Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

 ‘A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.’ Warren Berger ~ A More Beautiful Question.

This generally starts with a ‘why?‘ question which identifies the need for change, followed by ‘what if?‘ which imagines new possibilities, and moving onto the ‘how?‘ which leads to action.

A couple of years ago we asked ourselves: Why do we spend the first few weeks ‘setting the tone’ in the classroom and then start the first unit of inquiry? What if the first unit of inquiry at every year level helped create classroom culture and set the tone for the learning to take place? How might we go about that?

A recent visit to ISHCMC provoked us to ask: Why do we need a separate central idea for each grade level? What if we tried one overarching central idea for the whole school? How might a whole school approach influence school culture?

And then: Why reinvent the wheel? What if we adapted the central idea we saw at ISHCMC and tweaked the lines of inquiry from our previous units? How might feedback from other educators support the development of this idea?

And now…

PYP Trans-disciplinary Theme: 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. (IB Primary Years Program)

Central Idea: Our choices define who we are as individuals and as a community.

Possible lines of Inquiry:

These are still to be refined with input from teachers, students and the world. (As our junior school learning spaces will be redesigned over the summer, all grades have a line of inquiry about how the new spaces will be used.)


  • How our choices help us build a learning community (responsibility)
  • Choices in how we express our learning (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (function)

Year 1

  • Choices that help us learn (reflection)
  • Choices in how we we interact with others (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning (function)

Year 2

  • How humans learn (function)
  • Choices we make as learners, individually and collaboratively (reflection)
  • How we choose to use our environment to support our learning  (change)

Year 3

  • Choices that affect our learning community (causation)
  • How diversity enriches a community (change)
  • How we use our learning environment to support our learning community  (connection)

Year 4

  • How communication affects relationships (connection)
  • Choices in how we communicate – audience, purpose, context (causation)
  • How effective groups function (reflection)

Year 5

  • Personal values (perspective)
  • How our values influence the choices we make (connection)
  • The choices we make as learners (reflection)

Year 6

  • Active citizenship
  • Decision making strategies (reflection)
  • Our choices as individuals – personal interests and passions (perspective)
  • The impact of choices/decisions on other people, our community, the world (responsibility)

The central idea provides possibilities for authentic trans-disciplinary inquiry too. They might inquire into how our health and exercise choices affect us, how our choices affect others in games and sports, artistic and musical choices…

Teachers might inquire into how our choices define us human beings and as educators; the impact of our  choices as educators on the social, emotional and academic learning of our students; ways to increase opportunities for student ownership and agency…

And a few more beautiful questions of my own:

What if this was a year-long unit of inquiry?

What if, instead of a central idea, we had an overarching big question?

What if, instead of lines of inquiry, the learners came up with their own why, what if and how questions?

What if everything we did was about real learning instead of ‘doing school’?

9 thoughts on “Beautiful questions… and a whole school unit of inquiry

  1. Love this! Just had a meeting today where teachers were discussing how nice it would be to have an overarching unit that lasts for the school year. As a PYP coordinator at a school in only our second year since authorization, I wasn’t sure how to respond. There are many compelling reasons for what you are exploring. When we had our MTPYPH workshop, we asked the leaders about an overarching central idea, and we were told that this would not meet the requirements for authorization. Having experienced the rush to get all six units into the school year, I think it would be wonderful to have one ongoing unit as you describe. Doing this would allow teachers and students to linger a bit longer with the other 5 units of inquiry. I guess my big question is what does the IBO say about something like this? Do you think that the current review of the PYP might lead to a more flexible framework?


  2. Hi Susan

    According to IB expectations, I believe the whole school UOI is acceptable. While the notion of a year long unit is (so far!) not technically allowed, learning does not take place in six week chunks, stopping and starting at arbitrary dates when units start and end. It is natural to link back to previous units and for learners to be making ongoing connections. The best people in the IB are the ones who encourage us to be thoughtful educators and make the program our own, rather than focusing on ticking the boxes. I heard a talk recently on the review and had the impression that the what and why will remain but the how will definitely become more flexible.


  3. Dear Whatedsaid, Where does it say that a year long unit is not allowed in the IB? I am looking at doing a fridays unit for the 34 weeks so 34 lessons and that is the same a 6×5 weeks. I know in the early years it was allowed – I did it ay my old school in Kindergarten – I am in 4th grade now. I proposed it to my team and they asked if It was allowed. I am googling it now and came across this.

    I think it is fantastic idea and it kind of matches the IB 2018/2020 changes to allow the exhibition to be outside the POI in a way – year long inquiry.


    1. In the enhanced PYP, schools will have flexibility in terms of length of units, whether they overlap etc. Many schools have already experimented with year long units.


  4. Hello! Thank you for sharing. I was wondering how was it like. Did you have another UOI ongoing at the same time? Was it confusing for students to have 2 central ideas? I’d love to know more details. Thanks,


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