How do students learn in the IB?


Across many of our blog posts and videos, we’ve discussed how the IB is all about creativity, child-led learning, and focuses the narrative away from textbook memorisation in favour of critical thinking.

Our PYP Coordinator, Shona Gastaldi, is quite aware of the misconceptions surrounding this and she dispells here some of these myths .

Meet our Primary Years Programme Coordinator – Shona Gastaldi

Shona is a Primary Educator at heart, having received her education in this field at the University of Edinburgh. She’s spent over half a decade in the UAE teaching and coordinating international school programmes, and she has plenty of experience in the IB PYP as well, along with the Scotttish Curriculum for Excellence and English National curricula.

As SISD’s PYP Coordinator, Shona is responsible for meeting with teachers to facilitate learning and teaching, observing primary students’ learning process and giving feedback to the administration, helping teachers develop themselves professionally, and monitoring the progress of all PYP students.

Myths and Truths

MYTH: IBPYP does not have any curriculum content.

The PYP does have a flexible structure, but it would be impossible to teach students by the seat of your pants, so to speak, without any form of guiding framework. To that end, IB PYP schools are provided with a framework that is internationally accredited and benchmarked against the performance and needs of other schools. The continuum in which the curriculum is learned is also given.

MYTH: IBPYP schools do not use textbooks.

This myth stems from an overreaction to the IB’s assertion that learning is more attuned towards problem-solving rather than rote memorisation and textbook-based learning. The PYP does in fact employ textbooks as a source of knowledge, though we don’t necessarily follow them in order, we use them as a resource to enhance personalized learning and inquiry.

MYTH: Learning in an IBPYP school is only guided by student questions/interest.

The student-centric and child-led learning environment is important, just as is the focus on developing student agency and inquiry. But students won’t be able to ask the right questions if they’re not equipped with the right tools and skills, or the right knowledge. PYP schools use curriculum maps and guidelines to plan teaching and learning to give students a starting point from which to explore the realms of knowledge.

MYTH: Learning in a IBPYP school focuses on creativity and not rigour.

Yes, there is a substantial focus on creativity and critical thinking over academic rigour, but not to the exclusion of the latter. The PYP, as part of the IB continuum, embodies a holistic approach that prepares students to be inquirers, but it also asks them to be knowledgeable as well, and there are high expectations of students being able to develop both.

MYTH: IBPYP framework is the same in all IBPYP schools.

There’s a certain expectation of a curriculum having a degree of uniformity across all schools. However, the IB provides a set of common program standards and practices that are then further developed to the needs of each school. This is an important consideration for schools in regions of very different cultural backgrounds.

The International Baccalaureate Programme

The mission of the IB is as follows:

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

Every aspect of the mission statement is reflected in every programme of the IB, from EYP all the way to the Diploma Programme.

To this effect, the IB learner profile establishes what every IB student is geared towards becoming:

  • Inquirers
  • Knowledgeable
  • Thinkers
  • Communicators
  • Principled
  • Open-minded
  • Caring
  • Risk-takers
  • Balanced
  • Reflective

The Essential Elements of the PYP

The ultimate goal of the IB is to create lifelong learners who can eventually become productive, 21st-century global citizens and reflective members of society. The IB believes this is developed through the IB Learner Profile, which prepares students with a variety of hard and soft skills that will be important for the future workplace and the collaborative society that awaits us.

In the PYP, this is developed from an early age by these essential elements:


Any knowledge learned in the PYP is taken not just from a local perspective, but also a global mindset that will allow students to see the world through an international lens.

Approaches to learning

Skills learned in the PYP aren’t just for the purpose of doing better in one class or another. Every skill, from communication and collaboration to problem-solving and creativity, are developed and applied in all subjects and fields, and will eventually lead to better skills in life.

Attitudes and The Learner Profile

Self-reflection is an essential element of the PYP, and it allows students to take ownership of their own personal growth and achievements, eventually becoming lifelong, independent learners.


Learning isn’t just about getting better grades or impressing teachers. Learning is about preparing for the future, and applying knowledge and concepts for a purpose both in school and in the wider community. The IB has always wanted for learning to take place both in and out of the classroom, and the PYP is no different.

Key Concepts

Every concept learned in the PYP isn’t just limited to one subject, but represents a transdisciplinary approach that allows for holistic learning and understanding. Students don’t just go from class to class with knowledge neatly filed away for use with just Maths or Humanities, but every idea is applied evenly across all fields.

Supporting Inquiry

Key Concepts are one of the most important demonstrations of the PYP’s inquiry-based approach. They reflect how every concept is taught in a transdisciplinary, holistic way.


“What is it like?” Form reflects the fact that every concept has observational qualities that can be described and codified.


“How does it work?” Function denotes the understanding that all things have a purpose or behaviour that can be explored.


“Why is it the way it is?” Causation underlines that actions have consequences, and all things can be traced to a series of relationships with their causes.


“How is it changing?” Change is inevitable, and this concept is explored heavily in the PYP as students are exposed to how things evolve, whether it’s animals or societies.


“How is it all connected?” Virtually nothing exists in isolation. The concept of connection shows that even the smallest action has a ripple effect on things that it interacts with.


“What are the points of view?” There is no one universal perspective, and the PYP aims to instill the reality in students that everyone sees things differently, whether because of culture, upbringing, or discipline.


“What is our responsibility?” Understanding something isn’t the end of it. The responsibility to act based on understanding falls on every person, and their actions will lead to societal change.


”How do we know?” Reflection ultimately shows that no two students learn the same way, no two concepts are understood exactly the same, and no two people will come to the same exact conclusion. Reflection helps students understand how they came to understand something, and through this, they can analyse whether the foundation of their knowledge is correct.

Shona described the process of applying these Key Concepts in a hypothetical progression of learning:

“We don’t study dinosaurs, we study extinction. We don’t study French Revolution, we learn about peace and conflict. We don’t learn the Swiss cantons by heart, we learn about territories, how they are formed and how this concept is understood across the world.”

Consequences. Change. Connection. Perspective. Virtually every concept can be found somewhere in this brief sequence of learning, and it represents the essence of inquiry – for every student to ask, explore, and discover more beyond what they’re taught, and in doing so, develop their abilities to learn independently.

Furthermore, inquiry can guide learning beyond the sequence expected in the curriculum. Shona gave a real-world example of our own students in the PYP:

Grade 4 students had a unit on systems, in which they inquired into function – how things work. One student really wanted to learn more about the cardiovascular system, so the class explored this system and how it works, but they didn’t stop there, they learned how everything is connected and thus learned about the whole body. To take it one step further, they even inquired into how one event doesn’t only affect one system; we discussed the impact of our lifestyle choices and the effects of a healthy diet on the cardiovascular system, ultimately understanding that ‘human body systems are interrelated’.


The PYP supports a critical, foundational stage in the learning of every child. By employing an inquiry-based approach, students don’t just learn and absorb passively; they participate in the learning process, and along the way, they learn how to learn. This is a unique benefit of the PYP that will ensure the formation of lifelong learners, who are able to expand their own horizons and are better prepared for life beyond school.


More from Nord Anglia