MYP: A Refutation

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May 28th 2017
Published: May 28th 2017
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Accra, Ghana, 2008

'MYP' – short for ‘Middle Years Programme’ - is part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) course of study, which begins with PYP (the Primary Years Programme) and finishes with DP (the Diploma Programme). MYP spans the middle 6 years of a child’s education – from Grade 6 up to Grade 11.

I was an MYP English teacher for 7 years (5 years at ISHCMC in Vietnam; 2 years at the Lincoln Community School in Ghana).

I wrote the following diatribe while in Ghana. It was published on the ISR (Int’l Schools Review) website, attracting many comments both supportive and hostile.

MYP today (2016) has changed. The Areas of Interaction have gone. However, I still think it is a waste of time and energy. The system I prefer is called LMA (Leave Me Alone). Give teachers the freedom to experiment; just because they are not teaching within a system, does not mean they are teaching badly.

Anyway, here is my rant from 2008…

MYP was vastly unpopular at my school in Vietnam, although we did have one or two MYP evangelists (it suited their personalities – made them feel important). MYP is just as unpopular at my present school in Ghana.

Most teachers grimly accept MYP and quietly pay lip-service to it. If you sign a contract to work in an MYP school, you have to play the game. Personally, I have played the game by attending the required MYP meetings and by doing the bare minimum of Unit Plans. However, I have also felt compelled to speak out about the essential uselessness of MYP.

In Vietnam I wrote to my Head, saying that MYP "has no educational value". In Accra, I have told the Head of High School, the former MYP coordinator and the current MYP coordinator what I think. However, even if many teachers spoke out against MYP, it would probably make no difference. MYP is a good marketing tool. If a school does PYP, MYP and DP, then it is an ‘IB World School’, which sounds mighty impressive. Parents like the idea of a school being part of a universally recognised system. The school sounds organised and accountable.

There are a few examples of schools dropping MYP in response to teacher dissatisfaction (Kevin Bartlett’s school in Brussels and, if I remember correctly, Munich International School); but these are exceptions. MYP has spread, and is continuing to spread, its tentacles across the world of international education. It is a huge money-spinner for IB, and it sounds good to the people who pay for international schooling - the parents.

Why is MYP so unpopular with teachers? Either it is intrinsically flawed or else the way it has been implemented is wrong. Or a combination of both.

This is my seventh year at an MYP school. During this time I, and all the other MYP teachers, have been subjected to endless after-school MYP indoctrination sessions. To compound the agony, when a new MYP coordinator takes over – it’s happened to me twice – many things are changed, meaning more meetings and more bureaucracy.

Now let’s get to the heart of the matter. In my opinion MYP (aka 'Middle Years Poppycock' or 'May You Perish' or 'Many Years of Pain' or 'Masochism Yes Please') has no educational value – even if implemented skilfully.

What is MYP? It is not at all like IGCSE. With IGCSE English I am free to teach English how I like – as long as I meet the IGCSE exam and coursework requirements. During the two years of the IGCSE course I select the topics and the books I wish to teach and get on with it. Pure English. No special IGCSE jargon is required. Then, at the end of two years, IGCSE experts rigorously assess the students’ work. An ‘A’ grade at IGCSE English Language is quite an achievement.

MYP, on the other hand, is very very intrusive all through the 5 years of its existence (grades 6-10). (In passing, I’ve often wondered why, if it is so educationally important, MYP suddenly stops in Grade 10. There is no articulation between MYP and IB Diploma; MYP is completely forgotten!). When an MYP teacher teaches a topic or a book, he is supposed to frame the topic in terms of the 5 MYP ‘Areas of Interaction’: Approaches to Learning, Homo Faber (pretentious Latin for ‘creativity’), Community, Health, Environment. UNDER MYP, AN ENGLISH TEACHER IS NOT FREE TO TEACH PURE ENGLISH. I am supposed to genuflect before these 5 sacred areas and not only mention them to the students but also fill up a form showing where I have used them in my teaching. In Vietnam I was also supposed to send MYP ‘task assessment’ forms home to the parents, indicating what MYP things the students had been doing.

If I am teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ (one of my sacred books), I want to focus on the big themes, the characters, the use of English etc etc. I do not want to frame the book in terms of the MYP Areas of Interaction. This is a barren and unnecessary diversion from the main thing: appreciation of the book.

MYP has this simple template for ALL teaching. Everything is reduced to the Five Areas of Interaction (Five Areas of Putrefaction, I call them). How simplistic and how patronising! We are introducing our students to the infinite variety of learning – in my case, of books and of language – and we reduce everything to five simple boxes! This is not only insulting but awfully boring for the students (not to mention the teachers). MYP is self-serving and pretentious. It feels a need to call attention to itself. It is THERE, in your face, in the students’ faces, from Grade 6 until Grade 10 (before completely disappearing in IB Grade 11). It diminishes everything it touches. You cannot teach PURE English any longer; you have to teach English with MYP. The students have to know the MYP Areas of Putrefaction like a catechism, like a sacred mantra. MYP DILUTES AND INTERFERES WITH THE MAIN EVENT – LEARNING ENGLISH.

Teaching in MYP schools, I have not had to change my methodology in any way. Rather, I am supposed to frame all the things I do in terms of MYP. MYP requires you to PACKAGE what you do in terms of itself. As I say, this is a barren and time-consuming exercise.

