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31 March 2018


What is the IB, how does it work and who might benefit most from it?


Historical background

The International Baccalaureate Diploma was founded in 1968 in Switzerland and is this year celebrating its 50th birthday.  It is timely therefore to reflect a little on this qualification, its merits and the type of student most likely to benefit from it.

Originally, the rationale for this qualification was its portability:  the IBO was founded predominantly with the need of diplomats in mind whose job entailed frequent moves around the globe.  Originally, the IB offered only the diploma, but this has, during the 1990s, been complemented by the PYP and MYP, programs for primary and middle school.

Over the past years, the number of students taking up the IB diploma has risen significantly – worldwide more than 50,000 candidates sat the exams in 2017.  It is not just its portability that appeals but also its international outlook, its learner profile, its breadth, its focus on skills that are particularly useful for tertiary study and its holistic educational philosophy. 

Many of these objectives can also be achieved in national or state-wide university entrance examinations, but there is something fascinating about a worldwide learning community where thousands of students across the world sit the same exam and are assessed against the same criteria.  In 2017, more than 6000 schools worldwide offered one or more of the IB programs, and more than 3000 of them offered the diploma program.  While many national qualifications have seen standards eroded and grades inflated over the past decades, the IB’s statistics have remained reasonably stable. The curriculum, while constantly developing and evolving, has not been influenced by short-lived educational fads or government intervention.

What is the IB and how does it work?

In a nutshell:  it is a qualification that offers a broad liberal education, because it forces you to take at least one subject within each prescribed subject group.  Every student has to do a Literature (or Language and Literature) Course in Group 1, which is usually their mother tongue, plus a second (foreign or classical) language in Group 2.  Every student also has do a Mathematics, a Science and a Humanities course, such as History, Geography or Economics.  The sixth subject group is Arts, but this one is optional and instead of choosing a subject within this group (like Visual Art, Music or Theatre), students can choose a second language, science or humanity.

Three of these subjects are studied at Higher Level, three at Standard Level, with the former allowing for more in-depth and the latter for broader study.  Whilst this ensures breadth of education, the flexibility in Group 6 allows a certain degree of specialisation.  A keen linguist can do two languages, a keen scientist two sciences etc. 

Two reasons why several students stay clear of the IB are frequently either the requirement to do Mathematics (a compulsory element of many national qualifications, too, but not the HSC, which only mandates English), or the need to do a foreign language.  Both fears are unfounded:  within the Mathematics group there are three different courses available, with the most basic one being accessible to most, and within languages there is the option to take up a new language ab initio for those who have either struggled with their foreign languages before or who have never had the opportunity to learn one in the first place.  Therefore there is a lot of flexibility within a seemingly rigid framework, although the degree of flexibility also depends on each school’s individual subject offerings.

Three distinguishing factors of the IB – the core program

Whilst all university entrance exams try to encourage increasingly independent study, the IB emphasises this particularly strongly.  One experience that many students see as highly educational and that is increasingly valued by university admissions tutors is the Extended Essay, a research project that students complete in their own time, with some guidance from their supervisor, as a 4000-word study on a specialist subject of their own choosing.  In this project they learn the skills of time management, independent research, library skills, academic honesty and academic referencing, which makes the transition to university smoother.

A second point of difference is the Theory of Knowledge Course, a course in epistemology that teaches students to think critically and to reflect about the nature of knowledge and how we arrive at it.  This is a hugely important course that informs their learning in all their subjects.  As we live in an era of information overload with an unwieldy, unstructured mass of information being available on the internet, without filters and of varying degrees of reliability, the Theory of Knowledge course assists students in ploughing their way through it with a critical mindset and the ability to distinguish between fake and trustworthy sources.  The course addresses, for example, the question how our learning processes can be helped or hindered by the contradictory influences of emotion and reason, which often drag us into opposite directions, or how cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, can impede our acquisition of knowledge.

Thirdly, the IB demands a portfolio of CAS, of creativity, activity and service, as a compulsory element of the course.  Without fulfilling these requirements (a certain amount of creative pursuits, physical activity and service for the community), students will not get their Diploma.  Whilst control mechanisms are in place to ensure that students meet the criteria, this element relies a lot on individual honesty and on the highest ethical standards of IB candidates.  Those who take their CAS portfolio seriously will not only be rewarded with the diploma, but also with a great deal of intrinsic satisfaction. 

The learner profile

The IB learner profile with its mixture of 10 nouns and adjectives is a little clumsy in its phrasing (I would probably try to find a snappier way of formulating it), but it contains ten excellent principles that IB candidates are expected to subscribe to:  being inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective.  It is a broad panorama, and I particularly like the inclusion of qualities such as being open-minded, caring and reflective.  It makes the IB into an organisation that explicitly promotes emotional intelligence as equally important as cognitive intelligence, and in my view that specific emphasis sets it apart from other qualifications. 

