by Michael Vieira, PYP Coordinator, Beaverton, OR

Move over topic and content driven PYP instruction, it is time to let the conceptual based approach to learning take the steering wheel, put its powerful foot on the gas, and drive our students’ to deeper inquiries and learning! As a third grade teacher, this instructional shift has been scary, but so rewarding. I want share the five steps our team has taken to become more comfortable letting the PYP’s Key Concepts sit in the driver’s seat of our Units of Inquiry.

A New Way of Driving (for me)

I remember finally learning to drive a manual transmission after years of driving an automatic. It was awkward, unconformable, and confusing. All of my knowledge of the rules of the road seemed to have been jerked and jostled out. When I stalled-out at a stop sign going up a little hill, I felt defeated and embarrassed as other drivers judged me with shaking heads. A few even added to the stress with unhelpful honks. I wanted to quit! Go back to my carefree days of driving an automatic. Ultimately, I found a friend who made me feel at ease. He offered feedback and gave me encouragement despite the jolts and stalls.

This came to mind as I recently shifted my own daily instruction from “topic” based teaching to conceptual learning. It was a difficult transition, and at times I was unclear what direction I was headed with my instruction. As I struggled to move forward, I lacked confidence that a transdisciplinary learning experience was giving my students a more in-depth understanding of the content.

A huge help was the PYP’s Key and Related Concepts (The Key Concepts and Related Concepts are explained in Figure 7, Making the PYP Happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education) . It allowed me explore what the concepts were and how to use them in my planning. This information, along with a supportive team, allowed us to take content area of mathematics and begin approaching learning from the key concepts: form, function, causation, change, connection, perspective, responsibility, and reflection. Conceptual questions became the starting point for lessons. Exit Slips based on those questions wrapped up the lesson while providing us with immediate feedback on our students’ understanding.

Over time, the use of concepts in our units, and thankfully driving a stick shift, became more natural. Working with concepts was not a frightening prospect anymore. While the way I construct lessons has shifted, I am still teaching! And the skills and strategies will continue to apply to my classroom.

Staying in Our Lane: Using the key and related concepts as a guide for PYP instruction.

Our 3rd grade team begins to approach a unit of inquiry by asking, what do we want students to understand? The Key and Related Concepts are one way to guide our team towards clearly thinking about the unit’s bigger picture.

We take the concept from our Programme of Inquiry, Causation, and we turn to the Key question – Why is it like it is? This question narrows the focus for our inquiry. Yet it is the related concepts that clarify the lens for the learning experiences. The examples of related concepts include: consequences, sequences, patterns, impact. These examples make us think of similar concepts like effects, results, progressions, and influence that we can explore in the unit. We use these examples to ensure we are all approaching this from the same perspective.

The key and related concepts work to make sure we are staying in our lane and on the right road to the summative assessment.

Opening Roads: How we use related concepts to break planning-jams

The CCSS and state standards support us in identifying our grade level expectations. Our challenge is to target specific expectations for our unit of inquiry that assess the students understanding of the central idea. This creates a bit of a traffic jam as we are planning our unit, and determining the best possible ways of assessing our students. How can we use the related concepts to get to some more open roads

The expectation from the CCSS is that our students can . . .

  • Introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension.


We use the related concepts to help us write the summative assessment for the unit. Students will explore cause and effect relationships in their illustrations to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the central idea / content. In exploring the related concepts and examples, it becomes easier to identify increased opportunities for differentiated assessments. We can give students increased choice in how they demonstrate understanding of the central idea through the related concepts of causation.

Familiarizing ourselves with the key and related concepts has been instrumental in allowing us to navigate the busy roads more fluidly, and keep the planning process moving.

So many sites to see along the way

When it comes to road trips, it is not only important to know your final destination, but which attractions you want to visit along the way.

As we develop our unit of inquiry, we make sure we have our summative assessment clearly articulated to all involved. We also want to make clear the specific learning experiences we are going to provide for our students along the way. The danger here comes with giving students so much content that we run the risk of overloading them with too many experiences for them to processes.

This kind of drive-by-site-seeing of content will not help our students develop deeper understanding of the central ideas and content. However focusing on specific concepts ensures we stay on course. It also allows us to focus learning experiences through specific conceptual lens. If the lens is causation, then we are looking at cause and effect relationships, predicting the next action based on patterns, and explaining and describing actions and consequences. The culmination of these opportunities of learning is evident in how students confidently demonstrate their understanding of the central idea in their summative assessments.

It is the journey that makes the road trip memorable, so I want to make sure that my students have the opportunity to explore a select group of experiences in order to prepare them for the end of the road trip.

Sharing the Road: Collaborative planning across content areas

There are so many cars on the road, and we are all going in the same direction, why not share some information along the way.

The conceptual approach to learning continues when students re-engage a concept through different content areas. Through collaborative planning, we share our current concept in my class with the Specialists/Single Subject teachers.  They post the concept and provide instruction using the concept in the music room, tech lab, gym, Spanish Room, and library.  This gives the specialists an opportunity to reinforce the concept within their lessons. This has been a great way to get the specialists more involved in our units of inquiry.

A Final Lap: Driving home my point with punny metaphors

Without keys, you may never get out of the driveway. In order to ignite my approach to teaching and learning, I have grabbed the key concepts, and am in the process of taking students down a new road of learning.  My hope is my students are more engaged in the act of learning and not memorizing; applying knowledge instead of regurgitating information; and asking deeper questions because they want to know why.

The instructional shift to emphasize the use of concepts has been challenging. These are five steps our team has taken to become more comfortable letting the PYP’s Key Concepts sit in the driver’s seat and guide our Units of Inquiry.  Through continued planning, reflection, and practice, we hope to make this a permanent instructional shift in our approach to teaching.

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