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New to ESS?
4 Mar 19

New to ESS?

Monday 4 March 2019

Are you new to ESS? 

I am sometimes contacted by teachers who have been asked to teach ESS and want some help getting started. No matter what your teaching background, there will be areas of this course that will be new to you. As someone with a Biology background, I had to work very hard to learn new material and concepts that a geographer would be familiar with. I know, from experience, that some of you, may have a great personal interest in the environment  but may not have an academic background. It is very important that you start by reading around the topics covered in this course. I hope that this website is a great start but we are lucky that there are many textbooks for the course. Beyond the background academic knowledge, you should also stay up to date, just like your students will be expected to, with current affairs. You can provide your own twist to the course by telling students about what you are learning with them or your own stories.

Special nuances to the academic flavour

Beyond the academic content it is important to understand that the Foundations of ESS (topic 1) really can come into any other topic. This is particularly true for the concepts of systems, feedback and equilibrium. Students may be asked to take a systems approach to a topic and draw a system diagram or a flow chart that shows a sequence of actions. I teach this at the start of the course but then revisit it as often as possible. Knowing the definitions of positive and negative feedback is essential but then being able to apply these to any of the issues in question. This is actually good teaching as educational research shows us that revisiting and testing knowledge and concepts frequently helps students retain these ideas. The other area, peculiar to ESS but great for TOK, and a frequently badly taught area (as interpreted from exam responses) are environmental value systems (EVS). Make sure you understand the basic premises of these EVSs, Ecocentric, Anthropocentric and Technocentric and then practice applying them to as many issues as you can. Ask students to justify their own EVS (which may shift during the course or from issue to issue). I have developed a lot of resources to help with this that can be used at different moments in the course.

Case Studies

IB courses are essentially inquiry driven and this is the main pedagogical approach supported by the IB's Approaches to Teaching and Learning in the DP guide and website. Using case studies in ESS is not only essential and examined through Paper 1 where the Resource Booklet is basically an unseen case study and Paper 2 essays where the rubric for part c requires students to illustrate their understanding of concepts with the use of examples and case studies. Case studies provide students the opportunity to engage in international mindedness and inquiring about how different cultures and societies deal with problems. There are a variety of ways to approach these. Some teachers prefer to develop their own case studies and then have their class learn this case study. Of course this could be a collaborative approach with the support of the teacher who guides the inquiry. I take the approach of allowing students to find their own case studies then sharing these in class. This allows students to study an area that may not be literally local to the school but local to where my international students are coming from. It gives them ownership and allows them to pursue their own interests. After years of teaching, you develop your own bank of case studies that you know work and so it helps to suggest ideas to students. I have tried to suggest these on the website.


Discovering this course allowed me to connect with my students in ways that never really happened before. We learn that dinner table conversations are about what they learned in the class and that habits are starting to change and families are eating less meat or flying less. I get told about the animal they just rescued or the documentary that they watched. Did I know...? This is a very powerful course that can shape lives and have impacts well beyond your classroom. I love learning from, and with, my students. Don't be afraid to give a little of yourself to your students and you will reap the rewards in may subtle ways.


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