Delivering the core of the IBDP

The core of the IBDP contains three elements: Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS); Theory of Knowledge (TOK); and the Extended Essay (EE).

In week three of my course, we have been focussing on how these three elements can be effectively delivered within the school system.

This has been a challenging week for me to engage with because, whilst I know how these things are structured in my current school and although I have direct experience with all three of these elements, I am not sure how they are organised in the context I will be joining this coming August and I am not sure of the value of simply regurgitating what my current school does during the online discussion spaces.

I took to emailing new colleagues with questions and making notes to address certain points this coming August and then simply commenting on what my current school is doing.

CAS

We were asked to take a check of the CAS situation in our school by reading sections of the CAS guide and ensuring that the school has:

  • a school CAS guide for students and parents
  • a process for students to develop a CAS plan
  • a process to encourage ongoing student reflection
  • student portfolios to document reflection and completion of the seven learning outcomes
  • a method for teacher evaluation of the students’ CAS portfolios 
  • reviewed the CAS programme questionnaire

This activity highlighted the importance of reflection for the development of a solid CAS programme. Reflection is one of those activities that has so much potential to be done badly; becoming forced – “reflect now!” – which totally undermines the point of it. The real challenge for schools is to develop a culture of reflection where the community sees the value of it and understands how to do it well. Like many things it is simply assumed that teachers do it and can do it well. One ongoing focus would be to help build the habits that drive reflection. The CAS guide has some useful pointers about the elements of reflection which, as reflection is not just a CAS thing, but something that underpins all good intellectual development, should be noted by all lifelong learners.

Elements of reflection

Taken from the CAS guide:

Reflection is a dynamic means for self-knowing, learning and decision-making. Four elements assist in the CAS reflective process. The first two elements form the foundation of reflection.

  • Describing what happened: Students retell their memorable moments, identifying what was important or influential, what went well or was difficult, obstacles and successes.
  • Expressing feelings: Students articulate emotional responses to their experiences.

The following two elements add greater depth and expand perspectives.

  • Generating ideas: Rethinking or re-examining choices and actions increases awareness about self and situations.
  • Asking questions: Questions about people, processes or issues prompt further thinking and ongoing inquiry.

TOK

How is a map a master metaphor for knowledge? In the same way that the map is a representation of reality and NOT reality, What we know is simply a representation of reality and not the same thing as reality.

How can a lab experiment be impacted by the emotions of a scientist?

These were some of the questions used to introduce TOK to the coordination trainees. As I have taught TOK in the past and I am currently taking another course online from Oxford on Theory of Knowledge, I am beginning to feel like I have a bit more of a handle on this subject.

In my own diploma programme, this would ideally really be a focus as I feel that getting TOK right is the key to overall academic success in the IBDP. If students really understand TOK and see its value, not only will they become that much more engaged with their subject but learn to appraise, analyse and reflect on them more deeply.

To achieve this I would try and explore all avenues for engaging teachers with TOK. Like the adage that all teachers are language teachers, it can often be overlooked that teachers themselves don’t know what TOK is or have never reflected on the nature of knowledge in their own subjects. If they haven’t even addressed these basic steps how can we expect TOK to be integrated fully into the curriculum? We also need to recognise the one session on its own is not going to be enough. Instead we need to invest in professionals in our community and encourage continued engagement with the ideas by getting them interested in it in the first place.

Extended Essay

The extended essay is a crucial element of the core and provides an explicit opportunity to develop research and organisational skills in a tangible activity of writing 4000 words on an academic topic. It is supported by explicit teaching of research, planning and self-management skills with the school’s librarian alongside teachers. Students must meet with a supervisor three times throughout the process and students and supervisors must compelte the reflections on planning and progress form.

