Looking at the IB Internal Assessment Through a PBL Lens

I feel like I am coming ‘full circle’ in my teaching career. I am considering a move back to the US, and COETAIL is talking about PBL!  I started teaching in a school that was billed as a ‘PBL magnet school’, and feetas I read statements like the one below, I realize that I may need to revisit PBL after a 6 year hiatus.

Traditional teaching and learning models are becoming increasingly ineffective…..students are often faced with assignments and assessments that lack a real-world context. Many of these students either learn to do just enough to get by or they lose interest altogether and drop out.  –Challengebasedlearning.org

From my own personal history teaching PBL, as well as what I have read recently, I believe a different kind of learning occurs with PBL.  It is not a focus on breadth.  It is not even a focus on depth, necessarily.  PBL emphasizes personal motivation, connections between disciplines, creativity in problem solving and meta-cognition. It also promotes perseverance and presentation skills.

I am fortunate enough to teach in what I consider one of the best schools in the world.  It is full of extremely talented teachers and incredibly motivated students.  But I won’t pretend that it isn’t ‘externally motivated’ and fully vested into curriculum produced by the IB and AP.  We have an an unwritten code that says something like this:  What you do in the classroom should directly support high achievement on IB/AP exams.

I tend to see PBL embraced in two contexts:

-Schools with large populations of students from ‘at-risk’ situations (low-income, criminal history, achieving districts, etc.).

-Truly independent/alternative schools with high-ability students (schools where external examinations are not a major motivating factor).

It seems like PBL is rarely implemented in schools like mine:  college-prep, highly academic, focused on exam results, high income.

Then it hit me:  The required (and often feared/loathed) Internal Assessment (IA) could be approached as PBL.  The IA requires students to formulate a research question, develop an experimental method, carry IB-Logoout the experiment, analyze their results to draw conclusions, and evaluate their experiment.  It is about as close to “real science” as the IB gets!  While the “authenticity” of the research question might be questionable, there are several areas aspects where the IA does incorporate aspects of PBL:

  • Students are ‘pulled through the curriculum by a driving question’.
  • Students work relatively independently of the teacher, who acts as a facilitator
  • Students must use creativity and iterations (the design cycle) as they develop their procedure
  • A non-teacher audience exists (external examiners)

commoncoregraphicsfreeUnfortunately, there are a few aspects of the IA that are most-certainly “anti-PBL”.  Chief among them is a strict prohibition on collaboration, which would result in serious negative consequences if not obeyed.  Also, the end result must be a lab report of X number of pages–not exactly ‘multiple products’.  Finally, while a student may theoretically create a research question which is part of an authentic problem, historically they tend to pick strictly academic topics.

Therefore, it is this context in which I ask these questions:

How can I use the principals of PBL to improve the learning and achievement of my students during their IB internal assessment?

How can I leverage the commonalities between the IA and PBL?

How can I incorporate other (perhaps smaller, lower-stakes) projects into my chemistry course to prepare them for this project?

Over the next month, as we prepare to complete the IA, I will keep these questions in the back of my mind.



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38 Responses

  1. Cate Jarvis says:

    Hi Ryan
    I find the IBO at cross purposes with the implementation PBL. I am relatively new to the whole system (4years) as before that I worked in the UK. In the UK we have some problem based courses, such as BTEC however the others are more structured and prepare pupils for exams. I do think that often these two are seen as mutually exclusive and they don’t need to be! Surely you should be able to learn through problem based activities and still sit exams. What do you think – can you?

    This is where I find the discrepancies with the IBO. The MYP is full of opportunities for PBL and to be honest you could run the whole course using only these methods and are encouraged to do so. However, once pupils move onto the Diploma this method of teaching is harder to support, especially as you have pointed out with the IAs. I often wonder what the IBO would really like to see from their course? and is PBL seen as an important learning opportunity across the grades or only at the level when the pupils are not examined? Your post just made me think so I though I would share. I fell that performance (statistics) is still an important aspect for the IBO and often PBL is seen as the vocational way of learning that is not academically rigorous enough. However that might just be my take on it. Any thoughts?

    • Ryan Lenz says:

      HI Cate–sorry for the late reply, just now seeing this!

      I think there may be a fundamental problem with the way that project-based-learning intersects with paper-based exams. I think that the skills, mindset, etc. that are so important during PBL really are difficult to assess in a traditional assessment.

      Unfortunately, I don’t really see much of a way around this. If we want standardized (i.e. “moderated”) assessments, we have to have the ability for a third party (that doesn’t know the students, didn’t observe them during the projects, doesn’t really understand the context) to give them a score. So, yes, I agree with you in the sense that PBL seems to be fundamentally at odds with the IB. I’m glad they seem to be attempting to move towards more holistic assessment (the new science IA is a good example), but having just gone through the new IA for the first time, I can tell you that it is seriously flawed. I am somewhat frightened to see what the moderators are going to do with the work we send them!

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