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.

To continue the discussion, please contact me on LinkedIn or at ableyberg@the-learning-curve-hk.com.


TOK Tuesdays

The Map as Metaphor – Part 1

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 $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

The IBDP Portal provides a strong pedagogical framework through a user-friendly interface. Teachers and students can access a unique collection of engaging, authoritative videos in different formats plus helpful supporting materials for the Extended Essay, for TOK, to integrate TOK across the DP curriculum and motivational and curriculum-related resources across 21 DP subjects for teaching and learning. 

Maps help us order and organize the world:    I truly love maps. Maps stir the heart to adventure, they tickle the imagination and inspire wanderlust. Maps are both beautiful and useful and they hint at endless possibilities. Maps guide us (they tell us where to go); maps orient us (they point us in a certain direction); and maps place us in context (they tell us what is around us).  But, and herein lies the inherent problem with maps, in attempting to depict a three dimensional sphere on a two dimensional plane, maps also warp the world. They stretch it out and fatten it up; they shrink and flatten; they tell half truths and white lies in order to tell their stories. Ultimately, as Mark Monmonier (see footnote 1 below) tells us, all maps lie.  And, they have to, otherwise they would overwhelm the reader out of sheer size and/or density of information.  

Below, in images #1 and #2, are a couple of my favorite maps.  It is ok if you didn’t recognize them immediately as maps. Most people wouldn’t necessarily make that connection the first time they see them.   Maybe you would prefer if your maps were printed on paper, or more likely today in the form of a google map, and to follow certain standard conventions.  These “maps” were navigational aids for natives of Greenland and the Marshall Islands respectively, and they are clearly not your standard fare.  The first shows coastal formations, the notches on the wood showing inlets and waterways, while the second shows islands (the cowrie shells) and currents and swells lines (the sticks) in the South Pacific.  They were useful tools in order to organize, order and navigate the world their creators lived in, but they probably challenge conventional notions of what makes a good map.

Since this is a TOK article, you might find it normal if these maps seem a bit confusing.  Whether you have just started the IB Diploma programme, are nearly done, or find yourself somewhere in between, you are probably already aware that many students find their IB Theory of Knowledge course challenging.  This course, unlike other IB classes, is not content centered.  There is no set of core systems, equations, close readings or vocabulary terms that one must memorize or master to successfully complete this course. Nor is there a list of dates, facts and terms that you can simply memorize to pass a quiz or a test. 

Theory of Knowledge might sometimes feel a bit like a philosophy class and at other times like a debate class, and there are seldom objectively “right answers.”  You are asked to consider big questions regarding the formation and foundation of knowledge, and to compare those claims across various academic disciplines and areas of knowledge, and for those of you casting about for a safety net, the answer to every other odd question is not found in the back of the book.  In fact, you are probably asking yourself, “What book?

The Map Metaphor and the IB:  You might also be asking yourself what maps have to do with Theory of Knowledge.  This is a fair question. In the current iteration of the IB guide, and continuing into the next guide coming online in 2020, the IB has urged that teachers help their students to understand “The Map Metaphor.”  This metaphor, first put forward by Alfred Korbyski tells us that “the map is not the territory.”  “Wait,” you might be saying, “I thought a map was a depiction of some territory?”  This may be true, but, essentially, he is claiming that the elements (whether words, maps, models or formulas) we use to depict a real thing are not actually the same as the reality they represent.  They are instead limited models, abstractions, or depictions of only a certain part (or parts) of that reality.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I am asked to use a complex metaphor to understand an even more difficult concept, I get a funny feeling in my stomach. That feeling tells me that this might be a difficult concept that needs some serious unpacking.  With that in mind, in this article I want to try to do three things. Firstly, I want to spend a little time explaining what metaphors are, and how they can help us to understand complex problems. Then I will look at the rich world of maps to help us understand what maps are, and how they might help you better understand the worlds they represent.  Finally, I will look at how Areas of Knowledge might function as types of “maps” and how they might best display that knowledge.  

