Redefining collaboration with the PYP Exhibition

Unfortunately, I think that the idea of collaboration is very rarely understood properly by teachers of the PYP. For many of us, student collaboration has always meant “working in a group” and never really progressed any further than that. Part of the problem with this is our misguided belief that teacher collaboration means “planning in a group”, but more on that another time.

Ironically, it is our flagship student experience – the PYP Exhibition – that can be held responsible for our misconceptions about collaboration. It was always designed to be a “collaborative inquiry ” and so, to that end, teachers have been popping their poor students into groups in PYP schools worldwide every year. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Well, yes, its catastrophic for many of the following types of student:

  • those students who end up being put in a group because there wasn’t a group based on their interest
  • those students who end up being put in a group because the group they wanted to be in was “full”
  • those students who always end up doing all the work in groups
  • those students who always fade into the background while others take the glory
  • those students who have always let others do the work because they lack confidence or skills
  • those students whose interests and styles of learning are never quite the same enough for them to be in a group
  • those students who make misguided group choices and regret it later
  • those students who compromise their own identity just to be in a group
  • introverts
  • extroverts
  • outliers
  • etc… have I left anyone out?

When teachers create a finite amount of groups for the PYP Exhibition (often defined by a finite number of pre-determined things the kids can learn about) with a finite number of places in each group they are undermining inquiry from the word “go”. They are also pushing cooperation and not setting the scene for genuine collaboration to happen naturally. They are creating the conditions for conflict, frustration, bickering, divisive behaviour, sulking and competitiveness. We have all seen it.

When you remove this obsession with grouping from the equation completely and allow students to develop their own inquiries… a real, natural, diverse, dynamic and unpredictable culture of collaboration begins to evolve:

  • you get partnerships and groups emerging at different times in the process based on a recognition of like minds or similar goals
  • you get frequent, spontaneous collaborations taking place as students share information, exchange ideas or help each other with things
  • you get collaborations happening between students and adults as teachers, parents and other members of the community get involved in the process
  • you get collaborations between the students and students of all other ages who become part of the process
  • you get collaboration happening by email, and online
  • you get collaboration you never anticipated

Putting students (and all people) in groups and calling it collaboration is a mould that must be broken. We have been breaking that mould for a while now, and it works.

Why not give it a try? There’s no need to wait for the PYP Exhibition, after all… it’s just another unit of inquiry.


  1. jocblumgart

    Great post Sam, could not agree with you more. Having experienced both models that you have described, there is no doubt which one comes up trumps in terms of engagement and what students are able to achieve. One of the most heart warming aspects for me is watching every student grow and develop and feel so accomplished. Thanks to your input and insightful advice regarding collaboration and the exhibition I see a wonderful difference in our school and students .

    • sherrattsam

      That’s great news! I is so liberating to break free of that group mould. There’s still students who struggle, of course, but it is more of a reflection of who they as an individual than who they are as part of a group – and that struggle often leads to wonderful growth, as you say.

  2. jforsythe08

    Hey Sam Love it. To back your perspective…I had the grade 5’s do there own exhibitions. Everything you mentioned above happened. Spontaneous collaboration amongst kids, supporting each others exhibitions. Collaborations I never dreamed of. Your comment, “pre-determined things the kids can learn about.” is an important one. Our exhibition central idea was basically, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Kids got into what they wanted to get into. Music is beautiful, skateboarding is beautiful, Football is nicknamed the Beautiful game….Everything works.
    In fact I borrowed your rubric, I liked the action/creative pursuit aspect of it. So did the kids. So Thanks for sharing that a while back.
    Take care,

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  4. kathmurdoch

    Great post Sam. I often have conversations with teachers and students about the way even individual, personal inquiry projects end up having a collaborative element…nothing really ever happens in isolation. As part of their reflections, we ask kids to look back over the session/process/project and identify when they used their collaborative skills and it is always there – even in subtle, nuanced ways. Of course, developing the skills to work with others even when we DON’T get to choose is vital too (and should still be an element of what we do in the classroom)…But the exhibition is probably not the best context for developing those skills and the struggle that inevitably comes from that challenge can certainly detract from the core purpose of the exhibition – to explore and ‘showcase’ each child as an inquirer. Thanks again for your great contributions to the field!

    • sherrattsam

      Thanks, Kath. I completely agree that group-working skills need to be developed throughout the students’ school experience as part of the way they learn about both cooperation and collaboration – and, as you say, sometimes those groups are based on choice and sometimes not! My problem with the approach to Exhibition in many schools is that teachers try and get students to do things they are not used to, that have not been a part of their PYP experience up to that point – like writing central ideas, taking action or knowing the terms of the essential elements of the PYP. We have to look back at the way all previous units have been planned and taught and make sure that the PYP Exhibition is a natural extension of them… not a totally new and alien experience!

  5. Sam

    I would love to see the rubric James mentioned, can someone please repost it? We just started Exhibition at our school and as a fifth grade teacher I would like to promote the genuine collaboration model mentioned in this discussion thread. Thanks.

  6. K. Rempel

    Hi Sam,

    Glad I found your blog and this article in particular. I’ve been part of the PYP Exhibition for 6 years now at Istanbul International Community School. Our G6 is in the PYP. The structure of our Exhibition has been to provide students the chance to explore their own passion or their passion about a global issue. We have moved away from doing it as a group which I think is overall more effective. Students do collaborate in ways, through mentors and others but not so much with each other. However, I have never been able to put a finger on it but have always felt that as we reflect at the end of every Exhibition, there is always that feelings that the actions were not sustainable, felt isolated, and that there was not enough time allowed to do something truly authentic. This article has tweaked my thinking to wonder if the Exhibition unit itself could simply be a product or showcase to the greater community of a yearlong, passion project/inquiry process of each Grade 6 student. It would be more authentic, allow time for the Approaches to Learning or Trans-disciplinary Skills to be developed and time for students to create real connections in the communities we live in. Food for thought!

  7. sherrattsam

    Hi! Thanks for your comments… great minds think alike. This year, our G5 students are doing a year-long PYP Exhibition inquiry for the exact reasons you talk about – so often it is not sustainable and can end up just with kids pretending to be interested or to care about something just to get through the experience!!!

    Happy to communicate more about what we are doing this year…

    • Kevin Rempel


      I’ve been wanted to connect with our PYP Exhibition teachers for a long time, glad I found this blog! So, I’ve already put it out there to our school admin about the possibility of creating an Exhibition unit that would allow G6 students to work on it year round, as we mentioned. There is already some gentle resistance simply because the PYP doesn’t “allow” a year long unit. I’d love to see what your plan is to make this happen. Does this unit of Exhibition go on while the other units are going on as well?

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