• Michael

Learning and Teaching in the PYP

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

December 2018 [revised 2019]

“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”

(McKenna, 1993)

"Nature bird" by @Doug88888 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I've spent a good chunk of my educational career in the International Baccalaureate (IB) in four different countries. I have also had a heap of other curricula teaching and leadership experiences in Switzerland, UK, Thailand, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Viet Nam and Australia. Over time, I see the vision and pedagogy of the PYP as keeping ahead-of-the-pack. I don't necessarily see myself as being 'only' an IB educator. Far from it. My flexibility and transformative approach as a lifelong learner, allows me to encompass diverse aspects of my career that contributes into a wider and deeper scope in the product I produce in education. Not many others can mould themselves across diversity in education, and this is why nature loves courage; being a lifelong learner.

Therefore in this post, I will reflect on a basic form of the culture of curriculum the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) is all about.

The IB PYP is a unique programme, unlike any other. It can be difficult to understand all the complexities and intricacies of what teachers are in the PYP and why they do what they do. Many of us older children in the adult world did not gain the luxury of learning and teaching such as what goes on in a PYP classroom. This learning and teaching through multiple roles and strategy energizes, invigorates, provokes, instigates, and throws us all into the unknown, finding out how to survive through the application of real-world experiences that develop what really matters in the life we call human. The PYP is not a limitation to just this either. The PYP is not entirely about knowledge and knowing, it is about the five essential elements and the mission statement of the IB. Growing transdisciplinary skills, grabbing tools of knowledge and learning through concepts, and applying the connections and development of attitudes and attributes, to then take action, because of what you are and can now do and understand. It takes a superior professional to be a PYP lifelong learner with students and facilitate this unique methodology, so that we all are critical thinkers and problem solvers.

I have already talked about the IB Learner Profile in previous blog entries, as well as what agency is in a student-centred PYP environment. So how can we know more about what teaching and learning is like in the PYP?

For starters, we can take a brief look at the four critical aspects of concept-based pedagogy:

1. Synergistic thinking: The type of thinking that occurs when two or more parts, say, the factual and conceptual levels of thinking, interact to achieve deep understandings transferable to different times, places and situations.

2. Conceptual lens: A wide-ranging concept that provides focus to a unit of study safeguarding synergistic thinking as the student processes facts through the focus concept hence facilitating the transferability of the understandings.

3. Inductive teaching: An approach that motivates us as teachers to draw understanding from students and encourage them to discover and build meaning for themselves, instead of telling it to them up-front.

4. Guiding questions: Questions that tackle factual knowledge/skills and conceptual understandings transferable to different times, places and situations, such as generalizations, and open-ended, provocative debate questions.

(Erikson & Lanning, 2014)

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

In the PYP these concepts are:

Function (How does it work?)

Change (How is it changing?)

Perspective (What are the points of view?)

Reflection (How do we know?)

Causation (Why is it the way it is?)

Connection (How is it connected to other things?)

Responsibility (What is our responsibility?)

Form (What is it like?)

Now let’s take a look at skills in the PYP.

These are transdisciplinary (or Approaches to Learning skills), and they have a number of sub-strands that are developed in the learning experiences and assessment that are focused on at different times throughout the school year. Within one unit of inquiry, a class may focus on two of these, with about 2-3 sub-strands within each skill. You will see in the assessment rubrics in the PYP that these skills, along with the Learner Profile and knowledge through concepts are assessed in each unit. IB staff go through a rigorous process ensuring balance of all of these elements in the PYP both vertically and horizontally each year. This revision enhances the programme and creates a richer environment of learning and teaching, avoiding the concept of finding stale breakfast cereal in the kitchen cupboard.

In the PYP these skills are:

(McKinnon Primary School, Australia, 2018)

The final piece to this puzzle is about REFLECT – CHOOSE – ACT. The action in the PYP is a culmination of the inquiry process. This action element in learning ‘will extend the student’s learning, or it may have a wider social impact, and will clearly look different within each age range’ (IBO, 2009a, pp. 25). This is a voluntary demonstration of student empowerment. It is like putting all the pieces together so that meaningful action in learning can be possible and successful. This is not about making an information poster about the topic, or just holding a bake sale for ourselves. Action in the PYP goes further than that, ‘we must remember that today’s complex issues do not often suggest simple or self-evident solutions, and that inaction is also a legitimate choice; indeed, sometimes, inaction may be the best choice’ (IBO, 2009a, pp. 25).

Here are a few nice articles from PYP educators around the world about what teaching and learning is like for them and their experiences. Enjoy the discovery.


Erikson, H. L. & Lanning, L. A. (2014) ‘Transitioning to Concept-based curriculum and Instruction; How to bring content and process together’, Corwin Publishing, USA.

International Baccalaureate Organisation (2009) ‘Making the PYP Happen’, Geneva, CH.

International Baccalaureate Organisation (2009a), ‘The Primary Years Programme; A basis for practice’, Geneva, CH.

McKenna, T. (1993) ‘Food of the Gods; The search for the original tree of knowledge’, Bantam Books, USA.

McKinnon Primary School (2018) ‘Transdisciplinary Skills’, Available at: on: 14 December 2018. Victoria, Australia.

  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

© 2020 by Michael Cresswell