Reflections from examining 2018

This season I marked 140 IB DP Biology HL Paper 2 Timezone 1 papers. It was unusual for a couple of reasons: 1) I managed to pass the qualification marking on the first attempt for the first time in six years! 2) I managed to complete my marking target within seven working days and nine days before the deadline – the first time I have managed to complete the work so quickly.

I felt that this years timezone 1 exam was very straightforward to mark. This was particularly evident in the data analysis responses where the mark scheme was much easier to interpret than I recall previous years being.

Qualification

To qualify for marking, normally there are practice scripts and qualifying scripts to mark. The practice scripts are a chance for you to view comments from the senior examining team, so when undertaking these it pays to go very slowly, really thinking about how the mark scheme applies in each question and when you have marked each question, checking your own marking against the comments by toggling on the annotations. Using this method you may become quickly aware of any small details in the comments that you have missed.

In the past when I have undertaken the qualifying scripts I have opted to mark them in bulk and then submit them in bulk, so I would only submit the scripts once I had marked all of the papers. This year, instead, I submitted each script after I had marked it. This gave me the advantage of being able to read the annotations on each of the qualifying scripts, check my tolerance and adjust my marking of each of the subsequent qualifying scripts. I think this may have been a primary reason why I qualified first time.

Student misconceptions on the paper

I marked 140 scripts and when you mark that many certain themes begin to emerge. This year worryingly a large proportion of candidates were conflating the mechanisms of global warming with holes in the ozone layer. This is not a new thing and it is a problem that I have noticed in previous years but this year the sheer number of candidates writing a confused response to the question on the mechanisms of global warming was staggeringly impressive.

In 2018, 18-year-old students are still writing that carbon dioxide creates holes in the ozone layer and this is what heats up the planet – or something similar. This needs to be addressed. A teacher or teachers somewhere must be teaching kids about the ozone layer.

Now I struggle to believe that this is the result of their biology teachers (who most likely will have studied this subject to sime depth and understand the science) and I am wondering if this is the result of colleagues in other subjects unrelated to science. We know that there is a lot of confusion about climate change in the media and that the scienitific debate is often misconstrued in the popular press. We also know that this is an issue of global importance and for that reason, other subject teachers may well address it. IB student could meet it in TOK, studies in language as well as geography and other teachers. I am wondering if there are some miseducated teachers out there who are confused on the issues of climate science and are confusing their kids. This would be a great area for practitioner research and opens up the question about the professional responsibilities of teachers who have a particular subject specialism: should teachers who are well educated on a particular topic be responsible for sharing that knowledge with colleagues who may also approach this topic in the own teaching?

(on a side note a colleague previously told me that XX and XY chromosomes were “a lie” in a discussion on LGBTQ+ issues in school).

Other misconceptions that became apparent were:

  • Candidates thought that water was an organic molecule
  • Candidates didn’t understand that DNA transcription/translation = protein synthesis = gene expression = expression in the phenotype.
  • Not understanding that linked loci are genes on the same chromosome not in the same place.

Common factual errors were:

  • Few candidates knew that glutamic acid is replaced by valine.

Working as an international teacher and wondering what to do about your pension?

When I first left the UK, I was advised by an older and respected colleague to do no more than two years of teaching outside of the UK before returning, if I wanted any hope of being able to work as a teacher again in the UK.

I am not so sure how true this advice is (I guess time will tell – I have been living outside of the UK since 2012) and it also assumes that I want to work in the UK as a teacher in the future, but it was one comment of many about the perils of leaving teaching in the UK to work overseas.

Another comment concerned pensions. This was from an older colleague, who had retired a few years previously but was continuing to work at the school in an administrative (UK sense of the word not US) capacity. This colleagues expressed shock that I could give up my UK teachers pension. I was reticent to point out that at my age at the time, I was unlikely and indeed, definitely not going to get the same pension deal from the government that teachers of his generation did. This was in 2011.

