MYP Key Concepts 2.0 (updated 4 Nov 2021)

Updated: 6 days ago

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'

This notion of conceptual understanding moves past the terminology of 'transfer'. It suggests that the key concepts should not be about beefing up theoretical understandings in a subject. Nor even for taking an idea from one part of the curriculum and successfully transplanting to another part.

It is these things, but as I reflect on what Mary Helen has 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. 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:

  1. not implemented

  2. identified in unit plan only

  3. 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.

What this quote makes clear is that there is an internal debate within the IB especially with DP curriculum managers about wanting to adopt a more discipline focussed definition of 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.

So why don't Key Concepts currently work?

It comes down to 3 main reasons.

First the key concepts are not shared. There are 16 of them in the MYP, of which 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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) which they decide it matters enough to do something.

... at three levels of abstraction

the individual impacts at a personal level

their community impacts at a local or group level

their world 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:

These key concepts could be further delved into with additional concepts and serve to address two core issues How do we change and How do we do this sustainably:

At the centre are the Dilemma concepts Change and Stability. Ultimately every decision comes down to this dilemma are we seeking to change the situation (at the levels indicated above) or maintain the status quo? When should we be changing and when should we be protecting against it?

A note about the concept of change. For a long time it was my least favourite key concept because it was essentially banal: something is different - it changed, what's to get? As I thought more about it I realised that everything is in fact an aspect of it. How did it change? What influenced the direction of this change? Was the change favourable? How do we mitigate against unwanted changes? Why is it so hard to change? etc etc. Change as a key concept needs unpacking to get to the sophisticated conceptual understandings and so in this model this is that unpacking.

The second layer are the Driving concepts which explore the understandings and motivations behind the desire for change / stability. Students should be exploring these concepts to understand their own change / growth but also that of the world around them.

Note: These concepts have been chosen to fit with the aforementioned 'My Place in this Story' model.

Driving concepts are the closest thing to the existing key concept nomenclature. I am essentially redefining key concepts as those which support a better understanding of the drivers that affect or oppose change in individuals or in the world.

The last layer are Delving concepts (these are most akin to the Related concepts - which were always too broad to be disciplinary concepts anyway). These are a non-essential, non-exhaustive list of avenues of exploration that could be taken as we explore these Driving key concepts. The examples listed should be simply that, examples. They should not be prescribed lists (as the related concepts should never have been a prescribed list).

Below this layer and not on the diagram are the Disciplinary concepts the conceptual understandings that are built in subject units that contribute to these bigger ideas.


Given that change is so ubiquitous a standing inquiry question can be "How does what we are learning in this unit encourage us to change or to do something to protect against the changes that are present?"

Getting us to dig deeper enables sophisticated responses to this standing question. Designers of units should therefore be asked to write Statements of Inquiry that connect to at least one of the Driving concepts and another different concept (presumably but not limited to a Delving concept) that can support this exploration.

I would remove restrictive rules that impose a requirement of coverage (even on the Driving concepts) and instead insist on a single requirement: that every unit must reference to a conceptual understanding FROM a previous unit and identify TO which unit the conceptual understanding will be picked up again and further explored. In other words I would impose CONNECTION and not COVERAGE.

... 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 it 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. 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.

Final thoughts

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.

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