What is the best place to start teaching IB DP Biology?

Every year I like to think about how I approach the delivery of the DP Biology course. I think about what are the best examples to use to illustrate concepts like the pentadactyl limb, or what is the best way to structure the teaching sequence into a coherent sequence.

This summer I have been thinking about how best to approach the start of the course. I think this is important in my context because I cannot be certain of the biological background of all of my students and I don’t want to make any assumptions about what they know.

I polled teachers on facebook and twitter about this and most teachers tend to start the course with 1.1 – introduction to cells, although other areas like to 2.1 – molecules to metabolism and 5.3 – classification of biodiversity are also popular if not nearly so as 1.1.

My issues with starting at 1.1 is that I think that while there are some essential ideas that are natural to start a Biology course; the functions of life and cell theory, there are others which are not so helpful like stem cells, gene control of differentiation, and evolution of multicellularity. Some of these concepts are tricky to get your head around and do not count as foundational knowledge, in my opinion.

What I want in the start of my DP course is to introduce students to the simplest biological concepts that will go on to serve as a foundation for future learning. I believe the functions of life and the classification of life (“what is life?” and “ok, we know how to crudely define living things, but what types of living things are there?”) are understandings that students should address before going on to look at how living things work.

What I am struggling with is this: the IB’s TSM states that topics don’t need to be taught in order, or that even subtopics don’t necessarily need to be taught in order. We should, as teachers, construct a course that draws different elements into coherent units. Personally, last year, I made a move away from going through topic by topic and tried to link subtopics into themed units. I love thinking about what topics flow well together.

But what if you want to split sub topics? Is this allowable? Obviously you could do this but, with the way the IB has structured the sub-topics each with their own “essential idea”, should you? The issues with the essential idea is that it aims to force all the understandings in that subtopic under a single umbrella. Because the essential idea is examinable, surely all the understandings, applications and skills should be kept together as they serve to illuminate the essential idea.

Personally, I think I may go ahead and chop up 1.1 so that I introduce these:

  • A2: Investigation of functions of life in Paramecium and one named photosynthetic unicellular organism.
  • U2: Organisms consisting of only one cell carry out all functions of life in that cell.

With this from 5.3:

  • U4: All organisms are classified into three domains.

Which will then act as a segway into topic 1.2 the ultrastructure of cells, before going on to consider cell theory and the then the rest of topic 5.3.

Its a little bit pick and mix, but do I run the risk of not covering the essential ideas. To solve that, what I may do is leave the essential ideas  (of these sections) for revision in grade 12. In-fact now I think about it, all the essential ideas would make great revision points.

I could get the students to memorise Allott and Mindorff’s paragraph’s that describe each essential idea and force them to regurgitate them at random points through G12…..

Intensive EAL support and differentiation in Biology

As an international teacher, I am familiar with EAL or Lang B students in my classes, and familiar with how to support them in my Biology classes which, more than even some of the other science subjects, has a lot of context-specific terminology that cannot be simplified. These terms can be almost impossible to simplify form non-native speakers but repeated INSET training has told me that I must. Some examples would include:

  • Heterozygosity
  • Anyone of the Animal or Plant Phyla students are required to know
  • Proteome
  • Clade
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Photolysis
  • Inhibitor
  • Eukaryote
  • Archaea
  • Transpiration
  • Cohesion

There are many more…

This past academic year I had a particularly difficult situation to deal with in my grade 10 biology class.

Grade 10 is the final year of the MYP and is equivalent to Year 11 in the U.K. My current school is very small, tiny in fact, by the nature that it has only been open four years.

As a new school in a competitive area we have a battle to recruit students. As an international school in an area where lots of families come with the parents work on short term contracts we have a high turn over of students.

Due to these factors, every year of teaching I have had to completely change my scheme of work for this grade and grade nine because of changes in the cohorts of students as well as yearly changes to science teaching hours across the week.

One year I only had brand new students taking grade 10 Biology all of whom had come from Francophone schools and so the MYP 5 course I had planned had to be changed to accommodate these students.

As an international school it can be normal to have turnover in students with many students leaving and new students entering at any grade. Things are also complicated because students may come from different national systems, and may have studied in different languages prior to joining us. It's very hard to comparatively assess the biological knowledge of different students coming from different languages of study and these different systems.

