The Extended Essay: The central support for teaching ATL skills?

I have reservations about the IB ATLs. I have written about this previously, mainly focussing on the approaches to teaching and I don’t really want to go over these issues again, suffice to say that it still causes me concern that the IB, as the only truly global non-national/international curriculum has such strong ideology that underpins what it requires teachers do. In fact the more I think about it, the more concerned I am by the fact that, on reflection, most teacher training curriculums that I am aware are not balanced and do not give good education to teachers on evidence, history, philosophy. Instead they simply uncritically present one ideology as fact.

My previous post focussed on the approaches to teaching. In this post I want to focus on the IB’s approaches to learning which I will refer to in this post simply as ATls. Hopefully this post will be a bit more positive!

There are certainly areas of the of the ATLs that I have come to appreciate. Before I get there I just want to state that from what I have read, I think that the evidence from cognitive science is pretty clear cut: there are no such things as general learning/thinking skills. More over, I don’t think that the often quoted 21st Century learning skills or 4Cs of: Communication, Collaboration, Critical-thinking, Creativity are anymore important in the 21st Century than they were in the 19th and 20th centuries (they were referred to then; they are nothing new now) and I think the whole enterprise of trying to teach them outside of domains is an exercise that will only make our education system weaker, not stronger.

To make the ATLs work within the school context they need to be linked to and embedded in domain specific content. Some of them maybe more generalisable than others and in that sense may be more malleable for being taught independently, but most will need to be embedded within the teaching of specific content of a domain.

For example, elements of the self-management tranche of the identified ATLs may well be more stand alone, or at least can be taught independently of subject matter. However, teaching students about time-management still needs material to work on, in this case the students own general workload at school.

Mindfulness is another self-management skill that can be taught independently and, in my opinion, to great value for the learner. However for this to be affective it needs staff buy-in and training. While mindfulness is the new trendy idea, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what it actually is.

Thinking skills, communication skills and research skills, as identified by the IB’s ATL guide all require teaching and embedding within content. In terms of the Communication and research skills, one of the central pillars to teaching these is the Extended Essay.

In most schools the Extended Essay process is placed to the middle to end of the DP, with students perhaps beginning the process in term two of the first year and ending sometime around Christmas of the second year. This year we have gone to the extreme of bringing it to the front of the process as we feel it underpins and provides so many opportunities to explicitly teach the ATLs but still linking them to specific subject knowledge.

We have introduced our students to the process this September and have planned in specific interventions that look at research skills and communication skills, while we also begin to map out how these skills are taught vertically from year 7.

Our current year 12 students are supported through the process with clear scaffolding. First they are asked to think about general topics and clearly led through ways to identify and think about ideas. Subsequently, we introduce them to the library and its resources in a series of sessions which first look at the library and its resources in general before looking at the databases we have access to and how researchers utilise these resources appropriately using boolean operators..

Students are then asked to draft a proposal for their Extended Essay which would include the research question, an outline of the subquestions and a list of potential sources that can be used. This proposal needs to be agreed to and signed off by their supervisor before Christmas of the first year. The proposal becomes the basis for the first formal reflection.

In the second term, we show students how to critically appraise sources and continue to give them support in writing their outline for their essay. This takes place un until April where they submit their outline to the supervisors and follow up with a second meeting.

Following on from this meeting students will recieve feedback and after their exams, during their core week, they are given time to work on writing their Extended Essay in the morning with the aim that they would have a first draft completed by the end of the third term and submitted to their supervisor, this would form the basis of their interim reflection and their third meeting.

Student can then finalise their work over the summer, submitting it and completing their viva voce at the start of their second year. In this way this major piece of work is completed before the bulk of internal assessments and university applications begin.

By front loading the extended essay process in this way, I believe that the team has a greater chance of explicitly teaching, the research and communication skills needed to succeed in the extended essay. This reduces the chances of these skills being left to chance and also allows students to be able to apply these skills in their internal assessments for their other subject.

Finally by also, bringing some of the other internal assessments into the later half of the first year, we can begin to help students develop strategies for their own time management and organisational skills, by explictly showing them how they balance the commitments of the extended essay, internal assessments and other work. This can be done early in the course, allowing them to apply these skills later in the course.

Please share your thoughts..

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