Strategies for Developing IB PYP Conceptual Thinkers

Concepts are such a big part of our IB PYP lives. They begin with our transdisciplinary planning and end with the students' assessment of their conceptual understanding. And in between, we are nurturing and developing their awareness of those big ideas so that they may transfer their knowledge and understanding across disciplines and the programme of inquiry.

Following on from my conversation on Facebook, LIVE with  Misty Paterson from Pop-Up Studio, I wanted to offer some ideas that I have used for developing concept-seekers. I'm going to give you the super-quick tutorial on conceptual learning and planning before I dive into the tools I use to develop conceptual thinking within my students. If youre looking for ideas for assessing the additional concepts within our transdisciplinary themes, you will LOVE this article that shares my strategy for rich, rigorous and student-led conversations to reflect and assess those additional concepts. Take a look at this article below:

Enhancing Conceptual Understanding with Concept Maps

Planning the Inquiry - Concepts vs. Topics From the very beginning, we have to ask ourselves what is actually driving our planning; concepts or topics?  Keeping in mind that concepts frame universal ideas and topics frame facts, we can already see that for adding depth to the scope of learning, we need to be focusing on concepts. If you need some background on concept-based teaching and learning, you can view this video I created. 

Video : Developing Conceptual Thinkers

With a beautiful synergy between facts and concepts, we want to note the value of the relationship between the two, as we focus more on the relevant and meaningful concepts. Concepts are broad enough to allow scope for the children to take the inquiry in the direction of their curiosity and they provide a mental construct that shares common attributes, enabling transfer of this  understanding.

Two Types of Concepts

Driving the planning of the IB PYP, we have our micro concepts, also known as additional or related concepts and our macro concepts, also known as specified or key concepts.  Both sets of concepts are broad, big ideas.  We want to go narrow and deep within an inquiry and so we use the concepts in connection with each other, to bring this depth to the learning. We take an inductive approach when planning.  Beginning with identifying the micro or additional concepts, found within the transdisciplinary theme. 

The macro or specified concepts then allow us to take those broad related concepts within the themes and narrow them down, so that we can go deeper within the big ideas of the inquiry. Example: If we take the theme of How We Express Ourselves, we can narrow this to related concepts such as expression, creativity and culture. We can then narrow those broad, universal ideas by focusing in on the specified concepts, e.g. the form of expression, the function of creative expression, the connection between cultural forms of expression.

Making connections with prior knowledge and new concepts.

 Developing Conceptual Thinkers & Inquirers

" Concepts are skill, strategy and process based."  Misty Paterson

I ALWAYS begin my school year with developing those thinking skills. Always. It is that important. The quote above, from Misty, sums up the value.  Without the children having some sort of awareness of the big ideas, we are, in effect, limiting the scope of their learning and understanding. We want the children to be a part of  planning the direction of the inquiry- part of the process of unfolding the inquiry.  And so, we have to take the time to develop their thinking skills from a conceptual angle. I have a few strategies to help with this.

Understanding the macro or specified concepts.

Using the reference tools to begin, we work our way through the thinking process.  I know that many out there will tell you to make the posters with the children. And I absolutely agree. But before they can make a poster that is relevant, we have to make it MEANINGFUL. Use your ready-made posters to help get the children to the point of creating their own key concept posters.

The activities I use are all geared around the questions that we ask in order to identify the concepts we are focusing upon. Concepts are far more than a continuum of questions, however. This is where we have to make it meaningful and relevant.

Find pictures that make you think of key concept questions.

 Language Connections & Conceptual Thinking What we are really doing is presenting an opportunity for language connections. We are explicitly bringing together the children's prior knowledge and framing it through guiding questions. This is gently nurturing their thoughts towards the big ideas that will be our focus within the unit of inquiry.

Little kids learn to think conceptually.

The next step is to take the children's understanding from the specified macro concepts you have focused on and provide implicit practice within skills-based activities.  Remember, Misty said that concepts were skill, strategy and process based? These activities that are incorporated into my posters are progressively building upon all of that - communication skills, thinking skills, visible thinking strategies, the process of inquiry.

Create activities that allow for implicit practice of the thinking skills. Developing conceptual thinking skills with little kids.

There are many ways to present this understanding to your kiddos. I have ready-made resources that are designed for progressive development of this thinking skill, for both big kids and little kids.  No matter the age level you are working with, take the time to plan explicit teaching moments to bring them this greater conceptual awareness.

Provide opportunities for language connections - guiding through conceptual questions.

You can link to the following replay videos to find out more about how our global colleagues are approaching this exact development.  Alona and Dilek, from @reggio.inspired.pyp  are experienced early years teachers in Turkey,  having enormous success with similar techniques. Watch their video here. 

Early years strategies for developing thinkers & inquirers with @reggio.inspired.pyp[/caption]

And if you need clarification on concepts vs. topics, watch the Facebook replay with Misty Paterson, teaching grade 4 in Canada and author of Pop-Up Studio, right here. 

Concepts vs. Topics with Misty Paterson[/caption]

So, with all of those links to this, that and the next thing, I feel sure that I have left you with plenty to think about. I hope that this helps inspire some ideas you may have for bringing clarity to concept-based teaching and learning. If you are looking for extra help, please do take a look at the ready-made PYP tools in my store, especially created to bring conceptual awareness to our young inquirers.


P.S. If you are looking for online professional development that will walk you through planning, implementing and assessing concept-based learning, you may wish to take a look at my course, Essentials for Inquiry: Getting Started with Student-Led Inquiry


50% Complete

Be sure to subscribe to for practical strategies, hands on ideas and classroom ready tools for your inquiry-based classroom.