“Don’t Stop Believing”: Making PYP Exhibitions Sustainable

Don't stop believing by Loozrboy.

One thing that frustrates me is how PYP Exhibitions build up to an amazing climax and then, as the dust settles, everyone says things like “bet you’re glad that’s over” or “now the exhibition’s finished you can…”. Just like every unit of inquiry, it’s that sense of learning stopping and being replaced with something else that removes the power of what has just been done. I mean, seriously, the kids have just spent a long time preparing for this exhibition… but over 60% of that time was spent digging deep into their souls to find out what really mattered to them, what issues made them feel real emotions and gave them genuine passion. If we are to be true to them, and ourselves, can we really just down tools and say “Wow… that was hard work. Right, next unit.” and then watch as the students lose all interest, forget what they have done, and cease all action. My students told me that a lot of the older students who came to see their work actually admitted that they couldn’t remember what they had done their PYP exhibition about. Many could remember the products they created (a PowerPoint,  a booth, a bake sale) but they couldn’t remember the issues they had been thinking about.

That is disturbing.

What can be done?

We’re (the students and I) going to do the following things:

  • Discuss how they can continue their work today, tomorrow, next week, until the end of the year, next year and so on. We started this today, have a look at this blog posting: http://6ssatnist.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/the-exhibition-is-finished-oh-no-its-not/
  • Make genuine, sustainable links with the organizations that we connected with during the exhibition.
  • Embed these issues into who we are on a long-term basis, possibly even continuing the work all the way through school. Imagine how much of a head start these students will have on CAS, Community and Service, MYP Personal Projects and extended essays if they have already been working on issues since Year 6 (Grade 5).

I’m going to really give this a try. This school is the first school I’ve worked in where I would like to stay for at least 10 years! This will, hopefully, be the first time I can follow my students through to graduation. I’m really going to try and meet up with them through the years in order to help them make what they started in the exhibition a sustainable part of their lives at school.


  1. whatedsaid

    Another great post, Sam. I love the idea of continuing the learning after the exhibition. You should know… our PYP coordinator (in Melbourne) is using your blogs (this one and the class one) as a guideline for our teachers to prepare for the first exhibition at our school. Thanks!!

  2. Jessica

    Sam, you speak words that sound familiar to me. Recently, it has bugged me so much that when one unit of inquiry finishes, it so quickly gets replaced by another one.
    During the last days, when we reflect, the students usually comment how they wish the unit went on forever. And somehow it does. The units reappear as their learning, in other units. In everyday situations. But that doesn’t replace the fundamental loss one can feel.
    I like your idea of thinking of a sustainable solution for this. And Í think I have just learned something more about action, and student-initiated action! Wow, thanks! (seriously, just came to me as I was replying here!)

    • Mr. Sam

      Hi Jessica – what was your idea… share it with us!

      It is frustrating. You are right, though, very often their learning emerges later on in the year or even when they have moved on to another grade level. I have one student this year whose research in our first unit of inquiry has resurfaced all year and eventually became his focus for the PYP Exhibition – very satisfying.

      My colleagues and I were discussing the whole “six units per year” issue and really seriously wondering if six units is just too many. With all the other things that happen in schools, is six units unrealistic? Would it be true to say that nearly all of us end up teaching at least one unit badly or in a rush? Would it be better to slim it to five per year and allow a more relaxed and, hopefully, in-depth approach?

      • Jessica

        Sam, your ideas gave me ideas about what I can consider student-initiated action. Sustainability, if initiated by students, or encouraged by teachers, is a way to keep a unit alive, esp. the exhibition, but it is also a way to encourage action elements, esp. if links to organizations are made. That is what I meant!

        Six units…. as we have multi-age classrooms, starting age: 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, 9-10, we had a discussion about this at the beginning of the year. The 5-6 y.o. teacher wanted to know if she could have 4 or 5 units, just like the early years class. But this was not possible.
        And when we review units, reflect on them and document them, the comments usually say “should have had more time”. Some of the transdisciplinary themes are also similar in nature, don’t you think? That would maybe enable a cut-down to 5 units as well.

