In today’s fast-paced world where competition criteria become more rigid and inventive and the pressure to excel is overwhelming, students often miss out on the real purpose of education — being curious learners capable of transferring educational experiences to personal and global contexts. While educational systems around the world are rethinking their approaches to teaching and learning, working towards a more inquiry-based setting, the International Baccalaureate (IB) continues challenging conventional principles of primary and secondary education, further exploring the boundaries and limits of the system. And once again, the IB asks us — is there more to school than academics?
The IB is a comprehensive programme which encourages development of both academic and cognitive skills through practical learning. Furthermore, the system empowers students to form complex conceptual ‘nets’ which cover and unite subjects in trans- and interdisciplinary ways making it easier to form a meaningful, long-lasting understanding of gained knowledge and means of its application to real-life scenarios.
Since the IB's experiential pedagogy includes elements of all three secondary education curricula models (the American, the English and the French), it is safe to say that it is a flexible, ‘multiple-choice’ system which invites customisation — a trend welcomed by the new generation of learners. Numbers support the claim: as of February 2023, IB programmes (separate and continuum) are being offered worldwide, in over 5,600 schools across 159 countries.
Understanding the IB pedagogy structure
The IB system offers 4 programmes: IB Primary Years Programme (PYP, grades 1–5), IB Middle Years Programme (MYP, grades 6-10), IB Diploma Years Programme (DP, grades 11-12) and the IB Career-Related Programme (CP, grades 11-12). The IB allows varied opportunities in programme implementation: schools can choose to work with one programme only or can aim at establishing the so-called ‘continuum’ in multiple programme combinations. This decision largely depends on the internal goals each school sets for itself, as well as contributing factors such as school culture, stakeholder interest, scope of resources and local context.
Though strongly interconnected, each programme is known for specific development vectors— elements that embody unique purpose for separate year groups. For example, the PYP is particularly valued for the play-based, transdisciplinary approaches offered to the students through the prism of simple yet tangible and relatable contexts. Following the motivating creative start, the MYP structures and celebrates implicit and explicit skill-development and focuses largely on building conceptual understanding through disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses. DP, the oldest of all four programmes, is by comparison more content-based, however, its core-components (Creativity, Activity, Service, Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay) ensure students get an additional advantage allowing unique exposure to global education, complex project-based and portfolio-building assignments and serious research work which invites student agency. Finally, CP, the youngest programme, created as a reaction to the new demands of the 21st century, steers the young learners towards careers of their choice for a more profound professional outcomes. It works as an efficient alternative for students who have already made up their minds about their future, eliminating subjects unrelated to the selected path.
The IB curriculum focuses on studies in scholastic and co-scholastic subjects, including a diverse representation of Arts (dance, drama, music, art, film, media, etc.), an authentic Design curriculum (which offers a professional, hands-on approach to both Product and Digital Design, similar in its nature and philosophy to STEM education), and intriguing Physical Health Education which merges sports, science, psychology and studies on well-being. With the core components serving as programme pillars, the IB sends a clear message to the global community: for modern school education to be efficient it must transcend the boundaries of academics.
Inquiry and lifelong learning
Though inquiry-based learning is not exclusive to the International Baccalaureate, it is the IB which promoted and developed an extensive implementation system which structured the approach and runs till date. But how does inquiry support the cause? Firstly, when speaking of releasing academic burden, inquiry-based learning is an effective strategy, which ensures that students approach subjects from a conceptual rather than content perspective. Concept-based learning not only encourages students to be curious learners but also allows them to retain information more sufficiently, since the learning is largely based on association (using umbrella concepts to tie subjects together) and practical exploration (adding context to the learning). Secondly, inquiry exploits experience and imagination — the empirical base of critical and creative thinking. Therefore, no task in an inquiry-based classroom is perceived or delivered in a theoretical vacuum; the framework of assessments invites students to ‘plug in’ real-life scenarios into their investigation. In other words, IB educators do not rely solely on assigned work; they as they understand that teaching a concept in an inspiring, engaging, meaningful way ensuring it makes sense outside the classroom borders, automatically prompts the students to continue individual inquiry, exploration, and development. That explains why the ‘lifelong learner’ is the ultimate student role model and one of IB’s super tasks — students develop better when they learn in a holistic manner and ‘as they go’. With that greater objective in mind, the system justifies the decision to dedicate a lesser focus on exclusive academic success as compared to other educational programmes.
IB pedagogy has a constructive approach to the ‘inquiry, action, and reflection’ cycle that encourages learners to ask questions, take action and reflect on the outcomes of their exploration. As discussed earlier, learning is concept-driven, inquiry-based, and student-centred — this ‘trifecta’ of sorts addresses the three core aspects of an educational environment (what we teach, how we teach and whom we teach) in a more dynamic, hands-on, empathetic manner, leading the learners to independence.
