Where is the evidence for your ideology?

The International Baccalaureate® aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. – IBO Mission Statement.

As I outlined in this post, I am an IB educator who really believes in the mission of the IB. I believe in developing inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better world. I think these aims are laudable and, with enough schools, teachers and families on board, achievable.

However, as I have reflected on my own practice over the last few years I have begun to question some aspects of the IBs ideology. In this post I want to examine the IB’s approaches to teaching. These “main pedagogical principles that influence and underpin IB programmes” are:

Fairly innocuous? Why write a post that is critical of these statements and principles? Well, there is one general reason and some specifics which I will come to.

My problem with the approaches to teaching in general is the following: The IB is the only awarding body offering a truly international curriculum. There are others; IGCSEs spring to mind, and of course, some international schools do offer national curriculums but the IB really is one of a kind in the sense that it is the only qualification awarding body, that I know of, that is not rooted to a national system and is found in schools, both private and public, countries all over world. It has no competition.

The ITT that teachers from different countries and from within countries will vary widely. For example my school-based training, via the GTP, really offered nothing academic – no explanations or reasoning or evidence for why teachers have to plan their lessons a particular way – it was essentially a check sheet of fadish skills that I had to demonstrate I was doing. When I converted this to a PGCE I was motivated by a desire to get to understand the theory behind teaching. I have since come to reflect that those theories I was exposed to had little to no evidence to support them.

As someone who has completed a science degree and masters, when my someone explains a theory to me without evidence, it just translates into my mind as an idea, an unsupported hypothesis. And this is what the great many “theories” in education circles appear to be, whether you are talking about Vygotsky, Piaget, Freire, Bloom, Bruner or many others, ideas without evidence, or if they have evidence it is low quality, small-scale or anecdotal.

The IB admittedly was founded in the era when some of these ideas were being taken up seriously:

From its beginnings, the DP has adopted a broadly constructivist and student-centred approach, has emphasized the importance of connectedness and concurrency of learning, and has recognized the importance of students linking their learning to their local and global contexts. These ideas are still at the heart of an IB education today. – ATL website

But now the tide is changing and I wonder if the IB is willing to keep up with that. Robust, evidence from cognitive science is seriously beginning to shine a light on what works. Even better some of this evidence is being triangulated not just from laboratories but from classroom studies as well.

My general concern is, therefore, this: if national ITT systems vary inter- and intra- nationally then the IB has to do something to help get all its teachers on the same page. Becuase it lacks competition it also has quite the sole market on influencing the teachers of its programs. It must make sure that the teaching methods it advocates are backed up on solid evidence, not just on what feels good socially and culturally or what is simply a la mode.

Now to my issues with specific approaches to teaching:

A focus on inquiry

A lot has been written about the effectiveness or not of inquiry-based teaching and learning. The debate rages on but essentially some of the arguments against inquiry-based teaching are:

  1. It is inefficient – students simply cannot learn as much knowledge in the same amount of time as they can from guided instruction.
  2. It is inequal – students who have knowledge richer home lives bring far more to the table than their knowledge deficient partners (just think about EAL learners in that context for a minute).
  3. It generates misconceptions – students can easily discover wrong-knowledge which can be very hard to dislodge and unlearn.
  4. It can lead to the illusion of knowledge – this is when students think that they know something but lack deep understanding of the content.

Concept-based teaching

Is great so long as you teach the right concepts and don’t make the unproven assumption that skills and knowledge can simply transfer from one domain to another. They can’t. Skills are context and domain specific. Concepts are domain specific. We should focus on domain-specificc threshold concepts, which requires careful planning on a content rich curriculum. Once you know the content that needs to be taught then you can identify the threshold concepts in your curriculum and plan your teaching interventions appropriately. The arbitrary lists produced for the MYP nor the self-imposed “essential ideas” of the DP biology curriculum, which forces teachers to lump certain knowledge together, in what may not be the most appropriate way, will do.

Differentiation

The black art of teaching. There are so many issues with this I don’t know where to start. On one hand, you lower the boundary for some students, therefore making a value-based, subjective decision about what a student can achieve and potentially limiting their potential, on the other, school management have carte blanche to drop any student into your class and expect you as the classroom teacher to “differentiate” even if that student doesn’t speak English.

Yes, we are all individual and unique but as David Didau points out, so are snowflakes and those differences mean nothing when it snows. The fact is we all learn in broadly similar ways and we all have broadly the same ability. Differentiation assumes that ability is the cause of differences in what students learn in the classroom but it may well be that ability is the consequence of the student’s classroom experience. Therefore if you lower the bar, overtime you lower their ability.

