IB learners

Letting Go: Allowing Students to be Independent

The illusive photosynthesis experiment.  This student has a good start but has a lot to figure out. 

“I want to do something with plants”

My heart sinks.

“How about the effect of acid on plant growth?”


“How does light intensity affect photosynthesis?”

Heavy Sigh.

What do these ideas for internal assessment ideas mean to me?  Often, failed experiments.

For whatever reason, students think setting up a plant experiment will be easy. They never factor in the time it takes to determine the best conditions to grow their plant or sprout the seeds. It often results in a neglected, unwatered project of withered specimens.

It's always a temptation to check: maybe this one will work. 

And I know this.  So why don’t I just say, “no plants”?  That approach would be notably simpler and it would spare me the pain of watching those pathetic seedlings atrophy and die at the back of my classroom.  However, it is my firm belief that students, especially 16-18 year old IB students should have their own choice. The choice fosters ownership in their work. And if they really want to do it, then they deserve a chance to try, right? So, after bequeathing warnings about how difficult plant experiments really are and that statistically there have been few true successes come from them, I allow my students to proceed. For some reason, they always think their situation will be different.

Though I noticed the deteriorated state days ago, a student came to me today and showed me his shrivelled seedlings as though they’d “just perished”.  He was running a pretrial to determine whether he would best conduct his experiment in cotton or soil and approached me with the observation, “ I think soil worked better than the cotton”.  He looked down at me with his big brown childish eyes hoping for confirmation and I’m thinking, “Seriously?  They’re ALL DEAD!”  but I just smile and ask him how many of the 5 seeds in each cup actually sprouted to which he responds, “One”.  “So what does that tell you?” Silence.  Thinking.  Wheels turning.   “That I need to plant ten in each cup?”

Exasperation is threatening to settle in but I patiently continue, “Well, that might be a choice you make, however, what is the actual observation?”  More silence.  Thinking.  Wheels turning. “Um, that not all the seeds sprouted?”  He receives the advice to consider these observations as he proceeds.  Of course I know he’s baffled in attempting to incorporate this information into subsequent planning.  He returns the blighted seedlings to the fluorescent lamps though I’m not sure why.  They should be tossed in the rubbish bin.

Then there's the photosynthesis experiment that's been sitting in my lab area for five days.  It's obvious to me that the set-up isn't optimized, however, the student keeps returning hoping to see a measurable amount of oxygen.  At what point will she realize that no more oxygen will appear in the tube?  Tomorrow I will tell her it's time to reconsider her design.

So, in the end, the students who were counting on an easy experiment with their plant idea often give up after the first attempted failure.  Others persist repeating over and over again until they get it to work.  They always spend so much more time than the students who design an experiment in which data can be collected within a day.

Regardless of the design choice, it’s the most difficult thing to resist telling them what to do. The path of “no choice” is decidedly more manageable!  But that would deny my students the purpose of this journey. 

Students work their way through the scientific process. They deal with frustration, glitches, and failed attempts but in the end, they all end up with two reasonably controlled experiments that they have designed and carried out. And they are always proud of their work.

To all of us out there struggling to let go of the control, just do it!  The students will be rewarded with a worthwhile journey that leaves them feeling accomplished and you will be profoundly happy for them.

An IB Learner is ....Caring.

How do we foster caring in our students?

They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others.  They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.    (from the IB Learner Profile)

“Is there anything else Dr. Markham?” 

“No, thank you so much, that was a huge help”

“I mean, can I help you with that?” He gestures towards my unplanted plant and the huge bag of soil.  “My hands are already dirty,” he continues.

He has already descended and climbed the three flights of stairs twice on this errand.  On the first journey down, he extracted the dead tree from the huge, heavy clay pot, returning with the soil still in the pot.  After hearing the explanation that the soil lacked necessary nutrients for my new plant, he repeated his steps in order to dump the dirt.  Small beads of sweat drip from his temples.  He smiles.  He genuinely wants to help, to finish the task.  He cares.

