Updated: Aug 26, 2022
According to the IB Middle Years Programme:
"key concepts provide interdisciplinary breadth to the programme" (Principles into Practice, p15).
I absolutely applaud this statement; it is a definition that I believe is crucial to the fulfilment of the IB vision. This is what I wish to unpack in this blog. As well as doing so I hope to show that, unfortunately it is not yet being realised, that is under threat but that there is something that can be done about it.
The necessity of 'beyond the subject' concepts
So why are interdisciplinary concepts so crucial? Well, there are already many writers who have very successfully identified the importance of interdisciplinarity in the modern world and the need for concepts that breach the unnatural containment of curriculum subjects. Julie Stern has eloquently argued for need for a generation of thinkers who can solve the intractable problems of our time - which are inevitably interdisciplinary (see pages 14-16 of this document )
It is clear that thinking across the domains is a necessary skill. But it goes deeper than this. We need interdisciplinary connections for more than just utilitarian reasons. We need to enable students to connect to big ideas that in turn connect to themselves.
Before I can build my case for this point, I need to lay some essential groundwork. It will be nigh on impossible in a blog post format to do justice to this idea so I would respectfully request you to stop reading here and listen to this podcast, in which Dr James Mannion from UCL London & Director of Rethinking Education interviews Prof Mary - Helen Immordino-Yang from USC & Director of Candle: the Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning and Education.
For those, like me, who ignore such advice (vaguely promising to check it out later - only to forget) the headline is this:
If you can get a kid to connect and care about what you are presenting, by supporting them in building meaning from it (in that they use it to draw insight into how this thing called 'life' works) then you are building more than just learning - you are supporting that child's successful human development.
Intrigued? Good. Now please go listen to the podcast. I'll wait until you get back.
Notice how Mary-Helen opened the interview with a comparison of one of the world's greatest paradigm shifts, towards the heliocentric model of the Solar System, to one of equal magnitude that is required in education. Her compelling argument is that education needs to not just shift from content to concepts but from learning to development. It turns out knowing stuff is no great determination of human contentment but being able to see meaning and derive purpose in big ideas is.
I think this takes the notion of concepts to a higher plane. It goes beyond Lynn Erickson's notion that concepts add a 3rd dimension to content leading to broader more generalisable understandings. It goes deeper than Wiggins & McTighe's notion of supporting far transfer of ideas. Mary - Helen here argues for a system in which big ideas shape and are shaped by the learner's own disposition. It is a vision espousing the synergy between Concepts and Character. Learners who operate in this realm become masters of their own destiny and when needed (or the urge takes them) actors that can make a change.
Reaching for more than 'Transfer'
The current thinking is that concepts transfer understandings. Increasingly I wonder if this is a useful term. Transfer indicates that something moves relatively unchanged from A to B (there are good reasons to question an assumption that this happens and results in the transfer that we hoped for- the evidence base is mixed at best). But this need not deter us from concepts. I am increasingly thinking that the focus should be not on the unchanging nature of concepts, rather we should focus on that fact that opinions and understandings of concepts do change. We need students to see nuance in an increasingly polarised world - concepts have different facets and look different from different perspectives. The focus therefore, I believe, should shift away from transfer towards sophistication through nuance.
As Mary Helen stated in the following article : the best education:
facilitates students building, sharing, debating, and defending strong, self-generated, and abstract narratives, while integrating core, challenging concrete content and skills.
It suggests that key concepts are better being more dispositional than disciplinary. In this way I hope that we could build a framework that supports a greater propensity in students towards a meaning making disposition. In this way I also I hope that key concepts can move beyond transfer into transcendency.
And this, I believe is bigger vision of concepts, is one that reaches to the holistic, character forming nature of the IB, and one that even better embraces the Mission statement:
The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.
We want key concepts that will help students connect ideas in a unit to bigger ideas, but also, if we take Mary - Helen seriously, then these should additionally support personal meaning making. We would do well then to select key concepts that are accessible to all subjects (they should be shared) and be concepts that address an important aspect of a student's understanding of self (they should be about the human experience).
Transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and disciplinary.
Given that I have already gone so far, I am going to say it, this means that the key concepts would become not merely interdisciplinary but also transdisciplinary in their nature. This interests me because I have struggled to feel comfortable with the notion that the PYP, MYP and DP/CP needed to be branded transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and disciplinary. I have always felt this can be true in terms of curriculum construction but did not need to mean that they were not all seeking the same thing (to engage with the ideas from a context and apply them to a wider set of contexts) and thus should ALL the programmes operate in all three realms.
