conceptual framework

Frame and Canvas for Student Designed Assessment

Self-directed change as performance of understanding

In every unit of inquiry there is potential for student-generated assessment. As learning is a response to deliberately designed experiences, learning is a change in the learner’s skills, knowledge, understanding as well as post-unit decisions or actions. Action as a result of learning can be owned and led by students. Teachers provide the frame for learning, but what’s on the canvas belongs to the student.

Contextual framework of a unit on Change and Relationships

The problem that prompted the interdisciplinary unit “Be the Change” was a set of behavioral habits of many members of a class. Many members of this (middle school) class for which the unit was designed had poor impulse control exhibited by behaviors like talking over each other because they did not practice wait time or did not subscribe to the classroom agreements for supporting own and others’ learning. As a result of these unproductive habits, learning was often interrupted in the class, and over the years the students had developed many conceptual gaps, which emerged in underachievement in a wide range of subjects.

Conceptual frame of the unit

The team of teachers approached the unit design with their own questions from the context in which they wanted to impact the students’ thinking, and these questions reflected how the students would learn in the unit. The teachers asked:

  • How might students learn through the concepts so that their own choices change their behavior?
  • How might students learn about how the brain and cognition command outwardly expressed behavior?
  • How might students apply their learning in authentic ways relevant to themselves?
  • What sort of summative task would sustain students-led action?

These questions became the teachers’ context for the overarching goals for student learning in the unit. The design considerations inherent in the teachers’ questions gave them the goal of helping students to learn that “Change in how a person feels, thinks and acts can change how they perceive, understand and form relationships.” This became the statement of understanding in the unit. Through the unit, students might attain the concept of change as it pertained to thinking and resultant behavior. Through the conceptual learning of concepts patterns and relationships, students might learn of the relationships between how their thinking affected how they perceived others and themselves. Through the content illustrating the concepts, students might learn specific ways by which cognition controlled behavior. Through the open-ended task of the unit, students might find ways to sustain a change in their behavior as a result of learning.

The teachers created a few guiding questions for the unit designed to guide the conceptual inquiry.

  • Factual question: How does the brain work that results in how people feel, think and act?
  • Conceptual questions: How do people learn? How do people change because of what they learn?
  • Debatable question: To what extent can we change ourselves and change our relationships?

Construct of the unit

Prior to beginning the unit, the teachers had facilitated essential agreements between teachers and the class. They had dialogued about the expectations of the school and asked the students to discuss with them the behaviors, which would allow the students to express the expectations in how they behaved. These agreements became the basis for classroom management protocols used in each class the students attended. The agreements were made the year prior to the unit itself; these agreements had been revisited in the year when the unit was conceived just before it was taught. The need for the inquiry stemmed from the persisting habits which hindered the students’ learning.

The teachers used the authentic context of the conflicts that resulted between students and other students, conflicts between students and teachers, as the basis for the unit of inquiry. This global context of Identities and relationships was real to the individuals who spent time learning together every day, and created a significant cognitive landscape for learning in the unit.

The content the teachers prepared consisted of knowledge about how people learn. How people learn was explored in depth through texts on how the brain learns and how habits form.

A menu of texts were prepared by the teachers, ranging from a popular science article on brain function and habits, a set of Youtube videos explaining aspects of how the brain learned, parts of the brain, how habits are formed, TED videos to provoke thinking and questioning by the students. Interacting with the materials, students began to form connections between the brain and how the brain learned, and how personal ways to learn become habits, for instance how patterns of thinking affect how people perceive tasks or challenges, which was a conclusion students arrived at as they exhausted their factual study. As students began to grow in their understanding of the connections between the brain and learning, students began to ask their own questions. A research frenzy ensued, driven by students’ curiosity about their own individual learning. Their questions stemmed from personal concerns, like “Will less sleep make me less smart?” and “Do video games really harm children?” and “Is personality permanent?”

The students’ own inquiries based on personally relevant learning questions were guided by the teachers toward the big idea of learning as a source of change, the main concept framing the unit. As students attained conceptual understanding by making connections between content and concepts, they arrived at their own conclusions about what people have to do to change as a result of what and how they learned. Students had authentic concerns for themselves and their learning, and these became the basis for the students’ design of their own tasks for the summative assessment of the unit.


Schulsport by Maximilian Schonherr. CC via Wikimedia Commons

Student-designed assessment tasks

The teachers designed an open-ended assessment. Students were asked to formulate a plan of change. In the plan, students had to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of learning as a source of change (unit concept) using what they understood about patterns (unit concept) of learning they had learned through the source materials
  • identify a context for their intended change based on how their current behavior affected their relationships (unit concept) in a specific situation
  • explain how their plan addressed a change that would improve the relationship in their context, and justify how the changes in their behavior were supported by what they had learned in the unit
  • articulate a plan to monitor their own behavior in the context they described, and what success of changing would look like and how it would affect the relationships in their context.

