Extending Wednesdays

The role of the Librarian in the IB DP

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If you are reading this you are probably in an IB school – which means you are very lucky because you almost certainly have a school librarian to support you. But what is the unique role that a librarian should have in your education, and how can you make the most of what your librarian is offering?

It’s not all about books!

School libraries around the world are under threat (BBC, 2017ABC news, 2017; Citylab, 2019) and, as school budgets are being squeezed, many regard a professional librarian (and often even a library) as a luxury they can’t afford rather than an educational necessity. The problem is largely one of definition, and of understanding (both among school leaders and librarians themselves) of what a school librarian does – and that is why the situation is often different in IB schools. The traditional definition of a librarian is “a person in charge of or assisting in a library” (1), where a library is “a building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and sometimes films and recorded music for use or borrowing by the public or the members of an institution” (2).

In a world where so much information is freely available online, ebooks are on the rise and many print books are cheap to buy, some have even suggested that libraries should be replaced by a well-known online retail giant (Guardian, 2018). But regardless of the arguments about the importance of books in education (and I am convinced they are still very important), the real problem often lies in school librarians grounding their identity in books and reading, not in education. The central purpose of schools is education and that should be the central purpose of school librarians too. If “they aren’t buying what we’re selling” then maybe the problem is with us, not them!

Fortunately, the IB recognises this and has published a document entitled Ideal libraries (IBO, 2018) explaining (3) what you should be able to expect from your school library. It defines (school) libraries as “combinations of people, places, collections and services that aid and extend learning and teaching.” (p.2). Notice that books aren’t mentioned at all – not because they aren’t an important and valuable part of our job, but because they are a tool we use to achieve our purpose, not the reason we exist. This astonishing and inspiring document goes on to explain the key roles of the librarian, and I am going to use it to explain what you should be expecting from your school librarian, and why they are a fundamental part of your IB education.

So what does a school librarian do?

The IBO says in Ideal Libraries that:

Library/ians act as curators of information, caretakers of content and people, catalysts of people and services, and connectors to sources of information, multiliteracies, and reading. Librarians’ responsibilities are inspired by the learning environments they engage with, and in that capacity, they are co-creators of information with the school and the wider community. They challenge learners to seek appropriate information, to use sound methods of inquiry and research, and teach them to question the information they find and use. (p.5)

In short, your librarian is the person to know if you want to learn how to access and work with information to generate and/or answer an inquiry question. You might expect your librarian to have the skills to locate and access information on whatever obscure topic you may have chosen for your EE (or IA), but our role goes far beyond that. It’s our job to be able to teach you to understand how to journey from the vague stirrings of an interest in a topic all the way through to a carefully researched, tightly argued and appropriately sourced and referenced essay answering a thoughtfully worded inquiry question within the space of about nine months, reflecting as you go. In short, it is our job to turn you into an academic researcher (although we prefer the term inquirer).

Shaping the EE process

Your teachers and supervisors are subject specialists, but your librarian is the specialist in inquiry. “Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic or issue. It requires more of them than simply answering questions or getting a right answer.(Kuhlthau, 2007, p. 2). More broadly, “inquiry is a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world, [and] as such, it is a stance that pervades all aspects of life and is essential to the way in which knowledge is created” (Galileo Educational Network).

The Extended Essay may be your first major step into the type of inquiry where you have real freedom to choose your own topic, so it makes sense that it should be guided by someone who really understands the process. At Oakham School, our journey with inquiry began with an examination of the EE process and how it could be reshaped to support our students more effectively. In 2010 Darryl Toerien, the Head of Library, had been developing his understanding of inquiry through the work of Carol Kuhlthau and Barbara Stripling. He realised that the EE process that he had inherited when he joined the school in 2008 was largely driven by an administrative need to make sure that students met certain deadlines rather than by a deep understanding of the inquiry process and what it would take for them to get there.