We tenderly transplant the small tree from its temporary container.  The earthy smell of the soil wafts into the room and it feels good to handle the dirt as we center the plant in the clay pot. My student asks me about the Going Green Group at the school.  He’s sincere in his desire to become part of it, including putting in extra time after school to work on setting up a non-for-profit foundation for the initiative.

Seriously, I’m touched.  It’s so great to see a young man sincerely caring about something.  He is clearly developing this attribute as an IB Learner.

This is in stark contrast to the student who earlier in the week sat on one of the tables in the classroom gazing at the turtle (as many students enjoy doing) and remarked,   “I figure I’ve done my part.  I’ve filled in all the blanks for applications.  I’m going to do the minimum now, you know?” 

How do we foster caring in our students?  How do we help them realize that our part in this world is never actually “done”? 

In an effort to expose our student population to the Going Green initiative of the school, we have begun showing students the short video clip on eco-schools of which our school is a member.  Some students have responded with a sense of caring.  My South Africa trip reached another segment of learners.  That trip fostered a burgeoning sense of caring for the world and environment.   Global Issues Network and Mini United Nations attract the “caring” characteristic in yet other groups of students.  CAS projects can put students into a situation of actually serving others, instilling a sense of care.  Our job as educators isn’t simply about teaching content and helping students acquire skills.  It is so much more.  Hopefully we can also provide exposure to different worthwhile “causes” so that students begin to develop this important learning characteristic, that of caring.  We want them to leave our institutions of learning eager and prepared to invest in truly making the world a better place through their social and environmental influences. How do you foster a sense of caring in teenagers?

Is the IB Worth it?

A parent's perspective

A follow up to a previous post in which I, as a parent, seriously questioned the value of the IB education: Click here for the first blog post

Working hard while others are still enjoying the care-free life of a summer break.

Glorious, sunny, cool, fall weather has settled in on the Netherlands.  Students officially return to school in a week and many are squeezing in the last summer activities before facing the routine of classes and homework.  However, one student arrives in my classroom every day this week at 11:30, working steadily until 3:30, 4:00, or even 4:30 p.m.  He is working on his extended essay for IB biology.

He has built his on electrophorese apparatus to compare genomic DNA of specific regional plants.


His project to me, as his teacher, is thrilling and his dedication to it impresses me.  The quiet one-on-one time he has with me in between my meetings and pre-school duties is a pleasure as he is a genuinely interested and curious student who has taken full ownership of his project. 

His gel - I love the use of legos to make the wells.

As a teacher I am a strong advocate of the IB, its curriculum, and its ability to prepare students for the university.

However, as a mother, I wonder what the mother of this IB student thinks.  Is she concerned about all of his responsibilities?  Of course, the real crunch hasn’t arrived.  I remember back on my own amazement at the time and energy required of IB students, from a mom’s perspective.  I remember my own questioning of whether the value of an IB education offsets the sacrifice required to obtain the IB diploma.

It is now behind us, as a family.  Our two teenagers have completed and earned their IB diplomas.  They are happy with the results and I’m grateful the hard work paid off.  However, the question remains, is the IB worth it? 

From a mom’s perspective, I now have arrived at the conclusion that it IS worth it.  Not only is the curriculum rigorous and preparatory for college, but the process of learning how to manage time, prioritize, and yes, deal with long nights and challenges are also preparations for the life to come.  So many of my students have returned to me to report how well the IB prepared them for college.  My own children have already dealt with facing the real world post-high school experience with a mature and capable attitude partly due to their IB training.

There are some other things I advocate more strongly for now that I have both teacher and mom perspective.  One is that students (and parents) consider what the ideal IB student is.  The IB guide states that “IB learners strive to be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective”.  The first day of class my new IB students review these and actually write a paragraph on what it means to be an IB learner. This is part of my plan because the idea of a complete and well-rounded learner is so important to me.

