The IB Reaches for the Self-Destruct Button | Sanje Ratnavale | 12 Min Read

March 9, 2023

At the recent OESIS conference in Las Vegas, one of the speakers, when discussing ChatGPT, expressed the opinion that “we will see a very different response in Europe to ChatGPT because the culture of academic citation and anti-plagiarism is nothing like it is here in the U.S.”  It was against this backdrop that we received the surprise announcement from the International Baccalaureate (IB) that they would be allowing students to cite ChatGPT in essays and downgrade essay writing as a skill.  

Head of assessment at the IB, Matt Glanville, was quoted in the Guardian as saying that essay writing “will have much less prominence in the future….When AI can essentially write an essay at the touch of a button, we need our pupils to master different skills, such as understanding if the essay is any good or if it has missed context, has used biased data or if it is lacking in creativity. These will be far more important skills than writing an essay, so the assessment tasks we set will need to reflect this.” 

In addition to rethinking skills based on the emergence of AI tools such as ChatGPT, the new head of the IB, Olli-Pekka Heinonen, announced that content and pedagogy will also be reevaluated and modified because: “everyday technology now provides us with tools that can process information in a way that is faster, better, and perhaps more reliable than humans…New technology is a challenge to education on two fronts. Firstly, it is a challenge to how we teach. Secondly, it is a challenge to what we teach. The IB cannot afford to ignore either of these—the change in society is accelerating and not slowing—and the IB needs to be at its cutting edge.”

For many in the U.S. reacting to these statements from the IB, it was like being told that some of what had been seen yesterday as essential skills were now trivial and that we should refocus our efforts on something entirely different.  It felt like a true harbinger of the radical transformation that was heralded by its new leader in 2022 to an activist curriculum and pedagogy capable of helping the young people of the world sort out humanity’s problems, specifically “the climate emergency” and global “selfishness, greed and apathy,” And a pivot from the failing ideology of globalism to something more “cutting edge”. In his own words in the same article: “Education is not only about what knowledge, skills, values and attitudes students should get, but also learning to value what the world is asking from each one of us.”  In short, the IB under its new leadership has a clear vision not only of teaching students HOW to think, but teaching students WHAT they are being called to do. If, in the eyes of the IB, that is saving the world from climate change, capitalism, and systemic colonialism, then not only might kids suffer from the associated mental burden, but it is also unlikely, at least in the U.S., to equate with childhood outcomes parents are seeking. It would be moving the IB into a Social Justice or Reconstruction ideological path.

Following so closely on the heels of the recent AP disaster, the overwhelming sense of those we turned to in our community was that this global organization, the IB, might have misread the U.S. reaction to their intended pivot and undermined the reason they exist in the first place, namely to develop reliable courses and assessments at a standardized level—essentially a bastion of quality immune from the gyrations of U.S. curricular evolution. And in the process under new leadership, they may have even miscalculated the global perception of the IB Program as less an agent of social change, and actually, if anything, more of the opposite, the global provider of lessons from privilege. Olli-Pekka-Heinonen suggests so: “…there is a caricature of the IB as being elitist, of being expensive, of being the preserve of children of affluent white families in private international schools. I know that there is so much more to the IB than this, but like all stereotypes, it contains a grain of truth.”

In light of these announcements from the IB, I put the following questions about their decisions to the broader community of our 100k readers and 600+ schools, and to the IB itself, and I invite reactions to these questions to be published in the coming weeks on Intrepid Ed News.