Oakham School’s first EE timetable (2001-3 cohort)

Most glaringly, students were expected to select their research question within four weeks of their first introduction to the EE, but were then only given dedicated off-timetable time to work on the EE six months later, a week before their first draft was due. While they were expected to start gathering research materials much earlier, there was no real expectation of any substantial reading until EE “research week”, when they needed to do their reading and writing together in a fairly short concentrated space of time.

From his understanding of Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, Darryl realised that the inquiry question only emerges from a deep understanding of the topic, achieved by using resources to investigate the topic and build understanding. You go into your investigation with an idea and a direction, and emerge with an understanding of an appropriate question to answer. He also realised that the most challenging, transformative and important work of the EE is not what is often called the “research” – finding resources and reading them – or even writing the essay. It is what comes in between those two – constructing a new (to you) understanding of your topic based on what you have read. This is what changes you and equips you to write an original, evidence-based essay, rather than a disjointed patchwork of other people’s thoughts. But this takes time and support.

Our current timetable is based on a blend of Information Search Process and The FOSIL Cycle, developed by Darryl based on the Stripling Model of Inquiry within the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum.

The FOSIL Cycle

The FOSIL cycle is a clear description of all the stages of inquiry, resting on a foundation of decades of research and it would require a blog post of its own to explain how the cycle works and the impact it has on teaching and learning – if you are interested visit the The FOSIL Group website for more information about the cycle, free downloadable resources and a community of educators sharing their ideas in our forum.

By understanding how the inquiry process works, we can guide our students more effectively through it. In this particular case we realised that students had almost no time for Connect and Wonder (the background research and exploration required to understand a topic well enough to ask good questions) and often skipped Construct (building understanding) altogether as they jumped from Investigate (finding out) to Express (writing).

Adding Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process, which described what students might be thinking, doing and feeling at each stage, into the timetable was the final piece of the puzzle.

Oakham School’s current EE support structure (2019-21 cohort): Based on the FOSIL cycle and the Information Search Process

We began to understand how students might be feeling at different stages of the process and when the most appropriate times to offer support were. In terms of structured support (provided centrally to the whole cohort, as opposed to that provided by supervisors) we went from just one seminar at the start of the process to three, backed up by two dedicated IT workshops. We also split the Research Days into two chunks, giving students three Investigation Days off timetable to find resources and start working with them quite early in the process (February), with plenty of time to continue reading, follow up leads and acquire new resources, think through what they had read and discuss it with their supervisors in between that and the Writing Days (June). This Construct time is critical to helping students find their own voices. This is what the new timetable looks like in practice:

Hopefully you can see that this timetable is now informed by an understanding of the inquiry process and the student experience, rather than an administrative need for students to reach certain goals. The Library is also now integral to the EE process, not peripheral. This is the value of involving the Librarian in shaping the EE process.

Supporting the EE process

We now support the EE process through:

  • Offering three compulsory targeted seminars at appropriate intervention points.
  • Offering two compulsory targeted IT workshops at appropriate intervention points. As our provision has improved further down the school, we are finding more students arriving in the sixth form able to use the tools in Word to cite and reference and generate contents lists. This year we plan to offer parallel sessions for those who have never used these tools before and those who feel reasonably confident and just need a reminder.
  • Supporting students in small groups and individually during the Investigation and Writing Days. It’s amazing how often students who thought they were pretty good at searching come out of these seminars surprised at how much they have learnt – if your library offers similar seminars it would be worth attending.
  • Providing a web-based support resource (in our case a LibGuide) supporting students at every stage of the process. Our new EE LibGuide absolutely transformed our EE support last year, empowering students to access the support they need whenever they need it, moving through the process at their own pace. Having launched the resource in December 2019 with no idea of what was to come, the guide also enabled us to provide our strongest support ever, despite the coronavirus shutdown. We may continue to use some of the strategies we developed last year even after life returns to normal – for example using video tutorials for IT skills enables students to differentiate and self-pace and revisit in a way that live workshops do not, and allows them to choose PC or Mac based tutorials.
  • Offering individual support as requested. We welcome individual requests by email or (before lockdown!) in person, and students often contact us for help finding resources on obscure topics and on citing different types of resources.
  • Providing a broad and rich range of print and subscription resources, and purchasing new resources (or suggesting suitable alternatives) on request. Which leads us on to the third strand of the library service – and perhaps the one that springs to mind for most people when they think of the role of the library:

Resourcing the EE process

We have always emphasised using a wide variety of resources for in-depth research like the EE.