MYP is very proud of its interdisciplinary approach. It is old-fashioned to see each subject in isolation. Subjects should be seen as PARTS OF A WHOLE. This explains the ubiquitous Areas of Interaction. It also explains the Interdisciplinary Units that all teachers are required to do. As an English teacher, I am supposed to do a unit of work with a colleague from another subject area. So, for example, the Drama teacher and I will do a joint unit on monologues. This will be planned and marked by the two of us, and it will show the students that ALL SUBJECTS ARE LINKED. Again, this is, in my opinion, stating the bloody obvious. All subjects are naturally linked by the same teaching methodology which underlies them and by the common language used at the school - English. We teachers teach different things using broadly similar teaching methods.

It is folly to try and link, as MYP seeks to do, all subjects by their content – using the 5 Areas as common denominators. School subjects ARE different. The world of the Chemistry classroom is (apart from common teaching methodologies and the English language) a million miles away from the world of an English poetry lesson. Any attempt to link them is contrived.

What happens, in practice, with the MYP Interdisciplinary Units is that teachers, in order to fulfil MYP requirements, devise artificial and cumbersome linking units. Planning such a unit – which means meeting the other teacher or teachers - is time-consuming. I have always thought that a good teacher will, in the normal course of events, occasionally do a unit of work in cooperation with another teacher BECAUSE IT IS A GOOD IDEA – not because it is required. For example, when I am teaching ‘1984’, I will have the History teacher come into my lesson to talk about Stalin’s Russia.

Nowadays there is an equation between being a good MYP teacher (i.e. you fill up the required forms, speak brightly at MYP meetings – in short, are SEEN to be fulfilling the MYP criteria) and being a good teacher. The whole emphasis in some schools is on MYP.

Well, all that MYP requires you to do is to use its terminology and its 5 sacred areas as a frame for your lessons. It is essentially flimsy and insubstantial BUT time-consuming and intrusive. Good teaching practice (creative, inspiring lessons; good relationships with the students etc etc) is separate from MYP and has existed since the birth of education. I would prefer to work at a school where teachers are left alone in their departments to teach their subjects and are evaluated in the time-honoured ways.

MYP has been a huge drain on teachers’ time and energy. English meetings in my 7 years at MYP schools have been dominated by MYP – MYP form-filling, MYP protocol. We have NEVER talked about the things that really matter in English – ideas for stimulating lessons, the best books to teach, our policies for teaching spelling and grammar and so on.

As I see it, many schools espouse MYP not because it is intrinsically any good, but BECAUSE IT FILLS A GAP – the gap between PYP (which seems to be quite OK) and DP (universally admired). As I say, MYP is excellent for marketing a school to new parents.

My Vietnam school used to do MYP and IGCSE together, which was crazy. The two systems are incompatible, and the demands on teachers and students to satisfy both systems were punitive. IGCSE eventually lost out - a sad day for the school. IGCSE is far more rigorous than MYP and therefore, ironically, a far better preparation for the IB Diploma.

The MYP Personal Project that the Grade 10 students do is pretentious and lacking in intellectual rigour. I am currently supervising a student who is designing a golf manual. It is beautifully presented, very easy to read, and the student is enjoying doing it. However, this is no sort of preparation for the rigours of DP. After writing his manual, my student has to link it to one or more of the 5 Areas of Putrefaction. It is no good just writing something good; oh, no – after your piece is written, you have to write a number of paragraphs connecting it with MYP. Why? Presumably because MYP is so important. (As I said before, if MYP is so important, why is it suddenly forgotten after Grade 10?) All the students I have supervised for the Personal Project have found this final stage – linking their product with MYP - very tedious.

In fact, I have yet to find a single student who finds MYP stimulating or enlightening or interesting in any way. IT IS AN ENCUMBRANCE FOR BOTH STUDENT AND TEACHER. I feel particularly sorry for the Grade 6’s and 7’s (whom I don’t teach), who should be enjoying their lessons in the normal way, who should be learning about the vast tapestry of life, but who are being force-fed MYP Areas of Putrefaction and made to intone sacred mantras like ‘Homo Faber’. It is obvious to me that MYP is a flavour-of-the-educational-month gimmick. Nobody who has been through MYP will, in later life, say “Oh, MYP was so interesting and thought-provoking!” People forget educational jargon; what they remember are things like enjoyable books and projects, interesting teachers.

One of the creators of MYP was Caroline Ellwood, a big noise in IB circles. Her son, Jon, was my colleague for a time at ISHCMC (before he lost his life in the first Bali bombings), and he confessed to me that his mother realised that MYP had become “unwieldy”. Personally, I don’t mind if something is unwieldy as long as it’s good. MYP is unwieldy, pretentious, self-serving, half-baked (I’m supposed to evaluate written work using ‘the MYP criteria’; but, as any good teacher knows, you use different criteria to mark different types of work, and MYP makes no allowance for that) and essentially useless. Shakespeare wrote about it in ‘Macbeth’: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Like Macbeth, I feel “cabined, cribbed, confined” by the dictates of MYP.

Finally, let me draw an analogy. The current vogue for MYP reminds me of the fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes. Too many teachers accept MYP uncritically instead of asking “What good is it? What is there of real substance in it? What good is it doing the students?” Like the child in the fairytale, who cuts through all the bullshit and sees the Emperor as he really is, I have to say: “MYP has no substance; it is pretentious and empty; it does not enhance education in any way; it is a confidence trick, a cynical money-making ploy used by IB and schools; it wastes the time of teachers and students.”

The real substance of education lies in the subjects on the curriculum. What students will remember for the rest of their lives is not the Five Areas of Interaction but Lenny’s fight with Curley in Of Mice and Men or learning to play the violin or a chemistry experiment.

I have come to the conclusion that MYP is like religion – you either believe in it or you don’t. I am an MYP atheist, and I doubt if anything can make me a True Believer. Some of the proponents of MYP are obviously fine teachers, but, for the life of me, I don’t understand why they like it. I can only think that MYP, like religion, fulfils some emotional need.


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