Differentiation to the point of tailoring learning engagements for individuals students is a huge workload issue for teachers and at what opportunity cost? There also appears to be no evidence for the efficacy of differentiation, even some that may suggest it has a negative impact.

For more information see chapter 22 of “What if everything you knew about education was wrong?” by David Didau.

Biology EAL Resources

General Bio EAL teaching resources

Quizlet deck of 100+ suffixes and prefixes

Suffixes and Prefix list supplied from comments in this post

Suffixes and Prefix list supplied by Gretel vB

IBDP Bio Reources

 

 

This much I know about EAL teaching

In my view, biology is a subject that is largely about language instruction. Of course, this doesn’t mean, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Yes, of course, there are facts and concepts that need to be learned and understood but, at its heart, it is a subject concerned with language acquisition.

And just like French, it is full of irregular verbs.

Personally, I remember the challenge of all the new vocabulary of the subject at A level, as being something that attracted me to it; I had the impression that by learning all these new words I would be entering another higher plane of existence.

So just imagine what this vocabulary is like for a new student, stepping into this level of biology and operating in their second or third language and perhaps with a very limited exposure to schooling in English. I am always surprised by the number of other adults, parents and administrators, who don’t seem to see this.

Parents, particularly, seem surprised when I bring up the issues of academic language acquisition

I have had some amount of experience teaching students who have started the subject with no English or very little English and this post will outline what I understand about teaching them today I fully recognise that  I am no expert.

James Cummins: BICS & CALP

My first foray into the realm of EAL teaching brought the work of James Cummins to my attention. To summarise, Cummins’ work postulates differences between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP).

Essentially, the former can be developed over a relatively short period of time (1-3 years) and is the language of peer culture. Children who have developed BICS may well sound fluent and indeed can communicate on a level using common everyday terms and phrases with their family and peers. The latter can take much longer, 5-7 years, and once developed allows the individual to think, manipulate and utilise complex academic concepts mentally. They can think with the language and they can think in very abstract terms.

It seems to me that the work of Cummins suggests that schools should resist simply placing older EAL students into secondary subject-specific classes and hoping that they will catch up. This may work with students going into grade 6 and 7 classrooms but could actually retard students progress in grades 9 and up.

Obviously, in the international context, students may well keep joining older classes (I once had a student who joined grade 10 directly from school in Israel. She has never been taught in English and yet was expected to just catch up in grade 10 biology) and so we can’t reasonably say don’t come to school. But the approach of some managers seems to be that students will just pick up the language.

These students need intensive English instruction first (if that is the language of instruction of their academic subjects) using methods that have been shown to have the largest effect size. Strategies in this category have the best hope of bringing the students learning forward faster and thus the best hope of bringing the time for students to acquire CALP down.

Isabel Beck: Tiered Model of Vocabulary Aquisition

More recently I have come across the work of Isabel Beck whose model of vocabulary acquisition places words into three categories:

 

  • Tier 1: These are the common, everyday words that most children enter school knowing already. Since we don’t need to teach these, this is a tier without tears!

  • Tier 2: This tier consists of words that are used across the content areas and are important for students to know and understand. Included here are process words like analyze and evaluate that students will run into on many standardized tests and that are also used at the university level, in many careers, and in everyday life. We really want to get these words into students’ long-term memory.

  • Tier 3: This tier consists of content-specific vocabulary—the words that are often defined in textbooks or glossaries. These words are important for imparting ideas during lessons and helping to build students’ background knowledge.

 

In biology instruction, it is the tier 3 words that all students are going to struggle with initially, but EAL students may also be lacking a good number of tier 2 words, which will make their comprehension the tier 3 words that much limited as these words often provide the context for the tier 3 words.

For example this year I can think of the words “coolant” and “yield” that came up as not being known by my grade 11 students. Many of these are students raised in English speaking families but have been attending Swiss public schools up until the start of grade 10 or 11. These aren’t words that come up in everyday conversation but are used across academic domains.

I am relatively new to the idea of Tiered vocabulary but it does seem, on first impressions, a useful way to think about words that EAL students may or may not have and to plan to help students bridge that gap.

Perhaps, one wider school aim could be to map out the tier 2 words that are common across subjects. Once a working list is compiled then students can be assessed for their knowledge of these words and interventions put in place.