I. Books are perfect both for breadth – for reading around, becoming an expert in your topic and putting it into context. They are often (but not always) good academic sources, particularly when from well-known publishers, but you do still have to watch out for bias. Their biggest issue is the publishing time lag, which can mean it is harder to find a range of books about emerging issues, and the cost for niche academic texts.

II. Online journal articles often give very narrowly focussed depth (and can be very current) but have to be used carefully at this level because they can be too focused if you don’t have appropriate grounding in that area. Our most commonly used databases for the EE are EBSCO Advanced Placement source and JSTOR – and both have also proved invaluable last year for the range of ebooks they have during lockdown when the physical library was closed. We also saw increasing use of the Oxford Very Short Introductions ebooks, which offer the quality and depth of print books combined with the searchable convenience of online resources.

III. We have other subscription databases as well, and a third important category is targeted databases aimed directly at students at this level, which are increasingly starting to include video as well as print resources. We picked up the fantastic Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal resource quite late in the process last year, when many of our students were already quite far into the investigation and were moving towards writing. As we approach the start of our EE process this year, I am confident that this innovative and exciting resource will really come into its own during the Connect stage of the FOSIL Cycle.

The short clips and compilations (each of which comes with an accompanying 1-page PDF providing lots of helpful information related to each video, including citing instructions) and the longer, in-depth conversations with world-leading researchers are ideal for students with a vague idea of the subject and perhaps topics they are interested in, but no clear direction. They are perfect for browsing and stimulating interest – and students who discover a line of inquiry that inspires them are assured of a one-hour detailed conversation with an expert in the field (with an accompanying PDF e-book) underpinning each clip or compilation to kick off their investigation!

Shaping you

As you can see from the above, although my role as a librarian does involve the traditional “librarian” activities of acquiring and curating resources, and helping my students to navigate them, it is actually so much bigger than that. I see my role directly as an educator. Perhaps more than anyone else in the school, it is the librarian’s job to nurture, enable and empower life-long learners because our subject is inquiry. I am not constrained by the need to teach my students to pass a Chemistry or Latin or Sports Science exam as well as teaching them how to think and learn independently – how to find, access, interrogate, assimilate, evaluate information and transform it into knowledge for themselves.

Not for me, not for the IB, not for the EE, not for their parents or their teachers. For themselves.

My students think I am supporting them through the EE, but my goal is so much larger. Done properly an EE can be a life changing experience that transforms a young person’s relationship with information and knowledge. It may well be the first time in your life when you realise that you have the power to turn yourself into an expert – when you realise that you know more about an academic topic than anyone around you, including your teachers, and that your thoughts and ideas matter.

I want to empower young people to question the narratives the world offers them, and to have the tools to seek authentic answers to those questions. I believe that the skills and attitudes that you learn through a relationship with your Library/ians during your school career will be vital for your success, not just at university but through the rest of your life.

As Ideal Libraries puts it: 

“Libraries are where most forms of inquiry, not just academic ones, begin. The school may set the conditions for inquiry, encourage inquiry, and to some extent direct it, but learners must initiate inquiry for it to happen.” 

You may think librarians spend all day hiding away in the library waiting patiently for someone to come in and ask for a book, but actually we’re hard at work (often late into the night) on changing the world, student by student. As the author and film-maker Michael Moore said of librarians back in 2002:

 “They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.”

