22.3.11

Why I like the IB Diploma

A few years ago, I got an email from a friend. He's American, and after teaching in California and New York, had ended up in the UK, teaching A-level English. His school had announced that they would adopt the IB Diploma Programme, and knowing that I had been teaching in the Diploma for several years, wanted to know what I thought about it. I found an archived copy of my response the other day, and I thought it might be interesting for others. I have made a few changes to reflect some shifts in my thinking.

I will confess to being a big fan of the Diploma, to the point that I would make teaching in the programme one of my highest priorities in choosing another teaching job. I have been teaching A1, A2 and B English, but I'll assume you'd be teaching A1 (mother tongue) English. Here's what I like:

  • The course is designed by teachers. The IB solicits advice and questions from teachers as they design the courses, and although they also may be considering other factors as well, I feel like they are reasonably responsive (as compared to the College Board and the AP exams, for instance). After every exam, they ask teachers to evaluate the exam questions and texts. It is still easy to see the IB as a monolithic exam preparation board (especially if you choose not to participate in the feedback), and they could do better at being connected to the programme's teachers, but compared to the other systems I've interacted with they are relatively transparent and interactive.

  • The content is flexible. Rather than prescribing a set list of texts for all students, the IB prescribes a large selection of authors from whose works a teacher can choose; teachers at the same school need not even select the same texts. While the list may not always be as comprehensive as one would want, it has allowed me to select texts based on my own expertise and the interests and skills of my students. In addition, 3-4 of the texts need not be on the prescribed list at all, which has allowed me to teach detective novels and a popular Finnish novel in translation, for instance. Many teachers allow students some choice in the works they study.

  • The assessments are strong. The exam papers, oral assessments and assignments challenge students to develop higher level reading, thinking and response skills. In other words, when I am 'teaching the test' I am usually teaching skills that I want students to learn rather than nonsense they'll never use beyond the assessment. There is no multiple choice. 50% of the assessment is done before the exam papers. 30% is oral. One of the oral assessments and one of the exam papers require close readings, the paper being a previously unseen text. The Individual Oral Commentary is an amazing experience through which every literature teacher should put themselves. Both exam papers allow some choice of question and generally require students to make their own choices and develop their own readings rather than conform to an established reading. As a result, the external assessment and moderation of internal assessment are sometimes not as consistent as one would like, but that's the price to be paid for more authentic assessment.

  • The criteria for assessment allow for a range of styles and responses. The criteria do demand organization and structure, but they do not define what that might look like, so the traditional thesis-driven essay is one choice but not required. While most students will want formulas to work with for their assessments, they will not be penalized for developing their own strategies -- in fact, if it's effective, they will be rewarded. There are no checklists or a need for the student to memorize or guess at the content of the criteria: they are qualitative, and again, they focus on what most English teachers would find important for a college-preparatory English course.

  • The IB Diploma has a philosophy to it that encourages life-long learning, not just success on an exam. Some schools ignore the learner profile and the other philosophical aims of the IBO, but in doing so I think they cheat their students, running them through a points factory rather than helping them develop the skills and attributes that they will be able to use within their academic career and beyond.


I have criticisms of the programme as well: the focus on the formalist approach is outdated, there is too much focus on comparison and the number of works in the Higher Level is excessive. My biggest criticism is the limited amount of creative responses possible. And many people point out that the IB seems elitist, focusing only on university-bound students and the skills they will need. (Working in a country where only university-bound students attend 'high school,' this is not so much a concern for me.)

Those concerns aside, I really like teaching the Diploma courses. Aside from anything else, the rigor of the course challenges me as a learner and a teacher, and I enjoy that.

Anything to add? Any disagreements?

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