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International Baccalaureate: A step forward in education?

November 28, 2012

Students sit in an exam at a school in Pakistan. - File photo by Online
Students sit in an exam at a school in Pakistan. - File photo by Online

“Would you know what HIV Aids is?”

A question posed to me by my ten-year-old son. I nodded in agreement and prodded him to go on. He explained to me that he had learnt about the disease because it was part of MDG (Millennium Development Goal) that he has been studying at school, part of his “How we organise ourselves” unit. A sense of marvel set in as I realised the kind of exposure he was acquiring by being part of an international school that followed the Primary Years Program (PYP) and Middles Years Program (MYP) system, finally leading to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.

What started in Switzerland in 1968 as a non-profit educational foundation has grown today manifolds into three programs for students aged three to 19 years. It started as a single program for internationally mobile students preparing for university. IB’s mission relies heavily on international mindedness in both the students and educators.

There are essentially two philosophies that the system banks on. One is the trans-disciplinary learning – which is learning across subject areas. What students would learn in biology can later be applied in economics. In a typical IB classroom, the teacher is constantly looking to bring in a worldview – “what the students are learning is not just information but it is knowledge.”

Students jump between subjects without consciously compartmentalising them. Also what is critical to the IB system is instilling a sense of understanding and appreciating the process of learning.

“The fact that students can memorise a certain times table in 20 seconds is of no use to us, what matters is how they learnt it,” says Sebastian Bernard , Head of Communications and Marketing , IBO and a former IB student from United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA).

There is a very structured route to becoming an IB school – it takes a minimum of two years before an IB school is authorised. During this time, stringent teacher training programmes are put into place. Whereby, they are taught to act as facilitators. A typical IB teacher would never lay out the facts out in the open. They would always prompt, tease and encourage her students to come up with their own solutions and devise their own strategies.

The IB organisation plays the role of partnership and an advisory body focusing on the school environment, subject material, access to information, lay out of the report card down to the colour of the walls of the classroom and the placement of the desks. Although the organisation is very focused at the same time it lays extreme importance on the individual background. IBO only lays down the framework and then its up to the schools to design their own curriculum and conform to the framework.

“Its not uncommon to walk into an IB classroom and see kids working from a GCSE text book,” says Sebastien. Schools don’t have to be totally compliant to the IBO framework. If schools feel that they have to follow another sequence the IBO does not snub them down. As particular as IBO is about detail, it is extremely flexible too.

The success of an IB school lies with the teachers, who play a vital role in initiating discussions, sharing and developing ideas along with the students – intensive teacher training programs can be set up.

Out of the 3,477 schools worldwide, there are 554 schools in the Asia-Pac region, with Australia, China and India being the hot markets.

The Japanese government has realised that their workforce is lacking essential tools to not only operate but also barely survive in the international environment. With their work force extremely self-focused and their businesses operating on a global level they are struggling to reach and maintain equilibrium. Any technological gadget being manufactured now has 15 different stations. The businesses are completely reliant on many people working across cultures and time zones. Japan realises that their population is incapable of working cross-culturally hence finding it difficult to cope. The government has approached the IBO to establish the system and frameworks and teach their new generation, to inculcate internationalism, to embed a broader outlook, to envision a world view eventually returning back to Japan with a broader, wider and forward outlook.

The IB made its debut in 1996 in Pakistan through The International School (TIS) in Karachi and was authorised the diploma in 2001. TNS Beaconhouse was authorised the MYP earlier this year, followed by Pakistan Limesters Academy (PYP) and International School of Islamabad (Diploma). There are several reasons for the gnawing vacuum and the weak implementation of this system in Pakistan, which has taken worldwide education to a new pinnacle.

First and foremost is the reluctance on the part of the parents to accept this non-conventional method of learning, which inculcates a firm belief of learning through experience. It is a challenge for the proponents of the IB system to convince apprehensive parents that their child will be in a conducive, supportive and encouraging environment. Students are taught to be researchers, creative, tolerant and problem solvers at their own potential and pace. A skill set that is not only helpful in the professional life but also day-to-day living.

Secondly, acquiring an IB authorisation involves a huge financial commitment, which is then translated in the school fee. Admittedly with the fee on the higher side, this system is only accessible to the upper and upper middle class in Pakistan. However, we must bear in mind that this system is essentially for everyone and a factual proof is around the region where countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are adopting this program actively.

“Although the first IB schools were predominantly private International Schools, today over half of all IB World Schools are state schools,” according to the IBO website.

Most importantly, security problems in Pakistan has acted as a dismal hurdle in the way of the IBO to make a deep and forceful footprint in the country. It is incumbent for the IB team to visit regularly and do the necessary checks to ensure all systems are in place. The volatile security situation has made this close to impossible.

However, all is not lost. A team of progressive thinkers and educators can get together to bring this paradigm shift on the education stage of Pakistan. Apprehensions and doubts of both parents and students can be addressed by holding talks and presentations. Where it must be stressed that intercultural understanding and respect is ingrained not as an alternative to national identity but as an essential part of life in this day and age.

On the government level, needs can be identified and strategies can be devised in manner similar to Japan.

The IBO can be approached to make the necessary changes and implement the tools to make our youth progressive, creative, responsible, open minded and critical thinkers in their academic, professional and personal life. The journey is no doubt expensive and intense, yet the fruits we bear of preparing our youth to embrace the love of learning, be responsible citizens and learn to tolerate other religions, cultures and beliefs is well worth the expense.

The author is a freelance contributor.