Whereas, last year, all the students in my grade 10 class were new to the school and I had to create a novel one year curriculum for them to ensure that none of the fundamentals from grade 9 were missing, this year I could revert to the original two year program I had planned previously.

This year I had some students who had progressed to grade 10 biology from grade 9 (these grades are planned as a two year consecutive course) internally and were on track to take the MYP eAssessment.

However I also had students placed in the class who came from different schools and were new to studying in English, let alone biology in English. Amongst these students there was variation. One student had absolutely no prior experience using or studying in the English language and others had never studied in the language, academically, but had spent some time of heir lives speaking and communicating with English.

At the start of the year, I was informed that all of these students would be taking the MYP eAssessment (the IB equivalent of GCSE)!

Despite my protestations that these students would not be ready for the eAssessment with only six months of going to an anglophone school, let alone studying biology in English and that they were better off being placed in an intensive EAL program, I was ignored.

The message to me was that I simply had to differentiate for these students! Differentiation is fine but when does differentiation steadily become "plan a whole new program?" What are the practical limitations for a teacher that determine when differentiation should stop and alternative arrangements need to be made.

A similar situation happened to a colleague of mine who teaches French. One year he was told that he would have French A (Literature – native speakers) students mixed in with French B (Aquisition – non-native speakers) and that the teacher would have to differentiate between these two groups.

I am all for differentiation and trying to meet individual students where they are at but I don't like it when it becomes a lazy shield for management to hide behind. Instead of the SLT taking charge and actually putting a proper intervention in place for these students, it is easier to pass the buck to the teacher and simply say "differentiate!" The problem with this is the anxiety, stress and associated mental health issues it will invariably create for staff.

What seemed to be lacking from members of the schools management is the difference between Jim Cummin's BICS and CALPS. Being able to speak in a second language with your friends is one thing, but being able to think about and explain complex, abstract concepts in a second language is quite another. Biology has a huge amount of subject or context-specific terminology that even native speakers can find daunting.

The year hasn't been a great success. Unfortunately some non-negotiables have to be negotiable as there is a limit to what a person can achieve in a day. What this meant for these students is that I simply wasn't able to plan for them as well as I would have liked, with all my additional responsibilities, particularly the running of the university guidance.

I focussed what time I could devote to this class on the students who would be taking the exam and focussed on developing the thinking routines within the class; connect-extend-challenge has become very popular!

However I have been able to learn something from this experience and found that the following techniques could be put in place very easily to support EAL students without too much interruption to the flow of the lesson:

  • Glossaries for every unit that focus on key words. I have started adding them to my DP workbooks as simply a space at the back for students to add their key words and definitions, but for the younger grades I will provide the words and the definitions.
  • Whole-class reading in every lesson. Making solid use of available texts and reading these out gives students a change to practice saying new words and gives me a chance to feedback to them and explain any new terminology.
  • When asking students to explain a concept to check for their understanding, allowing them to write out their ideas in the their mother tongue to support a speaking in the second language.
  • Asking students to write, in English, a short paragraph (3-4 lines) explaining what they learned either at the start of end of a lesson. As the teacher, I can rotate and check grammar, spelling and sentence construction. This is best done by hand as 1) the IB exams are currently written and 2) due to the Lindy effect, writing is likely to be around a lot longer than google docs.
  • Taking care to fully explain the roots of words e.g. "photo" & "synthesis" and giving students time to find the words in their mother-tongue if they have studies this concept before.
  • Allowing students to speak in their mother tongue to each other to aid explanations and comprehension.
  • During explanations given by me, slowing down and, where possible, using simpler language (not always possible in Biology – what is a simpler word for heterozygosity?).
  • Always check for understanding with open questions. "Please can you explain/write/draw this for me?" to show understanding.
  • Use of colours and images to describe tasks so that students become aware that when a symbol of a quill is used it means that they have to write.

Any more advice or ideas welcome in the comments!

The future-you festival

In my first year at my current school I was one of the grade 10 homeroom teachers. At the time, the grade 10’s were the eldest grade, the school having only opened the previous year with all grades up to grade nine.

That year our Head of School organised for some parents to come in on an afternoon to speak to our grade nine and ten students about their various professions.

The session lasted a couple of hours while different parents rotated in front of our small cohort of 18 students to tell them they needed a passion.

