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.


16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. McGuigan
    Jun 26, 2013 @ 08:37:58

    Extending thoughts…. a similar process was taken during a recent PYP Exhibition. Some of the generalisations made by the students include:
    * It’s everyone’s responsibility to stop imbalance of power
    * Everyone is entitled to the basic human rights, equallity and fairness from a community
    * People are responsible for acting with tolerance, respect and humanity to harmonise relationships and minimise conflict in society
    * Cultures and social groups can influence the minds, rights and responsibilities of the people.


  2. lynnerickson
    Jun 28, 2013 @ 20:23:17

    Good thinking here! Yes, the goal is to have students create their own generalizations & transfer. There are 2 main reasons for the teacher to develop genersliz
    1. To guide students to understandings that are critical to the discipline and
    2. To teach students the process of conceptual thinking.
    Thank you for thinking & sharing!


  3. Brenna McNeil
    Jun 29, 2013 @ 03:15:16

    I *just* did this with my Kindergarten class, and they rocked it! Just goes to show that even five-year-olds are capable of deep conceptual thinking and transfer without a lot of ‘interference’ from the teacher.
    As a PYP teacher, I, too, used to have CI’s on display, deconstructing them with the students to kick-off each unit. Not quite sure where this practice came from, especially considering the fact that the PYP doesn’t mandate that CI’s are on display, or that they must be in ‘child-friendly’ language.
    Funny that so many of us have been caught in this misconception!
    Great post, thank you!


  4. James weekes
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 16:02:42

    Some interesting thoughts there Adam, thanks. This year I’ve been more focused in the concepts and their key questions to develop student/teacher questioning around the CI and LOIs.
    I also gained an activity from a recent Online Exhibition Workshop where the students used the key concept questions on everyday objects, such as a pencil, as a ‘starter’ activity. Trying this, I found the students were able to shape their own questions towards the UOI a lot easier. Therefore developing a pathway to understanding of the CI.
    You’ve started an interesting thought process for me, reflecting at the end of the year on how I used my CI in the classroom…


  5. Viv Rowan
    Aug 19, 2013 @ 08:12:12

    This is a welcomed discussion which I have just discovered. I am currently working on a qualitative thesis which essentially looks at the role of the central idea, but is particularly focussed on what PYP teachers believe structured inquiry to be. It has taken me a very,very long time to sift through the enormous amount of research on inquiry based learning. I have my own definite opinions about the central idea and its purpose. However, I will let the research findings tell the story……I welcome any past research on ‘central ideas’ or enduring understandings as they are hard to come by.


  6. Chris Frost
    Sep 13, 2013 @ 07:56:23

    This has been a personal inquiry of mine for quite some time. I started a forum discussion on this in PYP Threads. I am with you on this!

    Displaying central ideas – should we do it?
    Posted by Christopher frost on May 9, 2011 at 4:23pm in Units of Inquiry
    View Discussions

    Hi Everyone

    The ‘elephant’ in the room

    This subject has been niggling at me for quite some time. I think it’s fair to say that there is an assumption in most PYP schools that we should have the central idea on display in our classrooms. I for one have poked my nose into classrooms to police their presence in the past. I thought I was doing the dutiful PYP Coordinator thing. But isn’t this counter-inquiry practice?! By displaying central ideas, aren’t we telling the students the ‘answer? Surely this is in opposition to constructivist/inquiry learning?!


    The practice of displaying central ideas probably originates from the work of the educationalist David Ausubel on what he called ‘advanced organizers’.

    If I remember what I read (Phsycology in Education Woolfolk et al) Ausubel believed (and I think it’s been proven) that by scaffolding relationships and ‘big understandings’ that will unfold in a unit in advance, that this helps kids focus their attention on the statement and this in turn helps them to learn.

    So what?

    But.. Ausubel was also unashamedly an advocate of optimizing learning by transmission (rather than constructivism). In other words he believed that we learn best by listening and being told rather than working things out for ourselves. I am not saying his advance organizers don’t work, nor am I suggesting people can’t learn through transmission (I have learned a lot from idly watching some fantastic TED Talks recently). But surely this idea of showing children the ‘answer’ is not in line with constructivist/inquiry teaching and learning that PYP advocates? Therefore logically we shouldn’t be displaying and discussing the central idea in advance!?

    So instead?

    I believe the central idea should be used as an important teaching tool (guiding our teaching) which we keep hidden from the children. As they inquire and construct meaning they slowing work out the central idea for themselves. Only at the end of a unit do we drum roll…………… and uncover the central idea to say ‘Hey kids see you worked out the answer for yourselves!’

    What do other people think about this? Please could you share your thoughts here, I think it is an interesting debate. I have just skimmed through making it happen and it appears IB doesn’t state we should display the central ideas in advance. I believe that this is a mistaken assumption too many of us are adhering to.

    I would love to hear people’s thoughts



  7. brenchan
    Sep 13, 2013 @ 10:17:30

    Hi Chris,

    Some colleagues of mine recently attended an IB PYP workshop on assessment.

