The best teaching starts with those who teach

Since its 1968 founding, the International Baccalaureate World Schools’ mission has been creating a better world through education.

by Adrian Kearney

Education 18 December 2019

Adrian Kearney, director of IB talks about how to keep it relevant in a world that’s changing rapidly.

What’s the idea behind International Baccalaureate (IB)?

The IB has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and since its foundation, which dates back to 1968, it has achieved a lot in terms of education and transformation. There are two main reasons the IB came into being. The first one is philosophical: in the post-world war debate, the main question the education community had to untangle was how to avoid conflict escalating into worldwide carnage again. IB’s founders translated this question into how to shape young people’s lives by having them empathize with the needs of others and develop the necessary language and interpersonal skills to negotiate and deal with the trials and tribulations that life throws at them. This has been one of the main propellers behind IB, and it still is: the aim of our programs, as our mission statement reads, is to develop internationally-minded people who recognize their common humanity, share ownership of the planet and help to create a better and more peaceful world. The second reason is very practical: in the early 1950s, people began to travel much more than before. The idea, then, was to have international schools that served this new community and provide their children with an education system that was not entirely cemented to the country in which it was being offered.

What’s the first subject you developed the Diploma Programme on?

The founders began with history, developing a programme that had no national perspective, where students could learn to be reflective and see the perspectives of other nations on historical events. The IB’s conception back then was the result of a joint effort between people coming from different institutions. For example, there have been strong links with the University of Oxford and the International Schools Association, especially concerning the idea of interdisciplinarity, and also with Kurt Hahn’s United World Colleges movement’s principles of creativity, action, and service.

These foundations created an education that was positive and wide in its perspectives. Issues rarely have one answer and what has kept IB relevant is that it links subjects together – this collaborative focus is found throughout IB and is one of the most understood catalysts of innovation today and what is required for the workforce of tomorrow.

How do IB programmes work?

We have four programmes covering the 3 to 19 age groups: Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme (DP) and Career-related Programme (CP). The students have an active role in their learning experience: as I’ve heard saying, if Einstein had been educated in the UK system, he wouldn’t have gone as far as he did, due to limitation caps on what can be taught, and thus learned. This education system, instead, does have a set of assessments, but it also gives the students the chance to show what they can do – something that’s liberating for both students and teachers. To us, it’s all about constructing the learning with the learners, through a project and inquiry-based education. It’s about the knowledge, but it’s also about the skills and attitudes around it and their impact on people. We focus on the learner, and on the learning, rather than on the teaching.

How many schools do you have worldwide? How does a school become an IB World School?

We have over 5,000 authorized schools in 153 countries, each with a distinct profile and are both part of public and private education systems. To be authorized, schools have to work through a two-year transformational change. What they need to do is show that they’re aligned to the IB mission and that they can deliver on the standards required, as well as sustain it over time. Finally, they go through a substantial professional development.

Are you a substitute for traditional schools?

No, we don’t replace national systems, we are more focused on complementing rather than replacing. To give you an example, in Japan we work hand in hand with the ministry, who asked us to help them train an internationally monitored, critical thinking workforce. Something very similar is happening in Spain, where the ministry wanted to adopt IB to impact their own university system positively but also to uphold attendance retention in the early years.

What’s the hiring process of IB World School teachers?

As we don’t accredit schools but authorize them, first of all, teachers need to fulfill the requirements within the system they work in, be it national or private. This said, every year we train more than 80,000 teachers, with professional development and workshops not only for schools to become authorized but as ongoing professional development, too, meaning that we influence and uniquely engage teachers. We train some teachers as educators with a peer-to-peer model and have them provide workshops, consultancy, and support to new schools to help on-board them. We also run large conferences for our heads and educators throughout the world: our aim is not to have a standalone school, but real communities wherein we exchange best practices and ideas about how to make the IB work in their own setting and context. It is a global learning community of teachers who aim to inspire one another.

How do you create your programs?

We essentially work on a committee structure with the whole community. Everyone helps with the design of the curricula, making sure those they have developed are fit for purpose. We spend a lot of time looking at other systems and benchmarking with the Learning and Teaching Division, continually defining and pushing up what is best for IB education. Our reference points are leading universities, employment rates, as well as consultations with different parties. We’re working on a continual cycle of renewal and refinement at the kind of pace that schools appreciate, but we also spent a lot of time working on the alignment and the continuum of education, on the connectedness between the different stages of the learning path.

What about the digital transformation? Does this change in society reflect on your programs?

We are training students for jobs that don’t exist yet, and of course, this is a huge challenge. The IB is putting greater emphasis on skills rather than simply knowledge, which is already a big advantage in this sense: knowledge is important but it’s actually the skills and aptitude that we’re developing within learning that are really crucial. In terms of technology, our schools are of course at keeping pace with innovation and are using it according to its impact on their learners. But technology is not always meaningful in the classroom: it is a tool, which can be useful or not depending on the context. A big trend is for sure that of e-learning environments and e-assessments: we are developing one, making sure that it can be implemented by any school.

Are there any criticisms of IB that you would like to answer?

The most common criticism of IB is that it came from an elitist place. But I think that when you look at the footprint of IB it is anything but. The University of Chicago, for example, released a study according to which Chicago Public School students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) are 40%more likely to attend a four-year college, 50%more likely to attend a more selective college and significantly more likely to persist in four-year colleges for at least two years, versus similar students who did not enroll in the IB Diploma Program. Such case studies show that IB aids schools that have limited resources, with similar findings in the so-called coastal ‘coasting’ towns of Kent in the UK. All over, and throughout its history, IB has made significant, positive change. As we all know, the school-workplace connection today is weak, and we have a plethora of projects which have bridged that.

At the same time, we have a proven track record of raising students who end up going to Cambridge and Oxford. Underpinning everything we do are the right kind of learning attributes that provide our learners with the right attitudes in that they have lifelong, worthwhile commitments to doing good. Ultimately, it comes down to putting learners at the center of their education, because without them, how can we hope to learn?

Image: Universal Everything, Helmet Lady. ArtFutura 2017.