History topics that are ‘overdone’ by students each year

This is my (edited) response to a question on the IBO’s ‘Online Curriculum Centre’ History Forum, asking if the question ‘To what extent was the dropping of the atomic bombs necessary for a U.S. victory in the Pacific War?’ was ‘overdone’.

I understand teachers’/examiners’ complaints about certain topics being ‘overdone’, but I think it misses the fundamental aspect of teaching: each year a new cohort is introduced to content that is new to them. And so what to us is the same old boring questions about WWII or Nazis or Cold War are for each new cohort of students the fundamental questions that they want to get their heads around. Perhaps it is time we started offering other aspects of history beyond military/political – or choose to offer topics that we have not taught for the last twenty years. It seems to me that we still offer a very (western European) Cold War-centric understanding of twentieth century history. Is it because it is the most important (as defined how/when?), it is what most of us were initially trained in or have taught for years, or it makes sense of the present?

Of the OP’s question (and most ‘overdone’ questions) I think that it can be answered simply by a younger years student or in can be answered in a great deal of depth with research, drawing connections between events and decisions and the use of primary documents which provide the rationale for the decisions: which should be the difference between a 10 or a 22 for the IA, not whether the examiner has seen the question before.

I struggle with the concept that students need to come up with something original – they are final year high school students doing 6 subjects, plus TOK & EE, not PhD students dedicating four years to one tiny subset of one area of one subject area.

I also think that we mark far too hard – surely someone else out there thinks 67% for a 7 is a joke – and we expect too much from teenagers to produce in a forty-five minute exam essay. I am absolutely for academic rigour, but not to the point where the IB cannot give exemplars of what a 25 for an IA looks like or examiners at subject workshops have only ever seen 16/20 for essays.

For all the rhetoric of creating inquirers, risk takers and problem solvers, we do not encourage it (in either teachers or students) when it comes to putting university entrance on the line.

A good IA should be able to stand on its own, whether the question appears every year or not: it is this student’s first foray into the topic even if the examiner has seen it 1000 times.