        • Mr. Sam

          Hi Jessica,

          You have really hit the nail on the head with your idea about making connections with organizations as a way to sustain action. In fact, two of my students were able to connect with an organization here called Freeland during their inquiries into endangered animals in Thailand for the exhibition. Freeland provide alternative sources of income to poachers. Seamus, who works for Freeland, was very impressed with the students and is trying to set up permannent relationship that benefits them and our students. If that can happen, the action becomes sustainable!

  3. whatedsaid

    I didn’t realise that other teachers feel that way about the 6 units. I thought it was something peculiar to my school because of timetable constraints we have. I really like the idea of 5 in-depth units instead of 6. It would make for more meaningful learning for the students and less feeling of pressure for the teachers.

    • Jessica

      Edna, I agree about the meaningful learning! Sometimes it feels like you are still scratching on the surface and then it is time for the summative assessment. At our school we have no national curricula to follow, which is nice, and allows us to move as freely as we want. And still it feels like 45 hours over 6 weeks is not enough.

    • Mr. Sam

      We are looking at the option of running How we express ourselves as a year-long unit for Y6 next year. As the year culminates in the PYP Exhibition, which is the biggest opportunity for expression the students will have had so far in their academic lives, we figured that we should be building them up to that throughout the year by working on skills, exposing them to techniques and presentation styles and building up their “expressive repertoire” properly.

      I’ll let you know if we go ahead with that!

  4. Layla Sacker

    Hello Sam, I have been a rather silent follower, reading, absorbing, thinking and finally sharing your exhibition journey with my team of year 6 teachers. (as Edsaid) I so wanted them to see what was possible with the exhibition rather than worry about what recording sheets we would use and how we would manage the process. While I know these are important – your blog and the discussion it has elicited – has resulted in a comment last week from one of the team. “Lets see where the jouney takes our students and then we can decide how best to support them with proformas.!” I was delighted. So next week we are going to use your student’s wiki and explore that and then who knows. I hope we are able too to help our studetns find things that really matter to them. I don’t want to waste time with forms and sheets and displays if the passion is missing.
    Thanks so much Sam…

    • Mr. Sam

      Hi Layla,

      The last sentence of your comment is so right. As teachers,we can become so obsessed with keeping records and creating paperwork that we end up teaching in a way that is, quite frankly, not worth the paper it’s written on!!! The exhibition is such an exciting opportunity for elementary students to focus on something that really interests them, something that makes them angry, frustrated, irritated, excited… The time spent finding out what those things are is really time well spent. It occurred to me the other day, when reflecting (in my mind, not on paper) that our exhibition looked like this:

      40% discussing, writing, blogging, thinking, reflecting, remembering, provoking in order to find out what my students actually feel strongly about.

      30% researching, gathering data and interpreting data

      20% considering various ways to share information and to get a message across to the school community – what did the students want them to know, to think and to do?

      10% creating one product to convey that message.

      So, most of our time was clearly spent just working out what the kids were/are passionate about. I feel my kids repaid me for that time invested!

      Have a look at David Hicks’ website: http://www.teaching4abetterworld.co.uk/index.html – I found it really useful. If you can get hold of any of his books also they provide great ways to dig deep into your students’ souls and find out what they care about, what they hope and what they fear about the future. Powerful stuff!

      http://www.exploratree.org.uk/ provides excellent online thinking tools to get students theorizing about the future and issues that will effect the future.

      As this is your school’s first exhibition, I would advise you all to keep it low-key and make it as true to the students’ interests and passions as possible. Let me know how it goes!


      • Layla Sacker

        Hello Sam,
        well, our first exhibition has drawn to a close (notice I dont say finished as there is so much that happened that will continue) and I wanted to give you some feedback as to how it went.
        You know those moments in teaching when you stand back and breathe with pleasure… this was one of them.
        Throughout the process our students were engaged and those who had never been self directed learners discovered that they were fully able to be self motivated and competent.
        The students engaged with the community on so many levels and it was a joy to see them taking action and finding their own pathways through the unit.
        Our teachers let go… finally and shifted the focus from teacher directed to student directed inquiry. Maybe it was the time factor (longer to really get into it) … not too sure but sure hope we are able to continue this.
        Parents came and the conversations with the students were marvellous.
        Yes… this whole exhibition was such great learning for us all.
        Your early advice about finding the passion was I think for all of us .. a key factor.
        Thanks Sam .

