It is hard to think of an issue that faces the world today that can be solved by drawing on the knowledge that has been gained within only a single subject. Our world is complex and increasingly we are seeing that we need to consider impacts from multiple perspectives; we need to understand the system from multiple angles. We need a generation of system thinkers who can bring together conceptual understandings from across their studies.
Take action on climate change for example. It is not enough to know about how carbon dioxide operates as a greenhouse gas (chemistry), we need to understand all the interconnecting issues regarding its reduction e.g. a nation's fuel dependency (geography), how this drives prosperity (economics), how changes will be received by the populace (government and politics) and how we can persuade for action (language and literature).
Recently the IB announced a report into the potential future for the Diploma Programme. Coming with this came the mention of a new 'continuum taxonomy'. This is incredibly exciting, I have long argued that all the programmes need their overarching coherence to be better articulated and communicated and I am hoping that this can be the way to achieve this.
For me the greatest challenge that facing the DP is the idea that if we hold onto the subject block model that we will not disrupt the overall siloed nature of the Programme. This poses a challenge that is bigger than the popular conception of the continuum as PYP is transdisciplinary, MYP is interdisciplinary and DP is disciplinary. It is this very distinction that sources where coherences across the continuum break down.
This article wants to lay down a challenge to the IB, at the start of a long review period, and as it considers the nature of the continuum taxonomy: it doesn't have to be this way and it is fitting, within the philosophy of the IB, to help students to make links across the programme and to develop themselves as systems thinkers... and to aim to do this in the DP (and CP) even more profoundly that it is done in the PYP and MYP.
Our Approaches to Teaching
One of the most wonderful documents in the IB is "what is an IB education". In this guide it lays down six principles regarding what is the IB's Approach to Teaching:
In terms of building for interdisciplinary understanding I want to spend some time in particular focussing on the second bullet point:
Focussed on conceptual understanding.
According to Diploma Programme: From Principles into Practice (p12, 2015) the DP is both conceptual and connected. This is how they explain these two terms:
If I were to express this in simple terms I would say that means:
Great IB teachers are keen to see students connect important ideas across the subjects .
This is something that learning theorists have variously called far or high road transfer. Such transfer is, admittedly, hard to do, but as Perkins and Salomon have pointed out "If transfer does not occur as frequently or as readily as we would like, then this poses a major problem for education. After all, the entire enterprise of formal education depends on transfer. "
Key Concepts, Super Concepts and Threshold Concepts
In the MYP the stated way in which learning is connected is through the key concepts. That is because the MYP envisions key concepts as "broad, organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within and across subjects and disciplines, providing connections that can transfer across time and culture." MYP: From Principles into Practice, p15. Whilst this sounds perfect for what we are aiming for the problem that DP currently has is essentially a definitional one. Key concepts have been chosen because they are the big ideas in the discipline but they are not designed to connect across to other subjects. They are seen as disciplinary and not as interdisciplinary (let alone transdisciplinary). This is shown in that a very limited number of key concepts are shared across the subjects; I found only two cases, both in History, which shares the key concept of 'Change' with Maths and 'Perspectives' with the Group 1 Language courses.
Concepts, I believe can form multiple functions and to represent this I want to distinguish between three types of macro concept that could improve the coherence of concepts in the continuum: Key Concepts, Super Concepts and Threshold Concepts
Key Concepts (2.0) - Transfer or Transcendence?
Since discovering the work of Prof Mary Helen Immordino-Yang I have been convinced that the true goal of an purposed education programme is to help students build meaning. Wait, what does the term "build meaning" even mean? Before we can go further we need to unpack this notion.
The conception of meaning making is something that is very deep and much more encompassing than just the ability to transfer ideas from one discipline to a new context. As Mary Helen explains in her recent ASCD article - Building Meaning Builds Teens' Brains:
"This is not just about engaging students cognitively to build higher-order thinking skills or to think abstractly and metacognitively, though, of course, these are necessary aspects of deeper learning. Instead, adolescents on the path to higher levels of academic achievement and self-actualization showed cognitive and emotional dispositions toward both concrete and abstract meaning-making in their narratives. They constructed a compelling story for themselves that integrates information about (the) individual situations, facts, actions, and emotions that seem most salient, and then effortfully deliberated on this story by connecting to larger patterns, systems, beliefs, or values they have been exposed to that seem pertinent. The result is a narrative that explains the here-and-now in terms of a bigger, deeper, personally relevant, and intellectually satisfying understanding."
To this end I believe that a carefully selected core of key concepts be used throughout the programme would help students connect and build large narratives in which they find their part to play. Concepts that allow students to not only transfer ideas but to transcend them to higher personal meanings too. Concepts selected to help students consider the how understandings, meanings and responses impact and interplay at the personal, community and global level. These three levels of impact at three levels of interplay are the foundation of an approach I am calling the 'My Place in the Story' model. A link to a fuller description of this approach is here.
Because the aim of these types of concepts are to offer a framework onto which a student can graft their own ideas. They need to be places where ideas can meet and thrash out new understandings rather than ideas one must cover to achieve (they should be coffee houses not checkpoints). To do this well, they should be both shared and familiar and so, I think DP can have the same concepts as MYP - in addition it only adds to the coherence between the two programmes. In such case I would use the same shared concepts as I have proposed for the MYP:
As I think about this, more and more I am realising that I am advocating for transdisciplinary concepts.
