Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"To the International Baccalaureate ... And Beyond!"

I'm in a meeting, talking with veteran independent school teacher, Art L., and he is getting what we would call in Memphis, "all kinds of fired up." We are discussing the International Baccalaureate's (IB) rubric for teachers in the IB English Year 1 course, the rubric all IB English teachers must use to assess students' "Individual Oral Presentations" (IOPs). IB courses in English Literature are among the most advanced Lit courses offered at most IB schools and the IOP is one of those essential summative assessments in the rigorous IB English course. Art is less than impressed by the IB-developed rubric.

"Nowhere in this rubric are standards or criteria for students making a cohesive, logical argument," he laments. "It's possible for a student to simply be familiar with the text he's analyzing, to make good eye contact throughout the presentation, and to use specific terminology, which could have been blindly memorized; he could earn a perfect score by just doing those three things!"

Art is correct and his antipathy seems well justified. With only three standards to be assessed, the IOP rubric is overly simplistic for a summative assessment. The achievement bar, which we would expect to be set fairly high for an IB course, appears to be set at a baseline level in this case.

Art's eyes twinkle as we begin considering tweaking the IB-sanctioned rubric to increase the level of expectation and achievement. We are now talking about the sacred realm beyond the almighty IB, and we are both all kinds of fired up.

For my readers who don't know, the IB is a currculum originally designed in the late 60s for international schools, schools with very transient student and faculty populations. The idea behind the early IB was to create a static set of rigorous courses all with a set framework of peer-moderated assessments so that a student transferring from one international school to another international school could conceivably continue his or her studies. The framework and peer-moderation engendered a consistent set of courses that could be taught at any school. The "IB Diploma Programme," a two-year program of study designed for 16-19 year olds, also included a component for community service, activity within the school, and an emphasis on the pursuit of creative endeavors. Additionally, the Programme required participation in a type of philosophy course and also required all IB students to write an original research paper. The idea worked, and many international schools "adopted the IB program." Students who graduated with their "IB Diploma" reported being very well prepared for university. That success made transient parents of IB students, already happy that their children could continue their studies while moving from school to school, ecstatic. Because of its success and its relatively high level of academic rigor, the IB has become a kind of gold standard among internationally minded schools worldwide. Today, thousands of schools offer the IB, which has also expanded to offer separate programs for middle schools and even elementary schools. In my opinion, the IB is a strong, rigorous, and potentially very rewarding program.

But as Art and I are talking on this warm, sunny December day, we are agreeing that the "programme" ain't perfect.

For starters, IB teachers can sometimes become slaves to the structures of IB examinations and the banks of past IB examinations and papers. Through the years that I have been a part of teaching the IB, I have seen this tendency to "teach to the test" grow quite strong. In defense of the IB program, I have to admit that the structures of the various IB written assessments tend to be academically beefy, but as Art and I are finding, there are some exceptions in every IB discipline; the IOP discussed above being just one example. Teaching to the test can be a powerful experience if the end assessment is an excellent evaluative tool. If it isn't ... well ...

As IB teachers tend more towards teaching to the test, IB students become more test-obsessed. In my own IB classes, the question "Will this be on the test?" became an all too common refrain. Many times, I answered, "Yes! This content is from such-such location in the curriculum and syllabus guide." But sometimes I answered, "No, but this content will help you to better understand such-and-such topic that could be on the exam. Trust me." Despite my pleas, students tended to pay attention in the former case and to doze off in the latter case.

Each IB curriculum goes through a curriculum review cycle ever few years. The cycle is a proper evaluation in that during a given review cycle, each IB program is assessed for needs, design, content, implementation, and outcomes as measured against yearly examination results and feedback from current teachers. The idea of conducting a regular review cycle is fantastic, making for a dynamic curriculum. But sometimes programs that "ain't broke" get "fixed" nonetheless. Consider that in the past few years, the IB Design Technology program has de-emphasized providing students with opportunities to actually create stuff. The IB Theater program has come to de-emphasize providing students with opportunities to actually perform stuff. And as Art's experience above illustrates, the IB English program may be de-emphasizing providing students with the opportunity to make logical sense of stuff.

During my later years as an IB Economics teacher, I tried to solve some of these problems by developing instructional units tightly based on the IB syllabus, but in some cases going beyond it. I would not add additional units to those suggested by the IB Economics syllabus, but I would augment each unit with additional lessons, some designed for struggling students, some designed for accelerated students. As an example, the IB Economics syllabus does not ask students to derive a demand curve. Such a derivation was a part of my course, and I found that with my weaker students, deriving a demand curve helped them to better conceptualize what 'demand' really is. For more able students, my course allowed students to opportunity to delve into 'supply' and 'sustainability.' The IB syllabus does not specify that teachers prompt students to consider the linkages between these two concepts, but I thought it both relevant and important to spend some time considering the limit of such linkages. Given my students' IB exam averages, they were certainly not hurt by my course's time allocations.

I wonder how many IB teachers make similar adjustments? Based on my current conversation with Art, I know another teacher that is heading down that path.

Later that day, second-year IB students pops his head into my office and tentatively asks me if I can answer an Econ question for him. I am an administrator and have not taught Econ in a few years, but many of my school's students have found my YouTube website, one devoted to helping folks to better understand the intricacies of both the IB and the AP Economics syllabi. I tell the student to come on in. His question is about the role of the central bank in the economy (something specified on his IB Ecnomics syllabus). He wants to know about the central bank and interest rates. I ask him if he has studied the money market and the loanable funds market (two topics not specified on the IB Economics syallabus but that were a part of my old Econ course). He responds negatively. We spend the next fifteen minutes discussing both markets and how they relate to central banks and to almost every other bank in most economies. He is a good student and he has studied other markets to the extent that his is able to catch on to the mechanics of these two markets. I see the light bulb go on as he is able to easily answer his initial question now. He feels great, leaving my office with a greater degree of confidence.

Looking back, he smiles and asks, "Why aren't these markets on our syllabus?"

Good question.

Thanks for reading. -Kyle