Caught between two worlds – An MYP Educator’s Response

Please note that these are simply my opinions and not those of the IB.

As she often does, my wife provoked my thinking this morning with her post regarding PYP assessment and strategies such as success criteria, exemplars and bump-it-up walls. It’s a great read, but to sum it up here in a nutshell, Taryn questions whether these three strategies actually promote learning, or if they instead simply assist students in “doing school”. Earlier this year, David Didau similarly provoked my thinking in his article “Why I struggle with learning objectives and success criteria”. I wanted to take the opportunity to weigh in on something that, like my wife, I continue to struggle with in an MYP environment.

Success Criteria: In the MYP, we are charged with creating task-specific clarifications for students with regards to assessment tasks. Often these come in the form of rubrics created by teachers. To this end, I feel that we are stealing the students thinking if we do not let them determine their own criteria for success on tasks. This is echoed by researchers (Tomlinson, 1995; McTighe & Ferrara, 1998; Yeshiva & Harada 2007; Kohn 2006), who advocate for rubrics to be, at the least, co-constructed by teachers and students and who point out that when rubrics are simply given to students, autonomy is lost and students become less focused on the process of learning.

Exemplars: I had a teacher come to me yesterday and exclaim, “I hate exemplars!”, as one of his students had recently submitted an assignment that was, essentially, a copy of the teacher-created exemplar. While this is surely not an isolated incident, I don’t mind exemplars if they are used correctly, because they allow students to develop a means by which to create their own success criteria. In fact, I think exemplars can be an integral part of the inquiry process – if students are given the opportunity to find their own exemplars, rather than always being presented teacher-selected exemplars. Which leads me to…

Bump-it-up Walls: I have serious beef with bump-it-up walls. I find them to be inauthentic and in no way indicative of the learning process. Learning is messy. Learning is trial and error. Learning involves making mistakes, and seeking improvement through inquiry. Bump-it-up walls give students too much opportunity to practice mimicry over learning. No one has ever provided me with an explicit picture of how to “bump up” my unit planner, or the collaborative planning meetings I facilitate, or the way I make Cesar salad. In real life there aren’t ready-made exemplars for you to follow to improve your personal or professional self: there is no way for us to bump up solutions to the type of novel, authentic problems we want our students wrestling with; these exemplars exist only the realm of “doing school”.

Aside from my own personal feelings, from an MYP standpoint, the biggest thing that makes me uncomfortable with these three things is the wording of the MYP achievement levels for students with an overall achievement of level of 6 or 7 in an MYP course: “Produces…ocasionally innovative” or “produces…frequently innovative work”. If provided with success criteria by their teachers and exemplars for “bumping up”, how can a student possibility innovate? Here we run the risk of celebrating students who are successful at “doing school”, rather than students who are exemplifying the IB Learner Profile traits of being risk-takers, thinkers and inquirers.

This thinking leads me back to something I am a huge proponent of – student developed assessment. When the students are the ones developing the assessments, they are creating their own success criteria, finding their own exemplars and devising methods for discovering how they can “bump up” their own work, in their own way. Herein lies the opportunity for innovation – through genuine student inquiry into the process of how to effectively solve problems and share learning with others.

I think we need to examine what our goals are for education. If our goal is student achievement, then certainly these three things are extremely helpful. However if our goals is to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect” as the IB mandates, I am not sure that these things help us achieve this mission.

However, to echo my wife, I am not sure and I’d love to hear different perspectives on this. Where do you stand on the use of these three elements within an MYP classroom? How can we make effective use of success criteria, exemplars and bump-it-up walls in order to reach the mission of IB schools? Can we?

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