Knowledge: what do we want students to know about?

Is it possible to identify a particular body of knowledge for PYP schools?

Due to the particular difficulties faced by schools implementing a programme of international education, it is immensely important that the PYP curriculum model includes an outline of a coherent, flexible and interpretive written curriculum that frames a body of knowledge which supports the IB, its mission statement and its learner profile. This decision is driven by the belief that there are areas of knowledge that, while important for any student, are especially significant in schools that aim to promote international-mindedness on the part of their students.

The importance of the traditional subject areas is acknowledged: language; mathematics; social studies; science; personal, social and physical education; and the arts; and indeed these are specified as components of the PYP curriculum model.

However, it is recognized that educating students in a set of isolated subject areas, while necessary, is not sufficient. Of equal importance is the need to acquire skills in context, and to explore content that is relevant to students, and transcends the boundaries of the traditional subjects. “To be truly educated, a student must also make connections across the disciplines, discover ways to integrate the separate subjects, and ultimately relate what they learn to life” (Boyer 1995). Ernest Boyer proposed that students explore a set of themes that represents shared human experiences such as “response to the aesthetic” and “membership in groups”. He referred to these as “core commonalities”.

Boyer’s work has been seminal to the development of the PYP. Debate and discussion, representing multiple perspectives, about this idea of human commonalities has led to the selection of six transdisciplinary themes that are considered essential in the context of a programme of international education. These themes:

  • have global significance – for all students in all cultures
  • offer students the opportunity to explore the commonalities of human experience
  • are supported by knowledge, concepts and skills from the traditional subject areas but utilize them in ways that transcend the confines of these subjects, thereby contributing to a transdisciplinary model of teaching and learning
  • will be revisited throughout the students’ years of schooling, so that the end result is immersion in broad-ranging, in-depth, articulated curriculum content
  • contribute to the common ground that unifies the curriculums in all PYP schools.

PYP transdisciplinary themes

Who we are

An inquiry into the nature of the self; beliefs and values; personal, physical, mental, social and spiritual health; human relationships including families, friends, communities, and cultures; rights and responsibilities; what it means to be human.

Where we are in place and time

An inquiry into orientation in place and time; personal histories; homes and journeys; the discoveries, explorations and migrations of humankind; the relationships between and the interconnectedness of individuals and civilizations, from local and global perspectives.

How we express ourselves

An inquiry into the ways in which we discover and express ideas, feelings, nature, culture, beliefs and values; the ways in which we reflect on, extend and enjoy our creativity; our appreciation of the aesthetic.

How the world works

An inquiry into the natural world and its laws; the interaction between the natural world (physical and biological) and human societies; how humans use their understanding of scientific principles; the impact of scientific and technological advances on society and on the environment.

How we organize ourselves

An inquiry into the interconnectedness of human-made systems and communities; the structure and function of organizations; societal decision-making; economic activities and their impact on humankind and the environment.

Sharing the planet

An inquiry into rights and responsibilities in the struggle to share finite resources with other people and with other living things; communities and the relationships within and between them; access to equal opportunities; peace and conflict resolution.

Students inquire into, and learn about, these globally significant issues in the context of units of inquiry, each of which addresses a central idea relevant to a particular transdisciplinary theme. Lines of inquiry are identified in order to explore the scope of the central idea for each unit.

These units collectively constitute the school’s programme of inquiry.  The transdisciplinary themes provide a basis for much discussion and interpretation within a school, and allow for both local and global perspectives to be explored in the units. Consequently, it would be inappropriate for the PYP to attempt to produce a definitive programme of inquiry to be used by all schools. In fact, the PYP philosophy and practices have more of an impact on a school’s culture when the individuals in the school work collaboratively to develop a transdisciplinary programme of inquiry designed to meet the school’s needs. Schools should explore the possibilities for links between the units taught at each year level, and also across the different age ranges, so that the programme of inquiry is articulated both vertically and horizontally.

In developing an individual unit of inquiry, organized around a central idea, the following are proposed as useful criteria. Each unit should be:


Of interest to the students, and involving them actively in their own learning.


Linked to the students’ prior knowledge and experience, and current circumstances, and therefore placing learning in a context connected to the lives of the students.


Extending the prior knowledge and experience of the students to increase their competencies and understanding.


Contributing to an understanding of the transdisciplinary nature of the theme, and therefore to an understanding of commonality of human experiences.

It is necessary to achieve a balance between the programme of inquiry and any additional single-subject teaching. Consequently, the planning teams, usually consisting of the teachers at each year level, need to plan the units of inquiry together with the remainder of the curriculum for the year. The relationship between the subject areas and the units of inquiry will change from one unit to another. In teasing out this relationship, it is worth considering the distinctions that Michael Halliday (1980) made about language learning: that students learn language, learn about language, and learn through language. These distinctions are worth reflecting upon for all subject areas.

It would be a useful exercise for each planning team to assess the dynamic relationship between the programme of inquiry and single-subject teaching, from one unit to the other, to ensure the programme of inquiry remains the definitive experience from the students’ standpoint.

A whole-school approach should be taken when developing and refining a programme of inquiry. The proposed units of inquiry for each year level need to be articulated from one year to the other to ensure both horizontal and vertical articulation. This will ensure a robust programme of inquiry that provides students with experiences that are coherent and connected throughout their time in the school.

The intent of this document is to describe as unambiguously as possible what the PYP is; but the opportunity should also be taken to explain what the PYP is not. In this case, it is important to understand that the transdisciplinary programme of inquiry is not merely a novel way of repackaging subject-specific content.

The driving question to be asked each year is “What is really worth knowing that allows students’ understanding of the transdisciplinary themes to develop and evolve?” The PYP, because of its commitment to transdisciplinary learning, allows schools to cut down on the amount of subject-specific content they may have been in the habit of delivering. Many PYP schools do not have autonomy in deciding what needs to be covered in the subject areas. That notwithstanding, it is advocated strongly that the principle of “less is more” should apply. The transdisciplinary themes provide the framework for a highly defined, focused, in-depth programme that eliminates redundancy and avoids the pitfalls of a personality-driven curriculum. The collaboration that is required on the part of all the PYP teachers in a school to develop a programme of inquiry means that it will have a resilience above and beyond the talents and resourcefulness of individual teachers in the school.

Source: Making the PYP happen: A curriculum framework for international primary education (2009)

Skip to toolbar