There are a variety of ways that schools can support the process:

  • Handbook
  • Online scaffolding of the process
  • Research skills course
  • Blocked time in the schedule
  • Hold a retreat away to complete it
  • Dedicated research and writing days
  • Have department heads play a role as experts
  • Have teachers build in time to explain the methodology of an extended essay in their subject

If students are struggling the following safety nets can be in place:

  • Internal deadlines with a cushion of time for emergencies
  • Dedicated space for students to be sequestered
  • Dedicated teacher/coordinator/counsellor to give further support
  • Backwards design with many check-ins along the way

Reflection points

  • the importance of the core in achieving the diploma
  • the importance of the role you play as coordinator in supporting the core
  • structures and activities that can build further support for students so they meet with success in the core.

The miscellaneous bookshelf

Through the threshold library

Simply a list of all the other books I have read recently that has nothing to do with education or biology. Quite often, especially during term time, I just find I need an escape from thinking about learning and teaching. Horror and Sci-Fi/Fantasy is where I tend to go. Now that I am moving to China, I have parted company with many of my books and so want to keep a record of them here.

Miscellaneous bookshelf

  1. What is this thing called knowledge? – by Duncan Pritchard. Read as part of Oxford Universities online CPD course – theory of knowledge
  2. Epistemology: Contemporary readings – edited by Michael Huemer
  3. Raising babies – by Steve Biddulph
  4. American Gods – by Neil Gaiman
  5. Neverwhere – by Neil Gaiman
  6. How the Marquis got his coat back – by Neil Gaiman
  7. Stardust – by Neil Gaiman
  8. The ocean at the end of the lane – by Neil Gaiman
  9. Anansi boys – by Neil Gaiman
  10. The rise and fall of D.O.D.O – by Neil Stephenson and Nicole Galland
  11. How to stop time – by Matt Haig
  12. Coraline – by Neil Gaiman
  13. The graveyard book – by Neil Gaiman
  14. Fragile things – by Neil Gaiman
  15. Smoke and mirrors – by Neil Gaiman
  16. His Dark Materials: The complete trilogy – by Philip Pullman
  17. Trigger Warning – by Neil Gaiman
  18. Norse Mythology – by Neil Gaiman
  19. Good Omens – by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
  20. The problems of philosophy – by Bertrand Russell
  21. Seven Storey Mountain – by Thomas Merton
  22. Seveneves – by Neal Stephenson
  23. Never let me go – by Kazuo Ishiguro
  24. Religion for Atheists – by Alain de Botton
  25. The Remains of the day – by Kazuo Ishiguro
  26. Fireflies – by Shiva Naipaul
  27. The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for living a good life without God – by Alom Shaha
  28. Raising girls – by Steve Biddulph
  29. Full catastrophe living – by Jon Kabat Zinn
  30. The moral landscape – by Sam Harris
  31. A Universe from nothing – by Laurence Krauss
  32. Nonviolent Communication – by Marshall Rosenberg
  33. The last child in the woods – by Richard Louv
  34. The Baroque cycle (3 books) – by Neal Stephenson
  35. The rational optimist – by Matt Ridley
  36. All the Evelyn Waugh novels and travel writing
  37. Game of thrones

Supporting the IBDP curriculum

I recently completed the second week of my online category 2 coordinators course.

During this unit, we discussed the scheduling and hours allocated to each of our courses before looking at and planning an assessment calendar for the DP. This exercise encouraged to look again at the assessment procedures for the Diploma Programme and begin to get a handle on not just what assessments the kids have to do and when these need to be submitted by, but also allowed us to begin to think about the administrative side and deadlines, like registering candidates for exams etc. This is an exercise that I will very much need to revisit once I have made the move to China. One of the big takeaways for me was that my intuition about bringing internal assessments backwards so that some are earlier to relieve student stress is in the right area. I may not be right in the details but the move would be one to be recommended. At this point in time, I am thinking that certain elements of the core can be assessed in DP1 – the CAS project and the TOK presentations are on my mind at the moment, but also certain subjects, like biology, can definitely be undertaken in DP1. I will need to check the school’s current assessment calendar.

