solid fluid

Wednesday 13 February 2013

The new Language B Subject Guide was published in February 2011. The Handbook of Procedures 2013 contains changes to that Guide. A new version of the Written Assignment is apparently going to appear sometime in 2014 ... possibly for first examination in 2015 (?). Simple facts, and ... so what? These facts are significant, I feel, because they illustrate the changing nature of the way in which the IB organises itself, and - by extension - the way the world is mutating. The basic factor affecting this is the influence of the internet.

Subject Guides are the DNA of the IB - they provide the templates according to which course design, teaching and assessment should be carried out. To change metaphor, Subject Guides form foundation stones on which whole educational edifices are raised. However, I would argue that these solid permanent features of the IB world are changing, becoming more fluid. The first Language B Subject Guide that I worked to was published at the very beginning of the IB, in 1972, and lasted just over twenty years, unchanged. Compare this with my summary above of the current Subject Guide. The difference is that the 1972 Subject Guide existed fundamentally in print, and the current Guide is essentially digital, virtual. The distinction is vital: up to now Subject Guides could not be changed since this would mean printing an entire new edition - whereas the current Guide could be changed by hitting the 'Enter' key. The solid has become fluid.

But the change from solid to fluid is not just a matter of available technology, and the convenience this supplies. Is fluid necessarily a good thing ?

It's worth asking that about everything concerned with the enormous influence of information technology and the internet. Every field of knowledge, from currency prices through world news as far as online gossip, can now change, mutate constantly - but let's just concentrate, for now, on the world of education.

A fundamental aspect of education is that it is conservative. Or rather, that it is concerned with conservation - of established knowledge, of proven techniques of analysis and argument, of the social customs and wisdoms that make up any culture. It is fundamental to the value of education that what it teaches is solid, of stable value - what would be the point of teaching something that would be irrelevant tomorrow ? So everybody involved in education likes systems that are solid and fixed: syllabuses, examination systems, marking standards, and so on.

But now the internet makes it possible to treat all of this as highly fluid. The adjustments to the new Subject Guide that I mentioned at the start could all be accomodated instantly if the Guide only existed in an online version - you could update whenever you wanted. Why stick with details which have been proven to be not quite ideal, when you can have continuous improvement?

The problem, of course, is that too much fluidity would erode and undermine. If everything was changeable, nothing would be reliable. Perpetual tinkering with details, such as single sentences, brief lists, the phrasing of marking criteria - small details such as these can have radical consequences in the real world. Teachers get jobs or don't get jobs ... months of experience in the classroom take one form or something totally different ... students get marks which take them into one university or another, and their lives take different paths.

So how do we find the balance between solid-and-trustworthy and fluid-and-responsive ? Between river-as-plan and river-as-real?


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