KNOWLEDGE: what do we want the students to know?

“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
  • contribute to the common ground that unifies the curriculums in all PYP schools

The 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, which is available on the schools’ website.  A sample developed by the IBO for new schools implementing the PYP is available at the IB online curriculum centre (OCC) at

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:

Engaging: Of interest to the students, and involving them actively in their own learning
Relevant: 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
Challenging: Extending the prior knowledge and experience of the students to increase their competencies and understanding
Significant: 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.