Revealing the Central Idea

Do you post the central idea at the beginning of your Unit of Inquiry?

I used to do that. (No teacher shaming here!) It went right up on the wall with all the other PYP jargon: concepts, lines of inquiry, teacher questions, learner profile attributes and attitudes....

I guess I thought KG and grade 1 students needed that information upfront. I questioned their ability to think deeply and make connections. Were they developmentally ready to discover these conceptual ideas on their own?

Was it the administration, or my PYP coordinator, who wanted these things plastered on the wall?  It's common, but unspoken knowledge that your classroom should "look like an inquiry classroom" (and what does that look like, exactly???) if you are teaching at a PYP school. For teachers who are new to PYP and/or inquiry, this can be a source of anxiety. Of course, you want to measure up, but you probably just don't know how to do so as you are still learning yourself!

Or maybe it was me who needed it. Maybe I needed those PYP "training wheels" out in the open where I could see them to make sure I was "doing it right."

 As I continue to reflect on my teaching, I change practices that I feel will better serve my students, and so, I've come to realize that it's a much richer experience for young students to draw their own conclusions before I share the intended unit outcomes with them. Pretty obvious, but still, I had to get there on my own and in my own time. #learningisajourney

Regardless, I have developed the practice of revealing the central idea after students have had the chance to tune in and begin finding out. (This is nothing new, as many teachers already do this.) Logically, they then have a chance to develop their own ideas of what the unit is about and how it ties to the transdisciplinary theme.

We start off by asking students to share what they think the "big idea" of the unit is, the most important idea that we want them to remember when the unit is over. (We have discussed the concept of a "big idea" a lot over the course of the year, within each unit of inquiry, so students understand what I really mean).
Students predict the central idea of a unit of inquiry. Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

You can see our central idea, just waiting to be revealed!

I list their ideas on the white board and we have a discussion so that students can deepen their thinking. Many students may not be ready to access some of the concepts, but they definitely benefit from the rich discussion of their peers. I always prompt them to give me a little more explanation, "What makes you say that?"

Prior to this, I write the central idea on a large piece of chart paper in preparation for visual notetaking, and then I tie a bow around it to add a little dramatic flare! We are unwrapping a secret of sorts! Of course, the kids love this!

Here is a video of our latest reveal, complete with a drumroll!


Next, we "unpack" the central idea with visual notes (of course!) We discuss, draw and label what we think the central idea means both literally and conceptually. This has been very helpful for my EAL students for obvious reasons. While the central idea is generally written mostly in kid-friendly language, it is also certainly not "dumbed down", and therefore needs some discussion in order to expand students' vocabulary.

Students predict the central idea of a unit of inquiry. Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

This beginner EAL student is showing her understanding that deforestation is a major cause of animal endangerment.

Students predict the central idea of a unit of inquiry. Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

At my current school, students' portfolios are 3-ring binders. We divide them into sections according to the units of inquiry, so students create their visual notes on a divider page that I premake for them, already with the central idea writtten on it.

Students predict the central idea of a unit of inquiry. Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

Students predict the central idea of a unit of inquiry. Creating a Thoughtful Classroom


In waiting to post the central idea of our units, I feel that students are able to connect more deeply, personally and in a more meangingful and lasting way than if I share the central idea up front. I still post PYP components, which I admit, are mostly for my own benefit, to keep me focused in our pursuits.... and that's ok.

Students predict the central idea of a unit of inquiry. Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

I like to add labels about word structure (action, natural) to my anchor charts so students see spelling explained in context


In the end, you need to figure out what works best for your students and then for your own practice. That's the only way to know you are truly "doing it right".




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