Thinking About the Big Picture: PYP Exhibition


Students doing some primary research at a local school

I’ve been on holiday the last week, and it’s given me some time to think. I’ve had a chance to read some educational articles and have had time to reflect.

I’m reflecting about the PYP Exhibition…again. It’s one of those things that once you’re into it, it stays with you. The PYP Exhibition happens in the last year of students primary education in the PYP. You can get stressed about it, worrying how you are going to get everything done…which seems to be what many teachers are thinking. You can worry about your kids not being able to meet the great expectations that the PYP Exhibition seems to demand. I’ve definitely had all these thoughts. Yet, stepping away from the Exhibition has allowed me to think more about the big picture.

What is the big picture with PYP Exhibition? My inquisitive colleague, who is new to the PYP Exhibition, asked me this at the beginning of our journey. It’s a wise question. What is this all about?

For newbies to the PYP Exhibition, there’s a guide, compiled by the IB. You can read this guide and follow it step-by-step. Teacher responsibilities. Student responsibilities. Mentor responsibilities. Coordinator and parent responsibilities. But, it’s more of a “how to”, not the big picture. And, when you look at the manual the first time, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Our coordinator chose to share the manual with parents during our parent workshop, and I think most of them stared blankly at all of the lingo involved.

Ideal World

In the ideal PYP world, the PYP Exhibition is the culminating event of a primary students’ education. This ideal international student has progressed through a collaborative, critical thinking journey of inquiry throughout his/her primary years. They have a firm command of English, have explored local and global issues throughout their education and have learned conceptually with concerned, passionate PYP educators. These students can make connections and dig deeper. (Look at all of that lingo right there!)

The Real World

Many students in international schools don’t fit this mold. Many students in international schools have had a series of temporary teachers who have floated throughout their school lives, all with different perspectives on the PYP, many of them new to it. Students may or may not have a firm command of English. Many have come from other programs and jumped into a PYP system, even in 5th grade. Some students are at “international” schools that are really national schools with the PYP curriculum in place. Many students have learning challenges and need a much more guided education.

Big picture in our real world

So, the big picture in our real world for students…is a good continuing discussion. Most importantly, I believe that each school needs to sit down and discuss the students’ journey, asking some critical questions:

  • What are the students’ strengths at this school?
  • What are the challenges students at this school face?
  • Where are the students developmentally in terms of learning in the PYP?
  • What glimmers of passion/interest have students shown already during the year?
  • What kind of community is the school in?
  • What kind of resources are in the community?

The Exhibition guide is a guide and needs to be adapted based on each school needs. Yes, the IB will look at certain things regarding the Exhibition, and documentation is key. But, it’s important the Exhibition process is meaningful to the students at that particular school.

The guide does mention that the Exhibition is for and by the students, and this does need to be taken literally. Our students, for example, are very, very different than the students at my previous school. My students have had less consistent teachers; they’ve experienced a variety of people not familiar with the PYP. They live in a community very different than my previous school. Everywhere around us there is a dire need for action, and my students seem very aware of this. They want to help. They know that many people are helping.

Yet, my students struggle to find the independence to help and have never had to take responsibility for themselves and their learning. Many of them have learning challenges that make it very difficult to do online research. In a group, they have had a lot of opportunity to do nothing and let others take control.

What to do?

What we need to do is shake things up a lot next year. Next year, we need to evaluate the group and their different learning needs. We need to use the community as an incredible resource and if the students continue to want to take action, make this the focus. We need to allow for a transdiscplinary theme that gives freedom for the students to move into the community and to use primary sources as their main focus. We need to reconsider “groups” and how they are formed. We need to allow for individuality. All teachers and coordinator need to be on board. We need to ask questions about ourselves, our students and the environment.

What has been so frustrating this year and yet illuminating is watching everything unfold. I’ve been able to see what happens when you repeat the same ideas from year to year. I’ve seen what happens when action is not taken on reflections from previous years, and from what happens when you don’t really listen to your students…their interests, strengths and challenges.

Playing games with some local school children during PYP Exhibition

Playing games with some local school children during PYP Exhibition

Illuminating…and not to be repeated. Frustrating as I’ve watched students with passion be squashed into a group mentality, slowed down or speeded up due to the group. I’ve watched as some have hand-fed their students research because we have to “cover” a historical standpoint. I’ve watched as students, who have huge learning struggles, be fed a script to memorise so they can perform. Frustrating as I’m trying to grasp on to my group’s passion for action before we get swallowed up in preparing for the final “performance.”

I’ve watched groups trying to all research together and getting angry as some aren’t pulling their fair share. Frustrating as I talked to 2 students recently…one who went through Exhibition at another school and one from our school. The one from another school loved it and talked enthusiastically about her passion and what she learned. The one from our school hated it and talked about how much work it was and how behind they always were.

The Big Picture

So, what is the big picture in Exhibition? In answer to my colleagues question, it depends on where we are in place and time. Ironically, that’s the theme for this year’s Exhibition. As a school, we need to use the Exhibition as a reflection on teaching practices and support these students better throughout their primary years. Then, when they get to grade 5, we need to really assess our students, listen to them. Listen to where their hearts and brains are and go from there. When doing so, we need to keep in mind all ….. aspects of the PYP: the knowledge, skills, attitudes, learner profile and action. We need to give enough breathing room, not so we have enough time to prepare for the final presentation but so students and teachers can explore.

The big picture is that it’s about the students. Listen to them. Care about what’s going on around us. Question everything. Act on it. The Exhibition should be a fun journey where everyone is breathing, learning and growing.

Let’s keep discussing more ideas on #pypchat #pypx on Twitter. Check out the PYP Exhibition Weebly at also and add to it. Keep thinking about the big picture.


2 thoughts on “Thinking About the Big Picture: PYP Exhibition

  1. I agree with a lot of what you have shared here, especially the comparison between the ideal and real worlds. I see a critical need to see the real world for your kids and ask those very questions about their strengths, passions, challenges and even the surrounding community. Then a look to the exhibition as a guide to how it can be used to create a framework for your students to succeed. This brings a kind of flexibility that is synonymous with inquiry learning. We are about to embark on our exhibition at TKS and we are trying some new ideas. I hope to take these thoughts through the exhibition and to the reflection piece.
    Good luck,


  2. I am a secondary teacher with a son in Grade 5 at an International school. I feel that the Grade 5 exhibition is a too big idea for the 5th graders who are not equipped to do so due to their stage of development. This causes high levels of stress which can undermine their love for learning. Yes, it should be built up throughout the PYP years as a crescendo to avoid the stress and to naturally engage the kids. So far, and in the schools where I have taught I have seen it appearing as a time slot in the 5th Grade shorter than a 10th Grade Personal Project yet comparable regarding the demand.

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