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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Career Investigator (Delivered as part of the FYF)
Futurewise Career Profile
Futurewise if not completed in grade 10
University Application support
Futurewise Career Discussion & CV writing workshop (as part of FYF)
Persuasive writing workshops
Persuasive writing workshops
Interview skills training including body language
IBDP subject choice guidance
University & Career research
Financial Aid application support and post offer decision support
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.
I am an IB educator and I believe in the mission of the IB. When I first started teaching the DP I loved the fact that it gave students a broad education, didn’t narrow down their options, allowing room for changes in future interests and personal directions. Perhaps as someone who took three science A Levels, it reflected a choice that I wish I had had, particularly working as an adult in a society where scientific illiteracy is perfectly acceptable but cultural illiteracy is not!
I loved the fact that while each individual subject may be a little lighter than an A Level (thinking specifically about the sciences here) they still maintain rigour and the challenge to students of taking six subjects plus TOK (which is another subject in its own right), an extended essay and their CAS program is no mean feat.
So, as an international educator and somewhat of an IB ideologue (at least in terms of the mission statement, not so much the ATLS), why would I write a post that is critical of the MYP?
What is the MYP?
The MYP is the International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Programme and as such is the foundation or preparatory course for the Diploma Program years. It can occupy either 2, 3, 4 or 5 years of Secondary schooling with the final two years being in Y10/Y11 or G9/G10. It is one of three programs offered by the IB: the Primary Years Programme, MYP and Diploma Programme.
It is a curriculum framework that has eight subject groups which aims to provide a “broad and balanced education for early adolescents.”
My experience of working with it has been as a Biology teacher, working within the sciences subject group, teaching grades 9 and 10 in a K-12 school that offers the IB’s PYP, MYP and DP. The course I have built is based on the eAssessment curriculum, more on that later.
The MYP model
The guide for the MYP states:
“The MYP is designed for students aged 11 to 16. It provides a framework of learning which encourages students to become creative, critical and reflective thinkers. The MYP emphasizes intellectual challenge, encouraging students to make connections between their studies in traditional subjects and the real world. It fosters the development of skills for communication, intercultural understanding and global engagement—essential qualities for young people who are becoming global leaders.” (Sciences Guide For First Use January 2015 pg 2)
The model above shares many similarities with the DP model: in the centre, we have the IB Learner Profile surrounded by the ATLs and the MYP concepts and global contexts. These concepts and contexts provide a way of enabling interdisciplinary learning – a major feature of the MYP – thus one of the units in science may be built around the concept of systems, a concept that may be shared with another subject group. The aim of using concepts is to help students to make links between the different subjects that they are studying.
In delivering the MYP teachers are given a framework and a unit planner. They are told what concepts and contexts to teach (they can choose from a list of predetermined) but not what content to teach. This leads it open for teachers to construct their own units tailored to local contexts – on the surface an exciting prospect. I think teachers who love the MYP are initially drawn to this aspect that allows freedom and creativity.
While this is true, I worry that as individuals we suffer from a huge number of cognitive biases that may make us think we know, from our experience in the classroom and our own interests, what is the most appropriate content to cover but may, ultimately be wrong about this.
Effects on learning
The first thing that you notice about teaching the MYP, is that there is no curriculum content. While this is laudable for some reasons, I have grown to deeply distrust the MYP’s ideology for this for the following reasons:
The IB has a prescribed list of what I consider to be fairly debatable concepts. So as a biology teacher my units will focus on relationships or systems or change. Now there is nothing wrong with these concepts per se, and I can see why they are used: to try to build interdisciplinary connections.
However, they feel a bit arbitrary. Why should these be concepts that relate to and define the sciences and why do they take precedence over other concepts like information or energy for example?
The selection of general concepts assumes that students can easily build concepts from subject knowledge and transfer these concepts from one domain to another but this flies in the face of evidence from cognitive science.
We know from cognitive science that before learners can generalise a concept they need a good store of domain-specific content (facts) in their long-term memory. Once they have built this, then they can begin to develop domain-specific conceptual understanding. Only once they have mastered this can they transfer that knowledge from one domain to another. For more information on this see Dan Willingham’s “Why don’t students like school?”
It is important to note that this takes years! Is it entirely appropriate to take this approach to a curriculum for middle schoolers who are still very much novices when it comes to knowledge and learning?
Novices vs Experts
As noted above the IB assumes that novices learn in the same way as experts; it is what underpins the assumption that you can have an interdisciplinary, concept-driven curriculum.
But the IB also assumes that novices learn in the same way as experts by encouraging students to learn from doing and teachers to set up their classroom inquiry in ways that reflect what experts do.
In MYP science we see this with the criterion B and C assessments and the following guidance:
“In every year of MYP sciences, all students must independently complete a scientific investigation that is assessed against criterionB (inquiring and designing) and criterionC (processing and evaluating).” – MYP Sciences guide
This requirement reflects the philosophy that, when it comes to science at least, students learn best when acting like scientists. Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that developing a solid understanding of the scientific method is very important for students. I am just not convinced that having students carry out their own investigations is the best way to achieve that aim. Domain-specific novices do not think or learn in the same way as experts.
Many authors have written about the effects on knowledge-rich curriculums and their effects on reducing inequality in society (See Daisy Christodoulou’s “Seven Myths About Education“, Lucy Crehan’s “Clever Lands“, and E.D. Hirsch’s “Why Knowledge Matters“). By ensuring a knowledge-rich curriculum schools are able to impact children from impoverished homes to ensure that they are able to become fully engaged citizens when they are older.
