PYP exhibition part one

I’m back in the classroom (Grade 5 half way through the school year) after a few years of only teaching a few single-subject classes  every week, and have been struck by the need to maintain a balance – of learning experiences that really push students to challenge themselves and those which recognize that they’re tired and ready for something more relaxing and ‘low key’; of learning experiences that set up situations in which students are forced to interact to complete the task versus those that recognize the needs of more introverted students to  have the space to think things through and follow something up by themselves.  More recently I’ve had to balance the assumption by students that one of the jobs of a teacher is to plan the learning experiences and just ensure that students ‘get on with it’ versus my assumption that the exhibition should involve a high element of student choice and direction so that the learners themselves take ownership of the whole process from start to finish and ultimately learn what they’re ready to learn and what they need to learn.

We haven’t yet started our exhibition unit but with less than two weeks to go until the official starting date I knew that we had to reach consensus on the central idea, if only because other students and teachers have started asking questions like: ‘What is this year’s exhibition about?’ and ‘When can we start thinking about exhibition mentors?’ I’ve been struck by how uncomfortable some people –students and adults – feel when surrounded by ambiguity.  My feeling is that the exhibition will unfold on its own terms within the guidelines established by the PYP curriculum framework and based on the needs and interests of the students – therefore developing the skills, knowledge and conceptual understandings that the students themselves realise they need to complete it.  This idea seems to run against the view that ‘teachers know best’ and ‘planning everything in advance is the key to successful learning’.

So far we had established the following:

  • This year’s exhibition will fall under the transdisciplinary theme of ‘Who we are’.
  • We will be focusing on our passions.
  • There will be some action component.

We have some understanding of what the exhibition day itself will be like, having completed a Y-chart on our recent extended field trip (What will it look like, feel like, sound like?) but we have not yet determined the skills or attitudes that we will need to develop while working towards this culmination of the exhibition unit.

The central idea was now up for negotiation. I set the students the task, in groups, of unpacking the transdisciplinary theme.  At first there were comments along the lines of:

  • Do we have to do this?
  • What do you mean, we have to make the central idea?
  • What’s a central idea?
  • Don’t the teachers do that?
  • This is too hard.
  • What does ‘spiritual’ mean?
  • I don’t understand ‘beliefs and values’.
  • What’s ‘mental health’?
  • This [‘the nature of self’] is really confusing.
  • Why do we have to discuss ‘rights and responsibilities’?

That’s when I had to avoid the temptation to jump in with my own ideas, and allow the students more than a few moments of confusion.  I had to trust my instinct that they would be able to come up with something deeper than ‘Well our passions are just what we’re interested in’ and stop myself from leaping in and giving them the easy way out.  With a little bit of prompting, the odd example and what seemed like 20 minutes of uncomfortable silences each group suddenly, in stages, became animated. Individuals started grabbing the pen and saying ‘I want to write this bit’ and comments started to get deeper:

  • So our passions are about who we really are.
  • But what if we don’t understand who we are because we don’t want to think about it?
  • Children have the right to play and to do things they enjoy.
  • It’s about our dreams, not just our interests.
  • Sometimes our religion stops us from following a certain passion.
  • Why do our parents tell us what we should be interested in?
  • It’s all about our DNA .. our genes … our parents make us what we are and they shape our passions.
  • Health is all about happiness.
  • Being human is about happiness. How can we be happy?
  • We have to think about who we are if we want to be happy.
  • When we do what we enjoy we cooperate, so our passions help our social health.
  • Passions help us think, so that’s our mental health.

Later in the day we tried to pull some of these ideas together to create a central idea.  We analysed the central idea of our current ‘How the world works’ unit against some criteria for an effective central idea which helped the students to reach agreement on what this exhibition central idea needed to be.  So far we have a list of key words:

Our passions … skills and mindsets … health and happiness … sense of self … action

We’ll need to come up with some verbs to link these ideas, and then try our central idea out in the context of the transdisciplinary theme, then play around with it a bit more.  Already I feel a sense of curiosity within the group; a sense of wondering which will allow them to take ownership of the whole process of the exhibition.  It will be a messy, unpredictable process for much of the time but I’m being reminded of the need to let go, to allow long stretches of silence and thinking time and to trust that given some timely prompts and provocations, these learners will find out for themselves what they are capable of, map out their goals, identify their own areas of investigation and in the process take their learning to a deeper level.

About marycollins21

Mother of three daughters and one son; grandmother of one. PYP teacher at Xiamen International School, China. I am a member of IBEN (IB Educator Network) and love my role as PYP workshop leader. As well as being passionate about inquiry and all things that enhance student learning, I enjoy reading, salsa and swimming.
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9 Responses to PYP exhibition part one

  1. Hi Mary… wonderful to read your post and to know of some others who are going through a similar process as I am…. of letting go! Was talking to the team of teachers whom I am guiding through the journey about this nature of free, unstructured, and flexible process that we must follow… much like a river carving its own path. Sometimes, without clear direction or instructions, one finds it difficult, but then life doesn’t come with a manual either! So hoping that we will embark upon an authentic journey of discovery! Wish you luck too!