This open-ended assessment task allowed students to:

  • Use knowledge and conceptual understanding
  • Find personal significance for their action plan
  • Structure a process by which their learning in the unit transferred to a real-life situation
  • Structure into their implementation process personal ways to monitor and self-assess

The power of the personally significant, student-generated questions drove the learning in the unit. The potential for each student to discover his or her own empowerment served to propel the students forward in the unit, especially since this unit assessment was not awarded any grade. In the larger scheme of things, the unit was designed around advisory time, which was not graded.

The students remained engaged, and continued to remain engaged in enacting their personal change as a performance of understanding.

Sustainable learning resulting from a performance of understanding

The potential for transformational learning is evident in this unit. A student in this class devised a simple way for him to keep track of his behavioral goal, which was “to decrease the number of times I spoke without taking my turn and increase the number of times I raised my hand to volunteer.” His approach was to use an index card to tally the number of times he spoke out of turn without waiting, and to tally the number of times he raised his hand to volunteer and wait to be called. Every week, he monitored his tallies on the index card, and rewarded himself if he met the goal of decreasing impulsivity and increasing impulse control.

Units that intend for students to perform conceptual understanding require a complex set of design considerations, which allow students to deepen both how they learn and what they understand in the units of learning. The deliberate ways by which teachers can design the rehearsal of thinking skills into a unit of work lead to opportunities by which students are able to draw upon their understanding of concepts and skills to solve unfamiliar problems in assessments requiring the performance of understanding.

Photo credits

Cover Photo বাংলা: বাংলার By Md Raihan rana – Own work CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Schulsport By Maximilian Schönherr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Skills and Concepts, Concepts and Skills

Please help me thank Tania, a PYP Educator who commented on a previous post Portrait of a Self-Directed Learner and nudged some thinking about how skills are linked to conceptual understanding.

Tania said, My first thoughts from a PYP perspective were that we use the Transdisciplinary Skills (ATLs) to help develop the conceptual understanding in our young learners. So our ATL skills would be embedded within conceptual understanding.

Is this model different because the students are older and already have some base of developed skills? or is the understanding / methodology different?

In my experience, MYP and Diploma students don’t necessarily experience the structure of understanding (Erickson, 2008) differently from PYP learners. One slight difference might be that the concepts in the PYP are macro concepts, large ideas which organize understanding that encompasses all the transdisciplinary learning in the PYP.

In the MYP, our key concepts have some macro concepts shared with PYP, such as form and perspective, but our key concepts are ‘smaller’ in the sense that they can easily be unpacked from the macro concepts in PYP. For instance, one of our MYP key concepts is systems, which can be easily part of the macro concept of form.

Another source of a slight difference between PYP and MYP skills and concepts stems from the structure of our programme. In the PYP, learning is transdisciplinary and learners interact with concepts and rehearse skills in the context of a unit wherein the learning isn’t framed by subject or discipline. As students learn in the MYP, the eight subjects begin to have very clear disciplinary concepts, which we call related concepts. These are linked in interdisciplinary ways through our key concepts and global contexts (“transdisciplinary themes” for PYP).

We also know that each year a student rehearses an ATL skill, they are being asked to perform it at a higher level of complexity. The ways we ask students to perform the skill of analysis in MYP Year 5 for instance is highly complex compared to how a learner might be asked to perform analysis at MYP Year 1 or PYP Year 4.

The spiral of learning as students move through the PYP through the MYP and then onto Diploma touch concepts in increasingly more and more complex performances of understanding. Concepts also increase in number as macro concepts are unpacked into micro-concepts that organize bodies of knowledge and areas of knowing. The areas of knowing are disciplinary, and there are skills that are specific patterns of learning and thinking in each subject. These are subject specific ATL skills that are embedded in the MYP subject criteria.

Perhaps it is somewhat challenging to think of these skills in a PYP context because of the nature of PYP assessment, which does not hinge upon specific criteria for ‘subjects.’

Last week in a conversation with a couple of PYP’ers in my school, we got excited because we realized one of the threads we might use for ATL articulation are presented to us by the command terms.

MYP and Diploma use the command terms, essentially verbs which direct complexity levels of thought for performances of understanding. Here are some of them classified under Bloom’s taxonomy.

Command terms classified with Bloom's taxonomy to show complexity of thought inherent in command terms

Command terms classified with Bloom’s taxonomy to show complexity of thought inherent in command terms

In the discussion with the PYP’ers, we realized that we could bridge the skills through the types of thinking that we asked students to do. As we develop the scope and sequence in the PYP and begin to connect these with the subject overviews in the MYP, our goal is to ensure that transdisciplinary /ATL skills spiral just as the concepts do.

But are skills really separate from concepts?

