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 as 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 out 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)
Unfortunately, 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.