Guides, reconsidered

Language B Subject Guides: An unofficial history

The new Language B Subject Guide, published in 2011 for first examination in May 2013, is now established. It will form the framework for the teaching of English B for the next seven or eight years: its assumptions and instructions will be the givens for good practice. It is, however, sensible to appreciate that it is not some form of absolute truth, but is the product of individuals working within an organisation in a particular historical context - and that the IB's standard operating procedure is that the new Guide will itself eventually be replaced by another new Guide.

I've been teaching English B since 1979, and have been closely involved with the IB as examiner and as workshop leader for nearly 20 years now. In that time, I have, as they say, seen Subject Guides come and go. To summarise, the long-term changes look like this:-

* before c. 1994 ... Literature-based

* from c. 1994 ... 'Communicative'

* from 2002 ... skills-based

* from 2011 ... topic-based (+ 'intercultural' )

What this indicates is the long, slow swing of the pendulum of educational fashion - or, to use a slightly more optimistic image, the slow turn of an upward spiral. One key indicator is that the 2011 Guide reintroduces Literature as a mandatory element, at HL at least and optional at SL, after a long spell in the wilderness since the 1994 Guide ...

In a little more detail :-

* before c. 1994 ... Literature-based

Up to 1994, the Subject Guide was the original written in 1972 when the IB was launched. This was centred around the study of literature: there was a set book list, and much of the assessment was based on LitCrit skills - for instance there was, at HL, a half hour oral with an external examiner (!) largely devoted to textual commentary and discussion of literature.

The philosophy underpinning this Guide seemed to be that Literature represented the finest use of the language, and so students would best acquire the language by being exposed to Great Writers.

The weakness of this approach was that it proposed an academic, 'high-brow' study of language, which did not necessarily have much to do with real language use - and was punishingly hard for any student who did not already have a pretty sound grasp of the language. One expert consultant visiting the IB commented sardonically that "students can discuss 'The Great Gatsby' in pretentious terms, but can't ask for a cup of coffee politely!" 

* from c. 1994 ... 'Communicative'

At the beginning of the Ninieties, a wind of change set in at IBCA, since the IB had obviously established a foothold in the educational world, with a growing reputation for excellence. The concept of regular, automatic review of all Subject Guides was adopted - not before time, since all Subject Guides in all subjects had then been in operation for nearly twenty years, and were looking ... elderly.

In the case of Language B, this expressed itself as an absolute rejection of the literature-based syllabus, in favour of a 'Communicative' approach. This meant concentrating on how language is used in everyday situations and contexts, and implied that effective communication of a wide range of messages was more significant than pure grammatical accuracy.

The weakness of this approach was that it appeared to emphasise an 'anything goes' approach to language, largely because the Guide was rather vague on exactly how language might communicate; and the disappearance of literature led to accusations that the programme had become intellectually lightweight.

* from 2002 ... skills-based

The driving force behind the Review which produced this Guide (in which I was personally involved) was to correct the perceived vagueness of the previous Guide. Accordingly, definitions of text types and the specific description of the four language skills attracted most attention and space - culminating in what were intended to be very precise assessment criteria. The whole was underpinned by an explicit theory about language: that it involves using a language system, which in turn is applied according to cultural codes, in order to organise and express message. This theory defined and organised the assessment criteria.

The weakness of this approach was that in giving so much attention to how language works, very little attention was paid to what language expresses and in which contexts - there was merely a thin section on Cultural awareness, and since literature was still anathema, there was only a coy reference to "high quality texts".

* from 2011 ... topic-based (+ 'intercultural' )

The new Guide emphasises Topics and the 'intercultural dimension' - in other words, it concentrates on the content of language, and on how cultures interact. The possible Topics are listed over four pages (pp.17-21). Literature finally reappears out of the desert, mandatory at HL and optional at SL. There is no set book list, and the actual justification for teaching Literature is covered in ten lines. There is a change of underlying philosophy about language: while the previous Guide was based on the Four Skills approach, this Guide adopts the 'Receptive, productive and interactive skills' approach (explained mainly with a quotation from the Council of Europe).

