Time. The never-ending struggle of the IB classroom. At a workshop I was leading in Indonesia, after I had shared a number of examples of inquiry- and project-based activities in DP Biology, a participant asked me, perplexed: do you have time to teach everything in the syllabus? To which I replied:
I don’t have time to teach everything in the syllabus. But my students learn everything in the syllabus. If I teach it, or if my students learn it, are different questions entirely.”
Collaborative learning has plenty of room in DP classes! According to this Cornell University article, some of the benefits include the interaction between teachers and students, an increase in student retention, and preparation for real-life social and employment situations. Collaborative learning can take many forms, but here are two ways it features in my DP Biology classes.
Building a mesocosm using group problem solving
This project happens at the end of the first year of DP Biology, only a few days before everyone takes off for summer. The challenge: create a self-sustaining, sealed environment that thrives through the heat of summer without being watered or taken care of in any way.
There’s an ‘easy’ way of making this happen. The teacher provides the materials and instructions, and students can put it together in about 15 minutes. But where’s the fun in that?
In my mind, the investment is clear: by providing students the opportunity to advocate for certain designs based on a number of factors: the availability of materials, its ‘cool’ factor, the chances of its survivability, compliance with the IB Animal Experimentation Policy and so on. Ultimately, they learn the factors that allow a sealed environment to become sustainable indefinitely, but they also exercise their communication, research, social, and a bunch of other soft skills.
And here’s when that investment pays off: when you flip or blend a unit, or want students to learn independently, they are much more capable of managing their time wisely, engaging in effective peer learning, and getting unstuck when producing academic work individually or in groups. Roughly 20% of the course is learned in a blended or flipped classroom model, plus 30 hours of internal assessment work (2 practice lab investigations plus the summative). Another form of peer learning I use often is…
Pooling data using team-based learning
Early in the first year of DP Biology, students get to practice writing the report on a scientific investigation. The summative version of this report, usually written in the first semester of year 2, is worth 20% of the student’s final grade. Most of the issues that students encounter in this component is managing the project itself: scheduling the time to collect data and establishing a mentor/mentee relationship with the teacher to make sure the investigation remains on track.
To exercise the ability to manage large amounts of data collection, I have a team-based project for the Osmolarity lab, one of the required practicals of the course.
I give a 10-minute quiz at the start of the lesson, and the first two students to complete it are assigned the role of team leaders. They are the only two students in the class that receive an explanation of what’s happening over the remainder of the class.
When other students finish their quizzes, I get the change to have a conversation with them about how to enter an already functioning team. You can ask for clarifications, you can emulate, or you can just stand there. I also ask team leaders to continuously monitor the room for new members and actively bring them in as part of the team.
When there seems to be a consensus on how to do things, team members usually neglect one of the most fundamental aspects of doing Science: documentation. How and where will our data be stored and shared? This gives me a chance to introduce them to shared spreadsheets or our roaming whiteboards, and then let them make a decision on which is best.
In the last 6 years I’ve done this, it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes for teams to be working productively to pool over 200 data points which they will later use on their mock Internal Assessment using IBWrite. Outside of my original instructions and few course corrections, the team goals and tasks were disseminated largely by the students themselves. As this Slate article outlines, sometimes classes can get too quiet, particularly when using technology. The workaround in this setting for this issue is that there is only one laptop per team (when data is entered into a shared spreadsheet).
The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.”
Using DNA sequence alignment software to verify the taxonomy of species at the local Aquarium – a real-world challenge
This George Washington University article lists strategies that build student collaboration in the classroom. One of them is the use of real-life challenges or situations. There are two that come to mind in my Biology classes, both using a sequence alignment tool called Genious. The website DNA to Darwin presents students with challenges like discovering which flowering plants evolved first, and which species of primate did the current types of HIV transfer to humans from.
My favorite, though, is an activity that I developed as part of our field study at the end of year 1. Students collected photos and species names from all the fish at a local aquarium – around 40 species. The goal was to create a dichotomous key that allowed anyone to identify the species they were looking at without the identification sign next to the tank. They collect pulse rates of juvenile and adult jellyfish to carry out a t-test. Before the visit to the aquarium, students also visit a nearby park to carry other data collection exercises: a Chi-squared test of association between two plant species on a field and a transect measuring biodiversity between a stream and the park’s cement path
Back on campus, students place these individual species into taxonomic groups, typically families, because they would share certain physical characteristics that make it easier for them to be placed near each other in the dichotomous key. Natural historians typically placed these species in these groups based on external features, and genetic information can sometimes challenge this. The Avian family below is a good example.
Unsurprisingly, my students discovered that one species of fish didn’t belong in the family it currently sits in — it is genetically closer to another group. As far as taxonomic research goes, that’s as real as it gets!
The moral of the story
In my view, the more time we spend developing Approaches to Learning, the less time it takes for students to learn content because they are more efficient, more independent, and more social. That’s why time, for me, is a non-issue. It is not an ‘overnight’ fix, and it takes careful planning. But any movement in this direction benefits student learning, no matter how small, and when you least expect, you have a whole DP course centered around transferable skills that students will take with them forever.