The place of ‘knowledge’ in the IB MYP.

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I have just finished reading Daisy Christodoulou’s ‘Seven Myths About Education’ and several of the myths she explores have highlighted some questions I’ve had regarding the IB Middle Years Programme[i] ‘Next Chapter’ (or the IB MYPNC). These questions relate to the IB MYPNC and the focus on concepts and inquiry and the subsequent position of ‘knowledge’[ii] in the new programme.

The IB MYP does not prescribe content, in the guidelines it states that content and requirements from a local curriculum should be used; the approach to the content will be by utilising the ‘IBMYP framework’[iii]; therefore the body of knowledge that students will gain is up to the school and their local conditions. The IBMYP Guide, “MYP: From principles into practice” (henceforth referred to as the ‘Guide’), outlines the reality of implementing the MYP in a school and it is this that suggests the position or value of ‘knowledge’ in the programme.

The IB MYP is said to encourage and promote “the pursuit of significant knowledge and understanding “[iv] and “An IB education encompasses disciplinary knowledge and understanding that meets international university standards for rigour in terms of depth and breadth”[v]. The IB Learner Profile is a key part of the IB programme and one of these ‘profiles’ is  ‘Knowledgeable’, application of the ‘Learner Profile’ should be what guides the units we create.[vi] The Guide goes into a lot of detail about the importance and place of concepts and conceptual understanding (based on work by Lynn Erickson) as the core of the IB MYP and IB in general. The IB stresses the importance of knowledge as underpinning the conceptual work which will allow for deeper thinking, [vii] (as with Blooms taxonomy, there is a clear distinction being drawn here between low level factual knowledge and higher level conceptual knowledge, which is problematic in its own right).

Given the above, we could conclude that the importance and place of knowledge would seem to be fairly secure; it’s talked about positively in several places, it underpins the conceptual framework, it’s one of the Learner Profiles and in the assessment criteria ‘Knowing and Understanding’ is the first strand used in any assessment, so far so good.

However, there is a tension here that seems to undermine the value of knowledge within the framework. This tension is created primarily by the ‘progressive’ (for want of a better term) pedagogy of the IB, there are numerous mentions of a ‘constructivist’ approach, the concept of ‘learning how to learn’ and a post-modernist view that all interpretations are equal[viii]. This has two consequences; firstly, it devalues the knowledge provided by subject specialists (the teacher), as well as implying all knowledge has equal value. Secondly, the content and knowledge must take second place to skills and concepts.

In the first case, it is clear that the direct teaching of factual content is not as valued: “The International Baccalaureate (IB) values education more as the transformation of personal understanding and the collaborative construction of meaning, and less as the transmission of knowledge and rote memorisation of facts.”[ix] If this means every individuals understanding (could we say ‘knowledge’ here?) is to be used to create a group understanding of a subject then this implies every individuals understanding is equal, and this is clearly not the case. I think it is vital that we gauge and then utilise the prior knowledge of the students, but this is not what is being advocated here. Implicitly the role of the teacher as the transmitter of knowledge is devalued. This is reinforced by a quote from Alec Peterson, the 1st IB Director General: “What matters is not the absorption and regurgitation either of facts or of predigested interpretations of facts…”[x] What’s wrong with the absorption of facts? The language used to describe the teaching of knowledge or facts is clearly negative, this is highlighted in both the quote above and within the guide itself; I see this as setting a clear agenda.

The hierarchical nature that is implied – knowledge simply used to drive the conceptual focus of the program – means that realistically knowledge is not going to be treated in as much depth as teachers aim to uphold the goal of the IB MYP: “conceptual understanding is a significant and enduring goal for teaching and learning in IB programmes.”[xi] If the concepts are the focus, then simply put, teachers will provide knowledge (or it will be co-created) to enable the students to start dealing with the concepts or as Alec Peterson has said, “What matters is… …the development of powers of the mind or ways of thinking which can be applied to new situations and new presentations of facts as they arise.”[xii]

The philosophy outlined above is also very evident in the requirements for planning a unit of work. The guide states, “The MYP unit-planning process: As part of the written curriculum, all teachers must use a unit-planning process that focuses on inquiry, conceptual understanding and global contexts for learning.” Along with this direction, the structure of the generic unit plan document (an example of which can be seen here) drives home the importance of the concepts, and as this is the focus for the entire sequence of work, it is naturally that this will have the most time devoted to it. If the concept comes first and the knowledge is to follow this will only really provide a very superficial understanding of the subject and a shallow grasp of how the concept could be applied in the subject area. I’ve seen the effort to apply this in some subject areas resulting in the inability to teach all the necessary content and not really generating knowledge of the subject.

The purpose of concepts in the IB is to create a link with other subjects, to show explicitly how the concept that you are covering in humanities for example, can be used in Maths. The belief is that the students will have a deeper understanding of the concept as a result and this will allow them to apply this understanding in new contexts. It is likely that students will probably be able to work out “ah yes this is the same concept that we saw in science” only when this is pointed out to them. It is unlikely that, especially for the younger pupils or the less able, that they will spontaneously identify concepts “ah yes this content brings to mind concept ‘x’ that I saw in English”. What we are probably creating is ‘word recognition’ rather than ‘meaning recognition’.

Finally, despite the focus on concepts in the IB MYP, the IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) is still driven by content. To cover everything required in the History Syllabus for example, there simply is very little time to focus on concepts or use a ‘constructivist’ approach, direct instruction has to be the main means of delivering the content. This creates huge problems for students transitioning from the MYP, where there is not a focus on content, to the IBDP where there is a lot of ‘stuff’ to learn, this creates real problems.

In many ways, the IB programme is better than other systems and I would suggest that its aims are absolutely commendable and worthy. I can see the value of conceptual understanding and some guided inquiry, it’s clearly important to know students prior and personal understanding, developing this and exploring this in relation to the work they are doing. I’m not against any of these aims. However, the nature of the construction of ‘Units of Work’ means that the transfer of knowledge or ‘facts’ is very hard to do. And what makes the MYP problematic is a pedagogical focus that may ultimately diminish understanding and make the transition to the Diploma Programme that much harder.

 

[i] The International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program is designed for 11 – 16 year olds and forms part of the IB continuum from 3 – 19.

[ii] ‘Knowledge’ has many interpretations and I don’t want to go to into these here. I will take knowledge to mean the agreed upon information or ‘facts’ that make up underpin a particular academic discipline.

[iii] ‘IB MYP Principles into Practice’. May 2014. IBO. Pg 4.

[iv] Ibid. Pg 9

[v] Ibid. Pg 12

[vi] Ibid. Pg vii

[vii] Ibid. Pg 14 & 16

[viii] I’m reminded of an episode of ‘Friends’ where Phoebe, whilst arguing with Ross, says she doesn’t believe in gravity as “I’ve felt that rather than being pulled down, I’m being pushed down”.

[ix] Ibid. Pg 14

[x] Ibid. Pg 15

[xi] Ibid. Pg 14

[xii] Ibid. Pg 15

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