1)  Oxford University Press. (2010) Librarian. In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Stevenson, Angus. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0468920

2) Oxford University Press. (2010) Library. In Oxford Dictionary of English, edited by Stevenson, Angus. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199571123.001.0001/m_en_gb0468930

3) IBO (2018) Ideal libraries: a guide for schools. Cardiff: IBO. Retrieved 12 June, 2020, from: https://uaeschoollibrariansgroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/06/ideal-libraries-for-ib.pdf

Jennifer Toerien, IB librarian

Extending Wednesdays

Mindsets and Cultural Factors

In today’s clip, Stanford University social psychologist Carol Dweck describes how our appreciation of the key distinction between a growth and fixed mindset, despite its universal relevance to a wide variety of different human societies, invariably needs to be presented in a way that specifically resonates with particular cultural values in order to be accepted and properly understood. 

This clip is an excerpt from Ideas Roadshow’s Extending Ideas in Psychology video.  There are 7 different Extending Ideas videos that are part of the extensive collection of authoritative expert resources for the extended essay on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal. Each of those videos features five specific topics highlighted by Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources for a possible extended essay or internal assessment in that subject area.  Meanwhile, the comprehensive Ideas Roadshow Extended Essay Guide for Students highlights an additional 5 possible extended essay ideas for each of the 21 different DP subjects we cover.

Extending Wednesdays

The Role of Reflection in the Extended Essay

Our first Extending Wednesday guest post is by Alethea Bleyberg. Alethea is an IB educator and examiner based in Hong Kong and is a member of the Extended Essay curriculum review team.

As a member of the curriculum review team for the Extended Essay, I was recently asked to feed back to the team leader my thoughts on the role of reflection in the EE process. Reflection received a new and substantial emphasis in the current EE guide (first assessment 2018) with the introduction of the Researcher’s Reflection Space (RSS), formal reflection sessions and the Reflections on planning and progress form, more commonly known as the RPPF. What follows here are my own thoughts on the role of the reflection in the EE process, in light of the input of the many thoughtful contributions from my fellow team members.

The EE guide, understandably, makes a number of assumptions about the importance of reflection in the Extended Essay process. Reflection, after all, is embedded in the philosophy of all IB programmes. It is one of the ten learner profile attributes. As a metacognitive skill, reflection is a complex process requiring a focus on multiple types of strategies, including cognitive, metacognitive and affective/motivation strategies. Moreover, it is assumed that reflective thinking strategies generally result in increased academic achievement. As a result, reflection is an integral component of virtually all IBDP courses whether it be the process portfolio in Visual Arts, the learner portfolio in Literature: A or the TOK journal in TOK. It was, therefore, no surprise that the last curriculum review resulted in reflection being added as an assessed component in the Extended Essay process. The EE guide sums up its assumptions around the importance of reflection succinctly as follows: 

“As a part of the extended essay, students will be expected to show evidence of intellectual growth, critical and personal development, intellectual initiative and creativity. The depth of reflection will demonstrate that the student has constructively engaged with the learning process. Such engagement provides evidence that the student has grown as a learner as a result of his or her experience. More importantly, it demonstrates skills [such as critical thinking, decision-making, research, planning, time management, citing and referencing] have been learned.” (EE guide p.41)

It seems to me, therefore, that placing emphasis on reflection, especially in a process as complex as the Extended Essay, can only be a good thing. But this by no means answers the following questions around how reflection should be structured, guided, evaluated and assessed in the EE:

I. Structure

  • How do students respond to formal reflection? Do they complete the RPPF reflections as intended? 
  • What is the relationship between the quality of the essay and the quality of the RPPF entries? 
  • Is the structure of the RPPF the best way to collect reflections?
  • Is the 500-word limit a useful tool to ensure concision or limiting to student’s ability to reflect deeply?
  • Are students really keeping a RSS? How are they being rewarded for doing so?