I am and always have been concerned about my financial future. Partly, it comes from my particular family background. My parents encouraged me to work from a young age (my first job was at McDonalds at 15 and I held steady work all threw 6th form and university) and they encouraged me to save. They have also reached their 70s without pensions and are still having to run their business, but that is another story.

Nevertheless, while I would dispute that it is worth making entire life choices based on the UK teacher pension (particularly in it recent forms), and would clearly stress that leaving the pension scheme should not stop anyone from leaving teaching in the UK, the comment haunted me for a few years.

Each country is different, obviously. And financial arrangements for school-teacher pensions are diverse between and within different schools.

Working in Switzerland I was paid a decent pension in line with Swiss labour law by both the schools that I worked at. I am not going to get into technicalities here, but the Swiss pension system works on their “three pillars”. Pillar 1 is the equivalent of national insurance in the UK, Pillar 2, is a private pension provided by employers and employee and Pillar 3 is the equivalent of tax-free ISA savings. The first two are mandatory and so if you are working in a school, your employer will be contributing to these. So you are covered.

In China there is no such provision for foreign teachers. So my school does not hold a pension scheme for me or pay directly into a scheme for me. Therefore if you don’t take care you could end up spending more money that you should. Clearly without a pension fund, I need to be saving for my retirement myself. although I am paid a contract completion bonus.

In addition to this, once you have had several employers in several different countries you may end up with pots of pension money all over the place. Another problem arises from the questions of how best to keep track and potentially amalgamate all these different pools.

For a long time I have wondered how I would manage the pension issue. It began to seem quite complicated and I don’t have the kind of money to pay someone to manage this for me.

And then I met Andrew Hallam. Well not quite, he presented at my school in 2015. After listening to his talk and perusing his blog I decided to buy his books. Like most of my book purchases, I wasn’t disappointed. They are a gold mine for any teachers wondering about what to do about their finances.

I’m not going to go into the details as you can read that yourself but suffice to say that the books provide a solid model for anyone thinking about retirement planning and achieving financial independence, without the need for being a millionaire and having to rely on the role of ‘expert’ financial advisers.

For any teachers who are considering working overseas and are concerned about what this would mean for their retirement and pensions as well as any teachers who are already working overseas and are wondering how to ensure that they can achieve financial independence in retirement Andrew Hallam’s books, Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat provide a lot of practical ideas that will help you navigate the murky waters of international personal finance on a teachers salary.

The Parenting Bookshelf

Through the threshold library

The parenting bookshelf

Books that I have read and that have informed my thinking as a parent. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, they have also influenced the way that I have thought about education too.

  1. A parent’s guide to raising kids Overseas (Volume 1) – by Jeff Devens
  2. Raising babies – by Steve Biddulph
  3. How to raise an adult – by Julie Lythcott-Haims – my review.
  4. Raising girls – by Steve Biddulph

Reductionism and the problem of testimonial belief

For 10 weeks in term 3 I completed an online course on “Theory of Knowledge” from the University of Oxford’s department for continuing education. As part of this course, I have to submit two assignments. The second, was due at the end of the course and is copied below. The first can be read here.

What is the reductionist position as regards the epistemology of testimonial belief? Is such a view defensible, do you think?

In this essay, we will examine the nature of knowledge and the relationship of testimonial belief to it. We will look at the problem of testimony and the various ways of responding to this problem before addressing the question above.

A summary of the structure of knowledge

Some context is necessary here. I assume that justification, truth and belief are all necessary conditions for knowledge but in and of themselves are not sufficient conditions for an agent to claim knowledge. In addition, we need an understanding of the nature and type of the justification given. Normally we would require justification to be rational and based on evidence. In order to maximise true beliefs we are concerned with epistemic rationality: rational thinking and ways of thought that lead to the acquisition of a maximum number of these true beliefs. Epistemic rationality is either internal or external. If it is internal, the agent is aware of how they formed their beliefs and can justify them. If external, the agent may not be aware of how they formed these beliefs and is therefore not in a position to justify them consciously. However, if these beliefs were formed through epistemic norms, ways of acting and thinking that likely lead to the formation of true belief, we can still claim them as justified (Pritchard, 2014). This distinction is important when we consider testimonial knowledge and I will provide some examples later in the essay.