Super concepts - Interdisciplinary Transfer
How do we accomplish interdisciplinary transfer in the DP? What mechanisms or what strategies can we employ?
There are many theories as to how to support far transfer to dissimilar situations. For a clear summary I would encourage readers to read this account submitted to the International Academic Forum Journal of Education. For me the most promising strategy seems to be the use of analogy and abstraction. This offers a set of strategies that DP teachers can use to support the transfer of ideas across the artificial subject boundaries. For example one study in mathematics (downloadable from the following link ) showed that:
students who used the analogical problem construction strategy were better at: (1) transferring analogical problem information between analogous source and target problems; (2) retrieving the analogous source problem; and (3) applying the retrieved analogous information to the target problem.
Another idea, very much related to this, is the idea of 'expansive framing'. Researchers Engle and co. discovered that the way we frame learning in terms of whether the idea we were covering had a more universal (expansive) application influenced the longevity and transfer of the principle (for those who struggle getting access to papers it can be found here starting at page 74)
Summarising these studies: getting students to work with analogies helps them to transfer conceptual understandings between dissimilar situations and setting up learning as having meaning beyond our subject boundaries have a proven benefit of transfer (and thus retention) of learning.
The neatest formulation of this idea is from Carl Gombich, who is heading up the recently launched London Interdisciplinary School (LIS). He advocates for super concepts ideas that offer easy access to analogous thinking across the disciplines. This short two minute video captures the essence very neatly
The best bit of this message is that it helps BOTH subjects that participate in supported analogical transfer, and since time in the DP is always an issue this matters! Any work we do on transfer has to be both efficient and effective.
Here is how I have trialled interdisciplinary transfer using the super concept of energy profiles. For those who can bear to remember, chemistry has a theory that explains how reacting chemicals take in energy and move to a unstable, high energy state before things fall apart and reform into something more energetically stable, as represented in the following diagram:
This to me is a good analogy to any change we might see, where we move from an unstable (high energy) former situation a more stable latter situation. Such changes are often not spontaneous and an initiating spark is needed for it to occur.
So I took this diagram and asked students to write onto the diagram a description of a change that they had studied in one of their Group 3 subjects. They had to describe the conditions of the seemingly stable prior situation and why that was actually high energy, what the triggers were that caused the energy in the system to increase to the point of a pivotal change and why the new situation is more stable (the brighter folk drew endothermic reactions for political situations that have become less stable.
In interviews with students afterwards they felt that this grounded the abstract ideas of the chemistry in real life situations. Some showed me how they could stretch the analogy past its breaking point - which itself is a powerful moment of interdisciplinary understanding and perspective taking. All commented on how helpful it had been to compare understanding across their learning.
Threshold concepts - disciplinary concepts
These are the disciplinary ideas that turn up in a subject that don't only build understanding but they upset it and cause a fundamental new shift into more profound understandings. These are not currently identified in our syllabuses but they certainly could be and resources on how to integrate them could be rather easily developed. Threshold concepts are an idea that the University of Nottingham recommended to the IB in their review of concepts in the continuum.
I recommend folk explore these further as relevant to the disciplines that you teach but a launch point might be this article.
Global Contexts - as conceptual connectors
The global contexts exist in the PYP and MYP and are highly relevant to the DP. They are thus prime candidates for inclusion in any forthcoming continuum taxonomy. As show above, in the extracts from the DP Principles into Practice, teachers should teach such that the material they presents is connected and is developed in local and global contexts.
The global contexts are a really easy insert into the programme as they are pretty self explanatory. By using the global contexts they offer students ways to connect the subject matter to the world that matters. Combined with a 'My Place in the Story' model and the reimagined key concepts, the global contexts offer a synergistic weight to the creation of personally, locally and globally relevant meaning making. With these components working together I believe we can make International Mindedness a more explicit feature of the programme(s). Lastly, because they shine a light on the issues of the importance that we as a humanity face, global contexts lead directly into a consideration of what are we going to do in response.
In short including global contexts seems to address the following comment in the IB review report:
The knowledge, skills, attitudes and values necessary to create a better and more peaceful world in this context should be incorporated within the continuum taxonomy. Strengthening how we build these concepts into the programme—which might involve embedding specific content within existing components or reimagining the components themselves—is crucial. Now more than ever, education needs to empower collective global problem-solving to prepare for a future where complex challenges are no longer limited to geographical boundaries. A call to action must form part of any truly values-based education.
Interdisciplinarity - a comment on TOK
I imagine that there are some that might have considered that interdisciplinary connection to be the role of Theory of Knowledge (TOK). As a TOK teacher myself I can say that whilst we review and compare the methodologies of the different disciplines we generally skim the surface of the specific conceptual understandings taught in the subjects. It is true that we do consider the different paradigms that each subject works within and make reference to how conceptual insights have shaped their perspectives. We do not however spend the time to pull out the deeper insights embedded in these conceptual understandings. In short TOK can support the work of transfer but it can no longer single handedly 'carry the can' on interdisciplinary connections.