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Breadth, Depth and Internationalism

February, 2008
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class 2 In today’s educational paradigm of exams, exams and even more exams, it is difficult to imagine an educational programme which actually does encourage learning both in heart and mind. It is very sad that most English lessons which purport to develop appreciation of literature actually end up with teacher, learner and examiner playing “spot the metaphor”. To be fair, most national educational systems with a more advanced outlook are now playing “spot and explain the metaphor”. Still, that isn’t saying very much for aspirational education, is it? Well, that was until the International Baccalaureate Language A1 Programme.

  Those readers who follow this column will remember that within the I.B. Diploma Programme, learners are required to keep up the study of their first language – philosophically very sound, but what is absolutely impressive is that this programme uses language as a tool to understanding culture! The benefits of this are obvious; understanding culture means understanding people, and to understand people, to be faced with the human condition and to develop empathy must be steps towards tolerance, at worst, and understanding, at best.

  Without a doubt, the most appealing part of the Language A1 Programme for the holistic teacher, and the most fascinating part for the curious learner, is the World Literature component where learners study works from other cultures through their own language. More details to follow! It would be easy at this point to misinterpret the Language A1 Programme as a wishy-washy, soft course wanting in academic rigour. Nothing could be further from the truth – imagine undertaking a serious study of fourteen books at Higher Level or eleven at Standard Level? Imagine then being tested on these through two pieces of coursework (your own titles), two orals (one prepared and the other an unseen commentary) and two rigorous examinations: the first testing a written response to an unseen reading stimulus and the second, the classic literature essay. This really is a tall order, but if teachers and learners are up to the challenge, not only is the Programme academically worthwhile, it is also arguably the most exciting, stimulating and imaginative of all the subject areas. class 3

  An interesting aspect of the course is that for this subject schools design their own syllabus. The programme is divided into four parts, and although works can be chosen only from the Prescribed Book List and the Prescribed World Literature List, Part 4 deviates from the rest of the programme because it allows a school’s free choice so the books within this section are chosen to fit in with the school’s rationale for syllabus design or simply to accommodate learner and teacher interest. Therefore, Part 4 can reasonably be seen as part of the Programme as a whole or as something of a standalone. The only restriction to be aware of is that, even in this section, one work of World Literature is required. This section is orally assessed.

  Let’s look at how the different parts of the course are divided and to what they are dedicated. Part 1 covers World Literature. At both Higher and Standard Levels learners study 3 works. These are generally linked by genre or theme, so two schools with which I work closely have some works in common but have two different approaches. Both schools wanted to focus on tragedy: the first school chose three works from Greek tragedy – “Agamemnon” by Aeschylus, “Antigone” by Sophocles and “Medea” by Euripides. The second school wanted a much wider cultural perspective and opted for “Antigone” by Sophocles, “A Doll’s House” by Ibsen and “The House of Bernada Alba” by Lorca, so that their students also experience a wider temporal range. Although these are all plays, the choice of genre need not be restricted in this section. Indeed, a staggering number of variations are possible. All that schools should be really clear about is the rationale for their choices and keeping the learners at the centre of things by ensuring that the choices include enough hooks with which they capture the learners’ imagination. Remember that all the parts of the course include a World Literature component – except Part 2. Although Parts 3 and 4 contain World Literature components, these do not have to be linked to Part 1 by either genre or theme.

  The didactic target of the World Literature component is the World Literature essay(s): Two essays at Higher Level, one essay at Standard Level. The latter essay and one of the former essays must be comparative. This is of course a challenging skill for learners to master albeit very useful for future academic endeavour. It gets them to think creatively, and since the essay is based on a topic which the learner has chosen and honed, they feel surprisingly wedded to their pieces – a wonder for most teachers to experience!

  Part 2 is aptly labelled “Detailed Study”. At Higher Level, learners have to know each of the four works very well. At Standard Level, they only have to cover two. The works are chosen from the Prescribed Book List and well remembered – no World Literature. English Literature purists will be relieved to know that one work of Shakespeare is compulsory in this section of the English A1 Programme. Learners are required to analyse an extract from one of the works they have studied. They should not know which work or extract in advance of the examination when they have to deliver a timed oral commentary. So, not only are their reading skills tested but so are their speaking and presentational skills. Many learners feel that this is the most nerve-shredding part of the assessment procedure. The teachers mark the oral, but this is externally moderated so it is important to mark performance and not potential or effort.

  Part 3 is Genre Study. At Higher Level learners study four works and at Standard Level they study three – and yes, one of these is a work of World Literature. The remaining two or three works are chosen from the Prescribed Book List. As the label suggests, the works are linked by genre for example; Prose: the novel and the short story or Drama. From this part of the course, learners become familiar with the different elements of specific genre, and their essay writing skills are literally put to the test. This part of the course is examined in Paper 2 of the written examination. Learners are required to respond using at least two of the works studied in this section so the mental creativity and agility acquired while writing that coursework will stand them in good stead.

  Part 4 does not warrant any further discussion except to stress that it is tested through an oral presentation for which learners can prepare.

performance   Written Paper 1 is quite a challenge. Learners choose between an unseen piece of prose and a poem and read it for exploration and analysis. They then have to produce a written commentary showing a mental and textual alertness required by very few academic programmes. The best responses show real insight, depth of understanding and mastery of expression. With two hours at Higher Level and one and a half hours at Standard Level to demonstrate these skills, there is little wonder that the adrenalin levels soar for this one!

  It is really important to remember that the I.B. Programmes encourage learners to pursue the study of their native language. Language A1 within the Diploma Programme therefore means precisely that – the learner’s first language and whether that is Arabic, Czech, Mandarin or Kazak, the learner should, in keeping with the spirit and the letter of the Diploma Programme keep up the study of literature from that culture. To this end, School Supported Self-Taught Languages are offered. It is not only possible but very likely that within an International School setting that provision will have to be made for candidates entitled to this. One school I worked at peaked in terms of its Self-Taught Programme when I, as I.B. Co-ordinator, managed the provision of twenty-six A1 Languages! And yes, each of the languages has its own book list.

  The standards are high. All assessment, whichever skill is being tested, is criterion-referenced. Equally important to all teachers is to note that while the full complement of skills is tested, there is always room for learner interpretation, which is so important in the promotion of deep learning.

  The Language A1 Programme is truly fascinating and rewarding. Please do not regard the above as anything but an overview; the Study Guide with all its rubrics is a must, and I cannot recommend strongly enough the importance of I.B. training for schools wishing to embark on this wonderful venture.


By Kevin M. Purday

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