The next morning the feedback in homeroom was less than excellent. The major theme that came across was that the kids would have liked some choice about what they saw and who they listened to.

Later that year I was given the chance to set up the university counselling program and part of that required me to organise careers day.

In the first year I was responsible for it (my second year at the school) my main aim was to introduce choice for students.

That year we held it in May and the event ran from after lunch until 7pm. From 2pm until 4pm we had a series of career focussed workshops. These were bookended by a keynote and plenary session. The latter were compulsory for all students, but, during the time in-between, students rotated through workshops that they had previously signed up for.

After the plenary from 4pm to 5pm we held a short university fair, hosting universities from Switzerland plus a few others.

Following this we hosted an author who spoke about her book and work that supports international students making transitions to study at international universities.

In my second year, the academic year just finished, we moved the date back to March. Unfortunately, with the extra classroom hours I was working, I simply didn’t have the time to organise a university fair – the amount of time that goes into simply emailing contacts is extraordinary. However, we did run an evening event again this year. This was organised by my colleague in the schools marketing department and took the form of two guest speakers, with dinner and wine for attendees. Next year we have decided to call this part of the evening “future-you conversations”.

This year I am hoping to expand what we do slightly with morning skills based workshops on top of the afternoon career focussed workshops. These will be run in conjunction with inspiring futures who offer two days of their advisor time to members. We bought membership for next academic year.

Grade 12 will have a session on interview skills to support students who will have interviews as part of their university applications but also as many of them will be interviewing for jobs in the next 12 months.

Grade 11 will have a session on persuasive writing for their personal statement. This will hopefully provide them with some raw material with which to begin their personal statement drafts later in the year.

Grade 10 will have a session on cv writing as they will be looking for work experience this year as they have a work experience week in June.

Grade 9 will use the inspiring futures career investigator.

Going Dutch: An overview of Dutch HE

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to take part on a week long tour of Dutch universities. All in all, we visited nine universities across the country from The Hague to Groningen taking in Leiden, Utrecht, Maastricht and Middleburg amongst others.

The week was fairly intense with two campus visits a day, but we (the 14 other guidance counselors and myself) were all very well looked after as we were whisked from one city in the Netherlands to another. This was some of the very best CPD I have done. As the Netherlands is such a small country it is relatively easy to get a good overview of the different options for students who wish to study their degree in English in this country, in a short space of time. To get the same feeling within the US, for example, would probably require many years and many visits for a counselor living internationally.

A Different System and a Different Philosophy

The Dutch Higher Education system differs from the UK and runs on a binary system. There are Research Universities which are primarily concerned with research and teaching of more traditional theoretical subjects; their degrees are three years in length. There are also Universities of Applied Sciences. Their programs are four years in length and are concerned with practically orientated subjects e.g. Physiotherapy, Nursing, Education, Accounting and Finance etc.

Alongside this, the vast majority of courses in both types of institution do not select students based on academic grades. The Dutch government’s philosophy, as it was explained to me, is that any student who completes secondary education successfully should be given a chance to study at university. What this means in practice is that IB students need only pass the IB Diploma with 24 points and they will be admitted. For A level candidates this means passing three A Levels.

A major difference here, however, is that students are selected post-entry. The Dutch operate what is known as “binding study advice”. This means that any student who does not pass their first year is unable to continue with their course.

A relatively small number of courses are selective, however. In the past the Dutch government has specified quotas for certain courses and also selected students for those course centrally (this was termed “numerus fixus”). This year the government has moved away from doing the selection centrally and begun to allow universities to do their own selection.

An International Outlook

One of the first things to become really obvious when visiting campuses and meeting students was the diversity of the places we saw. Many of the English language taught programs were composed of up to 50% non-Dutch students and these non-native students didn’t appear to be coming from one single country of continent. Instead, on paper, there appears to be a real variety to the languages, experiences and cultures that a student can expect to meet and interact with on a Dutch campus. The official statistics we were quoted felt as if they matched the picture that was painted by the students we met and quizzed.

A Range of Options

There is a huge variation in the types of institutions on offer along with the types of courses on offer. Dutch universities are certainly not one size fits all. For such a small country there is an excellent range in the type and style of universities. University College Utrecht is built around the campus model, where all students live and study together for the full four years of study. Groningen and Maastricht offer a university life that is much more integrated into the life of the city that houses them – different faculties and university building spread out amongst the city.