Testimonial knowledge

Testimonial knowledge is the knowledge gained by the transmission of information verbally, through reading or other activities where an agent is gaining knowledge from another agent. We depend on testimony for forming many of our beliefs. Most of what we claim to know through formal education is acquired through testimony. The knowledge that our parents impart to us is also testimonial. Testimony is therefore central to knowledge and can be a way of acquiring knowledge (I acquired true belief X through testimony) and also a way of justifying the knowledge an agent claims (Belief X is true because I was told or I read it). For example, I justify my belief that the moon orbits planet earth because I was told this in school. I also received this knowledge through the testimony of my teacher at the time.

The problem of testimony and the responses to it.

The problem with testimonial knowledge arises from our inability to independently justify knowledge that we gain through testimony. By independently verify, I mean that we cannot verify this knowledge in most cases without resorting to some other form of testimony. For example I know that the moon orbits the earth because I was told this by my teacher but if I wish to independently verify this, I normally would have to consult a textbook (a form of testimony). To illustrate this further, I could look for other means of justification: I could call NASA to ask them to verify this is the case but this would also mean I was relying on their testimony. Without actually acquiring a telescope and making empirical observations of the movements of the sun, moon and stars and making advanced calculations I would have no way of independently verifying this knowledge without resorting to more justification via testimony.

Reductionism and credulism both try to answer this problem. Reductionism claims that testimony based beliefs will always ultimately reside on non-testimonial evidence. Or, if we are to rightly hold a testimony based belief then we must also hold evidence that is not testimony based (Pritchard, 2014). This is an epistemically rational internalist position because reductionism requires an agent to know how they formed those beliefs and be able to explain how they formed those beliefs.

The reductionist position easily applies for local beliefs, things we can verify through our own perception and perhaps through our own empirical investigations, like a preschooler learning about the world through perception and empirical experience, for example, I know what a banana tastes like from experiencing it. Reductionism gets harder to apply with non-local beliefs, where we are simply unable to empirically verify a testimonial belief, for example, my belief that the moon is not made of cheese.

Credulism offers another response to the problem of testimonial knowledge. This position holds that we don’t always need independent grounds to justify a testimony based belief (Pritchard, 2014). Instead, it claims, such beliefs are justifiably held unless there is special reasons to doubt them. This is an example of external epistemic rationality where we don’t require an agent to be able to justify how they formed their beliefs so long as they have been following epistemic norms. In this case, an epistemic norm could be that being told something by an authoritative source is one way to maximise true belief. Holding to views acquired by testimony in this way is an entirely rational thing to do.

When credulism is modified thus we can begin to appreciate its advantages. For example, most of the knowledge that we learn at school and university is taught to us by teachers or experts in a particular field. Many of the things that we may wish to independently verify, we cannot. Would we say that something we learned in school or university was not knowledge? Intuitively not. We may regard facts acquired in this way as more robust than picking something up in a pub from a casual conversation. So we can have a methodology in terms of discriminating how reliable someone might be by their level of expertise.

The problem with credulism is that it can seem to make a virtue out of not knowing but of trusting (Pritchard, 2014). Perhaps we should be more sceptical of the information that we receive, after all, teachers can often make mistakes, or be misinformed themselves (I know from my experience of being one!)

Is reductionism defensible?

We can think of both reductionism and credulism as lying on a spectrum of justification. On one hand we have the reductionist who requires that every belief acquired through testimony needs to be independently verified and on the other hand we have the credulist who accepts that so long as these testimonial beliefs have been acquired through epistemic norms then there is no need for independent verification.

The reductionist position is the ideal because it forces agents to acquire more than one line of evidence to justify a true belief. Ideally agents should be able to justify those beliefs acquired through testimony via other means, be it through perception or empirical investigation but this ideal has some serious difficulties.

