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7 Engaging Ways to Get Your Students "Tuning In"

Every year, every PYP unit of inquiry - my brain spun with questions about what were the best or the most relevant learning engagements for each part of the inquiry cycle. Of course, it always starts with tuning in, and once I had done that well, from there the rest of the unit could take its shape.

i used to think that tuning in was about getting my students excited and ready for the inquiry and learning coming up. Now i think it is all of this but also a chance for teachers to tune in to their learners - their knowledge, passion, interests and questions.

Tuning In is a special part of the inquiry cycle because not only does it spark the engagement that will drive the learning to come, it also lets students connect with and notice their own background knowledge and informs you as the teacher about how to teach the unit. Tuning In shares knowledge of vocabulary and concepts, as well as students' interests, passions and skills, particularly in cooperative learning, research and self-organization.

Despite how amazing the phase of Tuning In is, I recall always struggling to come up with creative and engaging ways to launch each unit of inquiry. Using the same one or two engagements would be repetitive and not at all foster the love of learning I wanted for my students. So now that I've been through it enough times, best I share with my PYP teacher friends around the world 7 engaging ways to get your students tuning in.


7 Engaging Ways to Get Your Students "Tuning In"

#1 See Think Wonder

For me (and I think many PYP teachers), this is a standard Tuning In engagement. Created by HGSE Project Zero as one of their many thinking routines, it works best when it is exactly that, a routine. I don't start every unit of inquiry with it but it serves well in all subjects across the curriculum. It's super easy to apply to any topic and once the students understand the process, it's a breeze.

I particularly love See Think Wonder because I have a high population of English learners and the first phase, See, doubles as a great time to teach vocabulary and use sentence starters to let them express their ideas and prior knowledge. Think, is an opportunity to let students form and share their own thoughts and opinions about what they observed and then in Wonder, develop their inquiry skills by noting their questions and curiosities.

Real teaching example of See Think Wonder

We were in Grade 1 and just learning about the interconnectedness of living things in the Amazon rainforest. Using images from The Great Kapok Tree, students were given time to individually and quietly respond to things in the images that they noticed and could point to. Students were encouraged to look very slowly at all parts of the image they had before sharing their observations. We returned to our pictures and allowed opinions and thoughts to flow, noticing that everything in the illustration meant something and an idea was being communicated. Then shared again but this time finding talking partners. We returned to our images one last time to consider and write down our wonderings. By this time, everyone has a couple of questions - those who couldn't think of something initially were given question cards to start their sentences and were able to share their wonderings in the end as well.

An important part of See Think Wonder, other than students' deep thinking and tuning in, is the teacher questions. While students are working through this, engage with them to think a bit deeper and clarify their observations, thoughts and questions.

#2 Schema Map

I find Tuning In to be a perfect place to instill metacognition as part of our learning - always thinking about our thinking, learning and growing - right from the start.

A Schema Map works much like a KWL chart but with one HUGE advantage... a place for misconceptions! How often we think we know something, but then find out our knowledge was actually false. A schema map, especially when used with sticky notes or digital writing, allows ideas to be moved into the misconception space.

Real teaching example of using a Schema Map

When inquiring about Earth's natural cycles, we started by writing what we already knew on small notes and stuck them to the schema map. Weekly, we reflected on our learning, added new learning, remembered prior learning and moved some of our note cards to the 'misconceptions' space.

Example of a schema map in use; prior knowledge, new learning, misconceptions and what we still want to learn in a Grade 2 PYP classroom unit of inquiry
Slide modeling for using a schema map

You can get this Schema Map that I've drawn myself in my shop. It comes as a full-page print, double-page print, an image file for adding to your slides AND a slide deck for teaching it with questioning. Check it out here.

#3 Peel the Fruit

Example of Peel the Fruit thinking routine for thinking deeply as part of the tuning in phase of a unit of inquiry

Another visible thinking routine from Project Zero, but this one, like a schema map, can start at tuning in and be returned to throughout the unit of inquiry.

It's just like peeling an orange; you look at a big idea or concept within your unit just a bit at a time but end up with a greater understanding later on. The beginning of this learning engagement is during the Tuning In phase, but it may stretch into finding out or even throughout an entire unit.

I might start by introducing an idea and model responding in the skin of the fruit, then allowing time for students to respond. We'll come back together again, discover something new and discuss it collectively, then go back to our own fruit and note our ideas for "Under the Skin".

Real teaching example of Peel the Fruit

During a unit of inquiry on Sharing the Planet, we were inquiring about how our choices and actions impact the environment. We very slowly learned about Trash Island - and during that slow learning, bit by bit, filled in a Peel the Fruit graphic organizer. It worked best in small parts, revisiting it each day. We started with where our trash goes, then to what other people or animals might think about this, to developing their own ideas of what our new central idea could be.

I've drawn up my own version of a Peel the Fruit organizer as shown in the photo above. You can get your own copy in the free resource library. I usually print a large copy to use for modeling and standard pages for students. An image file is included so that you can also use it in your teaching slides.