        • Mr. Sam

          Hi Layla,

          It was wonderful to read your comment, particularly after hearing about the exhibition from Edna – it’s great to hear two teachers’ perspectives and find them so aligned!

          You said “You know those moments in teaching when you stand back and breathe with pleasure… this was one of them”. I love this quote because I think it is quite rare amongst teachers involved with an exhibition – they tend to become extremely stressed out because of the pressure and the attention. It seems that you guys had no such worries!


  5. layla Sacker

    Once more most helpful Sam, we will keep this real low key and I am glad I will be able to ask for your input when needed. Much appreciated.

  6. Gareth Jacobson

    Hi Sam,

    Fantastic reading… inspirational stuff. Having taught a number of exhibitions I can relate to many of the reflections and comments above. Especially conversations about teaching 6 UOI’s.

    Connecting to some of our conversations in Singapore about educational sustainability… it seems ultimately to be a battle of process over product – which is most valued in the world of education? in the wider world?

    How often do we see the values and habits of mind we endeavor so much to nurture within our students in the formative years of education, gradually fade away in the latter years of schooling. Pervasive forces such as the backwash effects of high stakes examinations not only mirror the winners / losers mentality of economic gloabisation, it can lead to the antithesis of what international mindedness and educating children for a better future stand for.

    The world needs visionary educators to break the mold Sam, and I think I just met one recently 🙂

  7. Pam

    Hi Sam. I don’t teach in a PYP school but was very interested in your post as our Year 6/7s follow the MYP, and we incorporate a Personal Challenge in Term 3 (now). It is similar in structure I believe to the the Personal Project, although I am very new to the IB so I could be wrong.

    Your writing conveys your inspirational enthusiasm, and I am so pleased to have found your blog.

    • Mr. Sam

      Hi Pam,

      This sounds interesting… what kind of things have the kids chosen to do for their personal challenge or are they still going through the process of deciding?


  8. Concerned Parent

    As a parent of a child in a PYP school- I see nothing challenging my child in this PYP program- I feel ths school continues to force these learner profiles on my child and these IB attitudes- while critical learning and teaching should be the focus- A learner profile store, Cinderella as told in other countries- our education system is lacking and this is what we are teaching our kids- I feel the school has a crossed a line in forcing these attitudes and beliefs of caring, risk-taker- Mom and dad are quite capable of teaching these beliefs and most of this comes naturally in due time to children-

    • Mr. Sam

      Dear Concerned Parent… thank you so much for airing your concerns on here, this kind of honesty is exactly what the world of education needs!

      I do understand where you are coming from, the PYP is quite baffling at first and can be very difficult for those of us educated in more traditional ways to comprehend. It is also prone to being taught very badly indeed as it is quite difficult for teachers to overcome their old habits and their need for a prescriptive curriculum.

      It sounds as though the school your child attends has kind of taken on the terminology of the PYP and used it prescriptively. As you say, the school “forces” the learner profile on your child. This is not the intention of the learner profile, it is supposed to sit in the background, to be the basis for reflection, to provide a framework for living and learning, to provide lenses through which we can examine ourselves, our world and think critically about the patterns of behaviour that make things the way they are . Many of us experienced PYP teachers like the phrase “live it, don’t laminate it”. But schools and teachers new to the PYP (or even experienced but jaded/stagnant teachers) laminate the learner profile and may end up forcing it on students (and their parents) in a rather shallow way.

      I can guarantee that the PYP, when delivered effectively by a school that invests in professional development and demands cutting-edge teaching from its employees, educates young people in an incredibly powerful way. The students that emerge and transition into secondary education are often unrecognizable from you or I at their age, capable of astounding people in all sorts of ways, highly realistic and informed about themselves as learners and truly empowered by their educational experiences so far.

      It is usually the challenge of their secondary teachers not to destroy these wonderful attributes with an over-prescribed curriulum and other constraints that prevent them from educating the “whole child”.

      I advise you to have a chat with the PYP Coordinator in your school and see what the school plans to do about involving parents in student learning, sharing PYP practices with parents and helping the school community to develop its understanding of the PYP. This is a crucial part of any school’s PYP journey and it is vital that parents know why the school has invested time and energy into such a challenging way to teach.

      I hope that helps!

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