We then looked through the ATLs and using one of the example planners on the ATL website we created a unit plan. This exercise was less useful for me as I have spent much of my time this year developing my units and course outlines. Personally, I think it unwise for all classes and all teachers to focus on all the ATLs. Some are better suited to certain contexts. Therefore the departments need to collaboratively map this out.

In the final section, we had to plan agendas for DP meetings throughout the year. This unit was also very useful and is another exercise that I will need to revisit this summer once I am embedded in China. I also think that it would be useful to map this out for university guidance, as there are definite areas where teachers need training – I still haven’t got communication about comments and predicted grades right at my current school.

This module was particularly useful as it gave me an opportunity to reflect on what the priorities for me will be in terms of planning for next year, specifically giving me tasks that will directly support my work as a DP Coordinator.

Reflection points

how can you best support your faculty and students to improve self-management skills such as planning and organizing time?

This takes time and a willingness to engage with individuals personally. It is important not to forget the value of face to face contact and to remember my implicit bias via the fundamental attribution error. This states that anyone (including yours truly) is more likely to judge another person’s actions as being attributable to inherent character flaws, and yet judge our own actions as due to circumstance. Thus that colleague who is always missing deadlines and turning up late is clearly flawed in some way, and yet when I am late its because I was busy.

A bit of humility then is necessary and a realisation that that colleague is probably swamped and in need of support.

I think the best way to support faculty in this way is to ensure a certain amount of regular contact (not too much – no one wants to be micromanaged). Too little contact though can lead to people feeling de-valued and overlooked.

This can be achieved by having an open door policy, and times when faculty can book to come and see you to discuss concerns, as well as regularly scheduled meetings with specific agendas.

Where does your faculty sit along a continuum of learning in relation to approaches to teaching?

This I will need to assess through survey and discussion with the teaching body – I may wish to ask teachers to reflect on their understanding of the ATTs and their attitude towards them (personally I am sceptical of some of the IB’s position on ATL) I think a proper critical reflection of these things is important.

 

 

 

My reads by year

Through the threshold library

My reads by year

A list of the all the books I have read each year.

2018

  1. What is this thing called knowledge? – by Duncan Pritchard. Read as part of Oxford Universities online CPD course – theory of knowledge
  2. Epistemology: Contemporary readings – edited by Michael Huemer
  3. What if everything you knew about education was wrong? – by David Didau – my review.
  4. Cleverlands – by Lucy Crehan
  5. Seven myths about education – by Daisy Christodoulou
  6. Making good progress? – by DaisyChristodoulou
  7. Why knowledge matters: rescuing our children from failed educational theories – by E.D. Hirsch
  8. Ouroboros –  by Greg Ashman
  9. What does this look like in the classroom? – by Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson
  10. The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh

2017

  1. Raising babies – by Steve Biddulph
  2. A brief history of everyone who ever lived – by Adam Rutherford
  3. Patient H.M. – by Luke Dittrich
  4. The Serengeti rules – by Sean Carroll
  5. Battle hymn of the tiger teachers: the Michaela way – edited by Katherine Birbalsingh
  6. American Gods – by Neil Gaiman
  7. Neverwhere – by Neil Gaiman
  8. How the Marquis got his coat back – by Neil Gaiman
  9. Stardust – by Neil Gaiman
  10. The ocean at the end of the lane – by Neil Gaiman
  11. Anansi boys – by Neil Gaiman
  12. The rise and fall of D.O.D.O – by Neil Stephenson and Nicole Galland
  13. What every teacher needs to know about psychology – by David Didau and Nick Rose
  14. How to stop time – by Matt Haig
  15. Why don’t students like school? – by Daniel Willingham
  16. Coraline – by Neil Gaiman
  17. The graveyard book – by Neil Gaiman
  18. Fragile things – by Neil Gaiman
  19. Smoke and mirrors – by Neil Gaiman
  20. His Dark Materials: The complete trilogy – by Philip Pullman
  21. Trigger Warning – by Neil Gaiman
  22. Norse Mythology – by Neil Gaiman
  23. Good Omens – by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