Lois Lanning who works with Lynn Erickson links skills to concepts in her book Designing a Concept-based Curriculum for Language Arts. Lanning explains that skills are organized conceptually, just like topics and facts are.

Let’s take a look at one example to see how this works.

Here is a diagram showing the relationship between a key concept, related concept, and thinking levels in a unit.

Key concept, related concept and thinking skills in a unit

Key concept, related concept and thinking skills in a unit

If we unpack the skills from the thinking levels (Bloom’s), it might look like this, below.

Concept linked to skills in a unit

Concept linked to skills in a unit

We learn some essential things from this exercise (which is the process we use when we plan units, giving us the sometimes unnoticed value of the unit planning process!)

The levels of thinking are embedded in the command terms, which are precise directions for complexity levels of thought for performances of understanding. These skills are organized conceptually. For instance, the concept of structure suggests many of the skills we rehearse in our classes to give students practice in organizing ideas and processes.

Concepts organize process and skills

Concepts organize process and skills

Perhaps the learning might seem different between PYP and MYP, but the principles remain very similar. The structure of understanding (Erickson, 2008) for both programmes is a conceptual framework, and within this conceptual framework are topics used to illuminate and illustrate concepts, but also skills, which provide direction and complexity in performances of conceptual understanding.

Thanks for provoking thought, Tania! Please come back and continue our conversation.

What if learning isn’t linear?

When we develop curriculum in schools, we’re saying “scope and sequence,” to mean the progression of learning experiences we design for our students. The term “scope and sequence” suggests that learning is a linear progression from a beginning point, through a series of points, ending at a particular point.

This linear model might have evolved from the industrial model of education so well illustrated by Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDtalk, animated by RSA. Because students are processed in batches through schooling, it might have happened that educators developing programmes of learning sequenced learning in a linear manner associated with grade levels.

But what if learning were not linear? What if each student has different times of readiness for different skills regardless of when he or she was born, which Sir Ken Robinson calls their “date of manufacture”?

This was the problem with the previous misunderstanding that the Approaches to Learning document in schools had to follow the format of a complicated matrix, wherein skills were mapped out as introduced and various points of proficiency and mastery indicated throughout the chart. The question still remains, if approaches to learning skills are mapped out in a linear fashion much like many of our ATL SLE charts in the past did, how do we account for students’ different times of readiness for different skills? Do we build a three- or four-dimensional matrix?

Kath Murdoch, writing about the inquiry learning approach, suggests that when students learn through the recursive inquiry cycles, we take into account each student’s thinking and learning process as their pathways to understanding. Inquiry approaches allow each learner entry points to understanding, and the teacher is able to facilitate how each student can follow individual pathways to understanding and skill acquisition in the learning process. The inquiry approach allows us to orchestrate learning; everyone has their preferred instrument to play, and they all come in to the song at different times, but together they play towards a collaborative harmony.

The inquiry approach allows us to follow a recursive, rather than a linear model for learning. This pedagogical construct is an underpinning approach to teaching and learning in the IB.

If learning is constructed through recursive inquiries, how do we address this non-linear curriculum?

Consider our curriculum framework for the continuum. The continuum framework involves a spiraling through concepts, from large macro-concepts in the PYP, into more specific concepts in the MYP, involving both interdisciplinary key concepts and disciplinary related concepts. As students spiral through the conceptual curriculum, they gain depth through the threads of macro-concepts, and they gain breadth by exploring relationships between the interdisciplinary key concepts through the disciplinary related concepts. See the example in the illustration below.

The conceptual spiral in the IB continuum

The conceptual spiral in the IB continuum

Similarly, there is a recursive spiral of approaches to learning skills in the continuum. If we take just one skill: analyse, we are able to see the spiral of this skill in the continuum’s programme of inquiry.

Skills spiral in the continuum.

Skills spiral in the continuum.

The curriculum might not be linear after all. Learning in the continuum follows this recursive inquiry cycle.

IB learning cycle in MPYPH (2008) and FPIP (2014).

IB learning cycle in MPYPH (2008) and FPIP (2014).

The suggestion here is that there are mini-curriculum cycles in the units we teach, and we use the inquiry cycles to spiral through conceptual understanding and skill acquisition and rehearsal in the unit.

As we move into the subject overview, we might find that the units spiral learning through the conceptual and skills framework in tandem, through the use of a learning cycle in the subject.

If we connect all the subject overviews and tease out the conceptual threads and skills development threads out of these, we may find ourselves creating a spiraling curriculum, delivered through inquiry and constructivist approaches, inclusive of and providing multiple pathways to understanding and mastery for all learners.


Join our community on Twitter! We hold #MYPChat, an informal gathering of MYP educators on Twitter held fortnightly. Our next MYPChat is on October 30, when we will be dialoging on Standard C1 Collaboration and reflection, in action!

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action