Why I am not a fan of the MYP

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:

Debatable concepts

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.

Equity

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?

eAssessments

The MYP can be tested through the eAssessment. The topic list for biology eAssessment is as follows:

Biology eAssessment Topic List – found here

  • 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.

Conclusion

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.