How can we help students achieve a conceptual understanding?

Concept-based teaching is one of the approaches to teaching in the IB Programs.

What makes Concept-based teaching different from other methodologies is how teachers guide students to move beyond the facts and to find relationships and connections among the concepts they are working with. In a few words, this means engaging students in discussing and producing big ideas that will show how they are using what they know (facts) to explain the essence of a generalization (big idea, statement of conceptual understanding).

A new guide has been released for the IB DP Group 2 (Language Acquisition), first examinations 2020. This newly upgraded language acquisition course places specific emphasis in helping students develop conceptual understandings.

How are can we help students achieve a conceptual understanding?

  • We can help students unpack the concepts in the units of study they are involved in.
  • We can place a strong emphasis on the vocabulary they need to employ in order to succeed in each unit.
  • We can ensure that their thinking (ideas and questions) are visible and displayed in a way that can be used as resources in the future.
  • We can use a variety of thinking skills tools in order to help students extract concepts from topics and to identify the language that can be used to talk about them.
  • We can use real-life situations so that students can establish a connection between learning in the classroom and the real world.
  • We can use command terms that demand specific types of responses from students.

The images below show how grade 11 students engage in an exploration of the themes “sharing the planet” and “human ingenuity” in a study of global issues. Students used the film “Safe” by Todd Haynes (1996) in order to inquire into the way filmmakers use information to produce stories that reflect real-life issues.

The evidence of conceptual understanding comes when students are able to use the concepts we are studying alongside verbs that reveal how these concepts interact. When students produce “big ideas” such as the ones below they demonstrate their conceptual understanding and, consequently, show that they are experiencing concept-based learning.

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Inquiry-based learning is a lesson on humility

I am writing this blog post upon culminating a very gratifying year or learning and teaching, as my summer break begins, and before the arms of the summer convince me that it is time to slow down and re-charge for next year. It is important that I acknowledge one of the best learning experiences I have witnessed in my life as a learner, and as a teacher.

I wanted to end my MYP 1 English Language Acquisition class offering students the opportunity to choose how they wanted to demonstrate their learning, and exploring a topic they were interested in. The only thing I would decide, as part of the structure of this inquiry, was the purpose of communication: argumentation; the rest of the experience would be designed by students, and my role was to be follow them in their learning journey, meeting them at different stages of their learning to, basically, learn from them.

I have 7 students in my class- yes, I am a lucky teacher. Yet, working with 7 different themes required me to multiply my efforts so that I could help students gather enough information in order for them to make wise decisions on the message they wanted to convey, and the way they wanted to do it.

In previous units, students experienced conversations that explicitly addressed the concepts we were working on; they became aware of the importance of being able to answer (and paraphrase) the inquiry questions that guided our learning, and, most importantly, they recognized the value of knowing how to demonstrate that they knew and understood. This awareness allowed me to conclude that they were ready to carry out an inquiry such as the one I had intended them to.

Once students began planning and sharing the inquiries they wanted to pursue, I realized that the approach to teaching I had to embrace had to be multidimensional, multifaceted, and eclectic. Nonetheless, as the unit progressed, I must admit that while it was a challenge to remain engaged with each student’s project, it was quite stimulating to witness how some students were focused on the design of their outcome, while others were supporting others in the creation of materials for their project, and others were unpacking the big idea in their projects. What made this project work was the fact that students had choice within a structure, and all I had to do was orchestrate the guidance, dialogue, and reflection they needed.

The learning experience students and I were a part of clearly exemplified a way in which roles determine the course of learning. I was not their teacher, and they were not my students: We were partners, which means we discussed, engaged in dialogue, and evaluate progress together. The decision was students’ all the way. I only needed to serve as the devil’s advocate.

An interesting nuance about the conversations I had with students was the fact that every time that I conferenced with them, I needed to go into conversation as a student, and not as a teacher. It was essential for me to enter in conversation by asking questions.  Acting as an equal not only validated their work, but also reconfirmed the idea that they had full agency on how they wanted their project to progress. As for me, I basically needed to withhold my opinion, truly be an active listener, and learn from what students were doing. Once I became aware of this, I realized that genuinely being part of a student-led inquiry humanizes the learning process and enhances my humbleness as a teacher.

When I look back at the experience my students and I shared, I can use a music metaphor to describe its significance: they were all musicians making music within a set of boundaries, the final product was to be a product of their own intention, but the goal was to avoid that it sounded like noise.

