Some explanations to springboard this discussion on education:
The International Baccalaureate (IB) is currently used by over 1 million students speaking 74 languages across 145 countries. These students attend 3,600 schools, both private and public. In the US, the IB is present in 700 schools, 90% of which are public. This brief profile should dispel the misconception that the IB is elitist, or that it is a system created exclusively for and useful only to UN diplomats. And this fact page might help dispel other misinformation.
That notion of “privilege and exclusivity” and UN affiliation arose from the IB’s origins. I can speak with a bit of authority about said origins, since our family lives in Geneva, Switzerland, seedbed of the UN. I’ve stood in the buildings and rooms where the IB was designed and first implemented, yes, in conjunction with many of the UN’s lofty and valuable peace-making objectives. In fact, our two youngest children now attend the very school, which developed the IB in the late ’60’s of post WW II Europe.
You might say we have come to the mount.
Which would explain, I suppose, the dragon (I wrote of in my last post.)
My current proximity to the IB’s epicenter and the fact that, when we moved to this area, we specifically (and energetically) targeted this, the IB’s “Urschool,” helps as I discuss the IB in this and my ensuing posts. I come from a posture of support, even enthusiasm. As global nomads, all four of our children have participated in the IB to one extent or another, and have done so in three different schools across Europe. So while it’s maybe a small sample size, I do have contextual reference (four children, three schools, over ten years) from which to judge the program, or as least its central European iteration.
In one school, a son took a couple of individual IB courses. This is essentially IB à la carte, and is recognized by educators as similar in level of difficulty to taking a menu of Advanced Placement (AP) courses.
In another school, our daughter graduated with the full IB, more challenging than IB à la carte, and recognized as tougher than even a complete menu of Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) classes. AP on steroids, some say. The full IB means that in addition to all coursework being college-level, (as opposed to selecting only certain IB classes), she had to complete major additional projects, an extended research essay, service hours and several targeted assessments. Today, our youngest is doing the middle school IB, and the third of our four children, Dalton, is slogging through his final year of the full IB diploma program, as did his sister.
Again, my opinions of the IB stem from a sample size of only three schools from central Europe. But from that sample size I’ve noted the consistencies and inconsistencies, and know that experiences vary, as I have noted, not only from one country/cultural context to another, but from one school to another. The overall coursework is administered differently from school to school. Weekly workload, variety and aggressiveness of courses offered, day-to-day and month-by-month grading practices, quality of classroom instruction and consistency of faculty guidance have varied. There have been truly stellar teachers and administrators. There have also been some less-than-stellars.
In these upcoming posts, I’ll focus on what I judge are the outstanding strengths or weaknesses of the IB. Sometimes, as you’ll see today, they are one and the same.
Time and Stress Management
Given the dragon slaying metaphor from my last post, IB students must, above all, learn time and stress management skills. Our high school senior, now in the middle of his second year of the 2-year diploma-targeted arc, often says that IB success (meaning just completion, not necessarily top scores) hangs on one’s ability to “study while running.” You start your junior year at a dead sprint, and can’t stop running for two years while task upon task gets piled in your arms. You can’t drop one task, or it’s nearly impossible to catch up. You must study and run at once.
Stress/time management is important, even vital. And hear me: I’m all for a program that puts pressure on my kids to effectively govern their use of time. They will need this in college. They will need this in work, in family, in life.
But I do question what it means for young minds to associate learning primarily with breathlessness, sleeplessness, burned-eyeball revisions until midnight, high-pitched anxiety, gulping down information from a fire hydrant, a 2-year nonstop scramble. As an educator myself, (I have instructed German, English writing and literature, and the Humanities on the university level; my current activities have me lecturing to small and large audiences; I am a writer) I would wish that my kids also associated joy, discovery and creativity with learning.
I also question the notion of “balance,” which, as you see here in purple, is part of the IB learner’s profile. Frankly, I’m searching for it, but I’m not seeing balance in the life of my IB student. How can there be when one’s running as this son is just to keep on top of basic coursework?
(And what does it mean when students say the IB stands for Insane Burnout, I’m Busy and Intellectually Brutal?)
My oldest son, who took individual IB courses (as one might take AP courses) and not the full diploma, had time to participate in sports and music alongside his academic courses. Our second son, now neck-deep in the full IB, is feeling mostly anxiety because he’s been cast in a supporting role in the school’s upcoming student-directed Shakespeare. He’s wondering: will playing Benvolio be my demise? Can I do theater and run carrying all this coursework?
(I’ll let you know in a few months. In the meantime, I’m taking it as a good omen that Benvolio is the only character from the younger generation to survive in “Romeo and Juliet.”)
Still, I have to ask: is this program fashioned, as it asserts it is, to prepare young minds for the rigor not only of serious university studies, but further for the demands of a complex, diverse, rapidly shifting, international environment? Are the hot breath and licking flames of the dragon intended to motivate students toward a passion for intellectual rigor, high-level holistic learning, life-long curiosity, a broad (global) world view, and encourage a whole wonderful list of learner’s qualities that is part of the IB’s original charter?
Is the IB shaping minds and spirits that are thirsty, elastic, joyful about the magnificent possibilities and electrifying privilege of gaining an education?
Or is the dragon dragooning students into constant worry and apprehension about keeping up? How to cut corners? Whether or not they can really afford to be so frivolous as to participate in one drama production their senior year?
Are the students finishing an aggressive program with minds that are not thirsty but fried, not elastic but overwrought, not joyful about learning, but wrung out, wrung dry, and convinced (as is our IB senior,) that he’s bottom rung?