Thoughts at the end of Year 1

Year 1 of the new syllabus in IB Biology is now done.  It’s been an interesting year and I’ve often felt that I was feeling my way through the course, but I think it was a successful year overall and I do like the direction that the course is moving in. This is my second syllabus change and I know the first cohort of a new course is the most challenging.

Units Covered

I teach the course based on conceptual units (thanks to @iBiologyStephen for an inspirational blog post on this; also his thoughts on curriculum planning in general).  I managed to get through the following units this year:

  • Unit 1: What is Biology? – 5.1 Evidence for evolution; 5.2 Natural selection; 5.3 Classification
  • Unit 2: The Chemistry of Life – 2.1  Molecules to metabolism; 8.1 Metabolism; 2.2  Water; 2.3  Carbohydrates and lipids; 2.4  Proteins; 2.5  Enzymes
  • Unit 3: The Double Helix – 2.6  Structure of DNA and RNA; 7.1 DNA structure and replication;  2.7  DNA replication, transcription and translation; 7.2 Transcription 7.3 Translation.
  • Unit 4: Cells – 1.1  Introduction to cells; 1.2  Ultrastructure of cells; 1.3  Membrane structure; 1.4  Membrane transport; 1.5  The origin of cells
  • Unit 5: Making New Life – 1.6  Cell division; 3.3 Meiosis; 10.1 Meiosis; 6.6 Hormones, homeostasis and reproduction; 11.4 Sexual reproduction; 9.4 Reproduction in plants
  • Unit 6: Inheritance – 3.1 Genes; 3.2 Chromosomes; 5.4 Cladistics; 3.4 Inheritance; 10.2 Inheritance; 3.5 Genetic modification and biotechnology; 10.3 Gene pools and speciation

This is a similar position to where I was a year ago with the last cohort of the old syllabus, so I think I am moving through the course at a good pace.


Three of the new criteria – Exploration, Analysis, Evaluation – are essentially improved forms of the old Design, DCP and CE. I have had my students complete three practice labs assessing Analysis and Evaluation, much as I would have under the old syllabus. I hope to get a practice exploration in early next year.  With only one option to complete at the end, our science department is thinking of devoting a 3-4 week block of class time in between finishing the Core/AHL and starting the Option, around Jan-Feb 2016.  I am going to have the students start brainstorming ideas on our class Google+ page to get the creative juices flowing and encourage as much creativity as possible.  I am  excited by the option of allowing students to choose databases as their mode of data collection and also by the idea of just one IA for them to focus on.

Nature of Science

This has been the most challenging part of the new course, I think. For the first few months I didn’t even really touch upon it, beyond mentioning it at the start of our units. The tension is in trying to understand how much students have to know, content-wise, and how much is based more on “big-picture” ideas.  The specimen papers on the OCC offer some guidance but I feel we won’t know for sure until after the first exams.  I have started to put together some practice exam questions of my own and would be happy to collaborate with other teachers on a bank of these. I have found using this blog to be a powerful way to get the students engaged and have them thinking about these ideas, though it is a process that is continually evolving.

There have been some good conversations on twitter about these changes, although somewhat limited by the 140 character limit. I would love to hear from other teachers in more detail about how they have found the first year of the course and their plans for Year 2.


The Nature of Science and Assessment

The Grade 11 Semester 2 exams are almost upon us!  This will be the first formal assessment including the NOS this year, so it is important to think a little bit about how this might work and what exactly you need to know.

The Teacher Support Material says that  “NOS will be assessed in SL and HL examinations in all of the externally assessed components—papers 1, 2 and 3—in every session. NOS will not be examined in isolation. The questions will be put into subject-specific contexts. ” (2014)

What this tells us is that you are not expected to memorise dates, names, co-workers, detailed experimental procedures or who won Nobel Prizes.  What you need to be able to do is recognise how certain experiments changed the way we view biology and offer evidence of how biology works.

For example, you would not be expected to remember that in 1935, the English biochemists Hugh Davson and James Danielli proposed their model of membrane structure and that this was replaced in 1972 by the model devised by the Americans SJ Singer and Garth L. Nicholson. What you would need to remember is that this represents how biological knowledge changes over time and that as new evidence accumulates, theories which are no longer supported must be replaced by theories that reflect the experimental data. This is an example of the falsification of science and is a key aspect of the production of knowledge in the Natural Sciences.

In terms of your exam preparation, then, you should focus on the description of the NOS, which is displayed at the top of each blog post. You should understand in broad strokes how the particular individual or experimental technique mentioned relates to that statement.  You will also need to link the NOS to the syllabus content; for example, the Davson-Danielli NOS might need to be linked to the structure and function of the plasma membrane.

The idea here is that this should be approached form a process perspective, rather than focusing on content – you have enough to do of that as it is!


IB. Biology teacher support material: First assessment 2016. 2014. IBO; Cardiff. Print.

The Nature of Science

One of the big changes to the new biology syllabus is the addition of the Nature of Science (NOS) strands. According to the IB, the NOS provide “…the overarching theme in the biology, chemistry and physics courses.”(2014; p6). They are divided up as follows:

1. What is science and what is the scientific endeavour?
2. The understanding of science
3. The objectivity of science
4. The human face of science
5. Scientific literacy and the public understanding of science

These are explored throughout the course, with each topic having a specific NOS to focus on. We will use this blog as a forum to discuss and explore the different NOS and to appreciate their relationship to the scientific process in biology. The NOS can be assessed in the exams, both explicitly and implicitly, so an understanding of how they relate to the content and the broader aims of the course is essential.
Biology Guide. Publication. Cardiff: IBO, 2014. Print. Diploma Programme.