by Adrian von Wrede-Jervis, Director of Continuum Learning, Bavarian International School

Know Your Why

Purpose is essential. Simon Sinek’s 2009 TEDx talk has seen almost 50 million hits. It contains a simple message. Rather than focussing on WHAT we are doing, we need to be clearer on WHY we are doing it. We need to work from the inside out (of what he identifies as the Golden Circle) and this is how I interpret the MYP notion of backward planning.

MYP Unit Building

By understanding the pedagogical principles that underpin the core elements of the MYP, indeed the core elements of any of the IB Programmes, educators can understand better the WHY behind each unit that they design, thereby making decisions about the WHAT easier to make. What follows is the HOW to identify the WHY.

What happens when we start at the WHAT?

MYP teachers frequently feel they must cover the requirements of the MYP and ensure that all key concepts, global contexts and assessment criteria are covered. This is strictly speaking misinformed, see the IB document “Further guidance for developing MYP written curriculum” in the MYP section of the PRC. I have seen these assumed expectations sometimes lead educators to create somewhat artificial links between elements and clunky Statements of Inquiry. This sort of practice gets us through mapping reviews, but it leads us to the question, do we plan units to ensure we cover the requirements of the MYP, or do we plan units to support good IB learning?

This does not negate the need for mapping (I often use ManageBac’s Curriculum Analysis section to good effect). Instead we should understand that the originating purpose of the MYP requirement to ensure coverage was to support balance in the curriculum. Mapping is a tool to check this and inform our adjustments, but it is not the purpose.

If we focus on coverage, we lose the sense of purpose. The material becomes disconnected to something that matter, to things that we care about. Nobody learns what they do not care about and it is detrimental to student learning. We sometimes force the care through assessment, rewarding success with numbers but this creates compliance:

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It also makes us as teachers less effective in what we are presenting to the students. We build units that address a list of things to cover and this stops us thinking first about what great things there are to explore. Planning becomes a chore, something done to impress an inspection, but planning is the room for ideas and things to try out. Focussing on the rules makes us think we must get it correct and not change it, planning for purpose needs constant reflection and reinvention and even embraces things going wrong:

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Establishing a Purpose Driven unit (starting at the WHY)

The IB has created an important but often overlooked document called What is an IB education?. It has been revised several times most lately in 2017. In this document the essential elements of what we are trying to achieve in our MYP teaching are identified.

To achieve this aim it advocates for 6 Approaches to Teaching (p6) which are “centred on a cycle of inquiry, action and reflection”.

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According to What is an IB education p2: “The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who recognize their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet.” Which is fully aligned to 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.”

  • If we take this to heart, then we have our purpose for every INQUIRY.

Great IB schools not only encourage International Mindedness, they explicitly teach it. This means they plan for it. It helps if your school has a definition for what it understands it to mean. For me an essential element is dialectic thought, the ability to see issues from a variety of perspectives and to be open enough to seek wisdom and solutions to problems from others (including other cultures).

To achieve this level of humility we need our students to grow in character. The IB went a significant way to help here. Few realise but when you read the IB Learner Profile poster that these were developed expressly to “develop internationally minded people” and that “these attributes, and others like them, can help individuals and groups become responsible members of local, national and global communities”. Note: ManageBac allows you to identify the Learner Profile traits that you are focussed on and why.

  • The IB adopts a holistic view of education, in which learning changes also behaviour, our inquiries lead to ACTION

Does your school separate the learning from Service and Action? Is the SA (or CAS) supervisor separate from the unit planning process? It is worthwhile considering if your unit might launch or inspire a service or leadership opportunity. Perhaps you can connect the learning to the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the MacArthur Foundation Circular Economy.

As will be pointed out later, it is good practice to consider how what you are teaching fits into a global issue. Both elements should be stretch students outside their comfort zone into new situation.  To get the most out of this experience students should reflect on how these provocations made them feel and what they got out of them. There being strong reasons that we should connect to the material emotionally.

What are the Approaches to Teaching?

The approaches to teaching set out 6 principles that guide how the above is achieved.

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

ATT #1 – based on inquiry

We have discussed already that developing International Mindedness through the growth of the Learning Profile attributes is a central purpose of IB learning. We also want students to grow in their academic competencies. What role does inquiry have in achieving this? Research indicates that inquiry is best utilised when the student already has some competency in the area that they are exploring. This allows students to better evaluate the information that they discover. Therefore, it is worthwhile considering if inquiry fronts the unit or whether it happens once the core ideas are laid down. Inquiry must be more than search and find, it really ought to have an element of wonder-if-then in it.

ATT #2 – focused on conceptual understanding

Schools opt for the MYP in a variety of different schooling contexts. Often there is a parallel need to maintain an awareness that certain additional (often National) standards are being adhered to. Oftentimes these standards are expressions of subject content. Often content is seen as an ugly bugbear that is antithetical to the MYP. This is predicated, I would argue, on a misunderstanding of conceptual curriculums.

Concepts, as Lynne Erickson espouses, are timeless and universal ideas that link understandings. Intriguingly, they are established on content. Content contains the facts and examples upon which patterns can be built. I would, on this basis, argue that standards are not an unhelpful place to start with a MYP unit plan. What the MYP educator needs to do is see beyond the examples and facts that must be covered and look for what big idea does they support. I would suggest that this is what might be referred to as a disciplinary concept best expressed using language from your discipline.