2016

  1. How to raise an adult – by Julie Lythcott-Haims – my review.
  2. What is the point of school? – by Guy Claxton
  3. Making thinking visible – by Ron Richhardt – my review.
  4. Aping mankind – by Raymond Tallis
  5. Getting Darwin wrong – by Brendan Wallace
  6. The problems of philosophy – by Bertrand Russell
  7. Why evolution is true – by Jerry Coyne
  8. Faith vs fact – by Jerry Coyne
  9. Seven Storey Mountain – by Thomas Merton
  10. Seveneves – by Neal Stephenson
  11. Never let me go – by Kazuo Ishiguro
  12. What is the point of school – by Guy Claxton
  13. Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End – by Atul Gawande
  14. Religion for Atheists – by Alain de Botton
  15. The Remains of the day – by Kazuo Ishiguro
  16. Fireflies – by Shiva Naipaul
  17. The Young Atheist’s Handbook: Lessons for living a good life without God – by Alom Shaha
  18. The vital question: why is life the way it is? – by Nick Lane

2015

  1. The brain at school: educational neuroscience in the classroom – by John Geake
  2. Classroom-based research and evidence-based practice – by Keith Taber
  3. Ways of learning: learning theories and learning styles in the classroom – by Alan Pritchard
  4. Pedagogy of the oppressed – by Paolo Freire
  5. Visible learning for teachers – by John Hattie
  6. Thinking, fast and slow – by Daniel Kahneman
  7. Raising girls – by Steve Biddulph
  8. Full catastrophe living – by Jon Kabat Zinn
  9. The moral landscape – by Sam Harris
  10. A Universe from nothing – by Laurence Krauss

2014

  1. Good work – by Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon
  2. Intelligence reframed – by Howard Gardner
  3. Contemporary theories of learning – by Knud Illeris
  4. Teaching as if life matters – by Christopher Uhl
  5. Nonviolent Communication – by Marshall Rosenberg
  6. The last child in the woods – by Richard Louv
  7. The sixth extinction: an unnatural history – by Elizabeth Kolbert
  8. Neanderthal man – by Svante Paabo
  9. The serpents promise – by Steve Jones
  10. The language of life – by Francis Collins
  11. Creation: the origin of life/the future of life – by Adam Rutherford
  12. Your inner fish – by Neil Shubin
  13. Life Ascending – by Nick Lane
  14. The Baroque cycle (3 books) – by Neal Stephenson
  15. The magic of reality – by Richard Dawkins

Earlier

  1. Bad Science – by Ben Goldacre
  2. Thirteen things that don’t make sense – by Michael Brooks
  3. The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks – by Rebecca Skloot
  4. The rational optimist – by Matt Ridley
  5. Quantum evolution: the new science of life – by Johnjoe Mcfadden
  6. The diversity of life – by E.O. Wilson
  7. Impossibility – by John Barrow
  8. Collapse – by Jared Diamond
  9. The self illusion – by Bruce Hood
  10. The selfish gene – by Richard Dawkins
  11. Genome – by Matt Ridley
  12. The secret life of trees – by Colin Tudge
  13. The man who mistook his wife for a hat – Oliver Sacks
  14. The Handmaid’s tail – by Margaret Atwood
  15. The Inheritors – by William Golding
  16. The Baroque cycle – by Neal Stephenson
  17. The greatest show on earth – by Richard Dawkins
  18. The song of the Dodo – by David Quammen
  19. The lives of a cell – by Lewis Thomas
  20. Fifty ideas you really need to know – by Hayley Birch
  21. The violinists thumb – by Sam Keen
  22. All the Evelyn Waugh novels and travel writing
  23. Game of thrones

What I learned about teaching biology this year 17-18

In 2016 I wrote this blog post. My answer to that question is now decidedly, yes. Content is King.

In this post, I want to explore why this is the case and outline what my ideas are now in relation to teaching biology.

The importance of content?

