An Unofficial Inquiry Into the IB: One Insider’s View | Christine Lang | 9 Min Read

November 2, 2022

The International Baccalaureate celebrated its 50th anniversary four years ago in 2018. Even with such a substantial history, it would seem that misconceptions about the IB programs remain. Some educators view IB programs as mainly an international approach to education, but the chart below showing schools by country would indicate otherwise. Others view IB as a highly structured and disciplined program akin to programs leading to high-stakes A-Level exams in Great Britain. This article will shed some light on what the IB programs are today, and why independent schools might wish to consider it as a programmatic alternative. 

Before I begin sharing my personal and professional thoughts and experiences related to the IB, I wish to state clearly that I am an author of the original Primary Years Programme (PYP), having been in the lucky position to be hired as a young teacher from California to the Vienna International School where the PYP (then called the International Schools Curriculum Project) was initiated. My strong support and belief in the program have never wavered, and it is my opinion that the programs represent current best practices. Having said that, searching for a truly perfect curriculum program would be unproductive. 

Quick Overview/Refresher of the IB programs

The first IB program, the Diploma Programme (DP), was established in 1968. It sought to provide a challenging yet balanced education that would facilitate geographical mobility by providing an internationally recognized university entrance qualification.

With the introduction of the Middle Years Programme (MYP) in 1994 and the Primary Years Programme (PYP) in 1997, a continuum of international education for students aged 3 to 19 was established. The recent introduction of the Career-related Programme (CP) in 2012 enriched this continuum by providing a choice of international education pathways for 16- to 19-year-old students. These four IB programs can be implemented independently or in combination. 

Refer to the IB website for additional information.

All four IB programs also require the completion of a culminating project: the PYP exhibition; the MYP personal project or community project; the DP extended essay; the CP reflective project. These projects provide an opportunity for students to both deepen and showcase their knowledge, understanding, and skills, and to celebrate their learning journeys. The MYP, DP, and CP also offer a range of IB-validated assessments. 

With the recent appointment of a new Director General, reimagined strategies and roadmaps are currently in formation. The curriculum itself is continuously reviewed, with current revisions to the Primary Years Programme (PYP) subject scope and sequences, as well as the entire Middle Years Programme (MYP) underway.  The aim is to be even more future-facing and responsive to the developing needs of all learners and to explore ways to further align the IB continuum of programs. Enhancing the MYP will be developed between 2022 and 2025 inclusive. The Diploma Programme (DP) is also in the early stages of a full review.

What are the IB aims? And how effective is it in meeting its mission?

What I aim to present here is a balanced overview of the strengths and struggles of the IB programs with the hope that interested educators can gain a better understanding through authentic ‘insider information’. The level of rigor, the amount of assessment, and the appropriateness of the programs in independent schools will be discussed.

The mission of the IB has been and still is to develop “inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Through the implementation of the IB programs, “students across the world are encouraged to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.” (IB website

It would seem that any school aiming to ensure its programs remain relevant could find value in the IB’s stated mission. Primarily through the increase in technology use and also through what we’ve learned about learning possibilities through the pandemic, schools are aware of the need to become more learner-centered and prepare for a globally connected world. Challenges arise when doing so might seem to take away from the rigor of an existing program and potentially put students’ admission to top universities at risk as a result.

As much as IB offers a continuum of learning to students from ages 3-19 years and further explicit connections are developed, there is still a disparity among the programs—the main one, in not only my opinion, being the more holistic, open-ended, interdisciplinary approach in the PYP and MYP versus the single-subject, content heavy final years in the Diploma Programme.

Finding the appropriate balance in any program will always be a challenge and meeting outside pressures will undoubtedly always require a certain level of compromise. It’s important to identify where these compromises might need to be made and by whom—and then to work together to ensure that they happen sooner rather than later. I was personally very encouraged at a relatively recent IB Global Conference to have listened to two keynote speakers address this very issue. Both Will Richardson and Heidi Hayes Jacobs were invited by the IB, and they each spoke clearly and strongly to an audience of over 1600 IB educators indicating that even the ‘somewhat alternative’ DP program needs to better reflect the overall aims of the IB in response to the needs of today’s students and current challenges in the world that will need to be addressed by them. They posed the question, “Who will change first, the IB or the universities?”

