What all school leaders can learn from the IB Diploma

Even schools that do not run the IB can benefit from its culture of broader learning, writes Matt Bowman

When I started my first international job, a physics teaching role in Milan, I didn’t know much about the IB Diploma Programme. Many years later, having worked across both Europe and South America, one of the biggest takeaways from my move to international teaching is the strength of the IB Diploma Programme in developing comprehensively educated academics.

Unlike A-Levels, this programme drives students to a broad understanding across different subject groups, developing much more rounded learners. In my lessons as a physics teacher, I have found the ability to refer to the mathematics or English course they all take invaluable, or to give some context using what they have learned in their Individuals and Societies course.

Not only does this bring educational benefits in the classroom, but it keeps students minds open to other possibilities, career plans and routes they might take. It reminds them that academia doesn’t exist in isolation, but that to be successful in any field you need to have an appreciation of subjects outside your specialism. This was something that, when teaching A-Levels, I certainly found to be somewhat lacking. The common pattern of physics-chemistry-mathematics left students with little learning of language, literature or humanities to bolster their education.

“The common A-level pattern of physics-chemistry-mathematics left students with little learning of language, literature or humanities.”

The Core of the IB – CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service), EE (Extended Essay) and ToK (Theory of Knowledge) is another facet of the IB education that bulks out education and develops complex young people. The projects students have opportunities to work on, the opportunity to look at “learning to learn” and the experience of researching and producing their own academic papers are all invaluable experiences for a student about to go on to university education. The Extended Essay, particularly, is a fantastic opportunity for students to show their passion, develop their ability to research, reference and argue, and understand what academic writing really is about. Students who have taken this opportunity arrive at university ahead of their peers in this respect.

The IB Learner Profile is centred on developing internationally-minded students, and for me encompasses the characteristics of any successful academic. Being part of a programme such as the IB which is always seen as a complete package — rather than separate qualifications — develops a coherence that allows for the development of students talented in many areas with attributes that can only help them succeed in the future. This ever-present language of “being a risk-taker” or “nurturing inquiry” helps to knit together the approaches required between subjects in a language students are familiar with.

“Have a clear, school-wide understanding of what a successful learner demonstrates and back this up with agreed-upon language.”

So, now that I’ve expounded on the virtues of the IB Diploma programme, what does this mean for leaders? In a nutshell: coherence and breadth. Developing common language and skills across a wide range of subjects to develop well-rounded, academic, successful students. If you are teaching in an IB school, then many of these values and principles will be familiar to you. If, however, you are looking to develop a broader, internationally-minded curriculum whilst teaching a different system here are three key principles:

Have a clear, school-wide understanding of what a successful learner demonstrates and back this up with agreed-upon language that can be used in lessons. For example, what does a resilient learner look like? What might qualify you as a risk-taker? When students are encountering this lesson to lesson they become familiar with how to succeed, and what success looks like

Incorporate out of lesson, whole-student education. The ToK programme isn’t about studying any one particular subject but learning about learning. The CAS programme challenges students to show their commitment and passion for non-academic ideas. The Extended Essay is a fantastic opportunity for students to learn about academic writing, research and referencing in the context of a topic they are interested in. Developing these areas of your learners will bring a rich culture of interest and holistic learning to your school.

“There are common skills threaded through here that can be built one upon the other.”

Promote cross-curricular development. Students may learn to write an essay in English, analyse a case study in economics and develop a lab report in the sciences. There are common skills threaded through here that can be built one upon the other, whilst adding the subject-specific requirements for each.

You may not have the opportunity or ability to offer students a wide range of subject study such as the six subjects taken in the IB Diploma. However, working on these cross-curricular ideas and developing horizontal and vertical consistency across the skills that run across subjects will really boost students’ understanding.