No dumb questions

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Some of the questions asked in forums to which I subscribe are often basic and quickly answered, questions such as

  1. I’ve heard that the abstract is no longer required in Extended Essays. Is this true?
  2. Can students write an Extended Essay in their ab initio language?
  3. Should a Language B student write the RPPF in their own language or in the language of the essay?

Sometimes the writer knows that these are basic questions, prefacing the question with something like “Apologies if this is a stupid question…”

Those who do apologise should understand, there are no dumb questions. If you don’t know the answer and you need to find it, it’s a valid question.  If you have made the effort to find out but cannot find (or do not understand) the answer to your questions, then it may be that your search powers need boosting, it may be that you are looking in the wrong place/s, it could indicate a fault on the part of those who compile the guides or design the websites – but these questions are still valid and those who ask them still need answers.  Don’t apologise! (But see (4) below.)

I am very aware that, especially in the extended essay forums, supervisors may not have supervised a student under the current curriculum (which was introduced in 2016), their experience (if they have experience) was some years ago using an earlier and in some respects very different guide. There is no use saying, they should know by now; they have not had the opportunity to find out. Their questions are still valid.

[As an aside, I would add that I am sometimes struck that many forum users only use the forums when they have questions, they do not visit (or receive notifications by email) as a matter of course. That’s sad – and a missed opportunity.  I find the forums an invaluable and free source of continuing professional development. I do not read every post, far from it, but I do read threads that interest me and I occasionally bookmark a thread because I don’t know or am unsure and I want to see what others have to say on the topic.]

What often surprises me (I am being very careful with my words here) is the nature of the responses they get. While the answers given are most times correct, they do not always give provenance, they do not say where the original questioner can verify the response, in which document the answer can be found. On what page too, please, it’s often not helpful enough simply to say (as one recent respondent to a question did), “on the EE website.”   Not pinpointing the source strikes me as unhelpful, certainly not as helpful as it might be – especially if the question has been asked because of disagreement in the school and the questioner needs support from documentation to settle the argument.

This could also be important when, instead of a single right answer to the question, there might be different and equally valid answers. That often happens when it is not a matter of policy but of local practice, with those responding stating what happens in their own subjects or schools as if this was the only way to do it (whatever “it” is), without appreciating that other subjects or schools may do it differently and also be right.  When the source is not documented, those following the thread cannot verify the accuracy of those responses and may be confused. Or worse.

And of course, if the respondent gets it wrong, gives a wrong answer and misleads the questioner (and is not corrected), the consequences may indeed be worse.

What surprises me most of all, concerns me most of all, is that we expect documentation from our students. When they make statements or claims in their work (and especially in their extended essays) that are not common knowledge, they are expected to state their source/s – and will probably lose marks if they do not and in many cases may well be found to have committed plagiarism or other form of academic misconduct.

Please note, I am not suggesting that colleagues are committing plagiarism when they do not source their statements in the forums. These colleagues are not writing academic papers. But this just adds weight to one of my guiding principles, we do not just cite our sources in order to “avoid plagiarism” – we cite our sources to help our readers.  When we do not cite our sources, we are being less helpful than we might – we should – hope to be.

What’s more, we cite our sources to help ourselves. Even if we think we know the answer to a question, it is worth checking that we have it right – and having checked, to share the location in our response.

What source?

Not too far removed from these considerations is the nature of the source.  We teach our students CRAAP and other models for evaluating their sources, we promote lateral reading and other strategies for evaluation purposes, we demonstrate that Google hit #1 is often not to be relied on or may not provide a full answer, we implore them to go to the original source. We despair when our students ignore our advice and our warnings and fail to think critically about the information they find and they use.  Information is not all equal – but so often is treated as if it is.

And yet (here’s another gripe), on those occasions when sources are cited in the forums, whether by questioner or respondent, it is often not the guide or other official documentation which are cited. So many times the source is given as my colleague/s (or even my student), my coordinator, a workshop leader, a textbook, or “someone from IB” (who is more likely to be a workshop leader or field representative and not actually from IB) (not that everyone who works for IB is equally knowledgeable on all matters IB).

Occasionally, one even gets the impression that respondents know that the official guide and a textbook say different things – and they seem more inclined to believe the textbook than the official document.  But that’s a completely different matter. It remains, information is not all equal.

So, a plea: when responding to questions on forums, cite your source/s, cite authoritative source/s.   Our citations do not need to be perfect APA or Chicago or whatever. They need to be helpful. A direct link to the page will do, a path will do.  It’s helpful, it’s good practice. It gets to be a habit – which makes for good role-modelling as we work with our colleagues and with our students.

Let’s do it!



  1. Abstracts are no longer required in extended essays – and have not been since the introduction of the new curriculum in 2016 for first examination in May 2018. If included in an extended essay, they count towards the word count and – given that examiners stop reading after 4000 words – may mean that the examiner does not reach the conclusion of the essay, which could affect the marks awarded (What’s new in EE from 2016).
  2. It says specifically in the Language Ab Initio Guide (for first examination 2020, page 8) that students may NOT write an extended essay in their ab initio language.
  3. The RPPF must be written in the language of the essay. This is stated several times in the guide itself. It is also stated, in bold, on the RPPF itself. (Although the examiner will be fluent in the language of the essay, there is no guarantee that that examiner has any knowledge of the student’s own language, whatever that may be.)
  4. It would be good to think that those posing basic questions have made an effort to find an answer, in the guides and in other documentation or in the forum/s. Given the frequency with which same basic questions recur in the forums, one cannot help but wonder if the questioner made any effort to see if that question has been asked before. In many cases, I doubt it, given the frequency of the same, frequently asked questions.
    Nevertheless, there are no dumb questions.


One thought on “No dumb questions

  1. While going through articles on Academic Honesty and Integrity from the February issue of the coordinator’s note, I ended up here. While checking EE, many students came up with the same remark-sorry for asking this dumb/stupid question., which I have also used in many occasions. The article was extremely helpful, especially the part on sources. No matter how much time is spend on detailed description on evaluating sources/websites/articles or introducing specialized databases, students end up using google as the first option, not even Google Scholar. Thinking of ways to initiate good practice among students to evaluate credible and authentic information. May be work sheets/posters/short films by students might help. The article was extremely useful. Thank You for same.

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