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.

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