Read Part I of 'IB Thinking'
“It’s not just the academics, it’s the whole thing,” Gary says, pointing to the school activities, sports opportunities and community service projects that play into the IB’s holistic learning mission. When it does come to the academics though, the school is committed to ensuring students do one thing above all else: reach their potential.
That goal is the reason why ISKL offers both the IB Diploma and the American AP programme to its seniors, and it is the driving force behind one of the learning initiatives Gary has implemented in his 16 years at the school. Strong students at ISKL can undertake certain AP studies in tenth grade instead of waiting until twelfth grade, Gary explains, which allows them to complete a college-level course before even starting their IB studies.
“Pushing down the rigours of the IB into tenth grade and ninth grade has been one of my initiatives over the years,” Gary says. “The thing is, the quantum jump in workload between pre-IB and IB is a difficult thing, so we try to change that, to ease them in through grades nine, ten and 11.”
The jump is perhaps eased best by the IB’s own Middle Years Programme, or MYP, but after examining the logistics of an MYP course that would span the middle and high schools, it was decided at ISKL to continue without the lower school IB programmes. In fact, only one school in Malaysia offers the MYP: Fairview International School.
ADOPTING THE IB across the board, Fairview offers the International Baccalaureate from primary school all the way up to graduation from the IB Diploma. Having such consistent progression throughout the school prepares students ideally for their next education or career step, says Dr Michael Chian, former MYP coordinator at the school.
Though Michael has taken on the role of head of school at Fairview’s Subang campus since our interview, he still casts a revealing light on the benefits of implementing IB across the school. At Fairview, two annual events really stand out: the June exhibition of collaborative primary projects, and the February display of MYP personal projects.
The MYP exhibition in particular highlights the mature, inquisitive learning that the IB promotes, with students confidently presenting everything from working robots to feature-length documentaries and fashion brands that they have created from scratch.
Students under the programme appear to have an almost teacher-like grasp of their subject as well as the research that has informed their studies. That’s perfectly intentional, Michael explains. “At the end of the day, the kids are the ones that are supposed to know more than you. And if you’ve [enabled] that then you did a great job as a teacher.”
Judging by the results, the MYP teachers and project supervisors also seem to encourage the use of technology — virtually every presentation is supported by a video, website or slick slideshow. But that’s not the case. “We don’t say ‘encouraged’,” Michael says of the use of technology. “We say ‘what’s befitting of the project.’ So you’ve got to see what’s pertinent to be able to communicate your idea or your product.”
For MYP students, the task is figuring out — individually—how best to achieve a goal. “You have a goal, you do your research, then the question is: how best to communicate your idea and your findings?” Michael explains.
This student-led approach sounds a lot like university learning but it is typical of IB studies. Again, it links back to the IB’s holistic learning mission statement and, providing students can cope with the breadth and responsibilities, it seems to serve learners well.
Helping students to cope with the demands of the MYP, at least in part, is the job of Fairview’s PYP programme, and the primary projects are a good introduction to the requirements of learning higher up in the school. Students completing the primary projects work in groups to explore a topic collaboratively, but otherwise the demands, scaled down for younger learners of course, are very similar.
“The structure’s very similar,” Michael confirms, adding that the IB Diploma’s extended essay is also essentially a more advanced version of the MYP personal project. “The MYP project is actually a great preparation for the Diploma extended essay,” Michael says. “And by the time they go to university it’s peanuts to be sat writing research papers.”
AGAIN, HOWEVER, THIS direct practice for university is not the focus of the IB. As the mission statement highlights, the IB exists for far greater purposes than to get young learners into and through the most prestigious universities. It aims, at its furthest reach, to improve the world through greater education. That may sound lofty, but a look at some of the IB’s advances in recent years suggests that such radical change could be possible.
“The IB grew up with international schools,” Gary says. “When I started in 1986 I would say 90, 95 per cent of the schools that did IB were international schools. Now only eight per cent, roughly, of the schools that do the IB are international.”
The drop is huge, and it’s a sign not of the IB’s waning popularity among international institutions but of its increasing popularity among national schools. It makes sense; there’s no reason why national schools shouldn’t look to include more international learning in their curriculums.
“That’s what they’re trying to do to kind of break down national barriers,” Gary says. And though we may be yet to see such steps in Malaysia’s national schools, the number of IB international schools here is certainly on the up. Is that good news for the likes of Fairview and ISKL?
Gary is philosophical on the topic of IB competition. He has, after all, worked with the International Baccalaureate for over a quarter of a century. “I would say it’s really good that more schools are doing IB,” he says. “I think it’s a really good programme. If everybody on the planet is better educated and has a better education, I believe we’ll have a better place.” Opinions like that are hard to argue with.