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Updating the Diploma Programme physics course: An educator’s perspective

From August 2023, Diploma Programme (DP) teachers will need to ensure they are using the recently published physics subject guide (first assessment 2025).

To mark the launch of the new subject guide, we asked an educator who was involved in the development of the curriculum to speak about the course and how the key updates will benefit both students and teachers.

Arno Dirks’ initial experience with the International Baccalaureate (IB) was as a DP student in the early 1990s. After his studies and conducting research, he went on to teach physics, further mathematics and theory of knowledge at the Mahindra United World College of India before continuing his career at schools across the globe, in India, Italy, Germany and Canada as well as teaching mathematics online with Pamoja for several years. Alongside teaching he has led in-person and virtual workshops for the IB since 2014. He also led the development of the physics and mathematics SL and mathematics HL platforms at Kognity until 2017, and has marked physics HL paper 2 examinations and moderated physics IAs. Arno is currently combining teaching and the role of Dean of Studies at Pearson College UWC.

How were you involved in reviewing the course guide? What did it involve?

The curriculum review for me started in early 2016 when a group of teachers from around the world, representing a diverse set of school contexts, engaged in online discussions. The review process kicked off in earnest later that year with a vibrant symposium on science education in The Hague with presentations from a wide variety of educators, ranging from university science professors to those working in education think tanks to students. While the large online group continued to work through 2017, I had the privilege of representing teachers at several focus-group meetings in The Hague. At the onset, we were thinking in large narrative terms of what would form a coherent and suitable physics course for the wide variety of students we welcome into our classes, ranging from those for whom this may be their last science course to those who would continue to study and become professional scientists. There was much cross-pollination with the biology and the chemistry groups in thinking how to construct courses that would lend themselves to a deep conceptual approach to delivering the theory and develop the scientific skills that would set students up for success for continuing studies while learning life-long scientific literacy to make sense of the world; with the chemistry group we also talked about common terminology and notation in thinking about those students who take both of these sciences.

It has been an eye-opening experience to see how much care and thought the IB puts into the curriculum review. Not to mention how many stakeholders are involved in crafting a new curriculum, from content to assessment.

“It has been a true pleasure to have contributed to this process in many different ways, including thinking about professional development from the perspective of content as well as delivery mode.”

Throughout I have learned from the people guiding the process in The Hague and Cardiff and from the phenomenal teachers from all over the world representing all kinds of local contexts.

Why did you get involved in the curriculum review?

I love teaching and how it gives you the opportunity to share what you are excited about with youngsters. While the excitement I share with students is not limited to physics, teaching DP courses does make up a large part of what I bring to my students’ experience. Thinking and contributing to the form of the curriculum is one of those avenues in which the IB invites us, teachers, to get dirty, so to speak, and bring our experience and expertise to the table. It is at times a humbling experience; back in 2016 we were thinking about a curriculum for students who in 2016 would have barely started their IB journey in the PYP!

Teaching allows you to continually grow as a professional. It is one of those professions where we can hone our craft and keep getting more effective for much longer than many other professions. Joining the curriculum review team was an enticing next step on my own journey to give back to the DP which affected my life deeply as I learned physics following the IB curriculum that was taught in the early 1990s.

Can you list some of the key changes to the guide?

  • The skills in the study of physics are more clearly delineated and there is a strong emphasis in the way the guide is structured on weaving these skills into the teaching of the syllabus content when they are appropriate rather than treating them separately.
  • The role of developing a conceptual understanding through teaching physics is represented through networked knowledge using guiding and linking questions in the guide.
  • Approaches to teaching and approaches to learning have been integrated into the guide and will play a prominent role in the new physics workshops. In addition, the teacher support materials (TSM) will include exemplars on how to approach teaching physics through a conceptual lens.
  • There are no longer options -when this became clear, it was a sad day for many of us on the curriculum review team. This has led to a different assessment model in which there are two papers at both SL and HL. Paper setters have been working hard on developing a set of specimen papers to give teachers a good idea of what these two papers will look like.
  • The nature of science (NOS) continues to provide an overarching theme to the science courses, however, the way that it is presented in the guide is very different and NOS is no longer explicitly folded into syllabus topics.

How will these changes benefit both educators and students?

For students, I think it is exciting that they will all encounter special relativity, as previously it was only those who would study the relativity option. Similarly, some important concepts from classical physics, previously found in the engineering physics option, will now be studied by all students and provide a thorough preparation for further studies at university.

They will also benefit from being able to a collaborate on the scientific investigation. Although submitted work will be their own, they will will learn from a team approach to building experimental set ups, which will also reduce demand on laboratory resources.

Finally, an overall reduction in content encourages students to engage with developing a deeper understanding of the concepts that the course focuses on. This conceptual understanding will benefit bringing scientific understanding into other domains of their studies and as an educated citizen of the world.

For educators, the linking questions in the syllabus are jumping off points to think about a coherent and inter-connected route through the syllabus. Examples of this will be presented in the TSM and more resources will be available on IB Exchange. With the explicit inclusion of approaches to teaching and approaches to learning in the guide, teachers will be able to reflect and incorporate best practices into designing the learning experience of their students.

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