Why we use Metaphors:  Metaphors are useful tools that help you to scaffold your understanding of a new idea or concept. They can make the strange seem familiar.  The metaphor then creates a link between the known idea, and the new concept. In image #3 (below) you can see that we are constantly using metaphors to understand the world around us. Maps are just one type of metaphor. 


Image #3:  https://importanceofbeingvisual.com/2018/06/12/using-visual-metaphors/

Each Map tells a story, just not the whole story: Let’s return back to our maps.  Most of us are familiar with world maps. You might have one hanging in your classroom, or even on the wall in your bedroom.  In images 4, 5, and 6 you can see three different world maps. While each map is a “World Map” they can each only depict a portion of that world, and, as you can quickly see, they are very different.  The first (image 4) is a medieval world map. You might not have even recognized it as a map. At first glance it would be easy to dismiss it as dated (which it certainly is) or wildly inaccurate. And, you would be correct in doing so if you were trying to use this map as a navigational tool or as a way to find current national borders.  But, to dismiss it out of turn as inaccurate would be to dismiss the purpose of this map. In some regards this map depicts the world of the medieval mapmaker (and those who would have consulted it) more accurately than the maps that follow. Unlike the maps that you are probably more familiar with, it is oriented (pointed) toward the East (toward Jerusalem) and divides the known continents between the sons of Noah as described in the Old Testament. It portrays a world-view that is consistent within the context it was constructed.

In the following images (5 and 6) we return to more familiar looking territory. These two maps depict the world using two of the most common map projections, the Mercator projection and the Gall-Peters projection.  Map projections allow the map maker to display a three dimensional object (the globe) on a two dimensional plane (the map) but there are always sacrifices to be made.  The first (Mercator) preserves lines of constant reckoning and relative shape thus allowing it to serve as a navigational aid, but it enlarges certain areas, making them appear much larger (e.g. Greenland and Canada) than they really are.   The Gall-Peters projection, on the other hand, preserves relative size while distorting shape. Additionally, the Mercator map shows political divisions and countries, while the Gall-Peters shows topography. In order to evaluate which of these maps is the best or most accurate map then, the first question you would have to ask would be, “for what purpose is the map going to be used?”  Is it a concept map, a navigational aid, a political map, or something else entirely? The “best” map then is, at least in part, determined by the usefulness of the map.

  1. Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. pg 1.

Acknowledgments by guest author Daryl Hitchcock: 

I would like to mention the influence of Matthew Edney Ph.D. Matthew is the Osher Professor in the History of Cartography, at the University of Southern Maine. He is also the Project Director of the History of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and many, many years ago now he planted the seeds for this article.  I hope upon reading this he would find that I remembered something and that I got it at least partially correct.


Connecting Thursdays

Undue Influence

Under what circumstances do authority figures inhibit the development of knowledge?

Most researchers like to proudly evoke the titans of their field. Biologists are quick to mention Darwin, mathematicians Gauss and historians Thucydides.  And even when limitations to their work are contemplated it’s done gently, with the utmost respect. You might think that The Republic’s view of the ideal society leans dangerously towards the totalitarian, or be hard at work on “extensions” to general theory of relativity, but the thought that Plato or Einstein had anything even remotely resembling a negative influence on philosophy or physics would never enter your head.  

But what about psychology? In particular, what about the figure of Sigmund Freud, doubtless the most famous psychologist the world has known and clearly one of the founding fathers of the entire discipline.    

In this clip, UC Berkeley sleep scientist Prof. Matthew Walker ruminates on how the enormous influence of Freud had a decidedly negative impact on the science of sleep and dreams – an influence that, he claims, we’re still living with.

Prof. Walker’s arguments are, it should be stressed, decidedly TOK-related. His concern doesn’t just focus on Freud as an authority figure and our unwillingness to question established opinion, it’s strongly related to his belief in the nature of appropriate evidence for a scientific theory – more specifically on how the inherently unverifiable nature of Freudian thinking is antithetical to our modern scientific principles. 

Related Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP resources and supporting materials:  TOK Connections Guide for Psychology, In Freud’s Shadow (TOK), Evolutionary Evidence (TOK), Sleep Attitudes (TOK), Sleep and Memory (TOK).