II. Guidance

  • To what extent should students be guided in how to write formal reflections?
  • How well do the materials in the TSM (Teacher Support Materials) reflect how the RPPF is assessed and guide teachers in supporting students?
  • Are some students being over-supported by their supervisor or coordinator in writing the reflections?
  • Should students be allowed to edit their reflections?

III. Evaluation of effectiveness as a teaching tool

  • Is mandatory reflection an authentic task? 
  • How do we know that students have developed key skills in time-management, organization, research, academic writing and academic honesty through the quality of their written reflections? Does the RPPF evaluate students’ ability to write well more than it does their ability to reflect well?
  • Are students that don’t encounter obstacles in the process due to good planning disadvantaged?
  • Is formal reflection effective in ensuring academic integrity?
  • How do we ensure that students avoid purely descriptive reflections but rather demonstrate higher order thinking skills?

IV. Assessment

  • Should reflection be assessed?
  • If so, is 18% (6/34) of the EE mark an appropriate weighting? 
  • If not, how should students be penalized for not providing reflections?
  • Are the current descriptors in Criterion E fit for purpose in evaluating the quality of student reflection?
  • Are examiners evaluating RPPFs on their own merit or in relation to the quality of the essay (as many EE coordinators report)? If the latter, is that appropriate?

I will try to summarise my thoughts on each of the categories above as best as I can:

I. Structure

In my own experience with students, the quality of the reflections often fails to live up to the quality of the EE. Occasionally this is because students don’t actually complete the reflections when they should in the process, but even when they do, I have found even some of my brightest students’ reflections rather superficial and focused on the less interesting parts of their project. The feedback I have received from my students is that they see reflection as an afterthought to an already daunting process, and something of an IB box-ticking exercise rather than a process designed to support their success. Certainly, it would be possible to integrate reflection within the structure of the EE, but the danger of this is that it could interrupt the writer’s flow and sound inauthentic. 

My own feeling is that the RPPF is largely fit for purpose, but that the 500-word limit discourages students from more meaningful, in-depth reflection. I would like to see the RSS and RPPF merged in some way so that reflection becomes an integral part of the EE process for students, although I acknowledge that student’s natural inclination is to do the bare minimum. Still, I feel that if students could choose three of a wider range of more detailed (hence longer) reflections, they would be more likely to choose reflections that better articulate the parts of the process that were most significant for them.

II. Guidance

I am a strong believer in scaffolding students’ learning experiences and providing explicit guidance on how to write strong reflections along with exemplars is the best way to raise expectations around written reflections. The poor quality of reflections seen by many EE coordinators and examiners suggests there is still a way to go to ensuring most IB Diploma students are confident and articulate reflective thinkers. To that end, the materials in the TSM could be improved to support EE supervisors and coordinators in clarifying expectations and standards to students, and supporting students in improving the quality of their own reflections.

III. Evaluation of effectiveness as a teaching tool

Most would agree that mandatory reflection is an authentic task as it is required not only in school settings, but increasingly by universities and in workplaces (think goal-setting, performance management, professional coaching, editing written work, the design thinking process etc.). 

The extent to which written reflections actually demonstrate mastery of key skills is more contested. Surely the quality of the essay itself is more important in assessing the extent to which self-management, research, communication and thinking skills have been shown in the process. The experience of many EE coordinators is that the marks awarded in Criteria A-D closely match those awarded for Criterion E, regardless of the quality of the reflections. It would be interesting to see a statistical analysis of the correlation between marks for Criteria A-D compared to Criterion E to see how closely aligned the marking of EEs and RPPFs is. If the correlation is strong, perhaps further investigation is needed into why this is the case. It would perhaps also be useful for the IB to make available some examples of EEs whose RPPF was much stronger than the essay itself, especially where the RPPF was the element that pushed the EE over a grade boundary, to highlight the importance of reflection in the EE process.

IV. Assessment

The current weighting, at nearly 20%, seems to place too heavy an emphasis on the RPPF compared to the rigours of the essay itself. The RPPF seems to disproportionately reward reflection over other skills fundamental in a successful EE process. 