Strategies

  • Identify and pre-teach complex vocab (tier 3 words) before starting the unit (I use Quizlet “learn” for this)
  • Get to know your suffixes and prefixes so that you can explicitly model your understanding of the terminology to students.
  • Keep new words on the board, clearly visible to students to use in their thinking, speaking and writing.
  • Encourage more reading and writing in your classroom. Encourage students to constantly use the new terms that they are being exposed to.
  • Use a reading age analysis to examine the tests and exams that students in your class are likely to sit – what is the level? What is the English reading level of your EAL students?
  • At the start of the course give students lots of opportunity for guided reading, ask students to identify words that they don’t know and keep a running list. Provide explanations for these words.
  • In line with the above, continue to identify Tier 2 word gaps in your student’s knowledge through reading exercises.
  • Perhaps try to list out common tier 2 words in your subject (this would take time) and compare with other departments. Check students understanding for these.

Moving on, handing over: 2

This post continues from yesterday’s post.

Working with colleagues

For any guidance department to be successful it needs, like all good teachers and their departments, to not work in a silo.

Getting colleagues on side is hugely important. In a culturally diverse staff body, many colleagues bring very different sets of values which colour their view of guidance. It is essential that guidance counsellors work closely with teachers; by understanding the educational heritage and philosophy of colleagues we can best ensure that the team works together to support students supported by a common understanding and vision.

Specialist colleagues are involved either officially or unofficially with the administration of the guidance program and I make a point of sharing thanks for this support by highlighting the efforts of particular colleagues with the SLT.

The English teachers and teachers of other languages are well placed to offer support in writing techniques, although it is important that they understand the aim of the different types of writing that different university applications require.

Counsellors I have spoken with have sometimes said that they don’t like involving English teachers because they can give conflicting advice. I think that this is a mistake. The English teachers I know and have worked with in the past have much stronger skills than me when it comes to coaching students writing. With proper time for discussion, collaboration and planning any differences in opinion and outlook can be adjusted for and the team can work on the same page.

The development of writing skills is important but staff can be involved in helping to prep for interviews also. In actually delivering mock interviews I have relied on a variety of staff as I feel that the most beneficial effect is gained for students when they interview with someone that they don’t know. I have also used the drama teachers to coach students on body language.

The real challenge for the school here is getting these relationships formalised. This is a priority, as the teachers who give up their time to plan and deliver support to students need to recognised and compensated for this. It isn’t fair to simply expect them to take this on.

Another aspect of working with colleagues comes with getting them on-side to understand the procedures involved in making and supporting university applications.

All teachers support university applications by supplying written comments and predicted grades for the subjects they teach. The school needs a policy for making predicted grades which must be clearly articulated to and understood by teachers so that the team is predicting grades in the same way.  In the same way, teachers need to understand the timeline and process that their students are involved in. In an international school, students may be applying to many different university systems, each with their own nuances. It is helpful if teachers have some understanding of that. One of the most unhelpful things that a well-meaning teacher can do is to continually offer an extension to deadlines for students.

Teachers need to understand how their comments are used to help the counsellor construct a reference and to understand what makes these comments different to a report. Generally, they must be positive and evidence-based. It doesn’t escape my notice that teachers, often, could do with support from the English department in terms of structuring their writing (PEE/A; SEX; Claim, Warrant and Impact).

Finally, in some cases, teachers may be called upon to write full references. The processes for this and requirements for the writing need to be carefully explained and understood.

Finally working with colleagues, also includes organising the transcript production process and having some input into the production of the DP handbook and making sure that the information within it aligns with the guidance handbook.

Working with outside organisations

Ultimately the role of the guidance counsellor is about working with organisations outside of school: universities.

I once heard a Head tell a conference that that role of the guidance counsellor was 50% in school and 50% out of school.

Our work involves liaising with universities, of course, but this can take many forms.

Firstly university visits. These require planning within the school, to agree a suitable place and time that visits can be generally held. Currently, we try to avoid clashes with lessons and encourage universities to visit at lunch or after school.

If I had more time, I would love to allow these visits to include a tour, perhaps the observation of some teaching (this has gone down well in the past) as well as the delivery of the universities presentations. I feel that this goes a long way in building a relationship with that institution, and allows them to better understand our particular context.

I also make a point of reaching out to universities after I have met them at conferences after our students have applied to them, and after students receive an offer (or not). Again, this keeps the lines of communication open and helps to build more of a relationship with your partner on the other side of the desk at that institution.

In terms of non-university institutions, we are currently using BridgeU and UniFrog as platforms to help students do their research and plan their applications. I have been planning to write a comparison of the two all year, and I hope to get this published soon. It has been useful to get feedback from students regarding the two programs.

We also work with Inspiring Futures and use their Futurewise and Career Investigator programs to support our career guidance programs in grade 9 and 10.

To improve

What would improve this guidance program and help it meet the aims of formatively developing our students?

Well, a couple of things.

