What? Ditch the Central Idea?! Conference with Lynn Erickson


 Youtube Video by Amy Bray @amy_bray


I attended a conference last week at the International School of Geneva.  I went with my two Twitter-buddies @megangraff and @jennysfen whom I first met online in the Educational Twitterverse. (This proves that not everyone you meet online is weird and dangerous.  They’re only weird 😉 )



The theme of the conference was “What we really mean by a child-centered education”. One of the speakers was Lynn Erickson. Dr Erickson is famous for her teaching and writing regarding “concept-based” learning.  Teaching concepts over teaching topics is superior because our goal is to teach students to use their minds and not to memorize facts.  We want to teach to conceptual understanding and not to coverage.  Conceptual understanding gives them tools in which to understand and explain the complex world we live in, today.  It prepares them to do this for things in the future that don’t even exist yet. Coverage doesn’t look after new things coming in the future. There is already too much content from the past to attempt coverage.  “We invite children to use the concepts and not to tell them.”




This my first occasion to hear her.  She crammed in so much in one hour.  The time just FLEW.  I will try to distill what I learned from her in this blogpost.  She gave us so much information.  Before I had time to think and digest what she was saying, she would be onto another huge idea.  I was trying to play “catch-up” the entire time trying to understand, reflect, and take notes down. I loved tweeting with Megan and Jennifer as we sat side-by-side.  It was a like our #pypchat but we were in the same room for a change. (Please join us 8pm CET every second Thursday for #pypchat).  The great thing about tweeting together is that we were able to summarize the key points of the talk pretty painlessly.  I looked up their tweets and they gave me points I missed. Looking at my tweets reminded me of points that I had forgotten about.

The biggest take-away I got from hearing Dr Erickson is that the Central Idea NEED NOT be made explicit to students.  Wow! I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that.  To me, the hallmark of a PYP classroom is that the Central Idea is plastered on its walls. Shouldn’t all students (and teachers and parents for that matter) be able to quote the Central Idea at a drop of a hat?  Not so, according to Lynn!  She proposed that it would be better if students came up with the Central Idea on their own, after several weeks of looking at the concepts and ideas.  Second WOW Radical Idea!  That would actually mean not planning the UOI entirely in advance 😉

Concept-Based Learning means addressing topics through themes that transcend time and space.  Concepts are universal and timeless. Topics are specific to locality, geography and time.


Dr Erickson calls all the possibilities of concepts that we can see topics thru Conceptual Lenses:

Conceptual Lenses

So, as an example, we may have a topic of “Families” in the PYP.   Can we look at the conceptual lenses that Dr Erickson provides us to find two that are relevant to the topic of families?  We could pick various as the permutations are myriad.  I could possibly pick the lenses: Interdependence and Identity.

If I was only studying the TOPIC of Families, I would look at the people in my family and those of my classmates.  I might look at families around the world.  It wouldn’t go too deep and the learning might not have huge transfer into other disciplines or topics.

If I looked at Families through the conceptual lenses of Interdependence and Identity, we would start discovering the relationship between Interdependence and Identity (might be Causation, Change, Connection etc.)  This takes some higher-order thinking skills!

I would say that  Interdependence in our families depends on the Identity we have in that family.  That lends itself to the conceptual lense of Change because as our Identity in our family changes, so does our Interdependence.  Does this change bring conflict?  Now, we have the concept of Conflict to address.

Our learning can now be transferred to other disciplines and areas where we have Interdependence & Identity.  These things spring to mind:  Corporations and their employees, the military, a school community.  How about our Identity as a nation and our Interdependence with other nations?  Our Identity as global citizens and our Interdependence with humanity?

A possible Central Idea from this might be: “Relationships change over time as identity and interdependence evolve”.