In the first instance I would NOT tie this to a MYP defined concept. First articulate it in your own words. Once you are clear what disciplinary concepts you want to teach consider how this concept links into a wider concept that will help students to understand their world better. Again, write this bigger idea in your own words.

Only now look at your subject guide and see which related concepts and which key concepts are relevant. If they all jar, consider adding a new one (this is permitted in the MYP and facilitated by the ManageBac unit planner) or perhaps use the concepts in similar way to PYP and see which offer an alternative lens to look at the material with.

ATT #3 – developed in local and global contexts

The global contexts were written to identify a set of diverse, yet generalised, issues that face us in the world today. They were designed to add relevancy to the learning. Sometimes the wording obscures this purpose. Look at each global context and at the issues behind each of sentences within them. Does the conceptual understanding you have identified in the first principle talk to one of these? Personally I found it helpful to express these as questions allowing me to understand that each unit brought with it tools to try and answer these questions.

First stop off – the Statement of Inquiry

Once you have your concepts and global contexts identified then it is time to consider writing your Statement of Inquiry (SOI). An early teaching strategy to writing this was to follow a formula:

Key Concept + Related Concept(s) + phrase within chosen Global Context = SOI

This is hugely problematic, mainly because it led to clunky, wordy sentences that students (let alone teachers) struggle to handle. The problem here is that the SOI drives the unit, so it must be simple to grasp and easy to recall if it is to be effective in this.

I therefore recommend that you adapt the understanding you came to in step 1 and link how it informs an exploration of the issue picked out in this step. Diane Smith has a new of good videos on this.

The progression from the concrete learnings, through to the conceptual ideas and the inquiring explorations are captured in the factual, conceptual and debatable inquiry questions.

ATT #4 – focused on effective teamwork and collaboration

Communication and teamwork are two examples of more universal skills that can be developed (the IB calls these ATL skills). One should avoid this trap of seeing them as a list of skills to be covered- To get the most from them I would consider grouping them into two types of skill. The first being the skills that you are going to explicitly teach to be effective in your subject. You will teach these in a quite subject specific manner e.g. the historian has a different approach to critical thinking as the mathematician, a scientist researches differently from an artist. But there are also skills that are more generic and that everyone needs to support. This should be the second type of skill that you should teach (it is helpful here if the school has some sort of consistency here) e.g. the best ways to communicate a persuasive argument or to effectively work in a group. The latter often is not so well prioritised, but these are the skills sought after in further education establishments and in the workplace.

As the existing ATL list is not mandatory from the IB and is adaptable ManageBac allows this to be customised. Doing this allows you to select a smaller number of skills that you can start to articulate what progression looks like in them. This makes it easier for feedback and growth.

ATT #5 – differentiated to meet the needs of all learners

For many years this was understood to mean that we made adaptations to the curriculum to accommodate different groups of children, whether they be more able (sometimes called Gifted and Talented) or in need of greater support. These adaptations were collectively referred to as differentiation.

In recent times a move to greater personalisation over what a student learns, how they learn and how they are assessed on it has emerged. Indeed, the new PYP has placed Agency at the centre of its new model and defined it in the same terms. If you have successfully identified a concept in your initial planning, then it makes it easier to offer more personalisation. Each student can find their own examples of how this concept outplays in the world. If you intend, and I would encourage you, to explore this option then keep your cumulating project generic and encourage personal expression. Fortunately, the assessment criteria are written generically so this is helpful.

ATT #6 – informed by formative and summative assessment

To get the best from learners, IB programmes should be both rigorous and challenging. Things are only ever challenging if they are engaging, otherwise they are only difficult. The unit should be provocative, it should encourage the students to care about a matter. Dr Robert Bjork has shown (in his Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA) that learning is most effective when it is pitched at a level of “desirable difficulty” (which is not that different a concept to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development). I would argue a unit is successful in challenging learners when it results in a change of behaviours beyond that which they recall.

This leads us to assessment; how do we know if students have risen to the challenge and succeeded. Assessment is such a massive topic that it will be the focus of a future webinar. Suffice to say I strongly believe that assessment serves the learning. In other words, the assessments that we set should support student understanding of material we set, not just measure it. When this is returned as a numerical level or grade something happened to the learning to disrupt this dynamic. It is linked the notions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors for learning. I would suggest that gentle alarm bells sound if the assessment becomes the focus of the unit (even more so if the design of the unit is determined by a particularly constrained reading of the assessment criteria)


There is a temptation to build MYP unit plans from a list of must-includes. This leads to a formulaic unit that lacks heart. By understanding the principles and priorities of an IB education one can design units that are focussed on learning first and by worrying less about requirements deliver a more authentic IB learning experience.

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Adrian von Wrede Jervis1


Adrian von Wrede-Jervis has been teaching for over 25 years. He cut his teeth as a science teacher and Head of Faculty in UK state schools until he moved to Germany ten years ago where he has worked at the Bavarian International School as Assistant Principal and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Coordinator; Director of Studies and TOK Coordinator; and Director of Continuum Learning. In these roles he has developed a thorough working knowledge of school management systems, data analysis (Diploma results analysis and pupil monitoring), and a deep understanding of each of the four IB Programmes and how they can be more closely aligned to one another towards a coherent Continuum of IB education.

Recently Adrian’s focus has been on how schools can adapt to the changing needs of our current social and economic context. Adrian is a trained and active ACE accreditation visitor and has a practical understanding of what constitutes a transformative learning community. Adrian dreams of an education system that develops interdisciplinary conceptual understanding, enables effective and informed inquiry and that supports the growth of a holistic range of learner competencies

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