  1. Are we to conclude that essay writing is no longer a skill because there is a machine that can write something that looks like an essay more quickly?
    The implication here is very much that education has created a competition between humans and machines, that assessment must reflect the realities of the market, and that there is no intrinsic value in something that can be done more efficiently elsewhere (“at the touch of a button” to use Matt Glanville’s description).  Embracing an ideology of social efficiency in support of social reconstruction would seem to run counter to the history of the IB, which has always presented itself as being more about deeper thinking and foundational knowledge. Do we need to tell our students that speed is a value, that time has run out for them, and that the world is in an existential crisis, so the latter qualities are now luxuries, not foundational skills?
  2. Should students no longer engage in activities where they try and fail?  The term essay comes from the French infinitive “essayer”, to try,  and was, in fact, coined by a Frenchman Michel de Montaigne some 500 years ago. At its root, the essay is about effort and failure. It’s not a product, it’s a process with revisions and more.  Learning comes from doing and the writing experience.  That is the beauty and safety of childhood. It is not efficient. In other words, the end does not justify the means. It is the means that have value. The IB approach here suggests that efficiency is what correlates with success, and that is about as far from the ideals of good parenting and teaching that any of us have grown to value, let alone what makes for the best learning or a stress-free childhood.
  3. Do you build curriculum through sequence and scaffolding or not? Our understanding of curriculum development is that skills are built upon and become transferable. We are unclear on what skills can lead to the IB essay writing replacement of assessing context, bias, and creativity. Can this be done without developing essay or writing skills? There is plenty of research that writing skills increase reading comprehension and clarify thinking. Does the IB no longer believe in using writing to improve understanding, just because suddenly a technology has appeared that can pretend to understand what it is writing? How has the IB changed its normally research-based views, other than reflecting the functions of technology? And is the Extended Essay, Term Paper, or Thesis out soon, too?  As with any good assignment instruction: “Please provide evidence.”
  4. Are you saying knowledge can be constructed from unreliable sources? As the companion piece on the IB decision written by fellow OESIS Board member, Ray Ravaglia (Founder of Stanford Online High School) shows, even ChatGPT sees itself as unreliable.  So we are unclear on how the process of knowledge construction works for the IB and how the Theories of Knowledge class will handle this foundational question.  Are we prepared to distinguish knowledge from information in the AI world? Are we prepared to apply contemporary copyright law regarding the repurposing of materials to AI generators such as ChatGPT? Are we prepared to take another look at what intellectual property really means in the meta-world? Does the fact that we are asking these questions suggest that the IB itself is on an unstable ideological footing? 
  1. Are you saying students should not get an F for citing an unreliable source or cheating?
    Once you lower the bar, it is lowered for all your classes. Has the IB considered the implication of allowing a source that does not provide its sources as it pertains to the scientific method and to journalistic integrity?  How about mathematics?  Are we happy to reduce all computations to black box affairs (no credit for showing your work)?  Should students no longer understand the basics of their computational tools, but only develop the ability to identify if a computation is using biased data or lacking in cleverness?  Again this emphasis of bias, context, and reduction in knowledge emphasis has echoes of the current neoliberal fixations that lack a deeper understanding of structural issues around learning and assessment validity. It is a slippery slope to, on the one hand, look for reliable sources but on the other hand, set no standards for reliability by allowing anything with no sources. Which is it? What are the standards for reliability and bias? 
  1. Have you discussed with the Colleges what their view of IB credit will be with this change?  If we are understanding the ethical and philosophical flaws in the IB policy changes, then certainly Colleges will see them as well, almost certainly with exponentially more anguish since academic integrity is the foundation of truth and writing is a core skill.  At the end of the day, the value of the IB is in its perceived quality and relevance.  Once the underlying philosophical model you have espoused for decades on how knowledge is constructed begins to crumble by your own admission, why will anyone want to accept your graduates?  

Even if these questions were answered satisfactorily, this decision raises an even more important issue for IB schools. The IB uniquely acts as not only a curriculum provider but also as an accreditation organization (at a school level with its Standards & Practices, more than at a course level) and an assessment body to boot, something it is very proud of. These functions at independent schools typically are separated for a good reason: to maintain governance capacity at a school level, and avoid conflicts of interest. When decision-making of this importance is happening, and radical steps are being taken to change the kinds of skills that are considered of value, to alter policies underlying learning and assessment, and to recraft the kind of knowledge being constructed, IB schools deserve a full understanding of the process of change. 