I hope this bit of brainstorming on my part helps clarify the differences between studying a topic and studying concepts.  Below are the two examples Dr Erickson gave us to explain the differences between studying a topic and studying concepts:

Structure of Knowledge PYPStructure of Knowledge for MYP

Dr Erickson suggested that students could try and come up with the Central Ideas themselves by taking two (or more) conceptual lenses and stating the relationship between them:



She says we need more than 1 Central Idea and at least 5 understandings for each inquiry for students:


There doesn’t need to be an official Central Idea nor does it have to be limited to only one.   For my example of “Identity & Interdependence”, I could come up with the Central Idea of

    • The student understands that…Changing identities in a family determine our dependency or lack of dependency over time


Hmm..that doesn’t sound very PYP friendly.  Let’s try:

    • The student understands that…Changing roles in a family affect how we need each other

This concept might lend itself to a UOI about growing up, puberty, aging, life cycles.

That’s pretty deep stuff that begs all of us to sit and think about the what possible answers might be.  We’ve moved way up Bloom’s Taxonomy to analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

If we had limited ourselves to the topic of Families, we might end our investigation once we named and explained the roles of our family members:  grandma, grandpa, dad, mom, sister, brother etc.  These are only the knowledge and comprehension stages of Bloom’s.

Dr Erickson says the “synergy” of two conceptual lenses working together is more than the sum of its parts.  In other words, studying Identity in relationship with Interdependency provides more richness and depth than studying either alone:


Students are to think about the relationships between the two lenses.  Their task throughout the UOI is to find evidence and text to prove the relationship and to explain it.

I really found the idea very fascinating of having students come up with the Central Idea on their own.  Craig Dwyer @dwyerteacher had his students guess the Central Idea last year.  This year, he’s having the students develop the Central Idea as preparation for the PYP Exhibition. As Dr Erickson said, we really should have more than 1 central idea.  It’s not necessarily the case that the teacher’s Central Idea is the best.

Here’s another blogpost about the purposes of the Central Idea by AMcGuigan:  Is it best kept on the planner?

It was an amazing hour that we spent with Dr Erickson.  I left the conference inspired and with the wheels of my mind turning.  I’ve had a week to contemplate what I learned and how I might summarize her talk for you.  I hope I did it justice. 🙂  If you watch the Youtube clip (a slideshow in video format) by Amy Bray @amy_bray  at the top of this blogpost, you’ll get more detailed information.  There is a section at the end of the Youtube that is very valuable.  It lists various possible conceptual lenses organized by teaching subjects.

Dr Erickson has a new book: Transitioning to Concept-based Curriculum and Instruction:  How to Bring Content and Process Together  I’m definitely interested in delving more into this.

How would teaching with the Central Idea NOT fleshed-out change your planning?  What would be your starting point then?



About Vivian

Vivian @ChezVivian is a Canadian-born Chinese, currently living in Switzerland. She has also lived in Hong Kong and Indonesia. She holds a M.S. (focus: Educational Technology Integration), B.Ed and a B.A. and graduate studies in Kodály and Orff music pedagogy. She is an elementary school classroom generalist, but has also taught as a music specialist, ESL/EAL and also in Learning Support. Most of her teaching career was in International Schools in Hong Kong. She is excited about the IBPYP and the possibilities of using technology to Inquire. Recently, she has been looking at the opportunities that computer programming gives to put #TECHXture back into the hands of children. In other words, technology need not be just about looking at screens. It can be about building things with our hands; and computer programming levels-up what children can do with the things they build---encouraging higher thinking skills. She is a Coetail Post-graduate Certificate grad ('13-'14), a former Coetail Coach and one of the co-founders of #CoetailChat. Her blog home chezvivian.coetail.com curates her assignments for Coetail and her M.S. graduate studies about Educational Technology integration and anything else educationally-related that she feels inspired to write about. Her twitter tagline sums it up: "Mom to 4, Mentor, Educator, Musician (in that order)".
This entry was posted in Central Idea, Philosophy & Ideology, Primary Years Program PYP, Thought-Provoking, Twitter. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to What? Ditch the Central Idea?! Conference with Lynn Erickson

  1. Hi Vivian,
    I am not surprised about the Central Idea idea. Going from PYP (one Central Idea), to UbD (more than one enduring understanding) and now back to one enduring understanding (our school’s own inquiry matrix) has been somewhat frustrating. If one is studying something for 6 weeks – there will be more than one understanding acquired….