Sustained inquiry dwells at the heart of teaching and learning in the IB; it is the foundation of the written, taught, and assessed curricula. Therefore, prior knowledge and personal experiences serve as the starting points for newer concepts to be explored as the students fuel their own learning with curiosity. Students are encouraged to take principled action — this is the best indicator of effective and authentic learning outcomes which also hems in the ethical dimension of honesty and integrity.
Holistic learning and transfer of knowledge and skills are crucial principles of all IB programmes as well. Curriculum frameworks are broad and balanced, conceptual and connected. For example, in PYP, learning fully transcends boundaries between subject areas (transdisciplinary approach), whereas in MYP and DP the subjects receive more autonomy while still informing one another (interdisciplinary approach). In all programmes, however, learning similarly focuses on powerful big ideas that have relevance within and across disciplines.
Finally, through Approaches to Learning (ATLs), students develop skills that have relevance across the curriculum and help them to ‘learn how to learn’. These skills (such as critical and creative thinking, reflective and communication skills, affective skills, information and media literacy (research skills) and more) assist students in becoming self-regulated learners and support students in taking ownership of their education.
As determined, the IB mission goes beyond academics. It aims to develop caring, open-minded, principled people who envision the world to be peaceful and fair, with a deep appreciation towards local and global contexts, and with a commitment to become internationally minded citizens. International mindedness, in fact, is a well-established concept in the IB which allows us to understand the world in both its vast diversity and paradox commonality. Some of the values which international mindedness encapsulates and aims to nurture include the ability to be better prepared for the global changes brought by the 21st century; the importance of raising awareness about the world being larger than our own local communities; the promotion of respect towards other cultures, perspectives, traditions, languages, beliefs. Without doubt, these ideas lie outside the realm of academics (or can only be partly, theoretically represented within some unit topics). However, the importance of grasping these concepts cannot be overrated, and, therefore, teachers must find ways to ‘make room’ for students to embrace these values.
Being a student-centric system, the IB strives to develop learner competencies creating the so-called Learner Profile. Interestingly, the ten profile attributes, though developed in the active learning process within subjects, have more to do with personality traits and soft skills. For example, teachers can motivate their students to become risk-takers by explicitly prompting learners to take on uncomfortable roles or engage in unfamiliar activities. However, outside the classroom, courage is normally developed implicitly, during a crisis incident — when one student stands up for another despite being outnumbered by bullies, or when a student breaks a disruptive behavioural pattern and owns up to their mistake despite the potentially unpleasant consequences. The teacher’s role is to equally acknowledge both environments and ensure that students have exposure to the non-academic scenario (even in subject-specific class discussions). In addition, the learner profile helps identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and outline areas which require support. With the learner profile attributes, we see the development of a personality — through identity formation, establishment of cognitive abilities and skills and the overall strengthening of broader conceptual understandings.
School of Service
Apart from the discussed pedagogical approaches, the IB is also known for holding a particularly high regard for service and community awareness. Service learning begins with the ‘Action’ course in the PYP, which develops into a more outlined subject ‘Service as Action’ in the MYP, and finally flourishes in the multidimensional ‘Creativity, Activity, Service’ programme in the DP. In all cases, Service is an essential, ‘non-negotiable’ component, which enables students to enhance their intrapersonal and interpersonal development through multiple experiences and explorations, which balance the academic pressure. Service fosters student agency and raises a simple yet powerful idea that individual privilege comes with a responsibility to give back to the community. It is hard to imagine the shaping of a international citizen without a profound dive into the nature and specifics of local and global agendas. Hence, in their service ‘field work’, students not only realize themselves as contributors to the resolution of big, important issues and processes, but also see the practical implementation of the concepts learnt in their classrooms.
Academic edge: project-based learning
Surely, no conversation on IB methodology is complete without mentioning the project-based assessment approach which threads through the continuum. Project-based learning can be divided into two categories: on-going and final. The on-going group includes everything from the smaller building blocks of formative assessments and daily tasks (including the process journals which serve as record diaries) to the bigger, end-of-the-unit summative assessments, which are realised as properly structured projects (for example, in the form of the GRASPS model). These components aim at building a project-mindset and get the students into the habit of thinking and acting with accordance to the inquiry cycle. The final projects (such as the PYP Exhibition, MYP Community Project and Personal Project and separate categories of eAssessments, or the TOK presentation and certain subject exam submissions in the in the DP) are reference points for students to sum up their journey within each programme.
The final projects are a powerful, modern alternative to standardised assessment and traditional exams— students grow and strengthen the capability to act in unfamiliar situations and use knowledge and skills which are relevant to a particular situation. Instead of focusing exclusively on the microworld of content, IB learners appreciate the beauty of macroworld of concepts in all its multifacetedness. This, in turn, leads the young learners to recognize education for what it really is — an engine that adds speed and stabilisation to an otherwise shaky journey into the unknown.