Authentic learning, real world meaning.

After reading Mary Myatt’s “The Curriculum”, I’ve been beginning to spend some time thinking about how the IBDP can provide opportunities to make the students work more purposeful via opportunities for authentic performance. In her chapter on Beautiful work she writes:

“children’s work should be honored. It should be of the highest quality and it should also have an audience.”

She goes on to quote Ron Berger “Once a pupil creates work of value for an authentic audience beyond the classroom – work that is sophisticated, accurate, important and beautiful – that student is never the same”.

So far I’m thinking about elements common to all Diploma students:

  • The Group 4 project: this is a collborative 10 hour project that student teams composed of students from different subjects work on together. The project is not assessed but is mandatory. The theme is set by the school and in four schools over 10 years this has usually involved the HOD Sci using a word like colour or survival. However there can have some real world stimulus like the UN sustainable development goals to focus the project. The students would design experiments along this theme and then present their project to the wider school community and guests.
  • CAS: Im not an expert here by any stretch and you could argue that CAS is already the most authentic part of the DP. What could be more authentic than working on projects that have direct application in the real world? but how many projects in schools around the world actually do? Is there scope here to raise the bar? the students CAS project could also center around a real world stimulus, the activity stage focussed on taking action in some way, again an exhibition to the community could be used to sum up students work in some authentic way.
  • TOK: TOK has a heavy summative assessment component with a 1600 word academic essay and ten minute presentation, I would be loathe to add to this…but, the presentations could definitely be delivered to a wider audience..school assemblies, some other exhibitions or the community could be invited to the assessment itself.
  • Extended Essay: With over 40 hrs of work and 4000 words in the making the extended essay is a beast for most students. There are issues with it and you could already argue that, as a piece of original work, it has real world application. This year we are taking the small step to publish our students TOK and Extended Essays together in a volume, a bit like a journal, with work from some of our Visual Arts students work being used as the cover pieces. But I also like the idea of having student’s undertake a more public viva, like a PhD defense. Clearly, an EE is not a PhD but can we make it so that the process is less tick boxy and more formal? I am keen to hear what other schools do.

With all these things I think about scalability. What works in a small school doesn’t necessarily work in a very large one. Ok, sit through 2 group 4 presentations but 30? So instead schools could ensure that some students present at one event and others at another, so long as each student gets some opportunity to deliver their work meaningfully in the real world.

I realise that my ideas are a little unoriginal and perhaps I am a little bit behind the times (some schools are already doing great work) focussing mostly on presentations and exhibitions, what do you think? How else could we make our student’s DP work have more real world meaning?

Whole school support for EAL learners II

Imagine a normal primary school in an anglophone country like the UK or US. Now imagine taking a year 4/grade 3 or year 5/grade 4 child from that school and giving them an academic program aimed at year 12/grade 11 or year 13/grade 12 students. It could be AP, A Levels, IB DP. The course doesn’t matter here. Lets just assume that these children would be taking academic, pre-university courses in the the humanities/social science and the natural sciences. For the sake of argument, lets assume that these fictional children have the social and emotional skills of 17-18 year olds. Clearly I am not describing a real situation here.

From a purely academic point of view: what would happen? Would those children succeed? Would they have the background knowledge, understanding and vocabulary skills to access in class discussions? Or text books for that matter? Or even to understand what the teacher was talking about?

Now, I wonder, how would the teachers, tasked with teaching these children respond? What strategies could classroom practitioners employ to help their students achieve? How could the curriculum coordinators and Heads of Year respond to implement strategies to allow the children to access the curriculum? What would you do?

What makes an EAL student like a primary schooler?

Of course, this never happens in practice or does it? Is there any cohort of students in international schools that would somewhat match this description? I would contend that there are, to varying degrees, and in varying numbers, students who fit this description as EAL students.

Now clearly, an average 17 year old student, has cognitive abilities beyond that of an average 10 year old and certainly, we would hope, more advanced social and emotional skills. And indeed they probably do know more.

But how do we ensure that, when a high school accepts an older student who has never had any prior formal instruction in academic disciplines in the language of the school, and will ultimately sit exams in that new language, this child will be able to succeed.

Some might answer that schools shouldn’t admit students when they cannot meet their needs. I would agree. But I have seen schools that do admit students when they can’t meet their needs; usually when a child’s needs meet the economic needs of a school, the latter concerns tend to win.

My concern here really revolves around the question: If most major testing systems in the English Language (AP, IBDP etc) are norm referenced, then aren’t we simply propping up the performance of our native language speakers with the ultimately poorer performance of non-native speakers? Are our anglophone speakers succeeding on the back of the poorer performance of our EAL students (on an international level)?