    Currently with Kath Murdoch consulting us, we are aiming to NOT complete the planner past the initial stages and the criteria for assessing the EU. Reason being that one cannot know what direction students will go… It is all very exciting! But also demands a great deal of collaboration amongst teachers to make sure essential learnings don’t get lost…

    You are so lucky to see Lynn Erickson live!


    • Vivian says:

      Hi Lindy!

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I can see that it would be frustrating moving between the Planner and UbD.

      I think it’s great that you are not filling in the planner too much and that’s what I thought was the expectation when I first learned about Inquiry Learning. When I took the “Making the PYP Happen” course, I was very surprised to see that we were expected to fill it all out ahead of time, which seemed to negate the “student-led” part of student-led inquiry! It’s good to hear that it’s possible to approach it with a more relaxed way than I was taught.

      Megan and Jenny were able to hear more from Lynn Erickson after the conference was over. They attended a school workshop that I couldn’t attend since I don’t teach at their school.

      I think you’re pretty lucky to hear Kath Murdoch!


      • Vivian says:

        The part I was most surprised about was we were instructed in the IB “Making the PYP Happen” course to fill out the Student Action box. I found that completely confusing. If it’s “Student Action”, then we shouldn’t be anticipating what they’re going to do. They need to own their Action and if we nudge them towards something (whether consciously or not) because we’re filling in that box even before the unit starts, we’re taking away their ownership. We’re working against the “sky’s the limit” attitude which should ignite Student Action.

  2. Vivian says:


    I wanted to ask you—how do you start the UOI if you don’t start with the Central Idea with students (unpacking the Central Idea)?

  3. Vivian, I shall be moving to a PYP school in August and everything might change again!

    Jay McTighe would say that whatever your Big Idea is it should “shine though every part of the planner.” It should be obvious. And in that case your kids may well be able to come up with what it is as they make their way through the unit. Now although I read the theory which I can pass on to you, I have not actually not tried it because everywhere I have taught – the expectation is that the Central Idea/ Enduring understandings are explicit and students know from the start. It is also useful when unpacking that students know not only what the unit is about – but what it is NOT about. In that case I think you’d have to be a really good unit designer to pull it off!

    But some have done this. I have read about them in the collaborative blog Inquire Within.


  4. Vivian says:

    https://inquiryblog.wordpress.com/ is the link to the “Inquire Within” blog that Lindy mentioned.

  5. Jason Graham says:

    Whew well I’m glad I’m not the only one. The CI is for the teachers. It’s clear as the IB states that the students don’t need to understand the CI anyhow, although they recommend you ‘unpack it’ which can come in many forms. It would be good if the IB told us this right? Use concepts, some say related concepts but this works so long as they are linked to the main concepts. In the end kids will learn. Give them quality things to inquire into and freedom to learn and don’t plan everything. And of course ask them what they are interested in.

    • Vivian says:

      Hi Jason @jasongraham99

      Thanks for your comment. When you say, “concepts”, I think you mean “Enduring Understandings” as per the UbD. And you mean the Lines of Inquiry?

      If the IB thinks the Central Idea is for teachers, then most of us have been misled about its role and it would be nice if they clarified. It seems intuitive that if something is really student-led, that we shouldn’t start off by setting them on a pathway that was created by teachers.


      • Jason Graham says:

        Hmm youve made me think here. I initially thought that (on the UbD planner template that we are using for coetail) the Enduring Understanding was the Central Idea (in PYP speak). Im not sure an enduring understanding is a concept- I think the concepts help us to understand the Enduring Understanding. …I think! 🙂

        • Vivian says:

          I looked at my notes from Lynn Erickson. She says the generalizations are the lines of inquiry. The generalizations are the statements that we make when connecting two conceptual lenses (making explicit the relationship between the two).

          I’ve had a think and I would say the generalizations (lines of inquiry, linking of two concepts) could be the Enduring Understanding as concepts are timeless. However, Enduring Understandings stand out as an exceptional understanding that we really can’t and shouldn’t live without. So not all generalizations or lines of inquiry make Enduring Understandings but Enduring Understandings can certainly be a line of inquiry.