For students looking to escape the big city environment, Leiden and UCR in Middleburg couldn’t be better placed. Both Leiden and Middleburg as towns have widely different vibes, yet both are small, picturesque and undeniably pretty but the courses on offer and living arrangements at the universities over the course of their degrees are different.

One thing that the Netherlands has specialised in, it seems, is the creation of liberal arts and sciences programs. These programs are selective (unlike most Dutch courses – see above) but not numerus fixus and run out of University Colleges, termed the “Honors Colleges” or “University Colleges”. Different University Colleges operate in different ways and they structure their courses differently, but they all allow some degree of flexibility to students who want to tailor make their own degree by studying a range of different modules and subjects. There is also one Natural Sciences program at Maastricht called the Maastricht Science Program; a good choice for students who would be opting for Natural Sciences in the UK.

Education at a price

The cost of studying in the Netherlands is extremely competitive. EU and EEA students can expect to pay at little as €2,004 for tuition fees (Liberal Arts programs are a little more at €4,000) while those students without such a passport will find courses costing anything between €6,000-€16,000. With a cheaper cost of living in general compared to the UK it makes a competitive alternative to studying in the UK.

Conclusion

Britain and North America have always been destinations of choice for international students. Not only do they boast some of the world’s highest ranked universities, but they offer degrees in English. In a globalised world the ability to communicate in English is highly prized skill the world over.

However, the Netherlands, either through choice or coincidence, has positioned itself extremely well to compete for international students and disrupt the UK, US and Canada’s market share.. The universities in the Netherlands are highly regarded and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them become more as time progresses. Typically these students are studying outside their home country. But, more than this, they offer undergraduate study in what is potentially a much more diverse student setting. Studying in English yes, but socialising in Dutch, and, with such variegated cohorts of students, potentially a mix of other languages as well. This on its own will certainly attract certain students. On top of this, the fees are much, much more competitive than either North America or UK and students don’t run the risk of graduating with tens of thousands of euros in debt as they surely do elsewhere. Finally, students know that so long as they are able to successfully finish high school then they are guaranteed a place, which takes the pressure off somewhat when you consider that UK universities will demand a specific point score with, perhaps, very specific conditions in individual subjects. All these factors combine to create a very attractive proposition. I think we can only expect Dutch universities to grow in their popularity.

New DP Biology site launched (but still under construction!)

So I have moved over my DP biology resources to a new google site designed for delivering the course. You can view it here: 

In my first school I worked with a colleague who made workbooks for her students, that were tailored to the 2009 syllabus. The kids loved them. At this time I was still working on a paper basis with large lever arch folders, and photocopying the exercises that I wanted to give to my students. To simplify my planning and preparation I thought it would be easier to copy my colleagues idea and collate all of my exercises into workbooks for each subtopic that I could simply print and hand out to my students. It took me a few years to develop these workbooks and then the syllabus changed.

For the first two years of the 2016 syllabus I worked on updating my existing workbooks to bring them in line with the new syllabus. By this point, I had moved school’s twice and had been exposed to quite a few different pedagogical approaches and philosophies, as well as different levels of technological tools with which to teach. It seemed the time had come to convert totally from paper to digital.

I share this website as a resource for other educators and their students but please be aware that, while I certainly welcome discussion, critique and comments, I have designed this website with the following purposes in mind:

    • To consolidate my existing resources and methodology into one digital space.
    • To structure the course that I currently teach to my own students into one place for my own students to access.
    • To provide a structure to the exercises that I use in class. It is NOT intended to be another content heavy IB site

There are plenty of IB Biology content-driven resources out on the web, some of which are truly excellent. This is not intended to be such. Instead the aim is to provide structure and exercises to query and engage with content-driven resources, like website, video and textbooks.

If you wish to feedback please remember that in addition to creating this website I am:

    • A full time teacher with other responsibilities in my professional life and a young family.
    • Preparing this work, primarily for my own personal professional use.
    • Making no claims that their are no mistakes in this website, please check carefully and if you feel so inclined drop me an email to let me know.
    • Making no claims that the exercises, ideas and resources are entirely my own original work. Please see my acknowledgements page for details.

 I am intending to follow this up with a google site dedicated to MYP Biology and another for guidance counseling. I will keep this blog purely for noting down my thoughts when and if they occur!