Transferable skills

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If you were hoping for more thoughts on footnotes and endnotes this week, my apologies. The thoughts I had in mind are still to come.  This post is still about footnotes, but not quite what I thought I’d be saying.

The IB has begun posting the May 2018 DP subject reports in the Programme Resource Centre and I have spent some time this past week looking through them.

This is not something I do as a matter of course. I do look at the Extended Essay reports for all subjects – and eagerly await publication, they must surely be posted any day now. But I don’t follow the subject reports that carefully.

My look at the subject reports was impelled by a comment made in a workshop I led last week – a history teacher insistent that the subject guide for History says that students are required to use footnotes.  I was sure that the subject guide says no such thing; IB allows the use of any documentation system as long as

(1) the style is used consistently,
(2) the references are complete (complete enough in terms of the IB’s minimum requirements for a reference, complete enough to allow retrieval of the actual source used when publicly available), and
(3) the citation and reference are accurate in that the right author and work is documented.

(Accuracy does not refer to accuracy of formatting of references according to any documentation style, as the examiner has no means of knowing which referencing style has been used.)

But the teacher was insistent, footnotes are required in this subject.  It is something I have heard before; it is occasionally suggested in workshops and in the forums – though chapter and verse is never given.  Home after the workshop, I checked the subject guides yet again.  They say, very clearly, that any documentation style may be used as long as it long as it is used consistently, completely and accurately.   Why was the teacher so sure that footnotes are the only permitted form of documentation in history?  Where does this myth come from? Why does it persist?

My next step was to check the subject reports (produced after every exam session) – and I found the May 2018 History subject report had just been posted.  Once again, it notes that sources can be cited in the text or in footnotes.  But it also goes on to say

  • Please remind candidates that footnotes should be used to reference the sources used.
    They must not include factual material that has been inserted in an effort to circumvent the word count

Ouch!  Not only does that contradict the earlier advice; it is also against IB policy.

I was quick to contact IB, and the subject manager was quick in getting back to me.  The statement is ambiguous.  What was meant was:

  • IF footnotes are used, they should be used only to reference sources used. Footnotes should not include factual material that has been inserted in an effort to circumvent the word count

The IB policy stands: students may use any (recognised) method of documenting sources as long as it used consistently and references are complete and accurate.  The subject manager said that he would be reminding examiners of this in an upcoming standardisation meeting.  It is good that examiners know – but it would also be good if teachers of history know too.  History allows citation/referencing styles other than footnotes, and that is good. (This is my personal prejudice kicking in: footnotes are difficult, they often get students confused – especially when formatted properly Chicago-style, they do not help the reader and they do not help the writer as much as in in-text systems of documentation.)

Meanwhile, I was taking a look at reports for other subjects looking for what they said about referencing.

It becomes clear, a common theme in this year’s reports concerns citation in the text (be it parenthetical, woven into the narrative, or superscript number indicating a footnote).  The reports for quite a few subjects remark that students are (usually) producing bibliographies to accompany their assessments – but are too often failing to cite their sources in the text at point of use.  Some reports remark that, while students are citing their textual sources, many are forgetting that images and other non-textual material needs to be cited too.

Although there have been no extended essay reports in recent years,  the last few years of the 2009/2013 curriculum,  my impression has been that for the extended essay, the message is getting across: bibliographies are not enough, citation in the text is needed too.

I wonder if this will be borne out when those extended essay reports are published. I await them even more eagerly than I did last week.

And in the meantime, it could be that the message we need to get across, to students and to their teachers, is that citing and referencing are not just matters for the extended essay.  The skills we teach them apply across the board, in all their academic work; the skills aren’t just transferable, they must transfer.  That makes sense.  Honesty is not just for the big showpiece occasions such as the extended essay.  If students get in the habit of citing and referencing all uses of other people’s work, even work which is not submitted for assessment, they are less likely to go wrong in the smaller pieces of work. The habit will become an attitude, the honest student will become a student with integrity, someone who does the right thing even when nobody is looking, somebody who does the right thing without having to think about it.

It could be that teachers need to be made more aware, that they need to be more demanding, need to know what the expectations are and to help students achieve them.

Being honest does not have to be done in an academic fashion (unless it is a piece of work submitted for academic assessment). Being honest is a mindset.  Let’s inculcate it.

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