The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) has become the most famous and recognized high school program in recent years, with over 160,000 students across the globe attempting the diploma during the May 2017 exam session compared to the approximately 45,000 who attempted it in May 2002 (International Baccalaureate, 2018). The rapid expansion of IBDP, however has brought forth a number of challenges which include providing adequate teacher professional development, maintaining certification, and buy-in from students and parents.
Over the past eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to work across different IB schools in different roles ranging from subject teacher, Extended Essay supervisor, CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) advisor, Head of Department, IB Coordinator and Secondary Principal. These diverse experiences have allowed me to experiment with different strategies and practices for educators to achieve the greatest amount of success with their Diploma Programme students. While each educator’s experience is unique, these are some of the important lessons I’ve learned along the way to help maximize students’ opportunities for success and to ultimately obtain the diploma.
Know your students and model what you expect from them
The IBDP is an academically challenging program, which puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on students at both school and at home. Openly expressing this pressure or finding methods to cope is not easy for most teenagers. Therefore, getting to know them makes a big difference. The more time you take to understand students’ needs, the more you will be able to identify their moments of need and provide support to them. An IBDP teacher goes beyond classroom walls and getting to know them will take you a long way from where they are and where you want them to be. The most meaningful learning comes across when parties know and trust each other, which ultimately increases engagement and focus in the classroom.
Demystify the program
The IBDP can sometimes seem obscure, complicated and difficult to understand as it is full of regulations, standards and practices unique to the IB. However, our job as educators is to make such rules accessible to students and their families. I can’t count the number of times that parents and students have come to me with the 24-point myth (stating it is the only requirement to get the diploma, yet it is not the only one).
Making sure the people involved understand the road map and the journey they are embarking on will allow them to have all of the necessary perspective to achieve the goal. Understanding all of its variables and anticipating to them while setting clear expectations will help all in the process. So, make sure that you communicate IBDP program requirements to your students and parents. When they clearly understand all of the point scales and requirements, they’ll be able to plan their actions accordingly and you’ll find it much easier to work backwards with them and craft a plan towards success.
The same applies for subjects. Presenting the syllabus, the objectives and learning outcomes before students’ course selection and during the first lesson or two will guarantee everyone’s involvement or allow changes if needed. Since IBDP subjects span a timeframe over two years, ensuring that everyone is on the same page at the beginning of the process will prevent a lot of misunderstanding and potential unnecessary work down the line.
Stick to the guide
Every subject has its own guide containing everything needed to develop the program. However, as subject experts or people passionate about the subject, sometimes teachers let their own personal interests or areas of expertise take over topics not included in it because we think is important.
Understanding the ineffectiveness of trying to teach everything of importance is the first step of this process. Even though many things seem important and needed, it is crucial to also accept the program is what must be followed and adhere strictly to the guide. No matter what we do, students won’t be able to learn everything about a discipline by the end of the program but at least will leave with good foundations and the desire to keep on going discovering it. Like it or not, one of our most important goals as educators is to facilitate opportunities for students to successfully obtain the diploma, and sticking to the topics in the subject guides ensures that efforts remain focused and efficient.
Create a deconstructed agenda
Every subject has its own internal assessment components to be submitted to the IB for moderation; however, setting a deadline for the whole component and document is not wise. Rather, deconstructing it in pieces and creating an evenly spread agenda that aims to finish each subject at different times between December and January of the second year is recommended.
As an example, I’ve always aimed for my students to end the first year with at least 2000 words of their Extended Essay and at least three mock TOK (Theory of Knowledge) presentations and essays. This allows students to have a wider understating, practice, confidence and more preparation time before exams start. The same happens with CAS given the amount of independent work it involves in creating a good reflection. Remember - the IBDP is a marathon, not a sprint - so helping students plan and organize their activities in realistic, short-term chunks will not only help them accomplish their goals but also help develop time management and organizational skills.
Finish the curriculum early
Although finishing all of the topics in an IBDP course may seem overwhelming at first, this can be done with careful planning and scheduling. Aiming to finish the syllabus before Easter break is the ultimate goal as this will allow for revision sessions, exam tips and motivation sessions.
Students need time to process, review, and reflect upon material, so not overloading students with information is key as well. Revision sessions should be simple, interactive and resourceful. These sessions shouldn’t be the repetition of lessons in an accelerated manner, but rather a key point approach where students feel confident of their knowledge and skills. After knowing my students, their strengths and weaknesses, I go over difficult topics for them in reminder manner rather than a difficult point. Making these sessions a combination of review of key concepts and practice exam questions in a focused yet lighthearted environment has always been successful in my experience.
Plan backwards with the goal in mind
IB exams, Internal Assessments, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) presentation/essay and Extended Essay should not be surprises for teachers or students as their requirements, submission dates and structure are readily available and published online. Taking these various requirements and deconstructing them to set interim goals is a good first step but this is a complicated process that takes organization, effort, and practice to master.
Plan to integrate past papers and exam style questions in your lessons. A good resource for this are always the IB question banks as they allow you to separate by topic and create quizzes seamlessly. Always set external assessments as the goal and work towards them. Even though you will not know what will be asked until the day of the exam, the command terms and previous exam questions are an excellent method of preparation for the real thing. Prepare your students by modeling what they are required to do with each command term, show them good answers and ask them to identify what makes them good or appropriate.
Diversify your teaching methodology
Teaching an IBDP class is not teaching in the same old lecture or seminar style, but rather a student-centered method based on inquiry. Ask students to be reflective, ask open-ended questions and for them to formulate their own questions. A very famous method to start this reflection process and something I love to have in my classroom are the Visible Thinking routines developed by Harvard Graduate School of Education (http://www.pz.harvard.edu/projects/visible-thinking).
Try to let students apply knowledge to real-life situations and to have projects where learning becomes useful to solve. Mix cooperative learning with collaboration and the inquiry cycle while balancing teacher control and student participation until your classroom becomes a student-driven, initiative one. I always encourage teachers to experiment using inquiry methodologies, discussion strategies and cooperative learning methods found across multiple disciplines and techniques.
Do not reinvent the wheel
Collaboration is not only key among students but among teachers as well. There are several resource exchange platforms where educators share lesson plans, discuss issues, and provide support. There is no need to struggle with an IB issue when there is a global community and network of educators willing and able to assist!
Subject-specific pages and program communities are a great way to start. Experienced teachers or IB representatives might clarify something you’ve been struggling with and they are very likely to share resources with you. Other webpages like InThinking (https://www.thinkib.net), Oxford Study Courses (https://osc-ib.com), Cambridge Teacher Resources for the IB Diploma (https://ibdiploma.cambridge.org) or the different teacher groups at Facebook and LinkedIn might also prove useful to expand your professional learning community.
In my experience, the IBDP is as difficult as you want it to be and a large part of your success or failure boils down to your attitude and ability to adapt. Don’t be afraid to experiment and change, for this is also a program where we are all inquirers. Demonstrate the profile attributes we all have around the classroom displayed and don’t be afraid of not knowing all the answers. My greatest moments of learning and connection are those of blinded confidence with my students and teachers where no judgement is made based on the answers given, but on the questions asked. Enjoy this wonderful ride across the IB world and even though I am not an expert, please reach out if you think there is something I can help you with and let's continue building a vibrant, connected, and collaborative educator community!
International Baccalaureate. (2018). The IB Diploma Programme Statistical Bulletin May 2018 Examination Session. Cardiff: International Baccalaureate.