First, I should point out that a re-reading of my 2016 article makes me realise that I never concluded by suggesting content wasn’t king. Like all good questions, the article title helps to stimulate thought and a discussion about where we are at in our beliefs and in defending those beliefs. Really, the argument I was making was that teaching is not all about teaching content, but about teaching content AND encouraging critical thought with that content matter.

Content underpins everything. It underpins thinking. You can’t think without something to think about. It underpins understanding. You can’t understand something that is not represented as a propositional claim at a basic level. You can’t develop “skills” that aren’t grounded in some form of understanding.

When I am talking about content, I am referring to facts or propositional knowledge, statements that are thought to be true and are about the way the biological world is.

Propositional knowledge then must have primacy in teaching biology. To my mind, currently, propositional knowledge can be broken up into facts and concepts. Facts cannot be understood, they can only be known. Whereas concepts can be known and understood.

I think that to achieve deep, flexible, biological knowledge (flexible in the sense that it can be thought about in the abstract and applied in new situations) students need to achieve a conceptual understanding of the major themes in biology.

To do this they must first meet domain-specific examples. From those examples, they can then begin to pull out the commonalities to allow the mind to achieve an understanding of an abstract concept. My post here outlines how I went about this when teaching natural selection this year.

Learning domain-specific facts cumulatively builds to domain-specific conceptual understanding which accumulates in the learner being able to think in terms of these concepts and apply them elsewhere.

The importance of presenting content in the “right” sequence

Related to the idea of sequencing teaching so that we build up to conceptual understanding from specific examples, is the idea that we need to sequence teaching to avoid cognitive overload. To do this we need to think about which areas of the curriculum provide just enough challenge to engage students but not so much so they are overwhelmed.

In teaching biology, I think this is best achieved by teaching those areas with the least new propositional knowledge for the learner. Once the learner achieves mastery of this new knowledge then we can begin to add more.

In this sense, when trying to teach the understanding of the relationship of structure and function we may wish to look at studying the function first of any new example, before looking at the structures that support that function. Developing knowledge of the function of something might contain less instances of “facts” than the discrete structures that build up that function.

Once we have looked at lots of examples of, say, the relationship between surface area and diffusion, students will build up to the understanding of the relationship generally, and hopefully be able to apply this in new and novel ways.

Retrieval practice embedding content for the long-term

Drill and kill, right? Apparently not. My reading this year has convinced me that giving students the chance to practice retrieving information, not only builds their confidence that they can perform, and therefore reduces stress but also improves their ability to retrieve that information and therefore improves its storage in long term memory.

The same goes for learning the language of the subject and so now I try to begin my lessons with a fun low stakes retrieval practice activity. Low stakes in the sense that I do not record results and store them; students are not graded. For this I have prepared a deck of quizlet terms for the DP biology course and I alternate between using these or simply giving students a series of MCQ’s from last lesson, last week, last month and last term.

Interleaving & spaced practice – what might this look like in biology?

A year ago, on the Facebook AP/IB Biology teachers group, I first asked the question of what interleaving might look like in a biology course. I had been hearing a lot about interleaving during meetings and inset training from our DP Coordinator who is a Maths teacher. It seems that interleaving has been studied quite a bit in mathematics education.

When I asked the question, hardly anyone was aware of this concept amongst the biology teachers and I was stumped. I now have some ideas.

Interleaving or spaced practice is the idea that instead of learning all the content for a particular topic at once or in a set of continuous lessons, you space out the learning over time, revisiting topics over time.

In my experience, I have always taught a topic like cell structure and then moved onto the next topic, maybe membrane structure followed by membrane function – and I think that this is true of most biology courses.

In an interleaved curriculum these topics would be spaced out in time. Let’s imagine you have a 60min lesson every day with the same class, so five lessons a week. In an interleaved curriculum you may devote Mondays to cell structure, Tuesday to metabolism, Wednesday to plant physiology, Thursday to animal physiology and Friday to retrieval practice.

You would then teach the content of these units side by side over a number of weeks. It sounds a bit crazy but it has been demonstrated to improve long-term retention of learning and I am also excited by the possibility for the conceptual links you can make by teaching in this way.