Children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to have access to books at home and are less likely to be exposed to as many words and ideas in the family home as children from higher income families. This means that schools that serve them must impart the knowledge that will enable them to have a chance of becoming active members of society. In Why Knowledge Matters, E.D. Hirsch explains this at length and I am not going to go further into this here except to say that to my mind, by not imparting a knowledge-rich curriculum the MYP undermines the IB’s wider mission statement. How can the IB aim to create a more peaceful world, if it produces a curriculum model that can be shown to increase inequity?
The MYP can be tested through the eAssessment. The topic list for biology eAssessment is as follows:
Cells (tissues, organs, systems, structure and function; factors affecting human health; physiology; vaccination)
Organisms (habitat, ecosystems, interdependency, unity and diversity in life forms; energy transfer and cycles [including nutrient, carbon, nitrogen]; classification)
Processes (photosynthesis, cell respiration, aerobic and anaerobic, word and chemical equations)
Metabolism (nutrition, digestion, biochemistry and enzymes; movement and transport, diffusion; osmosis; gas exchange; circulation, transpiration and translocation; homeostasis)
Evolution (life cycles, natural selection; cell division, mitosis, meiosis; reproduction; biodiversity; inheritance and variation, DNA and genetics)
Interactions with environment (tropism, senses, nervous system, receptors and hormones)
Interactions between organisms (pathogens/parasites, predator/prey, food chains and webs; competition, speciation and extinction)
Human interactions with environments (human influences, habitat change or destruction, pollution/conservation; overexploitation, mitigation of adverse effects)
Biotechnology (genetic modification, cloning; ethical implications, genome mapping and application, 3D tissue and organ printing)
A quick scan of this topic list shows something quite revealing. What, exactly does the IB mean by physiology on the first line? This is a large subject in and of itself. I find it strange that the IB doesn’t specify particular types of cells and physiological systems and yet will happily specify “mitosis” or the word and chemical equations of respiration and photosynthesis.
This list has the feeling that it has just been thrown together by looking at the DP course and condensing that with no real thought as to what would actually be taught.
Also, the IB assumes, with the generic topics like physiology that students who have been taught one particular physiological system, like the kidney, will be able to answer questions on the heart. See E.D. Hirsch Why Knowledge Matters Chapter 2 for an explanation of why, in order to be fair, a test has to test a specific body of knowledge.
By having no rigorously defined content, even for the assessment, the IB again, shows a pitiful understanding or knowledge of the evidence from cognitive science about how humans learn. Worse, they willfully put some students and their teachers in line for failure. The fact is if you haven’t studied something and that thing comes up on the test, you just aren’t, as a 15-year-old student, going to be able to answer those questions because you are still a novice in that domain and it is unlikely that you will have learned to think like an expert in 140 hrs of teaching.
The eAssessment course is meant to be delivered with at least 70 hours of teaching in the final two years of the MYP – minimum of 140hrs – just shy of the SL DP course.
Massive workload! Hornets and butterflies
In this post, Joe Kirby writes about hornet and butterflies: ideas in teaching that have either high effort, low impact (hornets) or low effort, high impact (butterflies) – it also makes up a chapter in Battle Hymn.
By its very nature, the MYP is a collaborative project. In fact, one of its huge strengths is that it gets teachers out of their silos and working as a team. But that, collaboration inevitably increases teacher workload. For the reasons that I have outlined above, I think that ultimately, while an asset this collaboration results in low impacts for students.
Some who read this will immediately discount that statement as not chiming with their own experiences. And yes, it can look great when kids are seemingly engaged and enthused but we should not confuse this with learning and as educators, we really need to be aware of our own cognitive biases that may lead us into thinking that something is effective when it isn’t. You can read David Didau’s excellent “what if everything you knew about education was wrong” for more details of that.
But it’s not just the fact that it requires collaboration that increases the workload, it is also the fact that as a framework there is no content, leaving teachers to make content decisions as well. This is incredibly freeing but also, in practical planning terms it pushes the workload up even more and I would argue with little to be said for an increased impact on student learning. Surely a defined and prescribed content list would decrease teacher workload and have the same impact on student learning?
Finally, in its assessment, the MYP is workload heavy. In science, teachers end up having to plan lengthy assessments tasks, with clear instructions that break down the assessment criteria into student-friendly language.
Just planning summative assessments like these tasks, designing and making the supporting materials, is much more workload intense than other systems I have worked with and I am not convinced that it has any more impact on student learning.
I am not writing this to be difficult but I do hope that my thoughts here will lead to some open and honest discussion. I know that certain educational approaches have a lot of emotional appeal. I want to get away fromt this at start talking about what is best for our students rationally.
UPDATE: I had a bit of response to this on twitter and two colleagues have shared lists that already exist for science or biology in general. What I would like to do is:
Go through these lists and find out which are more frequent on the DP biology course
Create a quizlet based on those terms for students to use.
On the IB Biology course, there is approx 450 Tier 3 words at SL and 650 Tier 3 words at HL. You can see my list here.
On this page, I want to collate all the prefixes and suffixes relevant to teaching biology at secondary level into one resource. I have thrown this together at nearly 10pm on a sunday night so please add suggestions in the comments