[A short aside: None of this is to suggest that we should abandon interdisciplinary or even disciplinary concepts. It's just that there are better ways of doing these than key concepts can offer (or related concepts for that matter). In the interest of brevity I will offer only the links but interdisciplinary transfer works better with 'super concepts' and disciplinary understanding with 'threshold concepts'. I would go so far then to suggest that formally recognising all 3 levels (transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and disciplinary) of concepts is something IB would do well to embrace.]
So why the enthusiasm for such a wide ranging rethink of key concepts. A fair amount of my energy for this comes from the insights and the repercussions from Mary Helen's work, the rest from a growing sense that in their current form they are not working as well as they could.
Evidence that the current key concepts are limited in their effectiveness
To necessitate a change I need to lay out the necessity for that change. What evidence do i have that things are not currently going to plan? Well, recently the Claremont Evaluation Centre (the CEC) was called on by the IB to review the implementation of the MYP since Next Chapter was launched. One aspect of their review was into how schools are doing in terms of delivering a concept driven curriculum. They identified three levels of implementation:
identified in unit plan only
implemented in classroom practice.
Unfortunately the MYP set programme compliance at level 2, and level 3 is seen as aspirational. In terms of what the CEC observed they found evidence of practice at this third level in only half the schools that they visited (of which some were where only one teacher was observed doing this). In addition to this a third of teachers surveyed self reported that they did not use any concept approaches at all in their teaching. Even given these numbers there was no clear indication as to whether teachers were connecting ideas to subject disciplinary versions of the concepts or to wider interdisciplinary themes or themes of human experience; indeed the example cited of level 3 practice was of implementation of a key concept in a very disciplinary way (relationship as way of viewing the association between current and voltage in a resistor).
An additional report, commissioned by the IB, is one by the University of Nottingham entitled: "Concept-based teaching and learning: Integration and alignment across IB programmes".
The dominant recommendation coming out of this report is that there is a need for clarity of the terms of key and related concepts. This was captured neatly in the interviews that they had with Senior curriculum leaders within the IB organisation (section starting page 103):
I think some of the tensions arise because we as an organisation have not been clear about what we mean by a conceptual approach and what we mean by conceptual understandings
This Manager went on to say:
… I did an audit recently of all the subjects in our group from PYP and through to DP in terms of the concepts in our subjects. And it is a mess! We talk about concepts differently and in the different programmes. We talk about concepts differently in the different subjects within the DP and we have different hierarchies of concepts and there is no consistency in the way in which we order them and there is no consistency in the way that we talk about them or we assess them
The report devotes FOUR pages to the IB staff's recognition of a tension in terms of whether key concepts should be big ideas that transcend subjects or ideas that organise subject based understanding. Again quoting:
the MYP approach to concepts is really at odds with how many DP curriculum managers see concepts. We don’t see them as timeless and universal but something that should be contested and that students should be evaluating and assessing and looking at how they manifest themselves differently and in different contexts etc. So something that .. you know .. is not given but should be debated and I think that it is confusing that we talk about them differently and we do not have a clear idea of what we mean by conceptual understandings.
... about coffee houses
I, like the IB Senior Manager interviewed and quoted in the last quote above, do not see concepts as being shared ideas. They are not places where students come to see if their thinking has all its paperwork in order. I see concepts as being shared spaces where students can explore, form and articulate their ideas. They are more like coffee houses than checkpoints. They are ideas to be explored with nuance rather than ideas that require to be transferred. Here, thoughts from all the different subjects meet to discuss their perspectives on a matter. By creating banner places (shared labels) for these meetings to take place (like the coffee houses of old) we create the space for explorations of meaning.
Encouraging students how to reflect on these concepts once they 'meet' at them will require a range of new tools and strategies. One particular reason for this is that thinking in this abstracted realm, where self narratives are built, is now understood to be a thing that happens in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain. Tasks that are too constructed occur in the Executive Control Network (ECN) of the brain and activity in this network is shown to actually switch off the DMN. There is so much to say on this so this will have to be left for now suffice to say that there will be a lot of interesting work to figure out how to best facilitate student self narrative building.
I taught for a short while in the PYP and I was impressed with how easily and fluidly students would consider a matter from the perspective of one of their key concepts. Sure the level was at the level of sophistication one would expect of pre-teens but their ease of working with them impressed me. I have to say I didn't see the same fluidity to work in this conceptual arena of thought and ideas in MYP students at the same school. I've asked around and this is apparently not a unique observation. I believe this precisely because the concepts are so discrete and because they are not shared. Sure you can add training on top of this but structurally the PYP programme delivers this outcome in a way that the MYP does not.
Should key concepts go all out disciplinary?