#4 Gallery Walk

I like to take this one to the corridor. Space is helpful with students having a chance to move around and reflect without being on top of each other. You can create a collection of printed images, quotes, videos and/or artifacts for observing and responding to. Scrap paper or sticky notes are great ways for responding, each student starting with 3-5 and having the option for more as needed.

Real teaching example of a Gallery Walk

In Grade 5, our teaching team hung quotes and images from a book we would read through our upcoming unit. Students from four classes walked and responded on each page with their own ideas and opinions about the context of each excerpt. There was some discussion, but the students stayed mostly quiet on their own, deep in their thinking.

After the Gallery Walk, you have evidence of students' knowledge in their notes. Even if they are anonymous notes (which leads to more open and honest responses), it gives a clear idea of where your learners are at. Alternatively, students could individually have response pages where each is responsible to note their ideas.

#5 Free Exploration / Artifacts

Our students will do so much learning on their own if we just give them the time and opportunity. Making materials, objects and/or artifacts available for students to explore freely will have them asking questions, sharing what they already know and expressing their likes and dislikes.

Real teaching example of Free Exploration

I was part of a cohort with 3 first-grade classes and 3 additional teachers for a 90-minute block. We each set up an exploration station in a different space (including hallways) for our unit in the theme of How We Express Ourselves. The students freely explored costumes, art, videography, music, open-mic and cultural picture books. AMAZING. Highly recommend this approach to tuning in.

As a teacher, this means finding objects and setting up the space for them - but also taking notes while they explore. I find it helpful to think of my observations in terms of the ATLs being focused on in the unit and learning more about my students.🌟  This can be added to throughout the unit and is very helpful when writing reports, having conferences or looking at learning as a teaching team. I prefer mine on my iPad, but they can easily be printed as well.

#6 Group Investigations + Sharing

Rather than everyone learning about everything (which there is NEVER time for), everyone is in groups and each group learns something and then they teach each other. In the end, the class has a good overview of the unit and hopefully a spark of interest.

Something I love about this approach to tuning in is that it really focuses attention on the students and gets them collaborating.

Real teaching example of Group Investigations + Sharing

When beginning a unit about the history of schools and education, groups of students used given resources to learn about different subtopics. In six five groups, they discovered information about homework, discipline, transportation to/from school, technology and grades/class sizes from the past 100 years. After 15-20 minutes, students shared highlights of what stood out to them and any images that were useful.

#7 Unpack the Central Idea

I'm not sure I always gave this one enough attention in my earlier years of teaching, but I now see HUGE benefits from it throughout our units. By knowing and understanding the central idea, learners build meaning and motivation in what they're doing.

Unpack it!

Guess, wonder, ask, explain.

Explicitly teach the vocabulary.

Here's an example from my second-grade class during How the Word Works:

A PYP central idea being unpacked by covering up words and slowly sharing them, teaching the vocabulary and using synonyms to restate the sentence.
Teaching the vocabulary of the central idea and using synonyms to rephrase the sentence differently.

Translate the sentence so that the concept is understood by everyone in your classroom. Even if your learners speak English well, having it in their home or native languages will only consolidate their understanding. Every single time, a room of "Ahhh, yeah, I get it".

...It's more powerful than my words can explain.

Example of sharing the central idea with students in their own language.
Translations of the central idea help students to deeply understand the big ideas and concepts, even if they already speak English but have a different native or home language.

Bonus Engagement!

Once you've done a bit of tuning in, try having students guess at either/both the central idea and transdisciplinary theme.

We had already unpacked the central idea for this unit, so afterward, I had table groups use small cut-outs of my transdisciplinary theme posters along with the names of our units so far (for the same unit as above). They matched it pretty well, with lots of reasoning, debating and arguing. 🤩 

PYP Transdiciplinary Themes and Units of inquiry - how the world works, who we are, how we express ourselves, how we organize ourselves, where we are in place and time, sharing the planet. Posters and teaching ideas.

They got it, really got it. These 20 seven and eight-year-olds were really grasping the transdisciplinary themes, how they fit into their lives and why it was important to learn about them.

What could possibly make a teacher happier?


I hope this small collection of ideas for tuning in with your students to a unit of inquiry proves helpful and purposeful. When not filled with stress for teachers, Tuning In is so exciting and thought-provoking... just as inquiry should be. 🥰 

teaching through the inquiry cycle -  a blog post with teaching ideas to guide you through the phases of the inquiry cycle and transdisciplinary themes

If you're teaching in the PYP, check out the blog post, Teaching Through the Inquiry Cycle with more ideas for each phase of the inquiry cycle, from Tuning In to Taking Action. It's full of learning engagements that can fit into your unit planner.

Want more PYP teaching ideas? Like, comment and share this post to let me know.

All the best with your inquiry!

💛  Sativa

PS. Did you know that you can get an absolutely FREE teaching resource from me each month? It's true! Sign up for my monthly newsletter and get something unique, creative and beautiful for your classroom every mid-month 🥰

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