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You are here: Home > Online Articles > From Faking It to Making It: A PYP Reflection



From Faking It to Making It: A PYP Reflection

By Shannon O’Dwyer


From Faking It to Making It: A PYP Reflection
An O’Dwyer protégée (photo: BISS).

This is the story of my journey from PYP pretender to PYP educator.

Recently, I made the transition from an Australian independent school to an international IB school. In preparation, I completed an online course, pored over exemplar units, and analyzed each element of my new curriculum. I read every word of Making the PYP Happen, dog-eared the Scope and Sequence documents, and plastered my walls with PYP language. From the outside, I probably looked like a PYP teacher.

I was not. I was faking it. It was all smoke and mirrors. You see, around October of my first year, I decided that I knew better. (This is not my finest hour as a lifelong learner!) I decided that the PYP was not a particularly unique or superior curriculum; it was just quality teaching wrapped in its own brand of terminology. I decided that my philosophy and skill set were so closely aligned with the IB that I could amble along, without really drinking the curricular Kool-Aid.

After all, I had extensive training in backwards-by-design planners, inquiry-based learning, constructivist models, and differentiation. I understand the essence of this thing, I told myself; I do not need to embrace every detail.

So what happened? The first year was not a disaster. The students and I enjoyed the units, conceptual understanding was achieved, and inquiries were meaningful. What more could you want?

Well, I wanted the magic! I wanted to know why hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers the world over believed in this curriculum, continued to seek training, and filled the blogosphere with passion-for-all-things-PYP. To seek advice, I turned to my mentor and curriculum advisor—a man with great patience and experience, he called our conversations “The Vortex,” as he inevitably lost two hours of his life every time we spoke. Mostly, I ranted at high speed about the value of explicit, stand-alone skills lessons.

During these diatribes, he would lean back in his chair, listen intently, then ask one probing question, which left me musing for a week. “Does this task require the children to construct meaning, or apply skills?” (I don’t know! I just want to teach place value!) At other times, I burst into his room with a hot idea for a summative task or a new line of inquiry. I could justify its authenticity, accessibility, relevance and significance with great fervor. He would think silently for a few minutes, then articulate connections to the PYP curriculum.

One day, I stopped asking. I knew the answer. No, my ideas did not “fit.” They were just cheap imitations; inquiries tacked on as after-thoughts, tenuously linked to the central idea. While rich in many ways, my lessons were simply not facilitating deep understanding of the central idea. I finally let go of my arrogant ambivalence. I spent more hours reading, and gradually learned to use the curriculum as it was designed.

I began to view the language not as jargon, but as a powerful framework for contextualizing and connecting learning across the disciplines. Concepts and skills (which I had previously dismissed as vague nomenclature) became the starting points of my lessons. I felt the magic.

Students began walking to the “attitudes wall” to choose words for biographical writing. Their initiative morphed into a grammar lesson about changing nouns to adjectives (curiosity to curious; creativity to creative). In a meaningful context, ESOL students explored noun suffixes and internalized patterns. On our class blog, students’ deep connections now stun me every day.

With the PYP elements at the heart of my lessons, the students’ transference and reflections are increasingly insightful. In the same sentence, an eight-year-old will explain “caring” in the context of environmental protection, interpersonal kindness, and self-esteem.

After an icebreaker game, students will write about the attitudes, social skills, and communication skills of effective team members. To construct a “Happy Home” recipe, students instinctively discussed the similarities and differences between cultures.

No, these students are not gifted; nor are they native English speakers; nor am I a great teacher. (See the beginning of this article!) These are simply tales of children who have been given a powerful vocabulary for learning. The PYP language enables students to think about themselves and the world in deep, relevant, connected ways. Indeed, I believe some students use the PYP vocabulary as a schematic home base, or mental lens, to interpret all new learning.

This has the effect of constantly strengthening and consolidating prior understanding, across all disciplines. For me, the magic was in the language. By giving up the pretense, I discovered that this curriculum is different. It provides a common vocabulary, which empowers minds and connects content.

And the bonus? I have even more time for those stand-alone place value lessons.

Ms. O’Dwyer teaches Grade 4 and is Literacy Coordinator at Beijing BISS International School.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:

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02/09/2016 - G Greene
As IB teachers we want our students to be reflective. This is a great model and encouragement of us as educators to follow.
01/05/2016 - Mrs C
So glad I stumbled upon this fabulous article whilst trying to read and learn all I can ahead of moving to a PYP school next term. I have a feeling I might be a 'pretender' for a little while. It's going to be hard to let go of the tried and tested 'amazing inquiry' units I have developed, but I'm willing to give it my best shot. Thanks for your honest reflection.
01/02/2016 - Shilpa
Love your reflection.....makes me feel like your reading my mind. Wish to read more of all the challenges you faced and the magic you discovered.
08/10/2015 - Bruce Ferrington
Love this honest reflection. Makes you wonder, can we then justify teaching "stand-alone" maths?
06/14/2015 - raji
True to your experience,I am also a person who believe and look for this magic...i firmly believe that this feeling always makes me to be a new learner ,search for opportunity that can help my kids to explore this world....Best wishes??
03/16/2015 - Jai
Wow!!! Very insightful. I used to feel I was like this. I am still now learning even with my years of experience of IB. Great read!
11/19/2014 - Sakina
I can relate to this so well. I am evolving exactly the same way. I find it much easier to address only one or two sub skills at a time. Initially I found going through the scope and sequence a tedious process but it has now become my bible!!
08/23/2014 - Jennysfen
Thank you so much for sharing your story. I know that many of us go through the same experience. I'm not sure if you've heard of #pypchat (twitter chat for PYP & inquiry teachers), but we would love if you could take part in our next chat (28 Aug 2014) as the focus of the discussion is - Why the PYP? I think your contribution would be greatly appreciated. I hope you don't mind, but I've also linked this post to our resources section of the PYPChat wiki. (
11/25/2013 - Cindy

This is a wonderful article and it illustrates just how difficult it is to really walk the walk versus talk the talk.

What an honest account of your journey learning how to effectively teach the IB curriculum.

What shines through is your integrity as an educator because even though initially you were sort of going through the motions, you knew in your heart of hearts that you were really just window dressing.

When you really made the leap, not only were you able to see the benefits with your students, but you were on a more authentic path both personally and professionally.

Thanks for sharing!

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