Firstly the process of independent verification of every belief acquired through testimony would take an extremely long time, enough to render the exercise impractical on an individual level. If an individual was responsible for independently verifying each one of their beliefs acquired through testimony, they would not be able to necessarily maximise their true beliefs. If we try to answer this by allowing many agents to independently verify different beliefs they hold in common, we run into the problem of relying on testimony from other agents again. Thus this doesn’t seem to be an epistemically rational way to maximise true belief.

The second problem that arises from the reductionists position in that it is not always possible to independently verify beliefs gained via testimony. Should we discount these beliefs as knowledge then? It seems that if we were to ignore any beliefs that we were not able to independently verify we would miss out a large number of true beliefs and would therefore be impoverished in what we know.

The third problem is in some cases it is not necessarily appropriate to independently verify our testimonial beliefs: “it is improper to place too many intellectual demands on people’s everyday beliefs. … if the reduction is possible, requiring it is overly demanding; the requirement to reduce hyper-intellectualizes testimonial justification. Young children, for instance, lack the intellectual capacity to consider complicated issues regarding the reliability of their parents or others who give them testimonially-based beliefs, and so it is improper to place epistemic demands on them.” (IEP, 2018)

Therefore whilst reductionism offers a seemingly strong answer to the problem of testimonial knowledge, it leaves us with the more problems regarding maximising our true beliefs.

Credulism too has problems associated with it. How do we know that another agent isn’t trying to decieve us? One proxy I sometime hear people use for knowing if a written argument is well founded is that the argument contains references. This shorthand is often used in informal academic online discussions within education but what if one agent is deceitful and simply puts many references so that readers will trust them?

In reality, most of our beliefs will be justified through testimony. We should strive like the reductionist to independently verify these beliefs where possible. Where we can’t we should accept those beliefs where we can be more confident of the source of the testimonial belief. In this way, our beliefs will dot across a spectrum, where each individual belief occupies a position between pure reductionism and pure credulism.

References

IEP (2018) https://www.iep.utm.edu/ep-testi/ accessed on 26th July 2018\

Pritchard, D. (2014) What is this thing called knowledge? 3rd edition. Routledge.

Cialfo: Review

In May I published reviews of the guidance platforms Unifrog and BridgeU. I have had experience working with both these platforms as a guidance counsellor for a period of time. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to get a look under the hood of MaiaLearning and published a review of this platform in June.

Since then I have been looking Cialfo and speaking to their team and I share my review of their platform below.

Cialfo intro

Cialfo is a university guidance platform that is headquartered in Singapore and one that I first came across earlier this year in conversation with counsellors based in China. The platform is positioned to cover global university applications and is unique amongst the other platforms I have reviewed as it was founded by professionals formerly working in university guidance and with students directly. The platform grew from a team of counsellors who were initially building it for their own use. The platform was launched in 2016.

Cialfo is a contraction for “Citius, Altius, Fortius” the Olympic motto that means “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The founders wanted a name that reflected their philosophy that university guidance has to be about more than just university applications but aspiring students to push further with their futures.

The founders also wanted to solve the problem that, according to UNESCO, 100 million students will apply to university every year by 2025, but there are relatively few counsellors, and so they wanted to enable counsellors to have a deeper impact on more students.

The student side

Both students and counsellors are presented with a fully customisable dashboard when they log in. This feature allows users to fully tweak and change their user experience and is a very nice touch – I am a big fan of flexibility and usability – allowing users to have what they consider essential features highlighted immediately on their landing page.

The platform is very clean and uncluttered, with menus laid out both along the top and down the left-hand side of the page. The left-hand menu is the main menu and from it, students can access their profile, a list of running tasks, meetings, their inbox and can complete their university/college research and complete three profiler type assessments.

The dashboard is accessible under the profile menu along with an overview of the student’s applications, contact people, grades and test scores and lists of extracurricular activities.

Students can select plans that their adviser has created in the counsellor section. This allows students to be grouped by plans (if the counsellor is working with very large cohorts) but also allows the relevant information a student needs to be organised for that student appropriately.