Attempting to summarize the learning process in steps may dilute the depth and power of the experience, as students’ journeys were different at each stage. However, for the sake of sharing our learning pathways, the key stages in this experience are the following.

Initial research- students explored how their topic has been addressed in different disciplines.

Investigation and sources.

Checklist for persuasive essay.

Students’ Personal Learning Plans.

Project Proposal.


Planning of their outcome.

One of the students’ essay.

Some of their products (companions to their essay)


I would like to recognize the inspiration I have found in the work of Kath Murdoch and Trevor MacKenzie.  I am happy to share that the approaches and frameworks they share for inquiry with young learner, also works in foreign language instruction in secondary.


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Being Part of the Learners’ Universe

From May 20-27, 2018, I will have the pleasure of hosting the #MYPChat on twitter. Previous hosts have done an extraordinary work by helping us reflect on the value of being connected; by encouraging inquiries into ATL skills, the learning continuum; and many other great topics. Thus, as the end of this academic year ends in the northern hemisphere, I am hoping to be able to start a reflection on how we are part of the learner’s universe, in the hope that these ideas plant the first seeds for the great work we MYP educators will do in the following year(s).

The questions in image below will serve as dialogue activators this week (May 20-27, 2018). Stay tuned for summaries on each of the questions, which I will hyperlink in this blog post.

Join the conversation on twitter, and don’t forget to use the hashtag #MYPChat.

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Posted in ATL, Collaboration, IB MYP, Learner Profile, Service Learning, Strategies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Approaches to amplifying the IDU Experience

Designing and experiencing an interdisciplinary Unit (IDU) can only be matched by the satisfaction of seeing students taking ownership of their work, and demonstrating how much they’re able to do with what they know. What is more, an IDU allows us to present students with an unusual experience, which definitely rewards us teachers with unexpected engagement and responses.
Planning an IDU requires participant teachers to engage intellectually, and to have an open mind about the multiple ways in which students may demonstrate understanding. Therefore, starting the IDU dialogue and planing by choosing a natural (and not forced entry point) always helps teachers to begin to understand aspects that will be explored, and explored that can be designed.
Beginning with a scenario that justifies the reasons why the involved subjects are joining forces consolidates the pathway to follow, and helps teachers become aware of the depth and breath of the inquiry. There are times when this scenario may take the form of the outcome of a decision (so we have to understand how we got there), and others it may look like a dream (and we have to imagine a way to make it happen).
The guidance we may appreciate in MYP IDU Assessment criteria
While the MYP IDU assessment criteria indicate how we will evaluate the evidence of learning we observe and find in the learning experience, they also suggest layers of collaboration and teaching that we need to consider and embrace before we qualify the unit as “ready to go”. Teachers need to have full clarity on what they want their students to know, understand and be able to do not only in their individual subjects, but also though the “marriage of subjects”. In other words, while we could argue that criterion A (disciplinary grounding) is about the critical content for both subjects, we must not forget that concepts are what will transfer learning from one subject to another and this criterion, therefore, addresses how students will use concepts to generalize, and how they will use facts to justify the idea in the statement of inquiry and other generalizations teachers may consider.
Images of the learning experience in the English Class

Images of the learning experience in the Arts Class

While criterion B (synthesizing), leads us to think about the way in which students merge understandings and experience transfer of learning in both subjects, this criterion is also an invitation to think of formative assessment experiences because, quite simply, it’s impossible to assess how students are able to synthesize big ideas with one single task/assessment. This criterion, in my opinion, is what brings in the transformational elements of an IDU, and what should guide teachers to think about what will constitute evidence of learning as well as how they would like students to demonstrate that they have understood something.
The recording and videos below are examples of the engagements in which students demonstrated how they were synthesizing conceptual understandings.
An experience with the senses
Reflection on language clarity and space
Criterion C (communication) should help teachers think of the following:
  • What kind of sources will I have my students read so that they become informed and inform others?
  • What communicative engagements will I have to design so that I witness how students are able to communicate ideas effectively?
  • What are the most adequate ways in which students may communicate their ideas?
  • What formats may be considered for students to create meaning more effectively?
Developing a clear vision of how we want students to experience communication should help us curate the approaches to teaching that will help us enrich the learning experience most meaningfully. In other words, communication in an IDU should be formative and developmental in terms of sophistication so that students have the opportunity to interact with each other’s ideas, and so that they are given the chance to produce and respond to different messages.
Sharing conceptual understandings
Criterion D (reflection) is an item that must not be taken lightly. As started before, the transformative element of an IDU suggests the need for teachers to keep track of how ideas are evolving which, consequently, points out the need to have check points and engage with students in that transformation. Logically, this means that we need to devise ways of providing feedback opportunely and concretely so that students make the most of these opportunities to respond to questions that emerge, iteration, and challenges.