A student who approaches learning with the IB learner attributes will enjoy most fully the benefits of an IB diploma.  My daughter took IB Dutch despite not having the proper background for this journey.  To compensate, she attended a Dutch camp and really worked hard to learn the language.  As a risk-taker she discovered her ability to stretch herself beyond her limits and in the end, learned what she was ultimately capable of.  Both of my children continued to play sports through their second year of IB, a choice I now fully advocate as it provided them with much needed balance. The Theory of Knowledge (TOK) and Extended Essay (EE) provided them with an in-depth opportunity to be inquirers, thinkers, and communicators. CAS fostered caring.  IB teachers and the program overall encouraged them to be knowledgeable, principled, reflective, and open-minded.  Additionally, my children have had a globally minded education that enables them to embark on life's journey as world citizens prepared to collaborate with and work with a multitude of cultures.  Finally, they have the satisfaction of having extended themselves and achieved something worthwhile.

Yes, the IB is worth it.  

Text Book Answers

When did we start teaching students that their sole job is to “find the right answer” and that the world is a conglomerate of right and wrong answers?

 Often, when I pose a question to a class, the response of students is to immediately thumb through their notes and text searching for “the answer”.  It’s almost like they are afraid to explore within their own minds for understanding.  Sometimes I have to state, “You can’t find the answer.  I want you to use what you know and come up with your own thoughts on this idea” before the students will peel their eyes away from the written words before them.  Furthermore, students are satisfied to simply regurgitate a sentence from the text in response to a question, unconcerned with comprehension of the words they speak/write. 

 At what point did we sanction this state of mind: that life is about finding the answer and when you find it you just have to spit it out, without thought or reason.

 Despite my attempt to model and foster critical thinking, students remain stuck in the desire to have the information just handed to them. Pushing them to dig deeper seems to be a daily pursuit of mine.

Many of the texts we utilize, including the IB Biology book that my students use, contain answers to problems and exercises at the back of the book.  Or, students can search for solution manuals online. Thus, when we, as teachers, attempt to employ pre-written questions to offer students additional practice, some students are immediately turning to the solutions before struggling with the content themselves.  Often the solutions omit pieces of necessary thought process and occasionally are actually incorrect, leaving students more confused than if they hadn’t even consulted the answers to begin with.  More importantly, the student has abandoned an attempt to think critically and is left without having experienced the path of discovery ultimately forfeiting true learning.

 Most IB schools offer a mock exam experience for the seniors to help them prepare for the May exams (beginning this coming Monday!).  For Biology there are three papers that each student must write.  Some students will note the year and time zone of Paper 1 and then search for the answer key for Papers 2 and 3 before sitting those exams.   Of course, they aren’t considering that this practice actually makes them less prepared for the exams that will count.  The drive to “be right” is so great that students are willing to sacrifice their own learning experience to get there.

Students are missing out on the satisfaction of accomplishment and are not learning how to learn or how to problem solve.  What is that going to look like in the real world?  No one cares about “the answers” – the only thing that matters is whether you can do your job.

 Lisa Mabe, a director of Early Childhood education quoted Linda Elder writing,

“Children’s minds are a precious resource. Yet, too often, inquiring minds (Ask me! Ask me! Ask me!) are transformed by 4th or 5th grade into passive, non-questioning minds (Why are you asking me? Is this going to be on the test?).” (1)

 Lisa, arguing that even very young children are capable of critical thinking, ends her article with a plea,

“We as educators must give [students] the proper tools to have quality thinking. We must prepare them to be able to ask good questions, to identify problems in thinking as they analyze concepts, and be able to correct the problems that they find. We must do more to prepare children for the world they live in. We must prepare them for the future.” (1)

Years ago when I began my parenting journey I remember reading an article about the importance of not “quizzing” young children (i.e. ‘what color is this?’, ‘what letter is that?”, etc.) because it teaches them that the world is all about right and wrong answers and it can generate anxiety and insecurities as children begin to fear being wrong.  I have no reference, as that was 15+ years ago, however, at the time it made sense to me.  Now I wonder if critical thinking is so difficult to extract, partly because we train it away at a very young age, when children are first learning to talk and discover the world around them.

 How do you think we can guide students, even young children, to develop critical thinking?