Supporting the IBDP curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection points

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

What I learned about teaching biology this year 17-18

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

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

The importance of content?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of presenting content in the “right” sequence

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

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

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

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

Retrieval practice embedding content for the long-term

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sequencing facts before concepts: natural selection

I have spent a fair amount of time this year reflecting on the application of cognitive science principles in my own biology teaching. There has been plenty written about concepts like interleaving and sequencing in sciences and maths but very little that I have found about how these concepts may apply in biology teaching.

Specifically, I have written up some of my thoughts on sequencing my DP biology curriculum based  on these discussions here.

Some of what I have learned suggests that solid conceptual/abstract understanding can only be developed when novice learners have embedded factual or propositional knowledge in their own mental schemas. In addition, I have tried to think about how principles from cognitive load theory may apply in terms of biology teaching and the sequencing of content.

One example of this has been how I approached the teaching of the concept of natural selection this year for my Y12/G11 mixed SL/HL IB biology class. In the IBDP biology syllabus, this is topic 5.2 and I sequence it after 5.1 “Evidence for evolution” and before 1.5 “The origin of cells”.

I finish the evidence for evolution section by looking at the peppered moth and the changes within the populations studied by Dr Ketterwell, through this online simulation.

In the past, I have taught natural selection by going over the concept of natural selection and then looking at specific examples of it that are mentioned in the syllabus which are antibiotic resistance in bacteria and changes in the beaks of the finches of the Galapagos island of Daphne Major.

This year I sequenced the topic into three lessons (which unintentionally appear to have been interleaved as we are also doing the internal assessment at this point in time and one lesson a week is given over to just the HL students anyway) and taught specific examples of natural selection before finally generalising from these examples to the abstract concept of natural selection.

Lesson 1 – Antibiotic-resistant bacteria

We started with retrieval practice of previous material using a google slide presentation which contained four questions: one using material from the last lesson; another from last week; another from last month and another from the last term. I then asked the students to draw and label a prokaryotic cell. Something that they covered six months ago.

Once completed we moved on to watch some news reports about antibiotic-resistant infections and I asked students to discuss and articulate back to the class what they thought the key message of each of the videos were. These prompted discussion about the general nature of antibiotic resistant bacteria and I used questioning to continue this discussion amongst the class. We also discussed what antibiotics were and why they were used to treat bacterial infections as this was a concept we met when studying the immune system two weeks prior. I highlighted the possible area of confusion for students between the words antibiotic and antibody which I had picked up from examining the previous May session of exams, before going on to explain how bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics.

I then gave the class a past paper question to complete the topic and we reviewed the key points of this question from the mark scheme.

Lesson 2- Finch beak changes on Daphne Major

Again we started with retrieval practice in the same format as in lesson 1. We then conducted a physical simulation as outlined in this practical, where students mimic being finches and collecting food. This was followed by a discussion of the trends we found in the simulation and what this might tell us about birds collecting food in the wild.

We then moved onto exercise 3 from this page and when students had finished the video and quiz I asked them to summarise what happened to the finches in the film.

Lesson 3 – the concept of natural selection

After retrieval practice, we reviewed the definition of evolution we had covered in 5.1 “evidence for evolution” and I highlighted that natural selection was a mechanism by which evolution could occur. I then asked students to think back and name the three examples of natural selection that we had considered in the last few lessons. Once they had written their answers down, I went through those examples and placed them on the board. I then asked students to discuss in pairs the details of each of these examples, before snowballing into a class discussion of the details of each of the three examples: peppered moths, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and changes in finch beaks. While we discussed these I wrote down the key points from each one on a second board with each example in a column so that similar elements from each example ended up in the same row. I then discussed with the students what these key features of each of the examples were and related this to the concept of natural selection. We finished with an example question asking students to describe the process of natural selection using examples.

The evolving role of the Diploma Programme Coordinator

I am currently completing an online course about IB Diploma Programme Coordination to better prepare me in as I step into a new role as Coordinator (DPC) from August of this year. In this post I want to reflect on my learning from this week –  Module 1: The evolving role of the Diploma Programme Coordinator.

The DPC has 15 key roles within the school leadership team as outlined in the document Diploma Programme: From principles into practice. During this week’s module, we reflected on the role of international mindedness and the learner profile in our school before looking at these key roles. We completed a Venn diagram of challenges and opportunities using padlet, which allowed us all to comment on the same document.

We then examined the programme standards and practices through two exercises: in the first we were given a standard and associated practices and asked to comment on their relationship to the role of the DPC before being asked to pick three practices and DP requirements and think about what evidence we would need to collect and store to demonstrate that our school was meeting these standards.

Long-term responsibilities

The DPC provides a key role in connecting the school and the IB. More specifically they are responsible, with the rest of the school leadership team, for ensuring that IB standard and practices for the Diploma Programme are understood and articulated within the school community.

As part of the five-year evaluation schedule, the DPC will collect, collate and store evidence that the standards and practices are being met. They are responsible for the organisation and completion of this evaluation process.

Medium-term responsibilities

On an ongoing basis, the DPC is responsible for the guidance of the school community on several fronts. They work with parents and students and the school counsellors to ensure that subject choices are fully understood by all parties and what the impact of those choices may be on access to higher education after completion of the Diploma Programme. In this vein, they also work with the middle school leaders to ensure that students are fully prepared to enter the DP. They also work with the school’s admissions department to ensure that there are proper processes in place for admission of students to the Diploma Programme. They also work with the DP subject teachers and core team to support these individuals in their work and to provide pedagogical leadership, thus ensuring the programme is properly implemented and that teachers are resourced appropriately and familiar with tools like MyIB that can support them in their work.

Short-term responsibilities

The DPC is also responsible for the day-to-day administration of the Diploma Programme, communicating with the IB and administering on IBIS. This includes the entering of exam entries and administration of the external assessments and managing a database of information on IB alumni.

More generally the DPC should strive to foster the spirit of international education within the school community and ensure that the school embraces the IB’s mission and learner profile.

 

 

 

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.