 Designing an IDU requires many hours of thinking and reflecting, and to remain in a constant state of creation. This should not be regarded as a negative, for the intellectual work that takes place in the process is what guarantees the success.
Once the learning experience is fully design; when it’s possible to visualize the end goal; and when we know the steps that will need to be taken to help students co-construct knowledge, then the journey can begin. Once the journey starts, the form of success can be appreciated, and we only need to navigate the waves of learning, always fully aware of what is going around us, always making sure we have time for listening.
Teaching a well designed IDU, augments students’ agency and reduces teacher taking time. Teachers become learning coaches, devil’s advocates, provocateurs, curious inquirers, and students’ partners in crime. Learning becomes dialogue, a piece of sky where ideas float like clouds, and in which the best learning dispositions can be observed. Teaches suddenly become students and the realization that we are all in this together becomes unquestionable.
Thus, as students become engaged in the production of their final work, teachers have ample opportunities to engage in dialogue, to verify understandings, to ask about what new learnings and questions they have come across. Every conversation could potentially be classified as a review; every interaction can potentially qualify as a formative assessment; and every engagement can give way to extend thinking.
By the time students finish their products and share their learning with the community, the IDU syndrome (very similar to the post partum syndrome) may be felt: there is a sense of absence, a void that was occupied by growing ideas… and maybe it feels strange to see something great come to an end, but I also want to believe that this void is a “newly found space” that craves to be filled with more authentic learning and creative inquiries.


Interdisciplinary Unit Planning Initial Conversations (Summary)

IDU Teaching Plan.

IDU Assessment Planning.

MYP IDU Unit Planner

Posted in ATL, Collaboration, Curriculum, IB MYP, Inquiry, interdisciplinary learning | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Accept a piece of homework, even if it’s 10 years late.

I started teaching when I was 22 years old. I used to teach EFL in Mexico, and many times, as I was getting my class ready, I was asked if I knew were the teacher was. I moved from teaching EFL at language institutes to teaching Foreign Language/Language B/Language Acquisition and later on Language and Literature at a bilingual school in 2002. At that time, I also collaborated in a Cultural Radio Station, and was doing theater. This is the first time I ever write about my journey in my blog.

I used to teach in High School, and was one of the youngest teachers at the school where I used to teach. I used to think that being young was what helped me connect with students. Then I started thinking that being involved in the radio and in theater and always having something to talk about is what helped me bond with them. But it was later when I stared developing the pleasure of listening to my students’ stories and dreams when I think I started shaping the form of the teacher I am now.

It was 2006; at school discussing the book “Memoirs of a Geisha” and making comparisons with the movie was a ‘hot topic’ with my students, especially when I introduced them to a telenovela that was popular when I was a child: Oyuki’s Sin, a Mexican Telenovela based in a Japanese context- those were the days of real creativity”. The best part of our discussion emerged from looking into “what may happen when a foreign context (Japan) was used to give life to a story whose characters were very Mexican?” I don’t think I was even aware of the word ‘inquiry’ at that time, let alone interdisciplinary learning, but it just felt so right to do things that weren’t necessarily just about ‘language’ in a traditional conception.

Thus, we started talking about how we could use one of our favorite stories originally written in Spanish and use Japan (since we were doing vast research on it) as a context. The objective was to write a theater proposal for a group of potential sponsors, in the hope that they would agree to finance our play. The exchange of ideas was great; students were speaking without my constant reminders. It was noisy, but it was meaningful. Questions navigated the waves of energy in the classroom: What colors would we use? What language would characters use? How could we choose the best names for our characters?

I invited a few Art teachers and a few others from the school of Marketing to serve as the potential sponsors, and my students presented their projects to them. Needless to say, my students were petrified, but they knew what they had to say so well, that once they felt how their ideas impacted their audience, they gained confidence and managed to get the fictional aid they were aiming for. I was proud of them, but I was partially unhappy for one of my students was not able to present. He had not finished his proposal and decided not to go to school that day.

