The International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 1


A typical scene in our home lately:

Dalton, our high school senior, normally an energetic, cheerful young man, walks through the front door sometime between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., visibly bulldozed.  His eyes are gloopy and glazed.  He slumps under his backpack. His day began twelve hours earlier: Up at 6:00. Bus at 7:00.  Courses started near 8:00.  One 30-minute lunch break.

“Dinner at 7:00,” I tell him, giving him a hug, “Unless . . . do you need to eat over your books again?”

“Books,” he signals much of the time, “but right now I just need 20 mins.”

He’s running on fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day, so now he’ll flop into a 15 minute nap, then brisk-shower himself back to consciousness in order to head right into homework. Until midnight.


Why? Because, as coordinators of the full International Baccalaureate diploma program at his high school have informed us, you don’t just complete the IB. You conquer it.

“It’s a dragon,” we were told by a school administrator at this year’s orientation, “and your job is to slay it.”

“You’ll have to do whatever you can,”  another faculty member addressed us parents, “to not let your senior student devote more than 45 hours per week to homework outside of class.”

ib banner

Hmm. Let’s see. Quickie calculation tells me that. . . more than 45 hours per week is exactly what Dalton is doing, and just to keep ahead of the deadlines and keep his head from the dragon’s fiery jaws. From 6 p.m. to midnight every weekday, and then Saturdays all day long for another eight hours, and on Sundays, any remaining literary reading. He does precious little but hunker over his books, papers, and laptop. (A big luxury for him? Playing his guitar for 20-minute break. For that, he always sets a timer.)

students 2

It has been this way since fall of 2012. And it will be this way until spring of 2014. While he got to step back from formal studies during July and August (except for the daily math tutoring, the extended essay for which he was researching, and preparing for a second round of college entrance exams), he re-launched in September with the following caveat from an IB advisor given at a senior assembly: “Look, you guys’ll have break downs. Just prepare for that.  Come about November, the pressure will be so great, you’ll crack, some of you.  So go out right now and line up a massage. Or something.”

“Or line up some weed,” mumbled the student next to Dalton.

(In truth, the full IB is more than a fire-breathing, wingéd monstrosity, and though this IB dragon smokes big time, I’m not suggesting some oversimplified causal link between those academic pressures and the pronounced drug and booze problems that have existed in all three of the IB high schools my kids have attended. Someone else can write that post.)

ib globe

What I’m suggesting, is that the dragon’s stressors are mythic.  There are websites, established by students, called things like “Surviving the IB” and “IB”  But crazy as it seems, our family keeps signing up for the IB everywhere we live. Why on earth do that? you’re asking.

Believe me. There are times I’m asking, too.

In the next posts, I’m going to delve into the reasons why I have strong feelings – both positive and negative – about the IB. I’ll be analyzing what I believe are the program’s many strengths, but will also question whether this kind of dragon battle actually gains the specific and immediate as well as the broad and long-term results we parents hope for in our educational choices for our children.

So if you are at all curious about the IB, or if you are invested in education and your children’s ability not only to slay some dragon, but to live intelligently and even nobly in an increasingly complex and tumultuous world, you’ll want to come back and comment.



8 thoughts on “The International Baccalaureate: Notes From The Trenches, Part 1

    • Paulette, I am especially interested in hearing your opinion of educational choices, since you and Ruth are among the most respected experts today on international living. I’d listen attentively to anything you write or say. Thank you for coming here.-Melissa

  1. Thank heavens for education choices for our kids! As you said your family chose this school on purpose – was that because your two younger sons, you and your husband are the type to excel at this level of the IB? This is not a judgement in any way, I’m just curious. I’m only a few chapters into your book so I’m still “meeting” your family 😉 And if a family has a choice of where in the world to live, how do you find out about each IB school’s reputation? Are they ranked somehow, perhaps by the number of students who score 5 and above on the exams? You mentioned earlier that your experience w/in the program can hinge on having a good coordinator. I’m not as concerned about what university my kids go to, but I do hope hope hope to instill a love of learning and a desire to seek higher education. Still sorting this all out obviously and my kids are young 🙂

    • Tracie:
      Thanks for the good questions.
      I knew next to nothing about the IB until we were introduced to it as an option when our oldest two were in HS in Paris at an international school. There, students could take standard level HS courses, AP courses, IB courses (certificates), or the full IB diploma. We were cautioned by wise administrators that the full IB was not for everyone, that it would seriously limit if not render impossible participation in extra-academic activities, and would be stressful even for the most academically gifted of students. Our eldest, who was a talented musician and athlete, opted out of the full IB so he could do three music groups and be co-captain of two league-winning teams. The full IB was not for him. We selected the school our 3 younger children attended in Munich (which only offered full IB, not the other options we’d had in Paris), not for the IB, but because of other factors, like a way to continue speaking and studying French while also learning German.

      As it turned out, while the full IB was challenging for our daughter, it was not draconian, and was, ironically, a blessing for her because she literally buried herself in dawn-to-midnight studies as a way of surviving tremendous grief. She had just lost her brother (and closest friend) to tragic death the month before we arrived in Munich. When we moved to Singapore, we did NOT choose an IB school for our two youngest still at home, although an IB school was highly recommended. Instead, we enrolled our boys in a school with a superlative AP program – the best we have ever seen – and they thrived both academically as well as socially. Upon returning to Europe, we again faced the complex scenario of choosing between several kinds of schooling, and with our daughter’s encouragement (“Hey, little brothers, you should do this!”) settled on (the original) IB school.

      I will return in later posts to explain why I appreciate the IB as much as I do, but why I also question the viability of several of the IB’s stated objectives. Like you, I love to learn and, like you, want my children to feel that love, too. There’s little “lightness” in this approach, though, that’s for sure! When friends from around the world and from other school systems talk about HS being a “fun” experience, my IB children cannot relate. European (and Asian) upper schooling isn’t designed to be fun. It’s designed to be grueling. 🙂

      I’m glad you’ve asked these questions. . .I’ll do my best to answer in greater depth in coming posts.

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  3. The exhaustive grind of the 1B courses sounds so much like the huge demands placed upon me my entire career…tremendous and relentless pressure and a consistent 70-80 hr. work week for thirty years in property administration.

    I can well imagine the strain of studies in the 1B scholastic environment, especially for young adults who are not yet altogether familiar with the demands of occupation, family life and all that those things entail. One thing is near certain…if Dalton can handle all of that load and pressure he will surely withstand the ever-increasing demands of the modern workplace. I continue to find myself struggling for the time to catch up on my reading and commenting here and elsewhere Melissa. Nonetheless I always embrace my time reading your posts with undivided attention!

    Best wishes for Dalton. There will be many dragons to conquer well beyond his days of higher education! Godspeed!

    • Don: I agree. It’s a demanding, competitive, dragonish world and learning early to manage intense demands in one’s youth is useful, even essential. I’m glad Dalton takes it all seriously, and trust he will look back on this stretch as formative and, in a skewed way, a blessing for life. Thank you for your kind words, as always.

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