What the IB manager quote above also makes clear is that there is an internal debate within the IB especially with DP curriculum managers about wanting to adopt a more disciplinary focus to key concepts. Indeed the report goes on to make its key recommendation that key concepts are adapted to being more disciplinary-focussed. However, 'buyer beware' : the University of Nottingham operates in a paradigm in which learning disciplinary ideas for building of knowledge is the purpose of education. As described above this paradigm is at odds with a view that education is a developmental endeavour. I do not see how abandoning key concepts reach across subject boundaries to insights that connect to deeper meaning can support this developmental focus. Thus I couldn't disagree more strongly on this recommendation and sense the threat it poses.
I therefore urge the IB to reject this recommendation from the University of Nottingham. I would go a step further and recommend that they rethink key concepts in the DP (although for this blog I will restrict myself to the MYP, I will say this: I see no good reason as to why connecting ideas should be restricted to within the subject group delineation of the DP); in fact I think it would be an enhancement if we could support idea connection across these barriers. I have written about why I think transdisciplinary concepts are so vital and why I think it is necessary to capture this in any continuum taxonomy (as mentioned in the DP review) here.
That said it might be worthwhile for the IB to recognise that there are different types of concepts and the designation of transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary and disciplinary concepts might actually be more helpful to the IB than the current confusion over key and related concepts shown above. I have written about these 3 types of concepts here.
So why don't the given 16 MYP Key Concepts currently work?
It comes down to 3 main reasons.
First the key concepts are not shared. Of 16 of them in the MYP, none are shared by all subjects and only six by 2 or more. It's pretty simple really, if they are not shared then links between subjects won't happen.
Second the mechanism for connection is the Statement of Inquiry. Ignoring the fact that the SOI suffers a problem of being overly complex, its real issue is that it contains itself to the unit. Very few teachers refer to SOIs from a previous unit in another subject or successfully have their SOI picked up by a subsequent unit elsewhere. In short we claim that ideas are being built on across units but no-one is really checking to to see if what was thrown (think an American football pass) from one unit is ever caught, thus completing the pass.
Third is assessment. Simply put, there is not an Assessment Criteria that explicitly looks for whether students connected the taught curriculum to any bigger ideas that they have.
These three reasons explain why key concepts do not work at the moment. They do not connect because the mechanisms for their usage do not support connection and then we don't even check to see if that connection occurred.
Since listening to Mary - Helen I would now add one more. They are, if anything stuck at the 'what do they help us know' level and do not bridge the gap to 'what do they help us to therefore become'.
Quite how they could, is the bit I want to get to now.
Redesigning Key Concepts
There are two criteria that I would suggest we need for a successful key concept:
they must be chosen such that at all times a range of them are accessible by any unit in any subject and that over time all of them are accessible.
they must help the student to understand themselves and the world around them
On this latter point I think the concepts need to help the students operate in three levels of understanding:
Head (Inquire/Discover) knowledge about a matter ....
Heart (Reflect/Interpret) .... that leads them to build a worldview ...
Hands (Act/Create) ...in which they decide it matters enough to do something.
... at three levels of abstraction
their self impacts at a personal level
their social network impacts at a local or group level
the system impacts at a global level
This 3x3 thinking approach is a powerful tool in supporting conceptual connections. I have envisioned this as an approach to support international mindedness in the programme. I am developing it as something called the 'My Place in the Story' model. I have not the space here to explain this model but I written about it here. What I will say is that the model works hand in glove with my thinking on concepts.
Key Concepts 2.0
In an attempt to find concepts that enable students to build connections between the learning and their personal narratives (ie help students understand themselves, the world around them and their place in the entire narrative), I have come up with the following organisation of concepts that is more closely connected to the global contexts. The advantage to doing this is that it creates a natural synergy between the key concepts and the global context.
It means also that inquiries into the contextual relevance of the material we are presenting allows for consideration of the interaction between 3 key concepts. I personally believe that this is where the true power of concepts kicks in, not in the naming and identification of the concepts but on the interactions and nuances of them.
It will be noticed that I have linked these concepts to the UN Development Programme's identified 5 core areas of focus and expertise (concepts in their own right). In doing so I hope it makes the concepts have a role to play in understanding the complexities of delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that many MYP educators have laudably begun to connect their units to:
These key concepts serve to address the core issue that faces humanity: change. What are we needing to change? how do we change? will everyone benefit from or agree with the change? What are the consequences of that change? Can we predict all the systemic ramifications of a change? Can we change sustainably? Is the change respectful of all opinions and cultures? How does media influence and give voice to change?
Additionally by having every student meet every concept in every discipline this repeated exposure a) develops their awareness of the concept and b) gives them an appreciation of the variety of disciplinary and contextual perspectives on them. They discover there are no trite answers and this nuance builds complex and sophisticated conceptual understanding.
