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30 May 2016
Why examining for the IB connects you to a global community

At my Australian workplace, I have given a number of talks to pupils and parents, extolling the virtues of the IB, the International Baccalaureate.  I became a great believer in that qualification in 2003 when I started a new job in Bedford in the UK.  Having taught a number of other qualifications before (the German syllabus leading to the Abitur; the Swiss syllabus leading to the Swiss Matura; the English GCSEs and A-Levels) and having gained some insight into other international syllabuses (Scottish Highers, Italian Licenza Media, Australian HSC), my IB experience convinced me that no qualification has quite the same breadth as the IB.


The challenges are obvious:  you choose six subjects from six different areas of knowledge (and as a passionate linguist I love the fact that choosing a foreign language is a compulsory part of the IB), and in addition you embark on a core syllabus that comprises CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service), ToK (Theory of Knowledge, an accessible course in Epistemology) and an Extended Essay, a research project that provides an ideal opportunity to write a university-type essay that prepares you for the demands of tertiary education and independent project work.  The IB learner profile lists the key expectations of a proper IB student, and what adds to the fascination is not only the fact that the IB is an eminently portable qualification, making it easily transferable and recognisable world-wide, but that it also provides a global community where students from all over the world interact with each other in conferences, through journals or via online communities.

I have been an Examiner for the IB since 2006, now in my tenth year and currently as Principal Examiner for German Literature, and the community aspect also applies to us IB teachers and examiners.  Times have changed in the decade I have been working for the IB.  When I started, this job was all about DHL couriers delivering big packages with exam papers from all over the world.  I panicked at the thought that somebody might burgle my flat and steal the papers, and I felt a great sense of responsibility for their safety until I bundled them up again and sent them, via secure courier and marked in red ink, to the IB Headquarters in Cardiff.  Considering that they were shipped from all over the world (including countries with rather dodgy postal services!), it is astonishing that, at least in my personal experience, no package ever got lost in transit.  These days, for the last three years or so, everything is done online.  Papers are not sent straight to examiners in far-away corners of the world any longer; instead they are all sent to the IB Headquarters where they are scanned and made available to examiners all over the world for online marking.

Whilst normally an increase in technology means depersonalisation and increased anonymity, for the process of IB marking the move to the online process has enhanced communication.  Rather than marking in isolation, examiners are part of proper teams now, global teams, who communicate through emails, online messaging and Skype meetings to standardise the marking process and, at the end, decide on grade awards.  It is great fun to meet people from all over the world through that forum and to exchange ideas on the standard of papers or the appropriate grade boundaries.  I will be honest and say that it is also a very tiring job, and the time pressure is enormous, but those who sign up for it are all aware of the important role they play in ensuring that the excellent standards of consistency, for which the IB is famous, are maintained.  It is fascinating to gain an insight into how the process works, how all the cogs mesh together, how earnestly standards of achievement and marking are monitored and how the IB, unlike so many other academic qualifications, through consistent application of standards has avoided the pitfalls of grade inflation.

I am currently in the midst of standardising the marking of German Literature Higher Level Paper Two in the Northern Hemisphere.  I love exchanging ideas with my colleague Steffi, who is doing the same for Paper One and who has just returned to Germany after several years as IB teacher at the amazingly beautiful United World College of the Atlantic, situated in St Donat’s Castle in Wales.  I am so glad I visited her there before I left for Australia, and how exciting that this visit happened while the BBC filmed the first episode of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall at the castle.

My current team comprises of colleagues who work in Germany, England, Luxembourg and Colombia (throw Sydney into the time zone mix and you will understand that Skype meetings are a challenge!), but it is pretty amazing to know that the six of us combined have international work experience in more than a dozen countries, which apart from our current places of residence include the USA, Italy, France, Wales, Scotland and Poland.  The team includes experienced teachers as well as published authors and noted academics.  One of them heads the Languages Department of an international school where, at various times, the languages offered to native speakers for the literature in their mother tongue included Japanese, Vietnamese, Latvian, Romanian, Russian and Arabic, apart from all the usual languages such as Italian, French or Spanish.  It is equally fascinating to work with the IB subject managers and other IB employees who do so much organisational work behind the scenes in setting up the examining processes and guiding the examiners along the way. 

Everybody on the examining team values the international dimension, the opportunity to attend workshops and engage with colleagues all over the world, the camaraderie of sharing examining stories with fellow examiners across the globe, the interdisciplinary nature of all the IB courses and their global dimension.  The Theory of Knowledge course is a fabulous way to make students think beyond the confines of externally imposed curricula and see the connections between areas of knowledge and the different ways in which we arrive at our knowledge.  In strong IB schools, this subject permeates all others.

It is fantastic to see how the IB has been gathering momentum in Australia, and I hope to be able to continue to make a difference in this beautiful country.  I travelled a long way, I made a promising start and I would love to stay to see the effects in the longer term.  There are currently more than 60 schools in Australia offering the IB Diploma Program, around 25% of them in or around Sydney, and the trend is growing.  These are exciting times, and nothing is more rewarding than  contributing to a qualification that, whilst it challenges students intellectually, also nurtures them holistically, helps them to become compassionate and empathetic citizens, supports them in their quest for independent study and research and encourages them to look beyond their own horizon to engage with the world around them.

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