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International Baccalaureate Diploma

The Establishment of the IB Diploma, The Early Twenty-First Century, Issues for the Future

The international baccalaureate (IB) diploma program is a curriculum whose time has come. Growing out of a perceived need in the 1960s, the IB diploma–as it is commonly known–has gone from strength to strength in creating a role for itself as a major player on the world education stage.

The Establishment of the IB Diploma

The IB diploma was first developed in international schools and, in particular, the International School of Geneva. Reportedly the oldest international school in existence, this bilingual (French/English) school was founded in 1924 primarily as a means of providing education for the offspring of employees of the League of Nations. As the number of international schools grew over the following thirty-year period, in response to increasing ease of international travel and global mobility of professional parents, this school remained at the forefront of educational development. In 1951 it took the lead in founding the International Schools Association (ISA), which was set up "to help the growing number of international schools all over the world with their common problems" (Peterson, p. 15). As Peterson describes, one of the most pressing of these problems was that of providing adequate university preparation for their older students, destined as they were to seek university places in many different countries of the world. In 1962 a group of teachers from the International School of Geneva, with a small amount of funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), organized a conference of social studies teachers from international schools to investigate the possibility of developing an international social studies program. With sponsorship from the Twentieth-Century Fund and the Ford Foundation, and central involvement of Atlantic College in Wales, the United Nations International School in New York, and Oxford University's department of educational studies in England, the program was launched. Developments led to the setting of a first full examination paper in 1971 and generation of a program that would, on the one hand, provide "an education that would facilitate the admission of students into the universities of their choice in different countries, without having to engage in the lengthy and uncertain process of obtaining equivalence agreements"; and, on the other, have as a major purpose "promoting international understanding and world peace" (Fox, p. 65).

The Early Twenty-First Century

The IB diploma of the early twenty-first century is based on essentially the same structure as was developed originally, which is represented by Figure 1. Students are required to engage in study of six subjects, with at least one selected from each of groups one to five, and a sixth choice, which may be from ny of the six groups. Either three or four subjects must be studied at higher level and the others at standard level, while students must also complete a course in the theory of knowledge, write an extended essay of some four thousand words, and engage in the creativity, action, service (CAS) program. The IB diploma program can be shown to have four main characteristics, as follows:

  • Breadth: By requiring the study of a range of disciplines to pre-university level, the diploma avoids the narrowness of programs such as the English "Advanced" ("A") Level, where students commonly study no more than three or four subjects at the ages of 16 to 18, often in very restricted areas of the curriculum.
  • Depth: The availability of two levels of study, taken alongside the possibility of studying a second subject from groups one to five and of writing an extended essay in a chosen area of interest, "allows for a specialist element within the context of overall breadth" (Hayden and Wong, p. 351).
  • Coherence: Two elements at the center of the hexagon model serve to support the notion of the IB diploma as a coherent program, as opposed to simply a collection of subjects. The theory of knowledge program "has often been seen as the 'cement' or 'glue' that binds together the different curricular areas of the IB Diploma hexagon" and has "been viewed as the sort of meta-learning that can give meaning to knowledge acquired in the subjects which students must study" (Mackenzie, p. 46), while the CAS program promotes the affective as well as cognitive dimensions of the student experience.
  • Internationalism: The mission statement of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) includes reference to strong emphasis being placed upon "the ideals of international understanding and responsible citizenship" (IBO web site), and subject programs are designed to encourage students to consider issues from a number of perspectives as they become "global citizens" (Hill dissertation).

Schools may opt to offer the program in one or more of three working languages (English, French, and Spanish) in which all curriculum materials are produced and examinations are set. All subjects are graded on a scale from one (low) to seven (high), with a further total of three points potentially available


for the theory of knowledge and extended essay, leading to a maximum possible score of forty-five points. A minimum score of twenty-four points with achievement of a number of other conditions (including satisfactory completion of the nonassessed CAS program) leads to the award of the diploma. As an alternative to the diploma, students may elect to register for one or more individual certificates, which are also awarded if conditions for the award of the diploma are not met.

The IBO head office is in Geneva, the Curriculum and Assessment Centre is in Cardiff Wales, and its Research Unit is based at the University of Bath in England. It also has regional offices in New York, Geneva, Buenos Aires, and Singapore. The curriculum is developed by examiners and teachers worldwide, and some 3,400 examiners and assessors for the program are similarly located in many different countries. The number of schools offering the IB diploma program has grown steadily: as of May 2001 some 960 schools in more than one hundred countries were authorized to offer the diploma program, through which some 40,000 students were assessed in 2001.

According to former students, the advantages of studying the IB diploma program include "its breadth-depth balance, its academic rigour and its suitability as a preparation for university-level study… (and its) contribution to world peace and understanding" (Hayden and Wong, p. 352). The IB diploma is accepted by universities worldwide, including those in Europe, North America (where advanced placement may be offered for diploma holders), and all other continents.

Issues for the Future

In a relatively short period of time, the IB diploma program has come to satisfy varying needs of different constituencies. Clearly it continues to provide an appropriate curriculum for those international schools worldwide that seek to promote an "international education" that is not associated with a particular national system. Additionally, in more recent years the program has been adopted by a number of schools in national education systems, which are attracted to it for a variety of reasons. Some of those in England and Wales, for instance, undoubtedly favor its breadth compared with the narrowness of the national ("A" level) system. The many American high schools that offer the program are attracted to the combination of an international perspective with the rigor and high academic standards that the IB diploma represents. In some cases it serves as a basis on which to promote programs for particularly able students and in others as a means of assisting state or public schools in their efforts to help students to meet state or provincial standards. Schools in still other systems are undoubtedly influenced by what might be termed credentialism where local elites respond to a "stiffening of the local positional competition on the one hand and a globalization of that competition on the other. As more people gain local educational qualifications, those who can afford to do so seek a new competitive edge by taking qualifications that they hope will give them a local advantage" (Lowe, pp. 24–25). A major challenge, then, to the IB diploma in the twenty-first century is the continued development of its attraction to national as well as international schools as it moves from being "a programme for international schools" to being "an international programme for schools" (Hagoort, p. 11).

A further and related challenge is that of determining the appropriate linguistic base for a program that is now so widely used internationally. Forty-five different languages are available as languages A1 (the student's "best language"), each including a study of world literature, and in principle an A1 examination can be set in any language with a sufficient body of written literature. The Eurocentric nature of the IBO's English, French, and Spanish working languages, however, is an issue currently being addressed in terms of how many–and which–working languages a program should offer before it can claim to be truly "international." Although new subjects have been added to the program since its inception, an interesting development is the current trialing of a small number of transdisciplinary subjects, which cross existing subject boundaries. A further important development in recent years has been the extension of the IB organization's provision to younger students by the development of the IB middle-years program (designed for ages eleven to sixteen, added in 1994 with 184 schools authorized to offer the program in May 2001) and the IB primary-years program (designed for ages three to twelve, added in 1997 and offered by fifty-nine authorized schools in May 2001). As a program now catering, therefore, to the entire pre-university age range, which is increasingly being offered within national systems as well as by international schools, the international baccalaureate seems likely to have interesting and challenging times ahead.


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FOX, ELISABETH. 2001. "The Emergence of the International Baccalaureate as an Impetus for Curriculum Reform." In International Education: Principles and Practice, ed. Mary C. Hayden and J. Jeff Thompson. London: Kogan Page.

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MACKENZIE, JOHN. 2000. "Curricular Interstices and the Theory of Knowledge." In International Schools and International Education: Improving Teaching, Management and Quality, ed. Mary C. Hayden and J. Jeff Thompson. London: Kogan Page

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