Using Hexagon Thinking to Explore IB History Concepts

Mar 21, 2023
Author Kevin Nielsen

Kevin Nielsen History Subject Leader

It is common for teachers, when teaching a new syllabus, to focus on the content that they will be teaching. This holds true for IB teachers as well. Many teachers new to IB History go straight to the syllabus content and start planning out their prescribed subjects and 20th Century World History Topics.

When the IB History syllabus changed in 2017, I was guilty of this too. I wanted to see the prescribed subjects that would be replacing what I taught (the Peacemaking, Peacekeeping, International Relations 1918-36 option) and how different the Internal Assessment would look. Perhaps a more fundamental change was the inclusion of conceptual understandings to the IB History syllabus.

With the 2017 syllabus, the IB included six concepts that underpinned the teaching of history: perspectives, change, continuity, causation, consequence and significance. These six concepts are prominent throughout the IB History curriculum and provide the foundation for the skills that we teach and the way in which students are assessed.

Hexagon thinking

I have been looking for alternative ways of assessment. As IB teachers, while it is important to familiarise our students with IB-style questions and past papers, this constant drilling can become tiresome. A favourite teaching website of mine is Cult of Pedagogy, and this article about hexagon thinking got me excited to adapt it for the IB History classroom.

The idea is to put an event or idea onto a hexagon and then try to link these ideas together to form connections. Because you are using hexagons, you can connect up to six events or ideas to each hexagon. Once these ideas have been linked together, you then have students explain the connections that they have made.

This activity has direct links to the concept of causation, as you are asking students to explain the connections and also to judge their effect. You could also link this activity to significance. The great thing about this activity is that even given the same terms, students will come up with any number of connections.

The logistics of hexagon thinking

Step 1: Choose terms

The first step for this activity is to choose 12-15 terms that you want your students to connect. These terms can be individuals, laws, events or anything historical. Alternatively, you could have students come up with their own terms.

Step 2: Sort hexagons

Students then put these terms into each hexagon and sort these hexagons to show the relationships and connections between the terms. Students could either do this entirely on a Google Slide or you could print hexagons out beforehand and have the students arrange their hexagons paper.

Step 3: Find connections

After students have arranged the hexagons to show the connections they found, they will place arrows next to their most complex connections (in chronological order).

Step 4: Explain connections

In step four, students should explain the connections they made, ensuring the terms they connected are used in their explanations.

Step 5: Gallery walk and debrief/discussion

As the final step, it is always useful to have students debrief and participate in a ‘gallery walk’. Gallery walks allow students to see other possible connections that have been made. It makes any discussion afterward much richer.


Here is an example for IB History. This is taken from Prescribed Subject 2: Conquest and its impact, Case Study 2: The conquest of Mexico and Peru (1519-1551).

Step 1: Choose terms

First, we place the terms into the hexagons:

Step 2: Sort hexagons


Step 3: Find connections


Step 5: Explain connections


Step 6: Connect Concepts (Optional)

Now is the opportunity to bring back the concepts in the course. Are students able to link the History concepts of perspectives, change, continuity, causation, consequence and significance to their diagrams? Where are they able to identify these within their diagrams?

This hexagonal thinking activity is a great way to begin to look at the IB History concepts; moreover, it allows for teachers and students to move away from focusing solely on past paper questions. When looking at the IB Approaches to Learning skills, it focuses on critical thinking and communication (when you have students work in groups).

It could also be used in a number of different ways. You could use hexagons to help with the organisation of essays by having students cluster different groupings of hexagons together to help them categorise terms and events (especially with “to what extent” type questions). This alternative use of hexagonal thinking would help avoid narrative essays.

Unit planning with ManageBac

Within unit plans it is possible to activate a dedicated area to record the teaching of Concepts. This can be done in the IB Diploma Curriculum Settings.

Task Units

About the Author

Author Kevin Nielsen

Kevin Nielsen
History Subject Leader

Kevin Nielsen is the Subject Leader responsible for our ManageBac History Subject Page. ManageBac Subject Pages offer a collection of curated, subject-specific resources to support best practices in teaching and learning. You can access Subject Pages via your ManageBac account – check in regularly for new materials, advice and ideas.

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