The weakness of this approach ... well, let's wait and see, as a clearer picture will emerge over the next year or so - but early indications suggest two possible weaknesses, one of over-emphasis and one of under-emphasis. The danger of the Topics approach could be that teachers over-emphasise, and thus spend too much time on, covering the study of the chosen subject areas - turning language classes into Current Affairs or Sociology classes. And since the Guide has little specific to say about the details of language to be taught (neither about fundamental skills, or about the actual conventions of the text types to be taught), there may be an under-emphasis on the practical techniques of communication.

Clearly, we should all make efforts to avoid falling into these potential traps.

Trends & cycles

I would argue that this succinct survey of the history of Language B Subject Guides suggests two ideas :-

1. No Guide to date has covered all the needs of a comprehensive language programme - each has had evident gaps.

2. Subject Review working parties tend to focus on compensating for the perceived weaknesses of the previous Guide - and this can mean ignoring the apparent strengths of the outgoing programme.

It would be charming if the next Subject Review did not start from axiomatically rejecting the old, but rather from compiling the successful elements of previous Guides - and then applied itself to integrating all of these disparate elements into a coherent and convincing view of how language is best learnt. So, what might that involve ?

A shopping list of essentials

Personally speaking, I would like an ideal Subject Guide to contain the following (not in any particular order of importance) :-

A theory of language  ... a clearly statement of the IB's fundamental concept of the nature of language and how it works, which could be taken to under-pin, explain and justify both the teaching and assessment procedures set out in the Guide. Myself, I would go for the basic concept stated in the 2002 Guide.

Concepts of language, culture, society  ... an overview of the important basic issues raised about how these three elements interact. These basic concepts should be taken to inform the teaching of (i) intercultural relationships, relating to the IB's 'internationalist' mission, (ii) social relationships governed by language; (iii) the interaction of language and culture, mutually influencing each other; and (iv) drawing together all of these, the Theory of Knowledge aspects of Language.

Key language skills  ...  given that the fundamental design of Language B is that students only start the course if they have already learned the basics of a language, there needs to be some definition of the priorities of (presumably advanced) language that ought to be taught. This should involve, in my view, a list of significant functions such as explaining, advising, being polite, etc; and should also concentrate on the CALP range (Cognitive Academic Language Processes), since Language B is part of the pre-university Diploma programme.

Key intellectual skills  ... there should be some statement of the range of fundamental intellectual disciplines that should be developed and practised in class work. This could include e.g. skills of summary, of handling compare and contrast, of methodical critical thinking, and so on. Such important skills should be clearly linked to the language skills mentioned above, and to the kinds of tasks used in assessment.

Essential communication techniques  ... this would involve, at a basic level, the study of text types, but should also expand to consider multiple IT-based techniques such as web-pages, social networking, screencast processes, videos ...etc. This should be based on a critical review of what 'types of text' are actually useful to teach in the 21st Century - and why.

Basic procedures, explained  ... recommended good practice for teaching should be explained simply yet clearly, and good practice in the classroom should be linked to a justification of the IB's assessment procedures, related to class procedures. The point of all this would be to make the IB's approach to education as clear and impressive as possible.

The teaching of literature, justified  ... there should be some clear explanation of why literature is of use within the context of a language-learning course (not least because literary criticism, as such, is already covered under the mandatory Group 1 subjects). Such a justification would involve, for instance, showing how all language includes a wide range of figurative techniques such as metaphor ... and demonstrating that studying the areas of Concepts of language, culture, society and Essential communication techniques, suggested above, would necessarily involve applying 'LitCrit' types of analysis.

Topics, recommended  ...  the kinds of areas listed in the current Guide should be retained, but dispersed between the various headings suggested above, in order to show how the Topics could be used to support and inform the teaching of the wider conceptual areas.

The value of including something about all of these areas would be to enable this hypothetical Guide to provide a comprehensive and intellectually coherent view of how the IB recommends advanced teaching strategies for language teaching. This would be governed by the overall aim that students who had completed a Language B course should not only be competent and correct users of the language, but should be educated and sophisticated communicaters.

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