Again, as a result of the pandemic, new methods were required to determine the level of success each student had achieved when traditional methods of measurement were not available. Although adjustments made by the IB caused a certain amount of debate, I was further encouraged to see new flexibility by both the organization and by the universities themselves. Could it be that cohorts accepted to begin their tertiary studies were, in fact, better suited to the programs for which they were accepted having used more holistic measures to determine admission? I hope that this is studied carefully and that longer-lasting change results.

What does IB require of schools?

The structure of the IB is to assess a yearly fee to run the program, with evaluation visits occurring every five years. In addition, there are minimum training requirements for staff. In the PYP and MYP, a framework is provided to support the type of learning described in the IB mission statement which can be applied in many different contexts. While this flexibility allows for a certain degree of individualization, it also requires quite a lot of curriculum development work at each school. Courses of study in the Diploma Programme are structured in much greater detail and culminate in externally moderated assessments, although some flexibility still remains.

Where are IB schools found?

The IB is a not-for-profit organization that is independent of political and commercial interests, and its programs are offered in a diverse range of schools around the world. What may come as a surprise to some readers, is that the overwhelming majority of IB schools can be found in the United States.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Baccalaureate#cite_note-37

As part of the IB’s current strategic goals, providing access to a wider range of students has become even more of a focus. To that end, the IB has agreements with a variety of government bodies and has established agreements with several state governments in the U.S.

Overview of Strengths & Struggles

IB AimStrengthsStruggles
To provide a solid, consistent framework and the flexibility to tailor students’ education according to their culture and context.   The programs can be adapted for use in many contexts.Schools are still required to invest much time in developing the program.
To offer professional development that supports effective educators and collaborative professional learning communities.Workshops are continuously updated to reflect changes in the program.Required official IB training can present a financial burden to some schools.
To provide a worldwide network of highly respected IB World Schools, working together to share best practices.Support is available to IB schools in many forms, both regionally and globally.Even with training, IB colleagues can still struggle to implement the programs with ease and confidence.
To develop the 10 attributes of the IB learner profile that reflect the holistic nature of an IB education (knowledgeable, thinker, inquirer, communicator, caring, open-minded, balanced, principled, risk-taker, reflective).As these attributes are components of each of the four programs (and are also meant to apply to the adults in the community), they can provide coherence.The development of these attributes can be superficial in some contexts.
To offer students access to a broad and balanced range of academic studies and learning experiences with a focus on conceptual learning, creating frameworks within which knowledge can be acquired, and focusing on powerful organizing ideas that are relevant across subject areas that help to integrate learning and add coherence to the curriculum.Units of study can help to make learning relevant, purposeful, and engaging.Finding time for teachers across subject areas to collaboratively plan for authentic connections and effectively monitor learning can be challenging.
In all IB programs, six broad and flexible Approaches to Teaching are implemented. Teaching is: Based on inquiry, focused on conceptual understanding, developed in local and global contexts, focused on effective teamwork and collaboration, designed to remove barriers to learning, and informed by assessment.The Approaches to Teaching provide a helpful guide for schools and teachers, and they can help to create a distinct philosophy and culture in a school.Ensuring that individual schools and all teachers in them have a shared understanding of each of the six Approaches to Teaching can be challenging. Due to the heavy content load and high-stakes assessments in the final years, it can be challenging to fully implement the Approaches to Teaching.
In all IB programs, students develop skills in five categories of Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills: Thinking skills, research skills, communication skills, social skills, and self-management skills.The Approaches to Learning provide a focus on important 21st Century Skills and provide coherence across all IB programs.It can be challenging to balance skill development against conceptual learning aims. Creating a vertically articulated approach to teaching ATL skills can be challenging.
In IB programs, assessment is, therefore, ongoing, varied, and integral to the curriculum. The interdisciplinary approach and Approaches to Teaching help to provide a context whereby meaningful assessment can support curricular goals.Although potentially developmentally-appropriate, there is no formal assessment in the PYP, which can create challenges. 

Conclusion

Considering that both international and independent schools are likely to share similarities in their clientele, teaching staff, extracurricular offerings, and overall strength of the program, it may be useful for those less familiar with the IB programs to delve a bit deeper into the foundation work and aims. If you and your teams are thinking about changing your approaches and even your curriculum, you’re likely doing yourself a disservice if you don’t consider the IB.

Feel free to contact me, especially for information about the PYP. I can also refer you to trusted colleagues for more detailed information on the other programs.

Further reading: IB Research FIndings

Dr. Christine Orkisz Lang, Education Consultant, Founder of Core & More Education, PYP Programme Leader

c.orkiszlang@core-and-more.com

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