I had read descriptions of this student had and seen illustrations of how he envisioned his stage (see below). When I checked my email and saw his apologies for not being in school and asking me if he could submit this task later, I could not say no. We had invested so much thinking and energy in making this happen that everyone deserved to show their work. Sadly, due to work of his father, they had to leave the city a few weeks later. I had not yet received “his homework”. I left Mexico in 2007, and I never saw what this student of mine could have produced.

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The incomplete homework I received via email in 2006.

I had resisted joining Facebook, but gave in when I found it practical to help me connect with my friends and family in Mexico. I soon started connecting with past students of mine too. Obviously, I connected with this student I have been talking about as well. We never discussed that homework again. Our passion for music, cinema, and literature remained the main topic of our conversations.

Then all of a sudden, a few months ago, as I was reminiscing on my experience doing theater, and as he shared how he has taken the short films he’s made to films like San Sebastian and even Cannes, that legendary homework came up and he said: “I actually have to show you something; it’s not red; it’s not Japanese… But there is a Japanese face, and it has a Japanese title (Tomoki= Wise Tree)”. A deadline that was not missed, and a late submission have never been more welcome. He had done this 2 years ago, and I was seeing how his life experience had transformed what he did with paper and paint into a beautiful universe of light, movement and image.

I had to wait 11 years for that incomplete moment to come to a closure, and the wait has been so worthy. As I reflect on what I value in my journey as an educator, relationships always comes as a high-ranking value (maybe the highest). I believe that a lot of the ideas I come up with and the journeys I design make sense and HAPPEN because they are designed for the students I have at that moment, they are never replicas of something I did before.

In 2006 I used this very blog to write about my theater journey. However, here is one of my very first blog entries about education. I remember that I started to write a reflection about one of the female characters in the play I was participating in and could not conclude it. I changed the content of the blog and wrote a note of appreciation for my students. In retrospective, I think that it was that day when I realized I wanted to be the educational version of Peter Pan: I wanted to stay a learner… I wanted to stay curious and full of possibilities at heart… Rebel at heart.

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A Service-led Unit: A Triathlon of Learning

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One of the goals for my MYP team at Qingdao Amerasia International School this year was to “regionalize” the IB MYP Standards and Practices. Simply put, this means to generate a series of exemplary resources that serve as guidelines for new and continuing teachers. These resources should inform readers about the learning spirit in the community, and should also demonstrate how we do things, while also exemplifying the steps that need to be followed if teachers want to create a similar experience.

When I decided to design a service-led unit for my MYP 1 class, I kept referring to this learning experience as a triathlon. I did not want students to think that one of the three components I was envisioning (research, collaboration, or presentation) was the most important. I wanted them to see how each of them inform the others, and how the work that was done at different stages built foundations for future engagements.

Triathlons are more about personal goals than competition, and I wanted students to regard this learning experience as an opportunity to explore their skills and to set a personal challenge, and see beyond the summative assessment. In triathlons, not every athlete is out to win, but everyone is out to finish, and this is what I wanted students to keep in mind: we all needed to be able to take action and offer something to community at the end of the journey.

A triathlon may seem intimidating, just as developing service-led unit. However, people that have participated in one or both of these experiences share the welcoming and supportive spirit for beginners. Thus, I decided to launch our service-led unit for this year in the hope to be able to produce an exemplar for future efforts.

The unit was titled: “How can we use language to speak about fairness?
Global Context: Fairness and development
Key Concept: Communication
Related Concepts: Audience, Meaning, empathy, word choice
Statement of Inquiry: Language can be used to make meaning of one’s own experiences in combination with other ideas to encourage taking action, and to promote communication across communities.

Students selected the following MYP Service as Action Learning Outcomes as a focus for their inquiry: Initiative, awareness, and undertaking challenges.

I decided to build our unit around literary works that addressed themes such as ecology and conservation, family & relationships, self-discovery, contemporary issues/social problems, and making choices. I also wanted students to relate and empathize with the main characters so that engaging with these literary works gave them an idea about the elements they would need to consider in their research, and to begin to work on a collaboration protocol. I wanted them to enrich their perspective on how the access to water was perceived in their complexes; and I wanted them to plan a survey in their neighborhood so that they could inform others about their findings.