          I would think that one of the Enduring Understandings would be one of the Central Ideas? If not, maybe we need to rethink the Central Idea?

          That’s my take on it all 😉

  6. Chris Frost says:

    Hi Jason – Where does the IB actually state that students don’t have to understand a central idea? The planner (stage 1) states it is an enduring understanding.

  7. Jason Graham says:


    Indeed your right. I should’ve said ‘It’s clear as the IB states that the students don’t need to understand the CI (as it is written).

    It is the ‘vocabulary’ of the the central idea that Ss needn’t understand as stated in the doc How to Use the PYP Planner ‘However, you do not have to write central ideas in language appropriate for the age of the students.’ ‘You could include words that students may not have come across before, but are essential to the understanding of the central idea.’

    This the CI in words is for really for teachers (or could be at least?) but of course the meaning would need to be the focus of the unit.

    Thanks for asking clarification, I didnt write my response well 🙂

  8. Loved Amy Bray’s summary of my presentation. So enjoyed the Geneva audience! Fun to read your blogs on Concept-based. You are learning about CBased. A couple of clarifications. I did not say your “should not tell children the Central Idea.” I said you could do that with the Central Idea– but I would recommend that you have additional generalizations in your units using the more specific Related Concepts and that the inquiry draws students to those understandings and has them state their understanding–rather than telling them. We need a few more conceptual understandings for units using Related Concepts to build “conceptual depth” of understanding. Also, synergistic thinking is the interplay between the factual and conceptual levels of thinking. So when you invite students to look at a topic through a conceptual lens, you are facilitating “synergistic thinking” – a key to intellectual development. Also, we can’t work only at the conceptual level. We must use the facts to truly “understand” a concept or conceptual understanding. Finally, Enduring Understanding = Generalization = Central Idea = Statement of Inquiry = Essential Understanding. Hope this helps! Keep up the great thinking : ) Lynn Erickson

    • Vivian says:

      Dear Lynn

      Thank you for taking the time to clarify and correct points in my blogpost. I really appreciate it!

      This blogpost has been shared a lot and WAY more than I ever expected it too. It shows that teachers are intrigued and challenged by the idea of “hiding” the Central Idea from the children and having the children come up with it on their own.

      As the PYP is going through a review by the IBO at the moment, these ideas are providing much food for thought, discussion, and debate.

      Thanks so much for sharing and challenging our thinking. It’s an honour to have you commenting on my blogpost. 🙂


  9. Jason Graham says:

    Thats awesome that Lynn took the time to reply. Totally awesome! Glad to see.

  10. Thanks Vivian. I am careful not to contradict the directives of IB when sharing my work on CBased. So as long as they want the Central Idea posted at the start of a lesson I would say that is fine. This is deductive instruction. Central Ideas are usually make with a Key Concept and 1 or 2 Related Concepts. The Central Idea is quite broad, which gives us “conceptual ‘breadth,'” meaning greater transferability –even across disciplines at times. The reason I suggest we enhance the conceptual work of our units by writing some additional generalizations (say 4 or so) using the Related Concepts is that these ideas give us “conceptual ‘depth'” meaning deeper understanding of the conceptual relationships from different disciplines. The Related Concepts are the more specific disciplinary concepts (although at times one might want to use a macro- or Key Concept as a Related Concept–but it won’t drive the focus of the unit in this case). We need disciplinary depth as well as breadth. Some people are using these additional generalizations as their Lines of Inquiry. If so, you would not be able to put any specific Topics in your lines of Inquiry and without a “Critical Content Topics” box on the planner this might be a problem. In early primary this would not be a problem (since almost all the work is conceptual) but in later PYP it might. I suggest adding a box under the Related Concepts and call it something like “Related Understandings” to hold these additional generalizations. Teaching should be inquiry based and “Inductive”–drawing the statements of understanding from the students as a culmination of the inquiry. Best wishes and do check out the new book by Dr. Lois Lanning and me–“Transitioning To Concept-based” Corwin Press Pub. Available in e-book format also. Cheers! Lynn Erickson

    • Vivian says:

      Hello Lynn

      Thank you again for your additional clarification and information.