Of course, in international schools, there is a lot of variance and there is certainly flexibility in the system. Most students who can’t access the full curriculum will be able to graduate from the school with some form of modified curriculum. But we need to ensure that students have as many options available to them when they leave us as possible. Going to an international school is a privilege and affords so many additional benefits to kids that they may not have had in there home country but we need to ensure that students are able to succeed after they leave us.

How do we solve these problems?

In practical terms when, as a coordinator, I have a cohort of students for the majority of whom English is a second language and many of whom have only been learning their academic subjects in English for a few short years, how do I put strategies in place to support them as best I can?

I have written here, here and here in the past about classroom strategies for teaching upper secondary curriculums to EAL students. I am an interested novice. But now as a coordinator I am concerned about curriculum level interventions.

The context will matter both in terms of the cohorts profile and the curriculums that can be offered as well as their flexibility. I coordinate the IB, which is a flexible system in the sense that, when combined with an American style High School Diploma, students have the option of taking IB certificates in as many or as few courses as they would like.

But I am blue-skying today and want to think about how to offer the full Diploma to as many of my students as possible in this imaginary cohort.

Making the Diploma accessible

There are ways to do this but it may require restrictions in certain areas, for example limiting extended essay subject selection to the students mother tongue or English B if the students level of English is so low that the team feels this would preclude them for taking the extended essay in another academic subject, like business studies or economics for example.

And what level of English is too low? Whats the cut off? Recently I have discussed, with colleagues, using lexile analysis to determine what the English grade reading level is of my EAL students as well as the lexile score. This is a measure of how dense a text is. The lexile score is useful for a number of reasons. It can be used to work out what the equivalent reading age in English is for the EAL students and it can compared to the lexile level of the textbooks used on the course, allowing teachers to the see the difference in where there kids are at and the material they need to present.

The lexile analysis of a biology textbook. The level ranges from Y13/G12 to post secondary!

Lexile analysis can be performed here. Teachers can set up their own accounts but I think this should be done centrally on a term by term basis or semester by semester basis and the information shared with students and their families, as well as teachers as part of a set of on going sharing of strategies and training on support EAL students in the academic classroom.

Hirsch (2016) claims that “Vocabulary size is the outward and visible sign of an inward acquisition of knowledge.”Lexile analysis therefore shows us not only what these students can read but what they know in English as well. Hirsch makes the case that the more domain specific knowledge students acquire, the more their vocabulary naturally increases. This is why, for Hirsch, knowledge rich elementary curriculums are so important. They ensure that students acquire vocabulary and this vocabulary acquisition is the magic formula for reducing inequality. Children from affluent families have more vocabulary when they start school (they oral life at home is richer) compared to their disadvantaged peers and knowledge curriculums help them to catch up.

In a sense our EAL students are like disadvantaged native language children; they certainly don’t benefit from homes where English is spoken and so they don’t benefit from expanding their knowledge and vocabulary in English when they leave school.

The matthew effect shows how learners who have knowledge will tend to acquire more at a faster rate and those with less will acquire knowledge more slowly. This is one of the important psychological principles often overlooked by commentators who claim if we teach knowledge then our kids will be competing with computers. Teaching knowledge is the only way to ensure that they can be life long learners; the more knowledge we have in our brains the quicker we gain new knowledge.  This is also known as the knowledge capital principle it takes knowledge to make knowledge.

Hirsch also claims that “High school is too late to be taking coherent content seriously” as part of his argument for knowledge rich elementary curriculums. Where does this leave our EAL students?

Evidence from cognitive science also shows us that knowledge is domain specific and that it doesn’t transfer readily. Thus students may now about the detailed components that make up the processes of photosynthesis in Korean, but they are unlikely to be able to transfer this knowledge from Korean into English. This creates real problems when it comes to supporting EAL students in the mainstream academic classrooms.

Taking all of the above int account, it seems that we need to begin by getting students exposed to speaking and thinking in English as much as possible.

Let me be clear here, as I have run into hot water on this one in schools. If the aim of a school is to have students graduate by passing English language academic exams for whatever greater purpose, then I think that in school, whenever possible, students need to be encouraged to speak English. I don’t say this because I am a cultural imperialist but because it is demonstrably the best way of getting students to learn the academic subjects, most of the time.

As an IBDP Coordinator this means, among other things, ensuring that students get as much time in the English acquisition classroom as possible. I would consider placing all the students into the English B HL class  at the start of their course. This would give them more hours in the acquisition classroom initially. As they progressed through the course we could look at their progress to see if they could afford to drop down to SL.

Clearly there is a balance to be struck here. Forcing kids to be taking an HL subject they might not be into could seriously backfire in terms of motivation and so continual communication with teachers, students and parents is essential.

To ensure that students felt like they were making progress (and therefore maintaining their motivation – psychology) I would consider having dedicated EAL support after school. This time would be given over to allow the students to do grade-levelled reading in English.

