IB Hardcore

I’m always new to the International Baccalaureate (IB) system of education, although I’ve been studying it since 1998. But it strikes me that it is a philosophically rather well-constructed system. Although there are points about it that are debateable (‘universal’ systems seldom lack such points), the ideas therein on what elements together constitute a good education are at least worth consideration.

For example, let me introduce you to the core of the IB system. At the heart of the IB curriculum are three elements – the Extended Essay (EE), Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and Creativity/Action/Service (CAS). These elements don’t contribute much to the overall ‘score’ in the IB Diploma that is awarded as a terminal pre-university qualification, but they must be negotiated successfully in order for a Diploma to be awarded at all.

In an IB-oriented school, EE is run as an exercise in developing the ability of a student to focus narrowly and exactly on a specific problem in a specific discipline, expressing it as a research question or hypothesis; research the necessary background material and annotate, reference or footnote such research; propose a method of solving that problem which is detailed, feasible, appropriate and complete; carry out the proposed methodology; compile the results and analyse them; come to a logical conclusion, based on those results, which answers the research question; finally, write a short abstract of the whole 4000-word essay. Recommended time used: 80 hours.

The TOK course is almost a conceptual opposite. Candidates must understand how knowledge is defined, obtained, proven to be knowledge; they must be able to describe, explain and compare the differences between ways in which knowledge is obtained, and the resultant (or incidentally developed) areas of knowledge. They have to give a 10-minute presentation showing their epistemological learning as applied to a contemporary issue, and submit a 1200-1600 word essay answering one of 10 annually-issued questions on TOK. Where EE is convergent and deliberately restrictive in scope, TOK is divergent and intentionally broad in scope.

CAS fills in the cracks. Students are required to propose 150 hours’ worth of activities in which they learn something, loosely divided into the three areas given. The intent of this part of the IB core is for students to try new things and thus round off their education while learning how to develop the skill of planning a personal curriculum for life.

It is obvious that if things work out as planned, an IB student should know how to do three sets of things by the time all three core elements are negotiated successfully: 1) deploy the full armamentarium of convergent thinking to problem-solving (and knowledge production) through research; 2) deploy the full armamentarium of synthesizing thought to the analysis of knowledge claims across a divergent range; 3) prepare for a full and continually educational life based on self-directed analysis and planning.

In fact, it’s only after these three skills are fully mastered that a student can profitably study any discipline. Without the ability to produce knowledge (set 1), justify knowledge and its significance (set 2), and prepare a course of action to fill in the blanks and keep oneself learning new things (set 3), studying any subject is just a meaningless chore. That studying in general is not so is more a testament to the fact that life produces educational moments by its nature, than because educational courses are well-designed and well-executed.

If you are faced with students who prefer to be fed pre-processed material beyond a certain starting-up ‘capital’, who have no ability to cross-examine their own writing for consistency and coherence (or the lack thereof), who cannot plan a profitable course of self-study, you might want to take a step back and look at the course of education they are going through.

At the same time, the IB system is not a panacea for all ills. Students must cooperate with the aims of the system and not seek to short-circuit it by cheap and easy fixes. Teachers and communities must do the same. Somehow, all stakeholders must resist the urge to generate high grades without considering the long-term position of the ‘market’.


And the rest of the IB system? Well, you have to take six subjects – one from each group of Literatures, Languages, Humanities, Sciences, Mathematics, and Aesthetics (this last group can be replaced by another from one of the first five). Although some innovative teaching and assessment methods are used, the core elements are the extras which should make these disciplines become more than they appear. The subject distribution is interesting, though, isn’t it? I might expand on this in some other post sometime.

Original post here.

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