Spotlight On: Pushing the Bounds of Human Knowledge

4 August 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 5 August 2023.

Pushing the bounds of human knowledge – the IB extended essay

As educators, we know that explicit, direct instruction led by an expert is often the best way to learn something, especially when you are a beginner in the field (1). But what about when you are no longer a novice? In a postgraduate setting, you would stop attending lectures about the work of others and instead, conduct original research of your own, share your findings with the academic community, and thus contribute ‘new’, expert knowledge to your field.

On a smaller scale, this experience is what the IB extended essay (EE) intends to replicate for Year 12 candidates. In August each year, students submit their completed 4000-word research essays to their supervisors and reflect on their experience through their final viva voce.

About a year earlier, these students chose a subject area and formulated a question from this discipline to answer. Research questions must be open-ended and original – a question to which no-one currently knows the definitive answer. In seeking an answer, they become a true academic expert on their chosen topic, generate new knowledge, and hopefully add, in a small way, to academic understanding in their field.

Some notable examples from recent Queenwood cohorts shed light on the breadth of interest provoked by a liberal education, for example:

  • What is the impact of urban design on the rate of non-domestic criminal assaults in Redfern and Zetland?
  • To what extent were the changes made to Nazi ideology regarding Aryan women between 1933 and 1940 due to economic necessity?”
  • How does poetry mediate and articulate the changing nature of masculine grief over time?
  • How successful have Australian state government policies been in addressing structural determinants of health in order to reduce the social gradient in adult obesity rates?

Completing an EE is a challenging task, typically stretching a student’s problem solving, critical thinking and time management well beyond anything they have attempted before. Becoming an academic expert is rarely achieved without effort and challenge.

In an era when search engines and artificial intelligence can answer questions instantly and with increasing credibility, should we still consider this daunting task to be a worthwhile endeavour? Both academic research (2) and the lived experience of our Queenwood students would suggest so.

For students in the short term, research demonstrates that completing an extended essay can be a statistically significant contributor to academic success at university (3).

In the longer term, we know that when students are sufficiently prepared and equipped to drive their own learning, they can pursue questions they are passionate about, develop a sense of curiosity and an enthusiasm for knowledge. This extends beyond formal education, driving them to explore new subjects, acquire new skills and stay intellectually curious (4).

IB students past and present typically describe the EE as an academically significant part of their Diploma experience (5). Simply completing the task is immensely rewarding.

An extended essay in many ways represents the pinnacle of a successful liberal education, which is of course, part of our strategic direction for education at Queenwood. It demonstrates our commitment to instilling a love of learning for learning’s sake, to a life of the mind beyond the school walls, and ultimately to the search for truth (6).

"This essay was undoubtedly the most demanding project I have ever undertaken" (QW student)

"I am grateful for the insights I have gleaned, especially regarding my own learning style". (QW student)

"Completing my EE has been both incredibly rewarding and insightful". (QW student)

"For me the journey of writing my essay was nothing short of intellectually inspiring and satisfying, even more so than the final product". (QW Student)

These words are truly examples of students’ struggles to the stars.


(1) e.g Hattie (2008), Marzano (2003) , Rosenshine (2010) etc.

(2) IBO, "What Did the EE Do for You?" (2018).

(3) Inkelas, KK, Swan, AK, Pretlow, J and Jones, JN. (2013). Exploring the benefits of the International Baccalaureate extended essay for university study at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville, VA, USA. Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, University of Virginia.

(4) "The Role of Independent Learning in Lifelong Learning and Adult Education" (Studies in Continuing Education, 2018)

(5) IBO, "What Did the EE Do for You?" (2018).

(6) Queenwood website,