International education in Malaysia is dominated by IGCSEs and A levels but the International Baccalaureate is not to be discarded. We look at the resurgence of IB from PYP to Diploma.
You could be forgiven, in the Malaysian education landscape, for forgetting about the International Baccalaureate, or IB. Such is the prevalence of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) among international schools in Malaysia that IB programmes are often overlooked.
But on both a local and a global level, things are starting to change. Internationally, CIE schools still outnumber those offering IB by close to three to one, but as places at the world’s top universities become harder and harder to secure, increasingly schools are looking for ways in which their students can distinguish themselves.
The key debate between IB and its closest international ‘rival’, A levels, is that of breadth versus depth. While A levels are generally considered to provide a greater level of detail and exploration of subjects, they require students to narrow their choices to just three or four areas. IB, on the other hand, delivers a greater range of learning, making subjects such as English, maths, humanities and an additional language compulsory for all students.
And though it can be argued that studies do not tackle the same complexity as A level equivalents, and that students’ overall results can be hampered by poor performances in subjects deemed irrelevant to their future studies, the IB’s broader approach to education means students potentially develop a wider spectrum of skills that can be applied to various challenges later in life.
Of course the full debate is much more complicated than simply specialisation versus open options. IB programmes are very much centred on developing character and holistic students, qualities that make candidates attractive propositions for leading universities.
If students can match good academic skills with confidence in communication, inquisitive thinking, open-mindedness and a number of other pillars of IB learning, it stands that they should be well prepared for higher learning.
GARY PIECH, IB and AP coordinator at the International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL), agrees. Gary has worked with the IB for 28 years, first in Kenya and now at ISKL since 1999; he has seen many students leave for university and then return to highlight the virtues of their IB years at the school. Indeed there are certain aspects of the IB Diploma programme—the most common of the IB levels offered in Malaysia—that feed directly into university assignments.
The Theory of Knowledge component requires students to reflect on the nature of knowledge itself, encouraging learners to explore such topics as reputable evidence, theories, judgements and assumptions; Creativity, Action, Service, or CAS, meanwhile, helps students to develop skills while working together both inside and outside the school walls. However, by far the most valuable component cited by students, Gary says, is the extended essay.
“You’ll say to [returning students]: ‘what good was the IB?’ And one of the things that a lot of students say is ‘the best thing was the extended essay, because I learnt how to research a paper and to put together a consistent paper.’ You know, it takes a long time and they don’t like doing it most of the time when they’re here but then they go to university and they’ve got six or eight of those a semester and they can just knock them out.”
The International Baccalaureate’s mission statement focuses on more than developing strong university candidates though; it encourages students to become “active, compassionate and lifelong learners” who are “inquiring, knowledgeable and caring.”
“It’s really developing skill-based learning,” Gary says. “And I think with the Theory of Knowledge and the extended essay and the CAS they’re developing a holistic programme.”
It’s one that the IB hopes, ultimately, will see learners create a better world in the years to come. “I’d say that 80 per cent of the jobs of 20 years from now are not created now, and technology is changing the face of what jobs are,” explains Gary. “Things are changing, so how do you know what job you’re going to be training for? If I was a student at 16 I would not want to limit my options.”
That belief comes across at ISKL’s Ampang campus. As a school, ISKL has almost as much experience with the IB as Gary has. Having offered the IB Diploma for 20 years, it is Malaysia’s longest-running provider of IB education, and with that comes some big advantages.
“With experience comes a lot of working out problems and really developing the programme,” Gary says. But he warns that familiarity with the diploma alone is not enough to ensure quality deliverance.
“The length of how long you have it is not the only factor; it’s the staff you have, the qualifications of the staff, and it’s how you professionally develop them — with the IB and with teaching.”
The IB places a lot of focus on professional development of staff and teachers, and courses call for ‘modern’ forms of teaching. The most successful transfer of knowledge on IB programmes does not come from teacher talk time — and that suits ISKL just fine.
Gary says the school places its own emphasis on progressive teaching methods, explaining that at ISKL, “the interaction between the teachers and students is very different from a lot of the schools in the region. It’s not a lecture-based methodology usually; there’s a lot of group work, a lot of collaboration. I think that’s different from traditional schools and I think in a lot of ways we keep on moving, and moving in the direction of modern education.”
Such movement is important for a school that this academic year celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, and ISKL prides itself on offering the best learning opportunities to all students while retaining the small school feel that it has had since its inception in 1965.