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.
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
“I am applying to Bangor” the student said. “Oh, great! I applied there too!” says I, “It is an excellent school for Biological Sciences”.
As the school’s university counsellor I probably should have had a bit more of an idea that this student had decided to apply to this particular university, particularly considering this was rather late in the year – around April or May of Y13.
Follow up conversations made me aware that this student’s homeroom teacher had initially made the suggestion that this student applied to Bangor.
Let me get out in front of this. I am not trying to suggest in this post that teachers should not speak to their students about their university applications. I am not suggesting that teachers should not even offer advice to students and help them make sense of what can be a very confusing time of life, but teachers do need to think before they speak.
I have heard of schools where the guidance counsellor takes an aggressive, defensive approach in working with teachers. If you so much as whisper the word “university” to a student without their knowledge they may have words with you.
I have heard of teachers being reprimanded by the school counsellor for sharing a book list of subject specific reading with the Y12 and 13s and writing to them in an email that reading would be an excellent way to improve their university applications.
This wasn’t covert. The teacher wasn’t trying to go behind the counsellors back. They cc’ed the counsellor in, thinking they would be pleased that the teacher was trying to engage students to do things beyond what was merely required.
In my world then this is perfectly acceptable, as reading widely is an educationally excellent thing to encourage young people to do.
The teacher was called to the counselling office and made to apologise for that action.
This same colleague still gives me a cool reception when our paths do cross.
As a teacher, before I became a counsellor I wanted to encourage interested students to read my subject at university. I think this is natural. As someone who taught DP and A level and interacted with 17-18-year-olds pastorally, I was naturally curious as to where the students I met were applying, and what for.
It is frustrating when this information is never shared. When Teachers are never told when students have applied, or have interviews or get offers of admission. “Why do they need to know?” Is usually the question posed when this is raised.
Teachers do need to get with the school’s program and get behind the counselling team. Speak to the counselling department if they have ideas about individual students or groups of students and feel that you have the expertise to share. Global university admissions is an ever-changing landscape and teachers are not always up to speed. Also, teachers may not take into account other cultural factors like international diversity, when recommending institutions, which may hugely impact a students future happiness.
I would also submit, from experience, that teachers are not natural counsellors. I have written about this tension between teaching and counselling elsewhere and won’t bring it in here again. But teachers don’t necessarily know how to pose questions to draw out students thinking on such subjective matters about a students future, and they also may not have the full picture, painted by the families worldview.
Just like the teacher that ignores a school’s behaviour policy and does their own thing in their classroom, undermining their colleague who sticks to the behaviour policy, to the detriment of the whole team and school culture, the teacher that doesn’t engage with the counseling team to communicate ideas and discussion points about students, just serves to undermine the counseling department. This can lead to damaged reputations and undermining of the school’s reputation.
But it works both ways. Counsellors need to make teachers feel included. They need to seek students consent first to share the information (internally) about where students are applying and where they have been successful. This information serves to catalyse the team on the celebration and helps to build ongoing fruitful relationships between students and the staff that work with them. Why do teachers need to know? Because teachers care, becuase teachers invest their time, more than anyone, to work on behalf of students, because teachers know just when to put in the right word of encouragement, just when a student might need it.
It allows a whole team celebration of the students achievement and contributes to building a strong team culture amongst the staff. So counsellors and teachers: work together!