I identified the following engagements as relevant forms for students to showcase their work:

  • Reading these literary works: A long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, and The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd.
  • Using literary circles as an approach to engage with the literary works.
  • Creating and using a language accuracy self-help tool to support students’ work on language production and accuracy.
  • Explicitly teach ATL skills that would support students to understand the role of mathematics in visual representations of data, effective source analysis, devising questions for surveys, conducting a survey, and presentation skills.
  • Writing an information paper that captured the main ideas of the research they would carry out.
  • Producing a poster that informed viewers about water issues in another country.
  • Writing a Survey Report to report the findings of their survey.
  • Presenting to parents and to the whole school community.

As with most endurance sports, triathlon training includes practice, practice, and a lot more practice. This triathlon of learning was not the exception. The success that was experiences in great part was due to the periodization of the learning experience: students knew they had to finalize work in a stage or period: reading the book; participating in different engagements to understand the issue with a local and a global perspective; understanding the situation of the country they were researching; synthesizing their work to produce an information paper; understanding the role of questions; preparing their survey; carrying out their survey; preparing a report for their survey; sharing their findings with the community.

During the planning of the presentations for parents and the school community, very profound reflections were taking place. It was clear that students had taken the ideas they had absorbed from books and research to the outside world; they had taken what they had learned in school and applied in the community. However, what truly made me feel proud of the experience was the purpose students found in the experience, and how their engagement throughout the whole experience was not solely defined by attention and work, but by the emotional and psychological connections they had established with their peers and the overall learning experience.

The images below capture snapshots of the learning journey.

The following video shows the introduction to the presentation.

This last video shows students reciting “Dear Matafele Peinam” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner as a closure to their presentation.

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Would MYP Teachers be willing to be MYP Students?


One of my mentors used to say that children are creative because they do not believe in “impossible”; that teenagers were charged with hormones to shake up adults, in the hope that they (adults) remember their journey.   I reflect on this idea quite frequently, and while I never aim at proving whether it’s correct, my reflection has always help me enhance my empathy skills for the students I teach.

In an MYP PD session, teachers were involved in an activity that required them to image they were MYP students who had the experience and knowledge they have at present. They were tasked with thinking of questions they would ask their classmates to discuss “the enjoyment of learning”.

Below is a series of selected questions that were used in our interactions. I invite you to think of your MYP environment and think of an answer for those questions.  I am wondering what they would make you reflect on about your classes, or your learning environment.

  • Would you like to design a lesson as a teacher for other students? Which subject? How?
  • What makes the [X] class so much fun?
  • Do you still find time for learning or are you just having fun?
  • Are you able to stay engaged in your classes or do you find yourself drifting often?
  • What is the class the most fun?
  • What is your favorite class? Do you think it’s because of the teacher, or just the content? Why?
  • Have you ever been asked to make something that you will use?
  • Do you feel you need teaches? Classmates?
  • What would make you excited to get up in the morning?
  • What experiment was your favorite?
  • What reading motivated you to give your personal point of view?
  • What’s the most fun lesson for you?
  • What’s been the nicest project you’ve done?
  • When do you learn best?
  • What do teachers do that upset you?
  • What do teachers do that helps you to work effectively?
  • Do you know what Mr/Ms ____ enjoys doing?
  • Why would you speak to Mr / Ms ____?
  • What was your favorite unit this semester? (In any subject)
    What was your favorite lesson this week? (In any subject)
  • Which teachers make learning fun? How?
  • Why do you think our teachers do not let us design our own projects?
  • Does your teachers provide many different examples to help you understand?
  • In what interesting ways have you reviewed for a test?
  • Do you enjoy exploratory learning activities?

The beauty of teaching in the MYP is the opportunity we have to witness students’ transformation from grade 6 when they are 11 years old, to grade 10 when they may turn 16. I consider it a gift to see how ideas and experiences transform students (and me, in this process); I consider it an opportunity to stay connected with the “current world”; I regard it as a constant call that will remind me not to claim that “I know because I have been doing this for nearly 20 years”, but because I am able to connect meaningfully with my students.

When teaching teenagers, it’s not difficult to believe that we are learning alongside a new person each year, and that by teaching them for 2 or more years in a row we are able to observe the power of relationships and modelling.  What I value  most about this experience, though, is the opportunity I have to blend thoughts and time, in order to create an amalgam of life that encourages me to remain a learner…. always.


Posted in ATL, IB MYP, Learner Profile | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments