Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Achieving Transdisciplinary Learning

In the PYP, transdisciplinary learning is achieved through the use of the following aspects of the written curriculum:

  • Transdisciplinary themes
  • Key concepts and related concepts
  • Transdisciplinary skills
In school we are currently refining our PoI and updating most of the central ideas and therefore have also been looking into the key and related concepts for each unit. The Lines of Inquiry are also changing as a result of this. 

In order to plan for true transdisciplinary learning, we are following this process: 

  1. Group the national objectives under the Transdisciplinary Themes (the criteria for this grouping was basically to match the science and social studies content with the Transdisciplinary Themes, and then to find content and outcomes from the other disciplines that would support the learning going on in those future units, based on their experience of the past units).
  2. Find key concepts for the units, based on the science and social studies content/outcomes that were selected (and based on their past experience with the past units).
  3. Find related concepts, specific to each of the disciplines, for each of the content and outcomes. These related concepts need to relate somehow to the key concepts, and truly do not have much in common with the objectives/content/outcomes of the disciplines.
  4. Create a Central Idea that is broad enough so as to "fit in" learning outcomes from different disciplines (the more the better, which means that any word or related concept that is directly related to a specific discipline should not be included, ie. "economy" as a concept should not be included in the Central Idea because it is directly related to social studies and therefore could hinder the active participation of other disciplines. In talking about this with the coordinator, he responded that he felt this necessary basically because teachers from different subject areas would read the Central Idea and in finding word like "economy" would think well I teach physical education and therefore have nothing to contribute to this unit).
  5. Create 1 Line of Inquiry for each of the key concepts. These lines should also be as broad as possible so as to continue promoting the participation of different disciplines in the Unit of Inquiry. 
Here are examples of the work done for one of the units, following these steps:

Trans Theme: How we organise ourselves -- "...economic activities and their impact on humankind and the environment" (3rd grade)
  • Key Concepts: Function, Connection, Responsibility
  • Related Concepts:
    • Social studies: production, economy
    • Language: production (of texts, of writing, of oral speaking...)
    • Mathematics: measurement, money, organisation (of information)
    • Arts: production (artistic productions...)
  • Central Idea: Social organisation benefits from proper exchange of products and services. 
Trans Theme: Sharing the planet -- "...communities and the relationships within and between them..." (5th grade)
  • Key Concepts: Connection, Form, Responsibility
  • Related Concepts:
    • Science: life, ecosystem, habitat, interaction, cycle
    • Language: description
    • Civics: interaction
  • Central Idea: Human beings' actions and their adaptation to their environment conditions the relationship between them and with the multiple forms of life on the planet. 
Several aspects of this process produce tension in me...

Will transdisciplinary learning only occur with inquiries into extremely broad central ideas?
Do we need extremely broad and ambiguous central ideas in order for different disciplines to be able to participate in a unit of inquiry?
In what ways may the learning in the specific subjects be compromised by trying to get students to reach such broad generalisations? Is the integrity of the discipline at stake?
Can lines of inquiry specifically mention subject specific concepts? In what ways does this truly affect the transdisciplinary nature of the inquiry?
When and how should different disciplines participate in a unit of inquiry? a) when the learning in a specific discipline will be needed for students to understand the central idea or explore the key concepts or b) by intentionally selected related concepts for the disciplines that are related to the key concepts of the unit?
What should be done first? Group the content/outcomes in the Trans Theme and then find key concepts that underly all of these?
How should related concepts be selected? They are called "related", which makes me think they should be RELATED to the key concepts. Or should they be RELATED to the disciplines?
Here is some research on related concepts:

"The related concepts, however, ensure that instruction builds depth of understanding by attending to, and adding to, the language of each subject area—the discipline-specific concepts and their important relationships from year to year. In the PYP, these related concepts can be taught in the context of the transdisciplinary units of instruction developed for the programmes of inquiry. Identifying the related concepts in these units ensures that disciplinary depth is included in the inquiry. When I use the term “related concepts” in my work with concept-based curriculum design, I am referring to the concepts related to specific disciplines within the unit, rather than specific concepts related to various key concepts. The reason for this is I want to identify the more specific concepts to build disciplinary depth." 

Erickson, HL. (2012) "Concept Based Teaching And Learning". IBO.

So the goal of related concepts is to "build depth of understanding by attending to, and adding to, the language of each subject area" and doing so helps reach disciplinary depth in a transdisciplinary unit.

Related concepts are those "related to specific disciplines within the unit", they are not related to key concepts. Is this so?

"...the PYP and the MYP ask teachers to use a key concept and a more discipline-specific related concept to state a central idea and concept statement respectively. To reinforce idea-centred teaching and conceptual thinking I recommend consideration of additional conceptual understandings crafted with the more discipline-specific related concepts to be added to each unit. I will call these understandings “supporting ideas” for the purposes of this discussion. In the MYP and PYP if a year-long course of instruction was framed under five or six units of instruction, I would think five to eight supporting ideas per unit - in addition to the central idea/concept statement - would be reasonable to guide the formative work."

Erickson, HL. (2012) "Concept Based Teaching And Learning". IBO.

For the PYP, we should choose related concepts which are "discipline-specific". Both key concepts and related concepts should be used to state central ideas. These related concepts are more discipline-specific and they should be included in the units as "supporting ideas". If they are SUPPORTING IDEAS, then should these ideas be included only when they support the understanding of the Central Idea, or should the central idea be created by combining both these concepts and the key concepts?

We should be choosing 5 to 8 related, discipline-specific concepts for each unit (!!!).

Here is an interesting argument given by Erickson (2012) to support this previous suggestion:

"Another reason I suggest that the PYP and MYP use the more specific related concepts to write additional supporting ideas for their unit planners is to continually build disciplinary schemata in the 
brain, so students are prepared for the conceptual rigour of the DP, as well as for lifelong learning and work. It is through the conceptual structures of knowledge that the PYP, MYP and DP can be further 
aligned and articulated on the IB programme continuum."

Another point I think should be considered is what the IB states on the official documents:

  • "When planning a programme of inquiry, schools should be aware that all significant science and social studies teaching should take place within the programme of inquiry. Moreover, knowledge, concepts and skills from any of the other subject areas, ie language, mathematics, PSPE and arts, should be included in the programme of inquiry whenever there is an authentic connection to the students’ learning and understanding of the transdisciplinary theme." 

"Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry" (2012) IBO.

This means that we should, in fact, start developing the Programme of Inquiry by looking at the science and social studies goals/contents/outcomes we are required to reach, and organising these within the Trans Themes. 

Other subject areas should participate when there is an authentic connection to students' understanding of the Trans Theme (and therefore of the Central Idea). Now, should this authentic connection be conceptual, thematic, or both?

Finally, the document describes central ideas with the following criteria:
  • One sentence that expresses concisely an enduring understanding
  • Support students’ understanding of the particular transdisciplinary theme it is connected to
  • Should challenge and extend students’ prior knowledge. 
  • Is globally significant and have relevance to students in all cultures and contexts, offering students the opportunity to explore commonalities of human experience as framed by the description of the transdisciplinary theme.
  • Is written in a neutral voice that does not convey a specific or particular value of an individual or group, eg teachers.
  • Is written in such a way to invite student inquiry, so that a range of responses is possible. 
  • Its complexity can be uncovered (if necessary) to help students construct their own meaning and assign their own value to the ideas being explored.
  • Promotes conceptual development supported by the PYP key concepts identified 
  • There are clear links between the transdisciplinary theme, the central idea and the associated lines of inquiry need to be established and articulated.
  • There is an effective way in which students can demonstrate—or teachers assess—their understanding of the central idea
  • May need to be “unpacked” by the teachers or students and discussed in language that the students can understand. 
"Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry" (2012) IBO.

Although the document says nothing about how broad the central idea should be, it does say that it should express the enduring understanding, which should be transdisciplinary and therefore not subject specific. I could conclude, then, that a broad central idea would be best to promote transdisciplinary learning. However, I still think there is a limit as to how broad it is... 

And about the lines of inquiry, the document states that:
  • "The purpose of the lines of inquiry is to clarify and develop understanding of the central idea. Each unit of inquiry will contain three or four lines of inquiry and these should be written as statements or phrases, not as questions, topics or tasks. There should be evidence of a connection between the lines of inquiry and aspects of the designated transdisciplinary theme.
  • Lines of inquiry should be written in such a manner as to develop conceptual understanding supported by the identified PYP key concepts and related concepts. Lines of inquiry should be relevant to the experience of the students within a particular developmental range. The lines of inquiry, as a set, should define the scope of the inquiry and help to focus student research. However, they should be open enough to extend student inquiries, and deepen understanding of the central idea."
"Developing a Transdisciplinary Programme of Inquiry" (2012) IBO.

Considering this information, I can say that the lines of inquiry should be more specific, mentioning the key concepts and the related concepts from the subject specific areas already identified. Should they be broad or specific? I think there should be a balance between "broad enough so as to invite inquiry into the related concepts from the already identifies subject areas", but "specific enough so that the inquiry is structured around those concepts and that knowledge", because the PYP proposes structured, not open inquiry, and it's the lines of inquiry that make the difference!

What process do you follow to plan for transdisciplinary learning?
How do you make sure your central ideas reflect the participation of different disciplines, yet clearly identify the learning that will go on without being ambigious?


  1. Daniela, I really think you summarized this well. Great information to share with my teachers. Thanks for posting.

  2. I Would love yo hear about the process you have followed before. In what ways is it similar or different?


What do you think?