Exams Cancelled – May 2020
And why the IB made the right decision

Travis DixonAssessment (IB)

The IB has made a brave decision. In my mind, it's the right one. Here's why...

I understand that a lot of teachers and students will be incredibly disappointed by this announcement, perhaps even angry, especially if you’re living in a country that is relatively unaffected by the coronavirus. It’s natural to question the IB’s announcement and perhaps even be angry. Heck, I’m the first to raise issues with a number of policies and practices rolled out by the IB. This time I agree 100%. The purpose of this post is to help give some perspective to those who might need it. I hope we can all be supportive and do what we can to work together to get through this as best we can.

If you’re angry, disappointed or frustrated, please take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the IB leaders who had to made this decision, not to mention those seriously affected by Covid-19.

Yesterday we received some very big news – the IB exams for DP and CP candidates have been cancelled for May 2020. There are still a lot of questions remaining, but I commend the IB for making this extremely difficult decision sooner rather than later. This Friday, March 27th, the IB are scheduled to announce some more news. Frankly, I’m pleased I am at the bottom of the ladder and am not one of those administrators sitting around that conference table having to figure out a plan. Whatever decisions they’re making, they will not be made easily.

Here are my thoughts on the matter. Later I will post a few coping strategies for teachers and students that might help.

You can read more about the IB’s decision here.

Seek first to understand

If you’re feeling angry, frustrated or defeated by this latest news, please first try to put yourself in the position of those people who had to make this decision. There wasn’t a “right answer,” as either option – go ahead with exams or cancel – would leave so many people disadvantaged. Let’s think about what decision we’d make and then think about the negative consequences of that decision. It should be easy to do.

For example, if you’re angry now then imagine if exams were scheduled to go ahead. Think about the thousands of kids and parents living in a lock-downed country. How stressed would they be? For the next 6-8 weeks leading up to exams their nerves would be frayed from the stress of having to cope with lockdown, possibly having relatives becoming sick or worse and now also with the added stress of having to fail their DP courses while others went ahead as usual. The FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) would be real and would have real negative consequences, psychological, emotional and academic.

I’m living in Japan and we’ve been largely unaffected by the coronavirus and it’s business as usual. We’ve had school closures for a couple of weeks, but that’s about it. Everything else is business as usual. This makes it hard for me to really comprehend the situations in other countries. I welcome your thoughts in the comments, especially if they might help give some perspective on this decision.

I recently read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and the only habit that I remember from the book was “seek first to understand before being understood.” I think if more people followed this advice we’d have far less conflict. So when I heard this news, which we all knew was a possibility, my first thought was to seek to understand why they made this decision. My mind went to the people right now in Italy, Spain and Iran, and those living in China, Hong Kong and other places in lockdown since January or February.

If you’re disappointed or angry, please think about those people living in lockdown. For me, this is all I need to think about to 100% support the IB’s decision.

Presume positive intent

It’s easy to complain about policy. As teachers, we see what we think are terrible policies handed down by administrators. Students also complain about what their teachers do. Even at the level of national and international governance things happen where we scratch our heads and wonder why.

Once I was complaining about an administrative decision at our school to its former Principal and he said, “Travis, always presume positive intent.” It’s such a simple mantra, but it works. Think about it. What % of decisions do people actually make with the intent of harming someone else with no benefit to anyone? <1% I’m sure. If we first take the stance of presuming positive intent, we find it easier to understand and empathize with policy makers.

You can presume positive intent by thinking about the positive outcomes of a decision you disagree with.

So what’s the positive intent behind this decision? I think firstly it’s mitigating stress and putting priorities first. External exams fall way down the list of our priorities as educators. By making this decision, the IB is reflecting that ethos.

Exams are important, but nowhere near as important as your safety and well-being.

As a teacher, my personal ethos is to make sure of the following three things for my students every day:

  1. They’re safe
  2. They’re engaged
  3. They’re happy

In that order.

This decision is putting #1 at the top of the IB’s priority. Student safety has to come before anything else. Not only that, the practicality of having exams with increasing numbers of countries going into lockdown (New Zealand being the latest) makes this an easy decision to make.

This is another reason why I fully support it and believe it’s the right one.

The right answer

I hope you agree that if we put ourselves in the shoes of the IB decision-makers, it’s easy to see how there’s no right answer. Or I’d prefer to phrase it in a positive way – any decision is the right one. If exams went ahead, kids might get rewarded for their hard work in a more fair way. Now they’re cancelled, we can make sure everyone is safe and not put at risk for the sake of exam scores.

The UK has cancelled GCSE and A-level exam. In the USA, AP exams are set to go ahead but with online versions. This is an interesting idea that will bring about it’s own set of answers and problems. The IB could have opted for this as well. It was a possibility.

We can find the downsides to all of these decisions if we look hard enough. But that means we can also find the positives. After the initial shock of the announcement has worn off, I hope people can see how this is 100% the right decision.

In my next post I’ll continue this idea by giving some psychological coping strategies that might help.

Be smart. Stay safe. Take care.