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Is the International Baccalaureate Organisation New to You?

September, 2007
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“It is our belief that, in the modern world, if education is not a global education, it is not an education for survival."

Robert Blackburn, then Deputy Director General of the I.B.O., at a World Goodwill seminar in London in 1988.  DSCF7098

  Because of the huge British influence on China, largely channelled through the U.K.’s long hold on Hong Kong, even in my short time in Shanghai, I have been asked ‘What is the I.B. Diploma?’ and ‘How does it compare with A Levels?’ People know the British system well but know very little about the I.B. Diploma.

  The idea of the I.B.O. was conceived during the 1960s, and its official birth year is normally given as 1968. Its arrival upon the education scene was prompted by the complete lack of an educational qualification that would give a first-class educational experience during the last two years of schooling and would facilitate university entry in any country in the world. The problem was neatly expressed by an early prospectus of Atlantic College in Wales:

  A man today who goes abroad to work, and who takes his family with him, cannot educate his children in another national system and yet give them a fair chance of entry to the universities of their own country. Inadequate knowledge of foreign languages is one difficulty. University admission procedures are a still greater problem.

DSCF6900   There were several renowned educationalists pushing for a solution to both the need for a high quality education and the need for easy access to universities worldwide. However, it was arguably Alec Peterson, professor of education at Oxford University, who broke the logjam. In 1966 he made the brave decision to take a year’s sabbatical leave from the Department of Education at Oxford and take up the position of director of the so-called International Baccalaureate Office. The breakthrough finally came during the 1967 Paris conference when delegates from eleven countries, the heads of the Baccalauréat Français, the University of London GCE Board and the Advanced Placement Program of the American College Entrance Examination Board, along with observers from UNESCO and the Council of Europe gave their blessing to the establishment of the new matriculation course.

  What is important to realise, however, is that this was not to be just another examination. The I.B. Diploma was inspired by a highly idealistic view of what the last two years of pre-university education should be like. Education for inter-cultural understanding and global citizenship was one vital component; keeping in touch with one’s own language and culture was another; the ability to think critically and see things from many different viewpoints was a third. In SAMSUNG TECHWIN DIGIMAX-410    addition, all the subjects studied as part of the two year course had to relate to the real world outside the classroom so that this was not just another ‘course’ but the start of a commitment to life-long learning. Creativity was to be an essential component of the programme, if not through one of the subjects studied, then through an extra-curricular programme where participation in sport was also required along with participation in a service programme where students could be involved in positively helping those less fortunate than themselves. The service component would, in this way, both contribute to the greater good while helping students develop compassion. And so the International Baccalaureate Diploma (DP) was born. Although it is now nearly forty years old, it is still recognisably very much the same. It has two younger siblings: the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (MYP) for students aged between 11 or 12 and 16; and the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) for students in Junior/Primary schools.

  The Diploma Programme, which is by far the most popular of the three I.B. programmes in China and throughout the world, is still organised along the same lines as originally devised. Students have to study six subjects:

  • a). The literature of their first language (a course exists for the literature of every language)
  • b). A second language – either another first language or a foreign language
  • c). A social science/humanities subject
  • d). A science
  • e). A level of mathematics
  • f). A creative subject or another choice from groups a) to e)

DSCF7885   Students choose three of their six subjects at the Higher Level (equivalent to the British A2 or the American AP) while they study the other three at the Standard (originally called Subsidiary) Level (equivalent to the British AS or the American SAT2).

  In addition, all students have to follow a course which is central to the whole programme: this is called the Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and it is very different from the British Critical Thinking courses. TOK is what philosophers would recognise as an epistemology course – it helps students to look at what underpins every subject. In history, for example, it explores in depth but in an enjoyable way, how history is formed; perhaps making use of Clint Eastwood’s two films about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, to explore how different sides build up their picture of what leads to a war and of the various rights and wrongs. In art, TOK might well look at what different cultures accept as art and compare, say, Aboriginal concepts with Moslem views and then compare both of those with some Western traditions.

  The creativity, sport and service elements are linked together in what is called the Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) programme.

  In addition, all DP students have to undertake a fairly deep piece of research usually into a topic which really interests them and usually in their favourite subject area or the area which they want to study at university. This piece of research is called an Extended Essay.

  So there you have it – the I.B. Diploma:

  • 3 x subjects at Higher Level
  • 3 x subjects at Standard Level
  • Theory of Knowledge course
  • Creativity, Action and Service programme
  • Extended Essay

  However, what you do not get from this description is how different the I.B. Diploma course feels as compared with other systems. I have  experience of both the British A Level system and the American High School Diploma along with the additional SAT I, SAT II and AP tests, having worked in both a British Sixth Form College and an American High School. There is a breadth and a depth, there is a buzz, there is a philosophical electricity, there is a compassion, there are discussions, there is a degree of practical science laboratory work, there is a passion for learning which are of not just a different degree but which are of a different quality with the I.B. Diploma programme.

  Yes, the I.B. Diploma programme does involve a lot so if your son or daughter wants to get by with the minimum, go for one of the national systems. However, if you and your son or daughter want the best, the most exciting, the most challenging but ultimately the most rewarding – go for the I.B. Diploma; you won’t regret it!

by Kevin M. Purday, Principal of Shanghai Rego International School

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    June 16th, 2009 at 10:44 | #1

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  1. March 5th, 2010 at 01:01 | #1