Nov 2013, reviewed

Wednesday 1 January 2014

I am writing this just after completing all the examination tasks for the November 2013 exam session. This means that now all schools offering English B, in both hemispheres, have completed the cycle of applying the new Language B Subject Guide. Which seems like a good point to take a view of how the new programme has worked.

The short answer is - pretty well. In workshops, I have heard few complaints about the general approach of the new system, even if there have been criticisms of details of assessment procedures (such as the Written Assignment). On the contrary, I have heard a lot of comments approving of the opportunities provided by the Topic-based syllabus, and of details of assessment components such as the Individual Interview. Let us consider significant innovations in a little more detail :-

The Topics, in themselves ... As was evident from the start, the Topics chosen for study and exploration were not particularly surprising - any sensible teacher of English B was probably already dealing with Communication & Media, or Global Issues, or aspects of Health. For the IB to require formally that a selection of aspects should be studied appears to have reinforced the study of these significant issues in the view of both teachers and students : it seems likely that everyone has taken the Topics rather more seriously than if they were just 'an excuse for something to read'. In addition ...

The Topics, supporting assessment ... Basing the Individual Interview on the Option Topics has, in my view, improved the quality of discussion in the Oral IA. Under the 'old' sysytem, students could do a presentation about whatever they chose, but (i) what they chose was often tedious and predictable, and (ii) sometimes the poor teachers were left floundering, trying to think up questions on subject-matter about which they knew little (and probably cared less). Under the current system, the teacher leads the student (through photograph and caption) to draw on ideas which have been actively studied in class, and about which both student and teacher should have something to say. This has evidently promoted better-informed interaction and debate.

Relating the tasks in Paper 2 to the Topics has been less significant, in my view. The tasks are deliberately written to be open enough to be accessible to all students, whether or not they have studied that particular Option. Where a task really demands some detailed knowledge, this may actually restrict choice. To illustrate, a question in the November 2013 HL paper focused on 'minority languages' - this was not a popular question, and it was probably only attempted by students who had actually studied this subject matter in class; others wisely avoided it.

New assessment components ... Leaving aside the use of the photograph as the basis of the Individual Interview (already touched on), the two main new assessment procedures are the Personal Response (HL2, Section B) and the Written Assignment. Both of these involve interesting intellectual skills which were not really stimulated by the 'old' exam system.

The Personal Response involves the concise handling of 'reasoned argument' (as phrased in the Subject Guide). The ability to present arguments lucidly and coherently in succinct expression is surely a life-skill worth teaching. More attention needs to be paid to this: the evidence from the first two exam sessions is that many students are not sufficiently practised in the methodical development of ideas and linked arguments.

The Written Assignment demands the imaginative and purposeful handling of a writing project. The same could be said of successful responses in Paper 2, but the WA provides more time to develop a project that the student has chosen personally. The HL and SL tasks are rather different, but they share the requirement that a student should devise an idea, think it through in detail, and then express it through the conscious and careful choice of the means. One can see this as the active use of imagination, in contrast to the passive use demanded by the response to a fixed task in Paper 2.

More specifically, the HL task requires 'creative' response to a work of literature, while the SL task requires 'intertextual reading' (and writing). At HL, then, students should be experiencing the process of inventing imaginatively ... and thus sharing, in however a humble way, the same thought processes as the original author. At SL, students need to apply the skills of extracting and re-combining ideas from sources ... thus sharing the basic skills of the journalists and academics who wrote the original texts.


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