: March Madness! | PYP at PWE

  2. Thanks for the blog. I think any good inquiry always finds way to go deep into topics, rather than covering as much as possible that could be related. A lot of our curriculum concepts overlap, but objectives do not. When you teach completely by objective it is impossible (or very difficult) to try and connect those concepts.

    I like the idea of starting fresh as we know each year and each part of the year provide unique challenges and changes. After all you have a new set of students that won’t learn or participate the same way previous students did.

  3. Excellent post. I was encouraged on my first day in a PYP classroom not to look at old planners, but rather to start blank and let the kids drive the class. Best advice I have ever received. I follow it to this day, and as I prepare for a PYPC job next year, something I will encourage (support) teachers to do as well.

  4. What a great day for your staff – even though it was probably challenging at times! We try to focus on our “big ticket items” in Box 4 so we aren’t overwhelmed with so much “stuff to do”. We have to be discriminating professionals and filter the content. And the kids always give us a second filter – or more! Always a work in progress but trying to keep moving the learning forward – for everyone. Will definitely share with our staff your reflections!

  5. Hello Jen

    Thanks so much for linking to my blogpost. 😀

    The PYP is going through a review by the IBO and it’s exciting to be a part of these conversations through Twitter and through the blogsphere.

    About 10 years ago, the PYP started appearing in Hong Kong. Up until that point, the teachers were delivering the English National Curriculum (Hong Kong was a colony of Britain up until 1997). Teachers were faced with the same task of how to let go of the “old” and move into this new paradigm of teaching and learning. Someone likened the process to force-feeding a Peking duck (poor ducks were confined in earthen jars in the olden days). You can’t just keep on injecting in “stuff”. Something has to go!

    I like what Lynn Erickson said when she said that we are not teaching content, but we are teaching students to use their minds. When we think of it that way, we can have peace about letting go of some content that we have emotional attachments to—as teachers (and as students).

    We can look back on our lives and see how MUCH has changed in the last 10 years. Much has been brought by advances in technology. Our schooling didn’t prepare us for any of this, yet those of us that developed courage and critical-thinking skills were able to use our hearts and minds to embrace and excel in the changes. I wonder what life will be like for our students in 20 years. It will be even more different. Yes, in order that their schooling not be irrelevant, we have to teach them to use their minds and not just “injecting stuff” into it. 🙂

    How exciting your school is brave enough to start with a blank slate, while being a new PYP school. You’re miles ahead of us when we were doing the stuffed duck thing.

    Thanks for a great blogpost that will encourage many PYP teachers around the world to take the risk of starting with a blank slate.



    • Thanks for your comment, Vivian. Your post resonated so deeply with me, thank you for sharing it, so that I could spread the word 🙂 I agree with you, I’m fascinated to think about what our students’ worlds will look like in 20 years. And to think ~ Will they remember the “stuff” we taught, or will they apply the skills that we helped them develop in new and creative ways? What will be of more significance? Thinking bigger picture like that makes it seems fairly obvious 🙂 but when you’re in the “here and now” and have curriculum to cover, it certainly makes it challenging. It’ll be very interesting to see what the new Alberta Curriculum brings to the plate in terms of flexibility and allowing teachers to dig deeper on big ideas, rather than having to race to cover the surface level ‘objectives’.

  6. Jen: Excellent post! I love that you’re getting everyone to think differently and beyond the planner. It’s so easy to get caught up in the planner. I also like the ideas that have been running around about keeping the central idea hidden. We’re not there…and we have our PYP re-authorization visit next year, so we’ll see how that goes. Our planners have definitely been a focus since we have the PYP visit. It’s always important to think what’s important. It’s learning, isn’t it?

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