Some students, seeing that in Criterion E it is suggested that students address how they overcame challenges, seem to exaggerate or make up problems they encountered. Alternatively, students who planned their process well sometimes feel disadvantaged in not having a dramatic obstacle to reflect on. Perhaps this could be clarified in the next guide so that students are reassured they don’t have to have overcome a major hurdle to be rewarded in Criterion E.

As a former IB Diploma graduate, IB Diploma and EE Coordinator, imagining the future of the Extended Essay and contributing to improvements to the process for students is a joy and a privilege.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet you can now sign up for an individual subscription. Annual individual teacher or student subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources. School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school.

Extending Wednesdays

Money & Science

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Economics section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide, and features renowned scientist, polymath and author Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study, reflecting on how underlying economic motivations often drive scientific inquiry. 

The fact that science, like any other human activity, is subjected to large-scale economic influences is hardly surprising when one stops to think about it, but often scientific activity is treated as somehow “beyond” standard economic frameworks with incentive structures considered to be based solely on internal scientific criteria or a more abstract, idealistic evaluation of “research interest”.

But Professor Dyson’s comments shed light on several important factors directly correlated with the economics of scientific research, ranging from a waste of human capital on a large-scale sociological level to an increased sense of personal and professional frustration on a personal one. 

This topic bridges Economics, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Geography and Environmental Systems and Societies.  Possible areas of investigation for an Extended Essay include analytical studies of the influence of economic factors on specific avenues of scientific research and the associated complexities of objectively quantifying innovation and productivity in the context of scientific research.

Related resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal include the clips Too Much String, and Suddenly Fashionable, as well as the hour-long videos and accompanying enhanced eBooks Pushing The Boundaries and The Problems of Physics which include a wealth of additional research materials.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal yet you can now sign up for an individual subscription. Annual individual teacher or student subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources. School-wide subscriptions are affordably priced based on the number of DP students in your school.

Extending Wednesdays

Phantom Limb Pain

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Biology section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide which you can find in the EE section of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal, where Duke University neuroscientists Jennifer Groh and Miguel Nicolelis highlight how the intriguing phenomenon of “phantom limb pain” can be used to probe a wealth of issues related to the structure of our brains. 

Excerpt from the clip Suddenly Painful featuring Prof. Jennifer Groh

While Professor Groh focuses on the mysteries underlying what “spontaneous neural firing” really means, her fellow neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis invokes phantom limb pain as direct support for his belief that the brain actively constructs our representation of the world around us rather than simply recording sensory inputs, as biologists long believed:

“Interestingly enough, if you now change the framework and you put the brain in the centre of the picture, you find a completely different explanation for phantom limb pain. If you appreciate that the brain has an internal model of the body, which it has developed over the years, now what happens when you lose part of it? Suddenly, the brain has an internal model that is mismatched to the body and it is this mismatch that generates the illusion that you still have a part of yourself that has disappeared.”

Possible areas of investigation for an Extended Essay include an analysis of the history of phantom limb pain, competing scientific explanations, current and future experiments and implications for our general understanding of brain structure. 

Related Ideas Roadshow content includes the clips Suddenly Painful, Constantly Testing, the compilation video Examining the Brain and the enhanced eBooks and hour-long videos Knowing One’s Place: Spatial Processing and the Brain and Minds and Machines.

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

Extending Wednesdays

The Drake Equation

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from our Extending Ideas in Mathematics video, where renowned astronomer and former longtime SETI director of research Jill Tarter discusses the famous equation that Frank Drake developed in the 1960s to help us best assess the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe. 

This intriguing topic naturally straddles a vast number of different fields, encompassing mathematics (through its pioneering use of statistical arguments), physics (through associated measurement and observational techniques), biology (definitions of life and intelligence), philosophy (the epistemic validity of such statistical techniques) and social and cultural anthropology (the validity of extrapolating the notions of intelligence and civilisation based upon our own experiences). 

