Cows' hearts and Catapults

Chloe Hummel

ISZL’s Acting Principal for Grades 3-5, David Secomb, explains how the inquiry-based system of the IB’s Primary Years Programme encourages curiosity and flexible thinking

Intercultural Understanding through inquiry


Intercultural understanding is a stance of openness to multiple ways of thinking and being in the world. It is the acknowledgment of our differences as resources for our shared humanity, and our responsibility in working together to create a better and more just world (Short, 2016). Educating for intercultural understanding is a lofty goal, so how do schools go about engendering this belief in their students? What can it look like in the day to day hustle and bustle of a school? A transdisciplinary approach to learning provides one avenue.


In the early 1990s a series of educators, considering the age-old question of what school should be teaching, began to advocate for curriculum that was based on the human condition – on the examination of the common aspects that unite all learners regardless of their cultural or ethnic background (Beane, 1997; Boyer, 1995; Tye & Kniep, 1991). In the International Baccalaureate’s Primary Years Programme (PYP), this manifests as six Transdisciplinary Themes: Sharing the Planet; How the World Works; How we Organise Ourselves; Who We Are; Where we Are in Place and Time and How we Express Ourselves. In PYP schools, educators collaboratively design units of learning that encompass the descriptions of these themes. The themes are re-addressed every year through different contexts, content and perspectives and, over time, students build up powerful understandings of the conditions that bind us together as humans.


Through the units of inquiry, students study the arts, mathematics, languages, science and social studies. The discrete subjects provide powerful lenses through which to interpret the world. However, addressed separately, they do not provide the context to allow students to fully embrace the global issues that they are connected to (Mansilla & Jackson, 2011). When students have the opportunity to inquire into global issues, transfer knowledge from one content area to another and apply it to a scenario that is connected to their lifeworlds, they are able to recognise relevance in their learning (Drake, 2012). With relevance, comes engagement and by actively engaging with themes of global significance, students widen their perspectives on cultural and national diversity, which consolidates the mental models required to overcome stereotypes and prejudices that create conflict.


Transdisciplinary inquiry acknowledges competent, active, critical learners who are able to produce culture and who can attribute and share meaning of events. This stance aligns with the view that ‘children’s cognitive development is embedded in the context of social relationships and sociocultural tools and practices’ (Rogoff, 1990, pp. 8). The units of inquiry that comprise the curriculum in PYP schools are initiated by teachers, however they rarely look the same each year. It is the ideas and experiences of the teachers, students and parents that create unique learning experiences each year.

Teachers listen to and honour the thoughts and ideas of students as they develop deep inquiries. Whether this takes the form of a shape inquiry that leads into a discussion about the biological structure of a cow’s heart; a research project investigating the scientific principles behind how a catapult works; or an inquiry into the global issue of water availability, the learning benefits from engaging in the perspective of the learners themselves. Transdisciplinary learning, therefore, cannot exist without embracing the collective beliefs of the community. This provides a basis for learners to recognise the interdependence of their lives with not only their immediate community, but the wider world. It is this commitment to learning and teaching that provides the basis for intercultural understanding and a cosmopolitan ideology - one which recognises and gives its respect to humanity as a means of transcending differences between races and cultures. (Newton, 2014; Marshall, 2011).

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