I think to start some of the skills, like CV writing, earlier, in grade 8 for example, would help students begin to think about what how they can maximise their final four years in school to really develop themselves. Once students are introduced to the concept of a CV and, perhaps, realise that they haven’t got that much on there, yet, they can start thinking about what they can do to get stuff on there. The caveat here is that is isn’t about getting stuff on the CV its training kids to think about what they learn, about themselves and the world, from the activities they do do.

I think also that relationship with colleagues who support the department; teachers who help with writing, for example, need to be formalised, recognised and given the space to commit their working time to this, otherwise, apart from the risk of overburdening already busy teachers, you are effectively running a program on good-will and favours which can’t last forever.

Moving on, handing over: 1

Making the decision to move on is not easy. Particularly when you have spent the last four years building a program from scratch. It has been a fascinating ride, and I have learned so much in the process, not just about guidance counselling, but also more generally about working with colleagues and about wider school aims and objectives. I still have a lot to learn and I could certainly still do more in my current post but at least there is a skeleton of a program. I leave it to others to add meat to the bones.

In this post and the next, I thought I would prepare my handover notes to a colleague who will be taking over my role when I move on to China. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in the last few years and to think through how things might be improved.

I have created the concept map below which I think neatly covers the different aspects of this diverse role and reflects how I have broken up the role in my mind as I have developed the program at my current school.

Download (PDF, 1.64MB)

Aims of School Guidance

School guidance programs should support the wider aims of the school’s mission and vision, of course. To this end they should be developed to maximise the formative development of the young people they serve. In practice, and in conjunction with other departments within a school, this means helping students to think about and plan for their futures as well as develop writing and conversation/interview skills among others. When implemented well they can help catalyse students into gaining more from their school life by becoming active members of the school community.

Working with students

The most obvious point of interaction for a guidance counsellor is working with the students in the school. I recognise that different schools have different ways of organising their programs, depending on their specific context but there are particular tasks that I believe schools should channel through their guidance counsellors.

In my context, I have developed a program that focusses on “career” education in grades 9 and 10 (Y10 & 11). In practice, this means that we focus on interventions for students that will expand their horizons in terms of the jobs that are available to them. For example, many students (if not all) have heard about doctors, and have some idea of what they may do professionally – normally they have all been to one. But many students are unaware of the other professional routes in healthcare like physiotherapy, radiography, biomedical research, nursing, paramedic science. The aim of our program in these early grades is to expand students knowledge about these topics.

The Future-You festival (FYF) acts as a focal point for this with other activities interspersed throughout the year as shown in the following table.

Grade 9Grade 10Grade 11Grade 12
Career Investigator (Delivered as part of the FYF)Futurewise Career Profile Futurewise if not completed in grade 10University Application support
Future-You festivalFuturewise Career Discussion & CV writing workshop (as part of FYF) Persuasive writing workshopsPersuasive writing workshops
Future-You festivalFuture-You festivalInterview skills training including body language
IBDP subject choice guidanceUniversity & Career researchFinancial Aid application support and post offer decision support
Individual meetingsIndividual meetingsIndividual meetings

This “career” education aims to engage students with research and thinking about their future. We hope that by doing this, students may be better informed when making their subject choices in grades 9 and 10, particularly with an understanding of how the subject choices for the Diploma impact on the options they have for further study.

Once students move into the Diploma program we aim to help them successfully research, apply and enter a university that it is a good fit for them.

In grade 11 we provide online tools to help students identify these options and this is supported by two whole grade workshops in term 1. From January we move to individual meetings (usually one every three weeks) supported by three whole grade workshops in term 2 and three in term 3. These workshops (add link), supported by the English department, focus on helping students develop solid persuasive writing skills that they can use in their personal statements or motivational letters.

Finally, in grade 12, we support students with their applications – it is surprising how long it takes a young person to fill one of these in! We continue with individual meetings and block out deadlines to help students manage the process. As part of the FYF we coach students on interview technique and body language, as well as give each student mock interviews to help them prepare for the requests that they get. Grade 12 reaches fever pitch around December as we push students to have everything prepared early, but students still need ongoing support and help with replying to offers and dealing with any potential fall out on results day.

Working with parents

Alongside working with students we strive to provide support to parents as well. This often comes in the shape of face to face meetings to discuss concerns or specific questions that families have. Questions can vary widely and depend, in the international context, on what the families own paradigm and passports are.

We also run presentations and information sessions for parents which we also normally open up to the wider public. These vary in content but we currently run one a term. This year in term 1 we held an introduction to Dutch HE following on from my tour of Dutch Universities. In term 2 I provided an information session on applying to a range of different university systems.