The IB Diploma and a School’s Mission: How to Closely Join the Extended Essay to a School’s Priorities (While Building a Culture of Literacy)

4744866167_33d45dd27e_b.jpgAs an international school leader for the past 7 years, I’ve been at the center of frequent discussions concerning how to align mission and vision with real academics. To this end, many educators work closely with accreditation organizations to develop plans of action or strategic plans focused on school improvement.

These organizational examinations tend to bring up areas of concern or “disconnection” that expose potential shortcomings in the coherence of programs and their ability to forward desired outcomes. All in all, these are healthy discussions, which usually involve a full representation of stakeholders: board members, owner(s), administrators, teachers, parents, students, and staff, and can help to unite constituent parts.

However, the real challenge of a school review is to get past the talk and create plans that are truly actionable, that have achievable, measurable objectives, and that, and here’s the most significant point, actually improve student learning. I’ve always been interested in creating a school-wide concentration on learning that carries a definitive vision of academic excellence and that is achievable and measurable.

I believe that the IB Diploma program and one of the key components of its “core” could provide an excellent opportunity to re-focus a school’s commitment to academic excellence. I have over the last years been involved in a variety of discussions concerning its implementation. This paper presents a finalized concept of what I feel could be a potential game changer for schools.

Incidents

Three incidents occurred that helped to spur my thinking. The first was a presentation by one of our English teachers concerning the possibility of implementing a research class in the eleventh grade to assist IB students in the preparation of their Extended Essays (one of the 3 components of the IBD Core including CAS and Theory of Knowledge). Now it’s important to understand that her model wasn’t conceived to replace a mentor program or offer subject guidance on a student’s essay. The goal was to target general research methodology, paper structure, and grammatical usage. Frankly, I loved the idea and we were able to institute a class the following year.

The second occurrence was when I scanned the website of an international school that had adopted the Extended Essay as a senior requirement. What really inspired me in this instance was the fact the school did not have an IB program. It was, in fact, an AP school. However, it saw the opportunity that learning the process of research and academic writing entailed in the creation of this essay would afford its students. Later I found out that for a small fee any student could submit an Extended Essay and have it externally examined by the IB, whether they are enrolled in the diploma or not. It costs about 60 USD and they get a certificate if they pass.

Finally, I was working at a Catholic school that wanted to strengthen its profile. The majority of students weren’t Catholic and although the spirit of caring and compassion was truly evident, a desire to revive a deeper Catholic identity was communicated to me by the school board. Of course, the question was “How best to go about this?”

By combining the essence of these three ideas, I felt that we could re-envision the school’s academic priorities to provide a laser-like focus for teachers in the classroom as well as emphasizing the role of Catholic values in student learning.

Aspects

In short, this is what I proposed: All seniors would be required to submit an extended essay to the IB (including ELLs) and instead of delving into this starting in the 10th or 11th grade, middle school students would be introduced to the idea in the 6th grade offering required courses in research and writing, while elementary school teachers would be working to this end-point as early as the 3rd grade.

To my thinking this culminating activity, which should include a celebratory gala of student presentations of their work attended by students from the 3rd grade and up, includes the most essential set of skills for academic achievement as our students head off to university and eventually graduate school: the ability to research accurately, read deeply, write clearly, and present engagingly.

It gives a school a powerful, clear focus: an academic end-point. By achieving this objective all students would be able to demonstrate they are ready for the transition to top universities and could eventually take their places as social activists and positive change agents throughout the world.

The point here is that by making this a requirement for all students, a school automatically becomes more focused on high-level academics. Teachers, for example, would be able to precisely articulate the specific goal and work backwards to develop programs and curriculum to support and achieve it. There would be no confusion as to where teaching and learning is heading.

Parents would also be crystal clear on how a school wants to grow its students scholastically, and honestly, it would send a strong message to the outside community that a school wants to be even better academically.

Connection to Priorities

Furthermore, using my previous school as an example, this could be connected directly to religion/values/ethics with schools providing scholarships or other incentives for those students who propose innovative topics from these important domains. Thus, the final part of the plan is its association to a school’s priorities, for instance, Catholicism. Since students choose their own topics, why not choose theology or religious history? Wouldn’t it be exciting to have students prepare and present papers on theology, ethics, or Catholic identity? And why not have some of the organization’s clergy work as mentors with those students helping to connect the heart of the school with its students.

I would also open up mentoring to the entire faculty, not only high school teachers, to help communicate a message of shared responsibility. In addition, a school could adopt a school-wide, PreK-12 community service program similar to CAS.

Finally, I use religion/values/ethics as an example, but certainly any school priority such as STEAM, the Arts, and athletics could be keyed into as topics of priority. This could also be used as a step in the direction of developing academies of learning.

Application

When instituted schools would be focused on key skills while emphasizing knowledge and interdisciplinary contacts within core subjects and religion/values/ethics. With all faculty and clergy available to mentor students, this would potentially create a deeper connection between sections, especially MS and HS, and give religion and values specialists additional meaningful interactions with students.

Of course, there would be challenges and it is imperative that a school offer support at each level with mentors, tutors, and support classes. In addition, if initiated it most likely would need to be factored in over a three year timetable so that students, teachers, and parents have a reasonable amount of time to prepare for the changes it would entail.

In my instance, the school I worked at wasn’t ready to fully take this on for various reasons (We did create research support classes.). Thus, it’s important to note that the concept of a required senior research essay may not be a good fit for some schools, especially those with successful programs already in place. However, for those schools ready to challenge the norm this could be an opportunity. Since international schools share certain universal values like the quest for social justice, most any school can endeavor to challenge its students to choose topics of social importance and then bring in local experts to aid in the development of their projects.

The good news here is that this change is results-driven and is readily measurable. Schools that move in this direction will have clear emphases on literacy and research. This should lead to better scores on tests like the ISA and MAP prior to high school and improved SAT verbal and writing scores in high school.

With increased support Extended Essay scores for those students in the IBD would be in position to rise, while the scores from those not in the program would add another crucial data point for schools to analyze in order to help improve leaning outcomes for all students, including those outside the mainstream.

And who knows what exhilarating discoveries might arise when learning communities are targeted on delving into the critical issues of our time by embracing research and the scientific method.

In a world of increasing complexity we need to not only produce citizens of high moral values, but should also endeavor to incite research that can lead to the alleviation of ongoing problems relative to the human condition (poverty, inequity, illness), while seeking to elevate the soul and deepen our understanding of who we are.

 
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