I also apply the IB research discussed in this post to ensure that their is ongoing monitoring of the learners progress, too often students are assessed at the beginning of the year and never again. Ongoing, regular assessment of learners progress is necessary here.

Since beginning to write this, I have been introduced to a piece of software that appears to be an answer to some of these questions.

I hope that ongoing posts on this topic will help me explore the strategies that can be put in place to ensure all learners succeed.

References

E.D. Hirsch (2016) Why knowledge matters: Rescuing our children from failed educational theories. Harvard Education press

Reflections from examining 2018

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

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

Qualification

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

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

Student misconceptions on the paper

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

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

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

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

Other misconceptions that became apparent were:

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

Common factual errors were:

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

From Knowledge to Understandings

Recently (when I first started this post at least) I blogged about the best way to begin the DP biology syllabus and I was frustrated by the limitations of the syllabus to be able to pick and choose different assessment statements.

The DP biology course has always been knowledge rich. Maybe not as full as the A Level syllabus to take account of the fact that students are taking six subjects plus a summatively assessed course in Theory of Knowledgea summatively assessed research project: The Extended Essay, and their Creativity, Activity and Service Program.

Now, the IB changed the syllabus to allow more conceptual teaching, by removing the series of statements about students should be able to:… “explain x” and “state y” and grouping knowledge into brief statements under the heading of understandings, applications and skills. However, the structure of the syllabus with the essential idea for each topic tends to hamper the ability to lift assessment statements out and add them to new areas. i.e. mutations and oncogenes in topic 1.6 could be taught with topics 3.1 after 2.6. See the biology guide for the full IB syllabus.

This year, my Diploma Programme Coordinator, asked the subject departments to focus on developing their written curriculum.

It seemed timely to be asked to do this, when over the summer I had been musing about the best place to begin the course and the best ways to break up the different topics – many of the schools I have worked in simply teach the course topic by topic and the IB is keen to point out in the biology guide:

The order in which the syllabus is arranged is not the order in which it should be taught, and it is up to individual teachers to decide on an arrangement that suits their circumstances. Sections of the option material may be taught within the core or the additional higher level (AHL) material if desired or the option material can be taught as a separate unit.”

Over the course of this academic year, I have thought a lot about how best to structure the course to allow the “best” progression of concepts. Actually, I think that this is a process that began when I first started teaching my current Y13s, and I am an exceptionally slow thinker! I do remember reflecting on how to best position evolution within the course and which topics would be best coming before or after it.

But it wasn’t until this year that I have had the time within my working week or the emotional time within my personal life to really dig down and get to grips with writing up my ideas into the formal IB course outline.

I have also been exposed to new ideas about teaching and learning over the last twelve months. Last summer I read Dan Willingham’s book “Why don’t students like school?” which I think I got put onto after reading Michela’s “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers”.

Idea’s from cognitive science have become more and more prevalent on my twitter feed as well as I have started to interact a little more with the #CogSciSci crowd.

All this to say that my thinking has evolved in the last twelve months.

I now know that, generally speaking, content knowledge, concepts and skills are domain specific and that learners have to become fluent with a subject’s facts before they are able to transfer that to abstract concepts and develop understanding let alone build connections with other subjects.

I am also beginning to understand the concepts of retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding and the distinctions between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge and how all this may apply to my subject teaching or pedagogical content knowledge as Lucy Crehan puts it in “Clever Lands”.

Translating this into biology teaching is still not well understood (or so it seems from my vantage point) but conversations like the ones below (propositional knowledge = declarative knowledge) and blogs like this one, are beginning to help me unpack this.

The finished product

The below is the finished course outline that details the units and sequence of the teaching of the course. It is an official document used in the authorization and evaluation process of IB World Schools.

The below is my SOW for the course. It has six tabs. The DP overview shows the number of teaching hours recommended by the IB for each subtopic along with my grouping of them per unit. The Year overview shows the spacing of the units through time for both Y12/Y13. The next two tabs are for the week to week (mid-term planning). The Bio and TOK tabs show the TOK links that I have chosen to focus on the topic and are to support collaborative planning with the TOK team. Finally, the PSOW tab shows the practicals that can be built into the course. The IB mandates a specific number of practical hours for both SL and HL courses.

Final Word

The other effect of this learning for me is that I am now worried about the direction that the IB is taking in its philosophy.

If research from cognitive science is telling us that learners need a solid factual knowledge base before they can build conceptual understanding then what does this say for a course whose syllabus is about “understandings” as opposed to knowledge?

I have not heard anything from the IB that shows that it is reviewing research from cognitive science. Is the IB becoming an ideologically run institution that ignores research that doesn’t fit in with its own paradigm?

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…..