There has been without question a rapid movement towards a post-modernist notion of knowledge, particularly in Eurocentric and Western circles over the last half-century. It values relativism and every possible shade of gray, but are we to believe that what constitutes integrity and honesty are now perceived by the IB as also evolving? Has the IB’s commitment to globalism, now very much under threat as a creed of equity or a canon of harmony, utility, and inclusivity, left it without a north star on integrity and knowledge, reacting expediently and in a relativist mindset? European governments are also being forced into rapid ideological U-turns, even globalist cheer leaders like Finland and Germany, and of course, multinational companies that are understanding the risks to their supply chains. It certainly looks like this decision by a European organization is in the same vein, saying it is time to play catch-up (expediently) to changed realities, quickly and deeply, by shifting skills from knowledge construction to enabling activist skills for social change. The shift represents the ideological shift from learner-centered to social reconstruction in education. We have written about this shift before (“what is the knowledge of most importance at your school?”) as one of the most important questions for schools to grapple with today, and we have even developed a free app for educators to chart and compare their beliefs on curriculum. 

Finally, we have seen this failed story before in the 1930s U.S., when the recently formed Progressive Education movement led by John Dewey tried an equivalent pivot into a full-throated Social Reconstruction ideology, one that stressed activism and personal truth (see the article on Why DEIJ is desperately looking for a Curriculum Date). The result was the collapse of both the movement and the Progressive Education Association by 1950 and a return to the Scholar Academic ideology. That return to an emphasis on scholarly knowledge, specifically the STEM fields, was a result of technological fear: Sputnik. Is the semiconductor race the new Sputnik? Is this time different? Again?

These are natural questions that arise once standards slip or evolve, organizations prioritize survival or revenue over values, and/or chase headlines rather than foundational knowledge.  The structure of how one receives an education will continue to evolve, as will the skills that are deemed essential for students to acquire.  In this process, new tools and understandings will emerge and their use will force a reconsideration of what is and is not essential and timeless. This should be done in a reasoned, measured way, and not in a rush to grab headlines.  

There has been limited reaction in the major news sources as yet in the U.S. to the IB decisions since the installed base of the IB is limited here to just over 1,000 (mostly public) schools—under 5% of the total high school population. But one of the lessons of globalization is that it is difficult to be all things to all people, by relying on too many shades of gray. There is a fine line between self-improvement and the self-destruct button as the world of education evolves. 

The College Board is learning this hard lesson as the AP and the SAT lose their luster. Independent schools and their associations are learning this lesson over anti-racism blow-ups and failing DEI plans. It looks like the IB, as well, is set to be doing some learning of its own before we all shift from writing to Snapchat, TikTok, or ChatGPT.  The reliable knowledge of the past and timeless human skills will always provide value, whatever the challenges we have as humans. Let’s stick to what humans have always strived for—increased knowledge valued over increased information.  Let kids have a childhood, and worry less about efficiency or activism, unless you are willing to press the self-destruct button.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Sanje Ratnavale for Intrepid Ed News.

Sanje Ratnavale

Sanje founded OESIS in 2012 and serves as the President of what has grown to become the leading network for innovation at independent schools: the acronym OESIS grew from the initial focus on Online Education Strategies for Independent Schools. He has held senior administrative positions at independent schools including Associate Head of School at a K-12 school for seven years, High School Principal for three years, and CFO for seven years. Prior to making a switch to education, Sanje spent 15 years in venture capital, investment banking, and senior C-level (CEO, COO, CFO) management. He was educated at Christ Church, Oxford University (B.A. and M.A. in Law/Jurisprudence). Sanje is based out of Santa Monica.

One thought on “The IB Reaches for the Self-Destruct Button | Sanje Ratnavale | 12 Min Read

  1. Great Article. Chat GPT and AI are changing the landscape or school work and the gatekeepers: essays, research papers and even creative writing. ChatGPT can even come up with project ideas and learning goals. But it can’t do the project, the real work, ChatGPT can’t have an exhibition where it answers parents and community questions about the work that the students made. PBL and Art might make a comeback?

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