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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

An effective curriculum model

Dee Clements examines what makes the Primary Years Programme successful for teachers and students.

Thoughtful, purposeful planning accompanied by the teaching of specific skills lies behind the ‘Primary Years Programme’ (PYP) of the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO), offering a highly effective model for Integrated (or Transdisciplinary) Curriculum. Teachers benefit from strong leadership, ongoing training and time for collaborative planning and reflection. The clarity of curriculum design in the PYP and the requirement for explicit documentation of units are particular strengths. The programme’s organising themes, key concepts, student Learner’s Profile and explicit skills and attitudes, provide depth and balance.

What is the PYP?

Created in 1997 and based on world best practice, the PYP is a globally focused, inquiry-based, transdisciplinary curriculum for children aged 3–12. It is a whole school approach, now in 260 schools, with a system of accreditation to maintain its integrity.

The PYP shares many features with other internationally renowned approaches to integrated curriculum (McTighe & Wiggins, 2006; Wiske, Hammerness & Wilson, 1998). These features include making connections across disciplines, focusing on inquiry-based learning and ongoing assessment. It has distinguishing features that set it apart, such as its global focus, the PYP Learner’s Profile, the organising themes and concepts and its strong emphasis on developing a professional learning community.

Global focus and the student learner’s profile

The ideal of internationalism is a distinguishing feature. Transdisciplinary themes are selected on their local and global significance. The student Learner’s Profile represents the qualities of internationalism that the PYP hopes will characterise its graduates as: inquirers, thinkers, communicators, risk-takers, knowledgeable, principled, caring, open-minded, balanced and reflective.

Planning for learning

The PYP requires teachers to plan collaboratively using a prescribed Planner. Through this they develop a central idea, a definition of the scope of the inquiry, resources and key questions. Instructional activities are then designed simultaneously with assessment activities. The rigour of the PYP documentation and time spent on developing the Central Idea and the scope of the inquiry are keys to developing the depth of the unit. Thus teachers articulate the learning that they want students to achieve and focus on in the unit.

The inclusion of State curriculum links enhances planning and implementation of the unit. The skills valued and promoted by the IBO in the PYP are transdisciplinary skills: social, research, thinking, communication and self-management skills. Importantly, these skills are assessed.

The PYP encourages children to develop the attitudes of: appreciation, commitment, confidence, cooperation, creativity, curiosity, empathy, enthusiasm, independence, integrity, respect and tolerance (IBO, 2000, p. 35). Activities need to promote these attitudes, which must be considered in assessment.

Assessment is an ongoing and integral part of each unit. A range of assessment, recording and reporting strategies is used (not just those that involve reading and writing), such as student-led conferences, portfolios, the Exhibition, rubrics for teacher, peer and self-assessment. Formative assessment is critical in the PYP; teachers need to scaffold the students’ learning until they can manage increasingly sophisticated performances of understanding (Wiske, Hammerness & Wilson, 1998). The central purpose of assessment is to improve student learning and the learning experiences that the students undertake are the context for the assessment tasks.

Finally, the planner requires the teaching team to evaluate the unit.

Developing a professional learning community

The PYP has a focus on developing a professional learning community (Schmoker, 2006). Schools are required to organise time for teachers to plan in teams with the assistance of leadership from the PYP coordinator. Collaborative planning, when properly focused and targeted, results in a sharing of expertise, higher quality solutions to problems and potentially remarkable gains in achievement.

The organising themes and key concepts of the PYP

Students participate in six units of inquiry per year classified under organising themes:

  1. Who we are
  2. Where we are in time and place
  3. How we express ourselves
  4. How the world works
  5. How we organise ourselves
  6. How we share the planet.

State curriculum documents fit comfortably under these overarching themes. Mapping the curriculum against the organising themes over the eight years of primary school (kindergarten included), provides continuity and balance, ensuring that students grapple with big ideas at increasing levels of complexity.

Each PYP unit must also connect with a selection of the eight driving concepts. Another distinguishing feature of the PYP is that the concepts are presented as broad open-ended questions such as:

  • Form (What is it like?)
  • Function (How does it work?)
  • Causation (Why is it like it is?)
  • Change (How is it changing?)
  • Connection (How is it connected to other things?)
  • Perspective (What are the points of view?)
  • Responsibility (What is ourresponsibility?)
  • Reflection (How do we know?).

These questions help shape the inquiry and provide links across disciplines (see IBO, 2000, p. 19).

The PYP strives for ‘a balance between the search for understanding, the acquisition of essential knowledge and skills, the development of positive attitudes and the opportunity for positive action’ (IBO, 2000). Students must be able to apply their knowledge and demonstrate their learning through ‘understanding performances’. It may require a shift for some teachers to achieve teaching that produces this result and it is important that schools give time to teachers to think and talk with one another and learn more about higher levels of understanding in their teaching.

In their final year of PYP, student learning culminates in an Exhibition. Students should be able to synthesise and demonstrate all that is best with the PYP and generate relevant and realistic proposals for solutions to issues and problems they have identified. Inquiry should be child-centred and the children’s questions are as important as those designed by the teachers, helping to make ‘intersections between the concerns of children and those of content’.

The PYP believes each student has the right and the responsibility to take action. The action component is ‘broad and involves service in the widest sense of the word’ (IBO, 2000, p. 37). Action should be voluntary, based on balanced understandings, and should begin in a small way. It can arise from genuine concern and commitment, but needs to be grounded in concrete experience, and demands adult support in order to facilitate students’ efforts. Action is not necessarily concerned with raising funds, although this may be the preferred choice on some occasions.


My experience with the Primary Years Programme has led me to conclude that this is a rigorous, considered and effective model for curriculum integration. Its impact will be most profound where schools provide strong PYP leadership, and time for planning and reflection. In this process, teachers become continuous learners along with their students. Making time for the development of a genuine professional learning community (Schmoker, 2006) is about strategic planning and setting firm priorities. In a PYP school ‘through local actions and interactions, learning reproduces and transforms the social structure in which it takes place’ (Wenger, 1999, p. 13). The IBO provides guidelines for the support a school needs to provide while teachers make the paradigm shift that is often required to move to this new approach to teaching and learning. Prominent in these guidelines is the provision of time for teachers to plan and reflect together, which is considered ‘the single most effective and lasting form of professional development’ (IBO, 2000, p. 99). Evidence of the high regard in which The PYP of the IB is held, is the extraordinary number of schools in Australia that are taking up the commitment to become authorised PYP schools.


International Baccalaureate Organization (2000). Making the PYP Happen, IBO, Geneva, Switzerland.

McTighe, J & Wiggins, G (2006). Understanding by Design: Professional development workbook, Hawker Brownlow, Moorabin.

Ritchhart, R (2002). Intellectual Character: What it is, why it matters, and how to get it, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Schmoker, M (2006). Results Now: How we can achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning, ASCD, Virginia, USA.

Wenger, E (1999). Communities of Practice: learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Wiske, M S, Hammerness, K & Wilson D G (1998). Teaching for Understanding: Linking research with practice, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

author picture Dee Clements is an education consultant working in independent schools in Victoria.