A New Start: Learning an International Approach to Education

PYP-EngWhen my husband and I made the decision to move abroad, we knew it was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was a chance to learn a new language and culture, meet new people, travel, and see the world from a different perspective.

For me, it also meant beginning a new stage in my teaching career, as an international educator. I was so curious: how would international schools in Switzerland differ from public schools in the United States? What would the International Baccalaureate (IB) be like? How would becoming an international school teacher change me and my teaching?

It has been two months now since I returned to teaching, and I’ve begun to answer these questions. Over the past four weeks, I’ve also been taking a class about implementing the IB’s program for primary school students (called the Primary Years Program, or PYP). This post is a way to synthesize what I’ve learned so far.


The biggest difference between the IB and the teaching I have experienced in the United States is the IB’s focus on international-mindedness. The mission of the IB is “to create a better world through education.” And we do that by helping students grow into internationally-minded people according to the attributes of the IB Learner Profile.

That means we want our students to become caring, thoughtful, open-minded people who are both knowledgeable and curious about their world. We want them to be communicators who seek to understand different viewpoints and recognize that people with different ideas can be equally right. Lastly, we want to empower students to reflect on their learning and take action to make the world a better and more peaceful place.

While none of these attributes conflicts with the way I’ve taught before, I think the values that underpin our teaching in the United States vary (sometimes greatly) between different states, schools, and classrooms. On the other hand, the IB’s mission and the IB Learner Profile unite every IB school. And for me, the IB’s mission is one that I believe in. In our increasingly interconnected world, we need internationally-minded people who can work together to solve the problems that we all face.

Components of the PYP Curriculum

There are three components of the PYP Curriculum, none of which would be surprising to my American colleagues. They are the written, taught, and assessed curriculum. The written curriculum is what we want to learn, the curriculum that we plan for students. The taught curriculum is the written curriculum in action, the way we use best practices in the classroom to teach effectively. Finally, the assessed curriculum is how we know what students have learned.

Naturally, these three components are closely interrelated. For example, students are assessed continuously throughout the learning process. Pre-assessments at the start of a unit of study tell us what students already know and want to learn. They inform both the written and taught curriculum. Formative assessments tell us how students are learning and provide an opportunity to change our methods or take inquiry in new directions as a unit progresses. At the end of units, summative assessments tell us what students have learned. They provide information for future planning. Assessments also provide valuable feedback to teachers, students, and parents, who can use assessment information to reflect on both the process and products of learning.

The Written Curriculum

The written curriculum is where instruction in the PYP diverges from how curriculum is typically structured in the United States. Instead of having totally separate curricula for reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and PSPE (physical, social, and personal education) the PYP unites these subjects into units of inquiry according to six transdisciplinary themes:

  • Who we are
  • Where we are in place and time
  • How we express ourselves
  • How the world works
  • How we organize ourselves
  • Sharing the planet

During each year of their primary school education, students inquire into a different facet of each theme. For instance, in the second grade where I’m teaching right now, students are inquiring into who we are, with the central idea, “Our choices and our environment have an impact on our well-being.” Kids in all the other grades are also inquiring into who we are, but each grade has a different central idea.

From the central idea, teachers identify lines of inquiry and teacher questions that guide students and define the scope of the inquiry. But from there, much of the inquiry is student-driven. As students learn more, they ask more questions and identify new areas for research and discovery. Although teachers collaborate to plan units together, the learning looks different in every classroom as it is shaped by students’ interests and curiosity.

The units are meant to be an in-depth look at an important topic, and because they’re transdisciplinary, they become vehicles for teaching important knowledge, skills, concepts, and attitudes related to every subject area. But that does not mean all learning is done during the units of inquiry. Time is also spent studying stand-alone subjects, and connections aren’t forced when there isn’t a natural fit. In trying to understand this balance, I found the following example really helpful (from “Making the PYP Happen,” p. 14, 2009):

Organization of time during a unit of inquiry

At the end of each unit, students are encouraged to reflect on their learning and to choose to take effective action. In the United States, I aspired to do this, but felt like I couldn’t as often as I would have liked because of the restrictions we face when we teach every subject separately (and have a prescribed amount of time to spend each day on math, reading, writing, etc.). One of my goals for the coming year is to learn more about how teachers empower students to take action (that’s meaningful and age-appropriate) without removing the all-important elements of student leadership and choice.

A Constructivist Theory of Learning

When it comes to how students learn and what kind of classroom best supports learning, the IB and the PYP are firmly rooted in constructivism. That is, rather than being empty vessels into which knowledge is poured, learners actively construct knowledge by connecting what they already know to new experiences and information. In a constructivist classroom, the teacher is not the sole source of information. Instead, the teacher guides, challenges, and empowers students to ask their own questions, find answers, synthesize information, and share their learning with others.

That is not to say that students have to come up with everything on their own. Constructivist teachers still use direct teaching when it’s the best way to accomplish our goals. But we balance the need for direct teaching with a variety of other approaches and modalities. We consider the needs of each individual learner and direct them to tasks that will provide a just-right level of challenge, which then helps them move to a new level of skill or understanding.

When I learned that the PYP embraced constructivism, I was relieved. Constructivism is the foundation of my approach to teaching — the same is true for my colleagues in the Boston area — and it’s not something I think I could change in a dramatic way (although I do like the notion of a “Complete Learning Theory” as envisioned here).

Looking Forward

At this point, I am excited both for the ways that the PYP resonates with my values and experiences and for the ways that it challenges familiar paradigms. I am thrilled to have the freedom to break down the divisions between different disciplines, and I am curious about how we can best balance all of the components of the program to create a cohesive and comprehensive experience for students. Like any authentic inquiry, my learning about the PYP has produced as many new questions as answers, and my exploration has only just begun.

4 thoughts on “A New Start: Learning an International Approach to Education

  1. Hi Abbie. I found this very interesting. I always wanted to take a year and explore different educational philosophies. Now you have let me do that through your eyes. I have a clarifying question….The philosophy of teaching that you shared is that of the International schools and not of the ‘public schools’ of the country? If so, I would love to hear at some point about what you have observed/learned about the school system of the ‘public schools’? Miss You! Christine

    • Hi Christine! It’s so nice to hear from you!

      Good question; I’m talking just about private international schools, specifically International Baccalaureate schools (there are also some IB schools, particularly high schools, in the US). I would love to know more about the Swiss public school system, having heard from many friends with kids that it’s excellent. However, I’d have to learn to speak Swiss German first, and although my high German is coming along, I’m a long way from being fluent. That’s a tough thing about Switzerland; you have to learn not one, but two foreign languages!


  2. Hi Abbie! Thank you for your insights. I have also taught at an IB school in China. Much of what you shared in your post resonated with me. Currently, I am a graduate student in education. I found your blog while doing research on educational technology. How much technology do you use in your classroom in Switzerland as part of your IB programme? Are smart boards and iPads used frequently in Swiss classrooms?

    • Hi Paige,

      Our school has Smartboards in all the classrooms and class sets of iPads in the lower primary grades. In upper primary, we have class sets of Chromebooks. All students have Google accounts, through which they can use Gmail (although this is limited to internal-only users for lower primary students), Google Drive, and Google Classroom. How much technology do you use at your school in China?

      Best wishes,

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