Updated: Jun 29, 2021
As some will know I teach Science in the International Baccaleaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP). As part of this programme every unit needs to create a Statement of Inquiry (SOI). The SOI links concepts together with a context of meaningful value (something called a global context). The intention with the SOI is to create "a contextualized, conceptual understanding" that is
"transferable beyond the content of the unit" (MYP: From Principles into Practice, p62).
What I have discovered is that students rarely understand the SOI. They do not always connect to the statement within the unit let alone transfer that understanding into other units. There are a number of reasons for this:
It is a given statement not one that necessitates their curiosity
It is a given statement and not one that is owned in their own personal narrative
It is a standalone idea and not one that sits in a wider narrative of understanding
It is a complex sentence having to fit three or four abstract ideas into a single line (this often results in it being either vague or convoluted or both)
The concepts used are frequently not shared with concepts being looked at in other subjects and this lack of commonality makes transfer harder.
Over the last few years I have been exploring how to reduce the barriers and introduce frameworks that would lead towards a common language across the disciplines. The belief is that a common approaches will increase the connectivity, and thus transfer, to new contexts - something that Salomon and Perkins refer to as Far Transfer.
Solution ONE - Shared Concepts
One of the first things that I think should be addressed is to have a limited number of shared concepts that all subjects share. Given that this depends on the MYP reviewing their key concepts this is not the most implementable change at a school level (having said that there is flexibility for schools to add to the key concept list - as long as the 16 given key concepts are covered ONCE in the five year programme, which is an exceptional low and thus flexible requirement).
Were there to be shared concepts I would choose some that build on the shared concepts in the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP)
Solution TWO - express the Global Contexts as questions
The global contexts bring relevance to the curriculum they have therefore the power to inspire curiosity in our learners. By converting these contexts into questions they inspire exploration and invite students to make their own meanings.
For example for the Global Context "Identities and relationships" which looks at:
Who we are: an inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human.
We could ask the following questions:
Solution THREE - explore the contexts through the lens of the UN SDGs
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are 17 very practical and meaningful intentions to produce a fairer world. They engage students because of this. If we frame our units around the pursuit of solutions that matter in the world then this is the very act of building conceptual understanding.
Solution FOUR - adopt the Integrated Meaning Making (IMM) Framework - tying it all together
I have been greatly inspired by the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (see her article on building meaning being great for teenager brain development):
"adolescents on the path to higher levels of academic achievement and self-actualization showed cognitive and emotional dispositions toward both concrete and abstract meaning-making in their narratives. They constructed a compelling story for themselves that integrates information about the individual situations, facts, actions, and emotions that seem most salient, and then effortfully deliberated on this story by connecting to larger patterns, systems, beliefs, or values they have been exposed to that seem pertinent. The result is a narrative that explains the here-and-now in terms of a bigger, deeper, personally relevant, and intellectually satisfying understanding."
I have developed a framework that all subjects can use. In using this model discrete SOIs can find themselves a stage and can thus contribute to a the wider narratives that learners might be building. This framework is designed to help learners see how their identity is shaped and shapes their community. It then explores how the meaning we make and the values and beliefs we hold influence the decisions we make and the impact that has on the social, political, economic, environmental and cultural systems around us. In short, embedded into the model are two main areas of exploration:
Making Meaning - understanding ourselves and the systems around us
Taking Action - understanding how and why change occurs leading to a consideration of our role and the responses we can take
By adopting a common framework across the various subject groups we embed Systems Thinking into our curriculum conversations. We support learners in taking insights from one subject to another. Learners are supported in seeing their place and their influence (upon and from) the wider community. They can use the framework to explore how society impacts on the systems around us in multifaceted ways and consider what actions that they could take to amplify their own impact and influence on systemic issues that concern them.
I do not see the model as complete, I believe however that it will stimulate new ways of thinking, the model should adapt to the insights that learners can add to it as that in its own right is a road to wider meaning making.
Note: The Integrated Meaning Making Framework links back to the first three solutions
Through this model the SDGs can be analysed in terms of how compromises are required and how our needs and values are tested in our attempt to meet them. Through this model the various questions posed as we explore the Global Context can be supported because we see the additional tensions and alternatives we face. Through this model we can use the shared Key Concepts as lenses as we explore the dynamics of the learner their relationship with the community and the impact that can have on the wider world around them.
It is not just abstract, as an example, as an MYP Science teacher I can help students explore the aims and impacts of scientific development on the wider systems around us (this is what we do when we set Criterion D work). I believe likewise all subjects can benefit from this framework.
Not only that, by having a common framework I believe we are more encouraged to think about the dynamics and influences at place beyond the specific subject matter that we are presenting. For example: We might in Science explore the impact of the combustion engine in vehicles on climate change. A potential solution to this is to move towards electric vehicles. This means however that the global supply chain, that is discussed in economics lessons, needs to adjust to supply metals required for batteries. Students can apply their understanding of disparities in resource supply that they learnt in geography to consider the impact that this change is having. We might consider how we are influenced in society by expectations for access to these "necessary" resources. Then we might consider the impact on the people in these mining communities and how art , photography and stories can help us to empathise with the impact the pursuit of mineral resources is having.
I propose that by using the IMM framework we actively facilitate interdisciplinary connections.
Bonus Solution - Consider using the 6 Transfer Questions in tandem with Integrated Meaning Making Framework
Though developed before the above framework you can see how these questions have influence the way I think we can reorientate curriculum around making meaning of our place in society and the impact we do and can have. Helping students to Make Meaning and Take Action are, I believe, the greatest thing we can do as educators, I believe it is what students are crying out for.
WHY? Why propose solutions to support transfer?
The MYP requires the following:
"Over the course of the programme, students need to develop an understanding of the key and related concepts at increasing levels of sophistication and abstraction." (MYP Principles into Practice, p58)
All of the above solutions are designed to enable conceptual understanding to be seen in a broader and more interconnected context. This, I believe, is the route to greater sophistication. By providing students with more scaffolds to support their articulation of how we make meaning and out of that how we effect change we support their ability to describe these processes and help them see their own role in that narrative....
Perkins, D. N. & Salomon, G. (1988). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 22–32.
Immordino-Yang, M. and Knecht, D., 2021. Building Meaning Builds Teens' Brains - Educational Leadership. [online] Ascd.org. Available at: <http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/may20/vol77/num08/Building-Meaning-Builds-Teens'-Brains.aspx> [Accessed 25 June 2021].