Several people have asked me to share my experiences with teaching a Unit of Inquiry without sharing the Central Idea with my students. Below is an interview I participated in, as a way of sharing my experiences with others. If any folks reading this have similar experiences, questions, or comments, I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below, or track me down on online. Assuming my kids get to sleep early enough, I try to make the Africa/Europe/Middle East #pypchat Wednesdays from 8pm – 9pm (Gulf Standard Time) (UTC +4).

I’ve heard that you’ve experimented with teaching without a Central Idea. Could you explain how you heard about this idea?

Our PYP Coordinator, Jessica Dalton, had told us about a thought-provoking article she had just read by Vivian on Ditching the Central Idea. Vivian had attended a conference with Lynn Erickson, and one of her take-away ponderings was the role of the Central Idea, and whether we should deliberately not share the Central Idea with students.

Wow, that’s not a normal PYP approach!

Ya, tell me about it! Originally, like many PYP-trained educators, I thought that was borderline heresy. Wasn’t the first learning engagement supposed to be unpacking the Central Idea? Wouldn’t the PYP Police come find you? 😉

So, what did you do?

Well, Jessica and I bounced the idea around, and I started to see that there was a tension between inviting students to inquire and make their own generalizations, and giving students the Central Idea. It’s a little like the difference between a scientific demonstration and a true experiment: in a demo, there is a predetermined answer, whereas with an experiment, you don’t know what is going to happen. Anyways, I became really curious about what would happen if my students had to create their own generalisations about what the unit was about.

So, you just didn’t tell students the Central Idea?

Not exactly. My Grade Four team was busy planning our Where We Are in Time and Place unit on exploration and discovery. Like many good units, this one had a history with several incarnations, and most aspects had already been decided, including our Key Concepts (causation, perspective, change), Related Concepts (exploration, discovery), our Lines of Inquiry, etc. One key component that was not yet finalised was our Central Idea. The previous year’s CI was “Exploration leads to discovery,” which we recognized lacked depth, focus, and relevance. The challenge was, how to change it? Alternative CIs were suggested, workshopped, and rejected, until finally, we came back to the original.

LOL! Ya, I’ve been in meetings where that happens.

Ya, I know. Well, we weren’t satisfied, but we didn’t know what to do, and we were running out of time. So I thought, “Why not teach the unit without a Central Idea?” I reasoned: as we already had both discovery and exploration as Related Concepts, and causation as one of the Key Concepts, our CI, “Exploration leads to discovery,” was extraneous and didn’t really add anything. So, if the best CI that we could come up with wasn’t actually helping us, why not do as Vivian suggested and ditch it? And my open-minded and courageous colleagues went for it!

Yay! So, how did it go?

It was amazing. Without a CI, my students had to figure out how all the facts and details of specific explorers fit together. They had to generalize. To help them with this, I employed the Visible Thinking Routine Peel the Fruit as the underlying structure of our Unit of Inquiry board. I explained to my students that the central circle (the core) was the Central Idea that they were going to create. We would do some research and have some discussions, and figure out what was relevant. I’d coach them through deciding what was significant enough to get put up on our Unit of Inquiry board.

Sounds like a wonderful collaborative experience. How did the generalizations go? Did they each come up with different ones?

By the time I asked them to create Central Ideas, near the end of the unit, they were already noticing patterns in many explorers lives. Most of the explorers we learned about had thought they were moving in one direction until something unexpected happened, which opened new avenues of thought. Darwin intended to be a priest when he joined the Beagle to keep the captain company. Columbus landed in the Carribbean instead of Asia. A contaminated Petri dish lead Fleming to penicillin. In our discussions, we started referring to these serendipitous events as “bumps.” So, when the time came to synthesize all that we had learned in the unit, most students’ CIs were something like: “Explorers often get bumped to discover new things” or “Being open to bumps we don’t know about can help us make discoveries.

I can see how those are more powerful than “Exploration leads to discovery.” So your experiment was a success then?

Yes, it was humbling and intensely rewarding. I remember sitting back one afternoon, and suddenly the whole idea of constructivism and enduring understandings just made sense. These kids had figured out something profound about our world’s history. And the part that still gives me goosebumps is that some of them internalized their understanding as a personal philosophy, recognizing that even if their lives didn’t go in the direction that they intended, they should keep an open mind because they might be “bumped” into something good.


Ya, wow indeed.

Now that you have had some time to reflect on your experiences, how has your thinking changed?

I had no idea how significant this experience would be for me. I expected I would teach the unit, reflect and discuss with Jessica, and shift back to the normal way of teaching in the PYP. What I didn’t expect was the unanswered questions I now have regarding the role of the Central Idea in the PYP. I had the serendipitous fortune of falling into this no-Central Idea experiment because our CI wasn’t useful, but I wonder if every unit I teach could be more engaging and powerful if I didn’t post the Central Idea? I thought we needed a Central Idea to guide our way through the inquiry, and maybe we teachers still do, but I’m not convinced our students do. I wonder, why give them the CI at all? Why not let students stumble their way – investigating, synthesizing, positing, arguing – as they go? I like to think my classroom employs a constructivist philosophy… but I wonder: if I am creating the generalisations for what my students will learn, who exactly is doing the constructing?

So, what’s next?

Well, it’s approaching a year since I taught this unit, and it’s still one of those rich experiences that my mind keeps returning to. This year we start this unit in early February, and just today my team and I decided to try teaching it without a Central Idea again. So, Round Two starts, and I’ll keep you posted.

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