Having 3 key concepts associated with a global context will be a change for MYP educators but this is much closer to the way concepts are used in PYP. Units have 2 or 3 key concepts attached to them which act as lenses for the inquiry. It is much closer also to the work of others in the field of conceptual understanding who recognise the value of concepts lies in their interaction with each other.
Currently key concepts in the MYP seem to perform the function of 'Where's Waldo' in a unit. We spot its presence classify an observable idea under it and move on. I want to have student spot the ideas and compare and contrast these ideas. As one respondent to the reformulation put it: "we need to develop students’ understanding of the relationships between concepts. This is the difference between teaching concepts and teaching conceptually."
Further, to support students in their exploration of these concepts I have reformulated the inquiry strands into questions relevant to each concept:
For those of you worried that a new formulation of key concepts might make the implementation of the programme difficult whilst the existing official key concepts remain in place. I have prepared a mapping tool that will enable you to indicate the key concept on the unit plan. The discussions made during the exploration of my suggested key concepts more than cover the requirement to discuss all the key concepts. Also, through the constant exposure from all subjects that connecting them to a global context will bring , it will do so in much greater depth and sophistication than is currently seen and that this will more than satisfy any MYP evaluator.
Also note that I have included the PYP key concepts to this mapping to show that consideration of curriculum coherence was present in the design (something I consider to be very important).
Please note: "Further guidance on developing written curriculum" makes it clear that additional key concepts are welcome in the MYP programme and that there is much flexibility in their delivery - as long as it is in keeping with the IB philosophy - which I truly believe this is.
Returning to the concepts during reflection
To further increase exposure to these concepts they can be referenced to again when students reflect on the unit. I have designed a framework that can support both teacher design of units and student reflection on the unit. It is called the My Place in the Story Framework (linked here). When students reflect on aspects of the framework through guided questions they can use the concepts to help connect their thoughts to these bigger ideas.
What then is the role of the related concepts?
A review of the related concepts suggest that they compliment and contribute to the discussions that having key concepts embedded into the global contexts will bring up. So I think there are no issues here.
The role of the Statement of Inquiry
Let's be honest here any school submitting to BQC or facing an evlauation has to provide SOIs that meet the current IB requirements. In writing these I probably would stick to the official IB key concepts in their formulation. But as I have written elsewhere I find that the SOI is not a very useful curriulum tool. The idea that one can jam into single sentence 3 abstract conceptualisations (the KC, the RC and the GC) and still have it make clear sense to children or teachers has been its major failing. It is an art form to write good ones and even these can be too much of a mouthful for most users to like them.
I think a much simpler summarising sentence should be being used (actually I prefer that it would be a question, as this leads to more discussion). One in which there are as few a set of rules as possible (ie no requirements to include the specific key or related concept or global context line of enquiry). My preference would be for a sentence that sums up how the material covered in the unit (the content) relates to a big idea in globally relevant context. I think such sentences anyway point clearly (if indirectly) to the concepts and global contexts that we want to cover.
A unit on separation techniques could have a summarising questioning sentence that simply asks:
"we know how to clean water, what stops us from global progress on such a vital resource?"
It is pretty clear from this sentence what the link is to what they are learning about (separation techniques); why it is relevant (access to potable water); what the global context is (scientific and technical innovation). We can use the concepts of knowledge, control and progress to explore the question and come up with a variety of answers. You'll notice that it leaves the concepts open to discussion rather than nailing them down to shared understandings. There is also a move away from the notion of transfer but towards a notion of discussion, nuance and hopefully out of this some sophistication.
If I now want to improve the connection of such a statement to another subject all we have to do is mirror the question in another unit. For example if Art collaborates with Science to promote the issue of access to clean water and I&S looks at it development point of view, then their questions might be:
"we know the importance of access to clean water, can we use the techniques of media communication to motivate global progress on such a vital resource?"
"is NGO collaboration with local communities enough to improve access to clean water and bring about global progress on such a vital resource?"
Students will instantly see the link between the subjects but also recognise that each subject is bringing its disciplinary perspective to the issue. Even if this doesn't become a formal Interdisciplinary unit (IDU) the connection of ideas becomes more apparent. As each subject thrashes through the ideas of what we know, what we can control and the nature of progress we gain a more system level understanding of the issues and ideas that dominate the world today.
Given the beneficial impact on students and their brains, through the building of personally relevant meaning, this re-designation of key concepts, I propose, is a powerful step forward in the fulfilment of any holistic learning agenda. Let's consider all ways we can in the pursuit of supporting students in the formation of their own conceptions of themselves and the communities and the world around them. In doing so we support them in their personal developmental growth.