The platform handles a range of applications to 25 different countries and allows students to manage the various parts of these different application processes. For the US applications, the platform uses a machine learning algorithm to help students and counsellors to identify, reach, target and likely schools, although the counsellor has the option to amend and change this recommendation – another nice touch.

Students can enter their grades from high school and this data will also be synced from the school’s student information system if this has been set up.

Finally, students can also undertake three different profiling assessments from Human eSources through Cialfo and these aim to help students understand their own learning styles and personalities better.

The counsellor side

The system has a left-hand main menu with each of these menu items having sub-menus that are displayed along the top when you click on the left-hand menu.

When logging in you are taken directly to students left-hand tab and a default view of all your students on the system. From here you can fully customise your view by setting several different filters: “Application Region”, “Application Type” “Current grade”. You can add more than one filter so that the student data can be presented in any way you wish. For example, you can filter by “gender” and “application region” plus others at the same time.

From this view, you are able to click directly into student accounts and can click through to the student’s pages. Here you can see all the information that the student sees and are able to edit student data directly, including setting tasks and adding in student grades and test scores. The counsellor can set meetings, add tasks, add universities along with a range of other options.

On the left hand, main menu counsellors also have the ability to send out communications to students, parents and other counsellors via the broadcast tab. This feature allows counsellors to communicate with students via text without having to give out their own personal number – a nice touch.

From the main menu, counsellors can also edit the account information and the plans that students can select as described above.

Finally, the “schools” tab on the main menu allows you to view information on all the schools in the database. Again, the filtering allows you to select the specific schools you want. Many of these schools have admissions information, presented in scattergram charts that allow you to see the range and types of applications that have been selected. This data can be shared across the entire Cialfo network, anonymously, allowing smaller schools to see what the bigger playing field may look like.

Cialfo can integrate data directly from a variety of student information systems. Once in, the student data can be synced directly between both systems.

Counsellors can use the platform to help manage student university applications; they can add and then submit documents these processes are provided by Parchment and Common Application (CommonApp) – both of these platforms are or will be integrated with Cialfo. The CommonApp clarified to the community at IACAC this year that there will be a simple integration in 2018 but the document submissions through all companies (Cialfo, Maia, BridgeU, Unifrog) will only happen for the 2019 cycle. Parchment though is seamlessly integrated into Cialfo for the 2018 cycle.

At the time of writing Cialfo have released the course information and richer college profiles for Germany, Netherlands and Canada, alongside the many other countries that they already support applications to. 

Finally, Cialfo is currently the only platform that I know of that has a regional HQ in Delhi, New Jersey and in Shanghai, and therefore has access to Chinese servers. This means that users in China do not need a VPN to access the platform and users can switch the language of the platform into Chinese. The platform also works on WeChat! Of course.

Conclusion

I really like Cialfo. Although I have not used it myself professionally, it would be a strong contender if I were choosing which platform to go with. It is clean, intuitive and really does put the counsellor in control (from what I can see).

The fact that the team who have built the platform have extensive experience working as guidance counsellors is implicit in the way the platform looks, feels and operates. This platform is really focussed with the counsellor in mind and enabling the counsellor to impact their students positively.

The platform has a peer-2-peer aspect to is aswell; data from different schools in the Cialfo network is anonymised and visible (if the school allows it to be) which means counsellors are no longer isolated in small silos but can get a handle on what the “market” is doing. The team also have a public roadmap, allowing their users to add ideas for development, comment and discuss what features need to be prioritised. In this way they are really modelling what counsellors do – collaborate. I have been surprised in my work at how collegial and helpful colleagues from different schools are and it is lovely to see this spirit of collaboration being used in this way.

Cialfo have also developed a Chrome extension for essay prompts, used by hundreds of students, parents, and counselor is a completely free Google Chrome extension that allows anyone to look up—and search—supplements from over 300 schools in the U.S and courses for colleges in US, UK, Germany, Canada, Netherlands.

Cialfo really appears to be made by guidance counsellors for guidance counsellors!