It’s not about the unit plans

Approaching a problem in a new context requires the learner to summon not only courage to trust the process, trust the self and trust others, but also trust in the insights or perhaps even wisdom learnt from past experiences. Lately I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned through years of creating meaning as a teacher, coordinator and leader in IB schools. These experiences present a valuable toolbox to think with, in addressing the needs of a programme in a new context.

Approaching the Why

As a teacher it was a shift in thinking that allowed me to trust the process of unit-planning. Back then, the act of having to plan units was considered ‘paperwork’ for a lot of my older, more experienced colleagues, and half a decade of not having to create units, I experienced an implementation dip. Ever optimistic, I struggled through the process and sought insight into why we were doing it. In those first few years, I learned more about learning and the process cemented my desire to become the teacher my students needed me to be. It was not the unit plan as a product that excited me. It was the process and the thinking underpinning the planning, which I appreciated.

Later as a coordinator my view of the programme was considerably wider, and I began to think of coherence in the students’ experience of learning in the MYP. This widening of consciousness of the student experience gave me the Why of developing units. If we didn’t co-construct units of inquiry together, and if we did not gain an overview of students’ learning as a result of this collaborative unit planning work, how might we have facilitated coherent experiences of ATL skills learning across subjects at a grade level, and how might we have facilitated coherence as students climbed inquiry vertically in our subjects?

Sometimes, it’s the scope of cognition that changes how we behave as individuals and groups.

Another shift that happened in my mind, later when I worked with the IB continuum, was the insight that teachers and students mirror one another as inquirers. We have our open-ended tasks, performance assessments of practice that we cannot reduce to simple algorithms or recipes. We design open-ended assessments for our learners with the aim of allowing them to independently direct their own journey to understanding and mastery. Understanding this idea was key to supporting how a school built its programme around Approaches to Teaching and Learning as a coherent, viable and guaranteed experience for all learners. Sharing the overview of our students’ learning (and our own) allowed for emerging insight, and later, when these insights became embedded in our use of time, insight grew into institutional wisdom.

Illustration of data to wisdom continuum by David Somerville based on a two-panel illustration by Hugh MacLeod.

The Why of something seemingly as tedious as unit planning needed a more intensive inquiry into the process of learning.

And, the coordinator is not asking for unit planning to be completed so we can have shiny unit planners and an overview for documentation. Yes, we will be meeting the practice of “Teachers collaborate to plan and design units that meet programme requirements and are in accordance with programme documentation. (Descriptor 0401-02-0100 from IB Standards and practices, Section on Learning” These planners and the overview are useful because they signify what the school guarantees for its students.

But the product is incidental, and it will change over time because our students would also change over time, and so with their learning needs. What we are really coordinating is the collaborative building of group wisdom.

The Process as Environment

As teachers in IB schools, we are educators who believe that our work and our students’ work is co-creating meaning. We know that the continuum of data-information-knowledge-insight-wisdom involves both group meaning-making and individual meaning-making.

We also know that teachers cannot learn for their students. Only the students can. (And, the coordinator cannot learn for the teachers. Only teachers can.) It is our open-ended task to create the cognitive environment for learners to interact with others and with the learning to build meaning for themselves and for the group. So we use tools like meeting protocols designed for cognition to examine student work and use the information we gain from this moderation activity to inform our planning. We design learning engagements, which allow students to investigate, plan, organize, and share learning with others. All this planning is the creation of the cognitive environment in which our learners can learn how to learn. We create opportunities for interdisciplinary thinking by deliberately planning for this sort of thinking to occur.

In the processes that we architect for learners, be it protocols for adults to collaborate or learning engagements for students to inquire, we are designing cognitive environments which facilitate learning and allow inquiry to thrive. These processes are also environments as they pose parameters as well as encourage exploration. In the process of inquiry, individuals might follow different journeys, navigating their own contextual terrains of past knowledge, a skills repertoire, varying inner resources of efficacy and tolerance of ambiguity.

As groups of teachers, we also have individual journeys. The coordinator knows we are headed to this destination: “The learning environment is the context in which learning happens, and the conditions the school designs and develops to enhance student learning experiences. The learning environment includes evidence of the school’s culture and purpose.” (IB Standards and practices 2018, section on Environment retrieved from

But that wider awareness of the process as environment is not necessarily a default insight for teachers. We might communicate it. We might surface it through a collaborative reflective gathering in which we examine our programme as it is, and our plans for taking it to where we want it to be.

Learning is Messy Work

Like classroom learning, adult collaborative learning is messy. We don’t all start in the same place; we don’t all start with the same knowledge and skills in practice. We have to co-create a process that we can trust to take us all to that shared understanding that will lend itself to concerted work toward a coherent experience for our students.

There is no one way to do all this. Coordinating the co-creation of institutional wisdom is an open-ended task in an unfamiliar situation. It will take courage to sustain a community of inquirers.

We need to be mindful in the middle of this messy work that “…knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially “actionable” knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.” (David Weinberger in HBR, retrieved 8 November from

Thankfully, the work is not a linear process like the data-to-wisdom continuum would suggest. It is recursive, and like good design thinkers, we all collaboratively must realize that with a strong stance of inquiry and collaborative reflection, we can make decisions for our action plan which maps out our destination.

Even if it will take us a bunch of spaghetti shaped trails to get there.


International Baccalaureate. Standards and practices. Retrieved from on 6 November 2018.

Somerville, D. (2014, April 28). Illustration from Learning: From information to knowledge. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from

Perera, N. (2011, May 07). Constructivism, Social Constructivism and Situated Cognition: A Sliding Scale. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from

Weinberger, D. (2010, February 02). The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy. Retrieved November 9, 2018, from

Featured photo “Piazza Bra, Verona Italy” Photo by Tommaso Pecchioli on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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