  2. sonyaterborg says:

    Mary, this is brilliant! I love that you are focusing so much energy on the process. What I have found in doing the Exhibition for so long, is that some of this needs to start further down the school too. I had a student who really struggled with PYPX and when she and I sat down and talked about it she confessed that “This is the first time I am being asked to learn about something for myself. I am so used to teachers telling me what we are studying, how my learning will look (make a poster, write a story, act it out) that I don’t know how I am supposed to do this when it is up to me”. This was a real eye opener for me but a revelation for her – her final presentation on her journey was outstanding and had people in tears. It just reinforced to me how this is so much about the process and how that process oriented focus (over product or content) needs to begin right from the beginning of the Exhibition journey – as soon as students enter the PYP. Thanks so much for sharing this. I would love to re-blog this over on a PYP Exhibition site that I have just put together and am about to post about here. Let me know if that is ok with you!


  3. Pingback: PYP Exhibition Website | Inquire Within

  4. Thanks so much for your comments, Sonya – a reminder of how we need to elicit and respond to our students’ feelings and emotions during the exhibition process just as often as we need to respond to what they actually do / create. I’m about to look at your PYP exhibition site and yes, of course it’s ok to re-blog my post, thanks very much for asking!


  5. leahbortolin says:

    Hi Mary, Great post. Thanks for sharing your process in getting started on the PYPX. We are just getting started on the Exhibition ourselves and the students are so excited. We started with a group central idea to get students thinking: our passions help us learn more about what matters in our community. Ultimately, students will narrow down their ideas, choose a transdisciplinary theme (we don’t nail this down as a grade) and create their own central ideas. In some classes, students are exploring these passions and breaking them down based on related concepts to see if they can find interesting links with other people: this has been a great way to get students involved in the formation of their PYPX groups.

    I can really relate to “I had to avoid the temptation to jump in with my own ideas, and allow the students more than a few moments of confusion”. Watching students struggle can be painful, but watching them move through this confusion into deeper understanding makes it all worth it! Thanks again for your great post!


  6. Thanks so much for your comment, Leah! I really like the idea of getting the students themselves to choose a transdisciplinary theme and would be interested in knowing more about how this works in practice. We’re now one week into our Exhibition unit and a week ago I created a blog to record some of our experiences and feelings over the next few weeks. Do contact with us on our class Twitter account @bisgrade5 if you would like our students to collaborate with each other. I’m new to using Twitter in this way and so are my students but we’re gradually working it out!


  7. Amanda-Jane Fairey says:

    Hi Mary,
    I am working with 11 students in a small school in Zhuhai, China. Last week we began our Exhibition journey for 2015. Our theme is How the World Works, which the students had chosen at the end of th last school year as part of the transition process moving from Year 5 to Year 6. For my colleague Renee, (PYP co-ordinator) and I this is only our second year leading an Exhibition, we wanted to offer this group the chance to come up with their own central idea. I felt very uneasy Monday approaching the students with only the TD theme and no other structure. Like you I have had teachers and parents asking me about when we would assign groups and mentors and all I could say was “When we know what the central idea is!” We followed a similar process to you, looking at the POI across the school and identifying central ideas from other HtWW units.Individuals then wrote their own CIs and we then identified common language that came up. The thinking and analysis that these amazing young minds were able to achieve in a week was so inspiring.Now they have their chosen theme and they own the central idea!
    Bring on week two!

    Oh, and any advice would be welcome!


  8. Hi Leah and Amanda,
    Great to hear from both of you and to know that your students now ‘own’ the central idea, I think this is so important! Leah, I love the central idea and I’m only sorry I didn’t see your comment earlier!
    We are now halfway through the Exhibition unit and on mid semester break. Our Exhibition blog may give you some ideas and we also have a class Twitter account @bisgrade5 The students have been slow to use this Twitter account as a tool to inquire – I’ve realised that this type of collaboration needs to be introduced to students much earlier rather than waiting for the exhibition unit itself – but they have certainly been inspired by seeing the Tweets of those we follow.
    Our students are now at the stage where they can focus on their individual inquiries and they’ll also be putting together some sort of performance. It’s a bit scary to know that we only have until 30 April to pull everything together but I think having faith in the students’ ability to dig deep and to create something that reflects their understandings is important.
    We would really love your advice too!
    Sonya terBorg’s website is amazing and will give you lots of great ideas. Thank you Sonya if you are reading this!


  9. Pingback: Resources – PYP Workshop Exhibition

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