While this wide variety of possible angles of attack might well raise suspicions about the likelihood of developing a suitably refined research question, more direct and focussed possibilities associated with this general topic include:

  1. An analysis of the current state of our knowledge of the specific parameters of the Drake equation
  2. An examination of its degree of recognition throughout the scientific community
  3. To what extent the biological category of “extremophiles” have changed the basic definition of life, together with specific examinations of extremophiles
  4. The rapidly evolving state of our understanding of exoplanets and related astronomical techniques for detecting them
  5. An assessment of how the prospect of extraterrestrial life influences the way we look at our own

Related resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal include the clips A Cosmic Perspective, Frank Drake’s Agenda, Fermi’s Paradox, Hunting Exoplanets, Technology as a Proxy, and the hour-long video SETI: Astronomy as a Contact Sport plus the accompanying eBook with lots of additional reference materials.

  If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $75 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

Extending Wednesdays

Improving Democracy

Today’s Extending Wednesdays topic comes from the Global Politics section of Ideas Roadshow’s Extended Essay Guide for Students, where Stanford University political scientist and classicist Josiah Ober highlights some possible ways that our standard democratic practices might be improved, citing the work of fellow Stanford political scientist James Fishkin – below you can find an overview of related resources that are part of Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

Those interested in exploring the general theme of democracy can move in various directions spurred on by Professor Ober’s reflections. 

Students curious about Professor Fishkin’s deliberative polling techniques and where they have been directly applied, are referred to the clip Making Better Decisions as well as the references at the end of Chapter 9 in the associated eBook Democratic Lessons: What the Greeks Can Teach Us.  

Those motivated to more concretely compare and contrast democratic practices of Ancient Greece with those of our own day are directed to the clip, A Two-Way Street, as well as chapter 5 of the eBook and matching hour-long video.  Meanwhile, in our Extending Ideas in Global Politics video, the segment with Professor Ober concerns how social media might be best harnessed to improve our current democratic structures by bringing them more in line with some aspects of ancient Athenian practices. 

Students with a more historical bent might wish to examine how societal perceptions of ancient Athenian democratic practices changed drastically over time from a dangerous mistake to a heroic precedent.   In A Notable Exception, Professor Ober describes why he believes that ancient Athenian society provides a striking counterexample to Robert Michels’ so-called “Iron Law of Oligarchy”, while in Idealizing Democracy, historian and fellow classicist Richard Janko maintains that our idealized version of classical Athens stops us from looking objectively at its weaknesses. 

Additional Ideas Roadshow content relevant to generally explore the theme of democracy include the clips Democratic Misconceptions, Measuring Democracy, Rhetorical Insights, The Importance of Dialogue, The Merits of Dissent, Thinking It Through and Winning Ideas; the compilations Examining Democracy, Probing the Political and Tyranny of the Majority, and the hour-long video and matching eBook with University of Cambridge political scientist John Dunn Democracy: Clarifying the Muddle.

TOK Tuesdays

Try a Little Selfishness

In last week’s post, I urged students to use their imagination to ask themselves what the title-makers might have had in mind when they came up with this year’s version.  The idea was that by engaging in this thought experiment students could assess the titles in terms of how they believed they corresponded to those specific TOK concepts that interested them.

This notion of focusing on student interest is a core feature of Ideas Roadshow’s educational philosophy.   We strongly believe that students will succeed much more frequently, and to a much greater extent, if they have the opportunity to engage with ideas that already interest them, and that an essential aspect of the job of any educator, and any educational resource, is to present them with as many relevant opportunities as possible to pique their interest and launch them on their educational journey.

Of course at some level this is all pretty obvious.  After all, nobody would recommend that someone consider doing an extended essay or internal assessment on something they were profoundly indifferent to (or, worse still, actually repulsed by), but there are nonetheless times when we often fail to take a moment to explicitly consider what students actually get excited about.  Like the TOK essay. 

This post is about doing precisely that. 