      I don’t believe that any of us are suggesting that you are contradicting any directives from the IB. From the comment thread, you can read that we’ve been discussing the fact that we are not too sure about the role of the Central Idea in our planning: Is it for the student or is it for the teacher? The IB doesn’t seem to have made that clear and thus the big discussion here, and elsewhere.

      You definitely did not say to never tell the students the Central Idea. I think I understood that you suggested that we not necessarily tell it to them at the start? And, would the students be able to come up with it on their own later, or possibly come up with their own version (or several versions)? The Central Idea would be stating the relationship between the two lenses. The Learning Engagements are discovering and proving the relationship…

      Regardless if I misunderstood you or not, the idea of hiding the Central Idea or having the students come up with one (or some) on their own seems to a well-liked idea. Teachers (one referenced here in this blogpost) are experimenting with doing just that.

      The PYP is going through a review and it will be interesting to see if the IBO comes out with any explicit statement on whether the Central Idea is for students or for teachers. I have a feeling that the teachers are hoping that it be mainly for the teachers and that the process be a bit more organic and more “Inquiry” friendly i.e. let the students work it out themselves.

      It would be great if you added your thoughts to the review. More information here: https://blogs.ibo.org/sharingpyp/2014/02/20/key-themes-for-the-pyp-review-process/

      Craig Dwyer has written a blogpost about rethinking the PYP Planner: https://www.teachingparadox.com/2014/03/re-thinking-pyp-planner.html

      Thanks again for your comment.


      • Yes, I was invited by the IB to give in-put to the PYP review–and of course eagerly accepted. It will be interesting to see what comes out for the themes they are reviewing. Best wishes, Lynn

  11. Chris Frost says:

    The IB have never had a policy about hiding or revealing the central idea so as Vivian says Lynn there is no contradiction to IB policy in this thread. Even if there were, the IB would actually welcome it as as Vivian explains the PYP is going through a review and is actively encouraging this sort of debate.

    It’s a debate I’m really enjoying – thanks 🙂

  12. Jonathan Twigg says:

    Hi All

    Late in arriving here, but enjoyed the post and the comments. Hi Vivian, nice to meet you on the WWW.
    We have been exploring the role of the CI this year in various classes. In one year level we led the unit with concept based provocations and then tuned in with a more specific conceptual lens – then we invited the students to draft a CI that collated their thoughts. It was a rewarding experience as the students responses were very similar to the CI we had been using. But their thoughts and their wonderings allowed us to tighten and open (if that makes sense) the direction of the conceptual development of the unit.
    We are starting to focus more on the conceptual provocation at the start of our units and have discussed conceptual frames to capture the formative understanding of the students. I attended Lynn E in London and it help validate the use of concepts in our planning and teaching.
    There is no one way (thank goodness) to approach a unit of inquiry and we will continue to review articles like this and other provoking up to date writings and explore learning with a greater sense of curiosity.

    • Vivian says:

      Hello Mr Twigg

      How wonderful to run into you on the “world wide web”! You’ve blown my cover now. 😉 Actually, I knew it would only be a matter of time before we’d run into each other on the “net”. It is truly a much smaller world now.

      That’s exciting to hear that even Year One can come up with their own idea of the Central Idea. It’s not beyond that young age level, even.

      Yes, I like the way you termed “tighten and open” in regards to the meaning of the Central Idea. If something is truly student inquiry-led, children will certainly have their input that will sharpen the direction and at the same time, “open” up the eyes of adults that see things often differently.

      The PYP community is always pushing the boundaries of what real learning is. It’s exciting to be a part of the conversation. I can’t believe that this blogpost got shared as much as it did. I almost didn’t write it and wrote it mainly as notes to myself so I wouldn’t forget all the good information from that day. I’m happy to see that it’s provoked so many conversations around the world.

      Thanks for being a part of the conversation too.

      See you tomorrow at the SLC 😀