The global dimension and resulting flexibility of the IB

Being a worldwide qualification means that the exams are routinely vetted for cultural sensitivities.  The global outlook means that even in the literature course that students do in their own language they do not only study works originally written in that language, but a number of works from world literature originally written in other languages, which adds a broader perspective. It also means that the syllabuses have to be reasonably flexible because each country may wish to fill them with different content.  This allows individual teachers to put together their own syllabus far more independently than in many national qualifications.  As a Group 1 German teacher, for example, I can choose my 15 literary texts from a list of many hundreds on the prescribed literature lists.  Being able to teach to one’s own preferences and expertise will then have a positive influence on student outcomes, as it is easier to enthuse your students about topics that you are enthusiastic about yourself as a teacher.  This flexibility also influences the marking process, which in most subjects is done according to objective and abstract criteria rather than a fixed mark scheme.  I have written more about the IB examining process here.

Is the IB elitist?

This is a perception I have mainly encountered in Australia.  The IB is taught worldwide to students of all abilities and in all types of schools, with more than 50% of them, especially in the USA, being public schools. Interestingly, there have been many attempts in the USA to malign the IB as “un-American” and not aligned with the values of the American founding fathers, and its international outlook, spirit of tolerance and broad perspective have been seen as a threat by some vocal right-wing voices.   In Australia, some public schools have introduced the IB with great success, but sadly this has not yet been implemented in NSW.  I am strongly in favour of widening access to the IB, not because I think it is superior to the HSC or other qualifications, but because I think that as many students as possible, regardless of financial status, should have a choice.  At the moment I am doing some academic research into this educational policy area, and into current attempts to address this inequity.



Should my child do the IB?

The IB is not for everybody, but it is an enduring myth that it is only for the academic elite.  With its breadth and flexibility within each subject area there should be something for most, and for students of a wide range of ability.  If your child is a generalist rather than a specialist, or if they are still relatively undecided what they want to do in later life, the IB keeps all options open.  The HSC, for example, allows you to give up Maths, but there are a number of university courses that expect Maths HSC or equivalent as an entry requirement.  This may not always be obvious to a Year 10 student. 

However, if your child is very art-oriented, wants to do two Arts subjects, has no interest whatsoever in Maths and Sciences, knows for certain that he or she wants to work in, say, the creative field, an HSC program that is tailored to their preferences might be far more suitable.  Equally, if they are very scientifically minded and know that they want to work in the field of science or become a doctor, and they want to do, say, all three sciences, they would not be able to specialise to this degree in the IB, and the HSC would serve them better.  For this reason, some schools that opted to go all-IB have regretted this decision, as they lost some of their most elite students to other schools.  Finally, the HSC gives you the option to complement academic study with vocational courses, which the IB Diploma course does not.  (Although there is now a separate career-related IB program – the CP - that allows you to combine both).

It is also useful to look at the mode of assessment.  Each IB course has an element of coursework, but the emphasis is strongly on external assessment at the end of the course, which counts at least 65% and up to 80% in each subject.  In the HSC, 50% of the assessment is school based and spread over the final year, and 50% is based on the final examination.  If your child is suffering from extreme exam anxiety, this is worth bearing in mind as a caveat against the IB; if, conversely, they thrive under exam pressure, the IB might be for them.

Time management skills are important for all final year students, but in the IB you have to juggle many internal and external deadlines, in addition to your ToK, CAS and Extended Essay commitments.  Hence the ability to manage time, to be organised and to meet deadlines is very important.  Navigating these challenges in Year 12 will in any case be a great learning opportunity in preparation for tertiary study or professional life.  The discipline thus acquired also means that (as research has shown) the drop-out rate at university is lower.  In addition, the IB mandates a collaborative Science project for all students, thus fostering teamwork and cooperation and balancing individual with group learning.  In our contemporary university and work contexts, this ability to work together in teams is widely regarded as increasingly significant.

As for the all-important ATAR:  a perfect score of 45 points (that is the maximum of 7 points for each subject plus 3 bonus points for Theory of Knowledge and Extended Essay) equates to an ATAR of 99.95%.  Overall the conversion of IB points to ATAR is seen as favourable and as a reflection of university admissions staff being increasingly aware of the high standards of the IB.  71 schools in Australia are now offering the IB diploma, and Australian students perform well above the world average.


I have followed with interest the recent discussions around the remarks of Rob Stokes, Minister for Education in NSW, about the focus on STEM at the expense of the Arts.  What he said in his intelligent speech, despite one or two provocative turns of phrase that antagonised those who read it superficially or not at all, would be happily endorsed by every IB educator:  we do need an equilibrium between the arts and the sciences.  A full and comprehensive liberal education that looks beyond immediate usefulness and celebrates learning for its own sake, whilst critically examining the nature of knowledge itself and emphasising cultural understanding and empathy, embodies this credo.     Such a balance can theoretically be achieved in any national or state wide qualification that leads to university entrance.  The difference is that the IB mandates it.  There is nothing antiquated or elitist about it.  The IB is outward looking with its global curriculum focus and its insistence on foreign language study.  It is both multi- and interdisciplinary, and with its emphasis on critical thinking, information literacy and social competencies it teaches eminently useful and modern skills in our contemporary educational context.

The IB Mission Statement

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

To this end the organization works with schools, governments and international organizations to develop challenging programmes of international education and rigorous assessment.

These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

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