We all know that TOK is a many-faceted, naturally interdisciplinary beast that surfaces in all sorts of intriguing and complex ways throughout the real world.  This often makes the associated concepts difficult to understand, and the entire subject virtually impossible to comprehensively define.

But this inherent depth and universal relevance has a very positive flip side: no matter what your specific area of interest is, there’s going to be an intriguing TOK angle to it if you take the time to investigate it closely.   Contrast this with many standard DP subjects. In most courses, at least some of the time will likely be spent wading through material that students aren’t terribly excited about. In some cases only a specific part of the syllabus will be particularly appealing, while sometimes the entire course is simply a necessary requirement that has to be navigated en route to a particular career choice. Often students simply have to grin and bear it, doing their best to plow through a body of material that doesn’t particularly captivate them, at least at the outset. We’ve all been there.

But happily, this simply doesn’t apply to the TOK essay.   Since TOK applies to virtually everything, one can simply turn things around and say that virtually everything has a TOK component to it.   Which means that as students go through the process of deciding which TOK prescribed title is best for them, an important aspect of that decision procedure should be – ironically enough – to forget about the titles entirely for a moment and instead just focus on TOK concepts aligned with their interests.

Then they can look at the titles afresh and see which of those give the greatest opportunity to tackle those TOK concepts.  The benefits of this technique include, but extend well beyond, the selection of a prescribed title. If writing an essay provides you with concrete opportunities to deepen your understanding about something you’re already passionate about, chances are that you’ll soon find yourself moving away from thinking, “I’ve got this essay to write” towards, “This is a really cool idea”.   And your essay will most certainly reflect that.  

Again, the good news is that, given its universal relevance and applicability, TOK provides that opportunity for just about any topic. 

So let’s take an example now to demonstrate what I mean.  Once more it should be stressed that these are only my thoughts, and hardly represent objectively true statements, but if I were to end things here without giving you something concrete to grab on to and agree or disagree with, then all of this would rapidly degenerate into little more than a stream of clichés.   

Suppose I’m passionately interested in the arts – one or more of visual arts, music, theatre, film and dance. Perhaps I have ambitions of being a film director or a professional musician.

 So what are some TOK-related concepts that would naturally appeal to me?  Well, probably something like the nature of intuition and imagination in the creative process and its relationship to the development of artistic knowledge; objective vs subjective judgements of artistic quality and how we can be certain in distinguishing between good and bad art; the mechanisms involved in the public reception of new artistic developments and their relationship to prevailing cultural biases; how societal judgements of artistic achievement change over time; what it means to come up with genuinely new ideas in the arts and to what extent that can ever be objectively assessed, and so forth. 

In other words, these are just a few of the sorts of things I’d naturally spend time sitting around discussing with my friends altogether aside from the fact that I have a TOK essay to write.   

Now look to the prescribed titles for May 2020.  Which ones seem to be the best fit with those particular interests?  Again, I can only offer my opinion, and even those are largely dependent upon the specific TOK themes I happened to have mentioned.   But my sense is that titles 1, 3 and 6 would probably provide the best opportunity for me to discuss the sorts of things that I’m naturally interested in.  

And now I’m away to the races, because not only do I have a clearer sense of what title I’m going to pick, I also have some concrete thoughts about  which TOK themes I’d like to explore in my essay. Better still, I’m starting to get surprisingly interested at the prospect of doing so because the whole thing is a subject that I naturally find fascinating and worth exploring.   

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Aside from the fact that writing essays involves a good deal more time and deliberate effort than just chatting with my friends, construction of this particular essay will necessarily force me to make links to things well outside my core interests, in this case invoking other TOK concepts and areas of knowledge that I might not normally care much about.  

But now there’s a difference: I’m not just doing so because “I have an essay to write”, or because “I need to find another AOK”, but instead out of a desire to better investigate my own particular interests and passions. 

Sometimes just focusing on yourself is the best way towards developing a broader understanding.

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