Lyubov Dombeva talks about her experiences of teaching biology through English and the challenges and positive aspects both she and her students face.
Tell us who you are and what you teach.
My name is Lyubov, Lyubov Dombeva and I'm 32, married, Bulgarian. I teach Biology in English, this is what I've been doing for 10 years, ever since my graduation from New Bulgarian University. During that period I've been working in both state and private language schools. My students are between 15 and 18 years old; this corresponds to grades 9 to 12. I'm currently teaching at Zlatarski IB World School which offers the IB Diploma Programme in English. During the 2007-2008 school year I had to teach 10th and 11th grades that study the Bulgarian national curriculum in English as well as first and second year IB Diploma candidates - grades 11 and 12.
How and when did you become an IB Biology teacher?
I've only been an IB Biology teacher for one year and as the IB Diploma Programme is a two-year programme it is still early to brag about it (laughs). How did I get involved in it? Well, Zlatarski School invited me as a part time teacher a couple of years ago, but I was too busy to take these extra classes, plus I didn't know much about IB at that time. Then I became interested in the IB Programmes in general; I found out that the attitudes of both teachers and learners as they are described in the IBO documents come really close to how I feel about teaching. I checked if the position was still vacant, sent an application and eventually got the job.
What are the main problems and challenges?
The problems and challenges of teaching in the IB Diploma Programme are different from teaching the National Curriculum in English. On the one hand, from the teacher's point of view, there's plenty of published and online support for IB Biology teachers, whereas there's very few good quality materials to cover the Bulgarian national curriculum in English. For me, personally, the IBO requirement for a minimum number of hours of practical work for science students was, and still is a challenge, as it is so untypical for the mainstream education in Bulgaria, especially in language schools. So this was something I was learning this school year. But it's good when there's something new and exciting to do in school, otherwise it will be such a bore! On the other hand, there are problems in common, like difficult scientific terminology, the level of development of students' cognitive skills; their level of language knowledge and skills and the teacher's awareness and understanding of these language needs and how to scaffold them.
As for a student to become successful in Biology or other subject in English, she has to be first of all open-minded and an active learner. And these qualities need cultivating in the student; which is the teacher's responsibility. In Bulgaria the teaching tradition is very teacher-centered and students often see the teacher and the course book as the ultimate source of all knowledge. A lot of the students try to learn by heart this set of knowledge often without understanding it partly because they may not have sufficient language ability. Sometimes even really motivated students don't see any other way of achieving high marks. I believe this system gives poor results in the long term and should be abandoned. A more student-centered approach needs to be introduced that develops learner's abilities. This is where students have to be open-minded, for them the shift of the paradigm from teacher-centered to student-centered methodology can be confusing. Lots of students are used to being lectured most of the time and only occasionally answering the teachers' questions. Being somehow actively involved in a lesson is on some occasions a new experience, as they usually just sit and listen or daydream. Students need to realize that only by being self-driven, life-long learners actively seeking and acquiring knowledge they will be successful. And this applies not just to high school Biology or other subject, but in general.
What are the positive aspects of teaching Biology through English?
For me, as a teacher, it's a chance to bring authentic texts and news on relevant issues into class. And there are plenty of opportunities for taking part in collaborative projects that encourage creativity in both students and teachers. Science Across the World is a good example of such a programme. As for the benefit for the students, I can judge from my personal observations, the feedback from my students and the formal and informal discussions I have with them. I believe learning Biology or other subjects in English helps develop the linguistic and thinking skills of students. It also improves their communication skills and may have a boosting effect on students' motivation and self-esteem. At least, that's what happens in my classes. Having a set of science knowledge and understanding available in English may be crucial for the student's choice for higher education. Being able to use English language sources of information is a must even if they don't choose to enroll in a university abroad. People just need to be able to do it nowadays.
What do you spend most of your time doing in preparing Biology in English?
Well, it's difficult to say… there aren't many printed materials available, especially those that cover 100% of the Bulgarian curriculum or are of satisfactory quality. There is a lot of stuff online, but sometimes it can take a lot of time browsing it all until you find what you need. On other occasions you find what you've been looking for in an instant, it depends on what and where you are searching. But it seems most of the time is spent searching through my personal archives digging for either the file or the hard copy, or both, of some material that I already know from somewhere (workshops, colleagues, websites etc.) or I made myself. And of course I spend a lot of time reading, not just course books, but also scientific books and magazines, both paper and online. One has to be up to date with the news about research and development in science, especially when it comes to things like genetics and environmental studies that are moving ahead so fast. Plus, I use the news as authentic texts or video when I teach about those topics, so lots of ideas sparkle every day.
How do your students manage learning Biology in English?
This year I had to teach 10th and 11th graders that haven't done much else in school but sit and listen and copy from the board (one exception are the foreign language classes) and it was a struggle to convince them there's plenty of other things we can do together in class! There was this attitude 'I had excellent marks last year, why do you award me such a low mark now?!' And I had to explain that when you learn things by heart you soon forget them and often you don't even understand what they mean, so you don't even answer the question. Not all students saw immediately the long term benefits of being an active and self-driven learner. I think in the beginning, some of them even thought I was wasting their time making them playing word games or making jelly cell models. But the situation gradually improved and students come to appreciate the positive outcome of developing their language and thinking skills.
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CLIL Biology in Bulgaria: Interview with Lyubov Dombeva