    Some of the research articles they read during the workshop suggested that students learn more effectively if they know what their ‘destination’ is, and so learning targets should be on display in the classroom (ie: central ideas), as this will help them see where they are heading.

    I understand how this could help students make sense of the lead-up learning that occurs before the big ‘a-ha’ moment (and also answer the common ‘So what?’ query), but on the other hand, I think this takes away the tension that is often a powerful motivator for further inquiry and making connections.

    Personally, I like the idea of keeping the CI from students and seeing if they can go beyond the facts themselves and construct their own generalisations- it’s a great way for teachers to see how students ‘connect the dots’…….. or not!



    • Christopher Frost
      Jan 19, 2014 @ 12:58:59

      Hi Brenna

      I couldn’t agree more about sharing learning intentions. However a provocative question is in itself an effective learning intention: it motivates learners, helps keep them on track. (Teaching for Understanding, Understanding by Design and Lynn Erickson all advocate sharing questions as learning intentions.)

      So for example an understanding such as

      ‘human migration throughout the world Is caused by a combination of negative ‘push’ factors and perceived more positive ‘pull’ factors’

      need not be shown. Rather: show:

      Why do people from all around the world migrate?

      See what I mean?



      • brenchan
        Jan 20, 2014 @ 00:53:15

        Hi Chris,

        I actually *don’t* think learning objectives/intentions should be displayed, at least not in the traditional sense of them being closed-ended statements.

        Kath Murdoch wrote an insightful blog post explaining why not:

        As I mentioned, I like the idea of keeping the central idea from the students, but framing LoI’s as questions can give them both the direction and challenge they need and desire. Then, we can encourage them to ‘zoom out’ and come up with their own generalisations. They could even decide how to transfer and apply their understanding of the CI themselves, rather than us telling them how to do so with a teacher-prescribed summative assessment.

        Of course, all this zooming out and generalising and transferring and applying are skills in themselves, but I am sure teachers can help students develop these important thinking skills.

        A great conversation, lots of big ideas being shared!


      • Christopher Frost
        Jan 20, 2014 @ 04:31:29

        Hi Brenna

        I remember reading Kath’s post with empathy and some skepticism . I’m all for learning targets – I’m pretty sure research has proven their effectiveness (I got that from a book by Marzano and/or Hattie I think). I like what you say about learning targets which to not detract from tension and inquiry. I guess a learning target phrased as a question fulfills that as would targets which use understanding command terms such as justify, explain, compare and contrast e.g. (by the end of this week you should be able to empathize with the perspectives of both a rhino conservationist and a rhino poacher. Perhaps with a question like – Would you kill rhino if your life was like that of a rhino poacher? Would fulfill these. Such learning intentions leave scope for opinion but are predetermined learning goals..

        Good chatting -I’d best get going or I’ll be late for work!


  8. Jeff
    Nov 05, 2013 @ 16:24:29

    I love this idea! I was really excited to view the work with the 6 year olds in your post, but the link did not work for me 😦

    My kindergartebn team is currently re-writing our units of inquiry and trying really hard to focus on developing units that will allow for better inquiry. I know these examples of would help me to encourage them to try this process with at least a few of our planners.

    Is the link no longer active, has it been moved?


  9. Trackback: To Be or Not To Be- Should we start or end our unit with the Central Idea? | Collaboration for Growth
  10. Alia
    Nov 22, 2013 @ 21:28:10

    I’m new to the IB/PYP system, but I do agree with McGuigan, I just feel that as much creativity and excellent phrasing you put to come up with a flashy Central Idea that pushes students to further investigate, you are still writing a generalization which clearly states the outcome for students. What attracts people to watch a movie or to read a book is the title. But the ending of both is not highlighted by any chance.
    Thank you for sharing this great thoughts.


  11. Niko Lewman (@kispypniko)
    Nov 21, 2015 @ 12:05:27

    I stumbled onto this thought provoking and very well written blog post that made me reflect on my pedagogical creed. It also sparked a few connections with something that I haven’t been thinking for a long time: John Dewey’s influence upon my understanding of learning and teaching.

    I think that the Central Idea is for all learners, teachers and students alike, but it has a different meaning for the different stakeholders. The Central Idea for teachers is to guide the overall inquiry; to focus and guide the inquiry. For students it sets the purpose for the inquiry. My worry is that when we start hiding learning targets in order to motivate learners we are then creating assumptions and generalizations of our students capabilities; we are then on the track of creating what John Dewey calls “dead weight of generations passed”, we are making the child follow an invisible red thread that they ought to follow.

    As in scientific method, we usually begin with the end in mind. We create a wondering that we start to unravel and understand through the skills and knowledge that we already have. With that in mind and the recent findings of Dylan Wiliam on the effect of Formative Assessment and John Hattie on feedback alone, I think that we should find various ways to communicate and instill curiosity about what we are inquiring about to students.


  12. Bertha
    Mar 11, 2016 @ 23:04:08

    Great ideas, thank you.


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