The Purpose of a Central Idea

After recent training courses with Kath Murdoch and Lynn Erickson, I have thought deeper about the purpose of Central Ideas. For years I have heard many PYP teachers arguing about what makes a good Central Idea or that Central Ideas are often too broad or inaccessible for students (especially from lower primary teachers).

I have often seen Central Ideas beautifully displayed on classroom walls, but have never really been used or have been used ineffectively. It ends up being wasted space, where a more interactive use of ‘the third teacher’ would be more beneficial for the students.

I have also witnessed many ‘unpackings’ of  Central Ideas. This usually ends up being a mind map discussion with the class and is ultimately a vocabulary lesson. With that box ticked, the teacher feels that they can move on to the content of the lesson, occasionally (or not at all) dragging the Central Idea back into focus, reminding of the students that they must show their understanding of it when the summative task is shared with them.

At the end of it all, what is the use of a Central Idea? Why do school administrators insist that they must be present in the PYP classroom?

I suggest that the Central Idea is purely for the teacher, with the main purpose to keep the teacher on track – ensuring that they try to help the students reach that conceptual or enduring understanding throughout the unit.

One thing that bugs me about Central Ideas being ever present and referred to is that it stifles any chance students have in making their own generalisations about their inquiry. The teacher has already made the generalisation for the students, so why should they even bother?! One of the goals of  concepts-based teaching is to develop the skills and knowledge within  students so they can transfer them and make their own generalisations and understandings about the world. Are we undoing a student’s great thinking by limiting to a teacher’s perspective?

I have been experimenting with teachers with this theory and have played around with stripping down Units of Inquiry to the core concepts that we want the kids to understand. Instead of spending time going through the motions of ‘unpacking’ the Central Idea, the teachers have been spending time ‘unpacking’ the Key Concepts selected for the unit (example). Once the students are confident with the Key Concepts, they are then used as the lenses needed to look at the related concepts planned for the unit. The students don’t have to try to understand a long, convoluted sentence. They just have to understand two words (a Key Concept and a related concept).

This approach has been supported by one great idea that I gained from a recent Lynn Erickson workshop: that is to develop stronger teacher questions. The first step is to develop strong Lines of Inquiry. Instead of using a key word or phrase for a Line of Inquiry, develop Central Ideas (or enduring understandings) for the Lines of Inquiry. These Lines of Inquiry are not to be given to the students, burt are to be for teacher planning only. Use these stronger Lines of Inquiry to make stronger, conceptual teacher questions (using a ‘how’ or ‘why’ question). These  questions should be displayed in the classroom. These are the questions that help guide student inquiry. They do have to be used wisely though.

Develop factual questions (‘what’, ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘where’ questions) to be the basis of learning engagements. Develop these from the conceptual questions. Again, this develops stronger inquiries to scaffold student thinking. Using the knowledge developed from these factual questions allows students to try and answer the conceptual questions in any form they wish to show how. The factual questions also allow teachers to feed in the content needed for the inquiry. An example can be seen here. Allowing the students to answer conceptual questions allows them to think deeper and allows these teacher to see if the student is reaching the conceptual level desired.

At the end of the unit, using the student’s conceptual understandings, allow them to produce a generalisation summing up the unit. This will require some scaffolding through a thinking template or discussion. I have  seen some success with this approach, which will only grow stronger as the students have more chances to make generalisations. The first attempt of generalising from a group of 6-year old students can be viewed here. The teachers shared their Central Idea at the end of the unit, prompting further debate with the students and the tweaking of their understandings. Students were also given an opportunity to display their understandings of their own generalisation in any form they chose (great summative task).

The various teachers involved commented how this approach freed up their teaching, allowed for deeper understanding of Key Concepts and related concepts and promoted true student inquiry.

It may be time to see for ourselves who actually needs a Central Idea. Maybe the Central Idea is best kept on a planner.