Many of us are familiar with Advanced Placement or “AP” courses in high schools, and oftentimes we see “AP” grouped with “IB” in references to more challenging coursework. But what exactly does IB stand for, and what does it mean for a child’s education?
IB is the informal name that many use for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, a globally-recognized standard of excellence for high school curricula and university prep. The IB emphasizes high academic standards, global perspective, informed and engaged citizenship, respect for others, and the active application of classroom experience--all undertaken through a process-oriented, teacher-guided, multiple-assessment approach.
Mike Benner, former coordinator of the IB program at Wilmington Friends School, says “It’s important for people to realize that the IB program is so much more than academic preparation. It teaches students time management, it teaches them how to prioritize their work, and not just their academic work, but their non-academic work––their athletic life, their personal and social life. It allows them to experience that requirement before they go to university and at the end, they are constantly telling us that they feel much more prepared.”
That seems like a tall order, but after learning a bit about the approach, it makes sense how the program delivers.
Tangible Outcomes of the IB Program
Before reading about the “how” of the IB, it may be helpful to have an understanding of the “why.” Students who pursue the IB diploma become world-class problem solvers who have the global mindset to lead in college and beyond. They are highly prepared for reading, writing, research, and communication, providing a head start in college courses as compared to their peers.
IB is consistently weighted in college admissions and in the awarding of college credit for HL coursework. More than 1,600 colleges and universities in the United States have written policies on IB course credit and placement, including all members of the Ivy League as well as MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Cal Tech, Haverford, Michigan, Earlham, Georgetown, the University of Virginia, Swarthmore, and the University of Delaware.
Depending on their level of success in certain IB courses, some students are awarded college credit or qualify for advanced placement in math and language courses. Some students even earn scholarship awards at some colleges because of their participation in IB.
IB University-Level Coursework
Now let’s focus on academics. The IB Diploma Programme requires all students worldwide to fulfill specific requirements during their 11th and 12th grade years. Courses are distributed across 6 groups and at two levels of depth, Standard Level (SL) and Higher Level (HL). These groups include:
Within each of these areas of study, students have a variety of options. For example, in the sciences, students may be able to take biology, chemistry, physics, or computer science.
Benner says, “Between the course offerings and the level of those offerings, students are really able to create a schedule that truly matches their interests, their ambitions, and where they want to take their academic career.”
IB exams are carefully designed as external standards that support, rather than stifle, effective teacher-guided instruction. For example, students have some choice about which exam questions to answer, giving teachers flexibility to approach a subject in the way that best suits their students. IB exams also focus on skills like formation of an argument and creative problem-solving in addition to basic skills like retention of information and application of standard methods. In addition, what distinguishes IB from AP is the level of student-designed learning, such as significant research-focused science labs.
The International Baccalaureate Organization employs examiners who are experienced educators with special training to evaluate IB exams, with chief examiners that have authority in each global region. Exams are evaluated by the regional examiners, working within their fields of expertise, and the exam score counts for about 75% of the overall IB score, with some variation among academic areas. There is no "curve" in the grading of IB exams, but rather one set of standards applied equally to all schools and all students.
Students can choose to enroll in individual IB courses without pursuing the full diploma, and take only the corresponding IB exams, similar to Advanced Placement (AP) but with a greater emphasis on partnership with teachers and schools.
The IB Theory of Knowledge Course
In addition to the course exams, diploma students must successfully complete the Theory of Knowledge course which is designed to help students understand how knowledge is created and synthesized across disciplines. The course is taught over a two-year period with two different teachers, one in junior year and one in senior year. Both teachers are IB trained and they are there to teach and guide students as they go through the program.
According to Benner, “Understanding how knowledge is created helps a student understand when someone makes a claim in a discipline. So when a scientist makes a claim, how does that differ from when an artist makes a claim? And by studying the way that knowledge is constructed and the way that we understand the different disciplines really helps students be critical thinkers because they learn to evaluate the knowledge they consume, not as a passive consumer of the information but as an active evaluator of the information that they consume.”
Some of the topics discussed in this college-level seminar include: can there be knowledge independent of culture or are mistakes as important as accuracy in developing new ideas?
The IB Extended Essay
Students are also required to complete the Extended Essay, which is designed to offer a university-level research and writing experience and is a way for students to express their passion. Guided by their Extended Essay Coordinator, students select a topic of their choosing. The essay can be focused in one particular discipline––such as literature, history, or math––or interdisciplinary, such as science together with economics. Students must complete 40 hours of research and writing and, in addition to the Coordinator, students are assigned an Extended Essay Advisor to provide guidance, though that is limited to five hours of direct instruction.
Creativity, Activity, & Service (CAS) IB Requirements
Over the course of their junior and senior years, IB diploma candidates fulfill CAS requirements, which includes community service and participation in activities such as sports, the arts, and civic and school organizations.
According to the IB organization, “CAS enables students to enhance their personal and interpersonal development by learning through experience. It provides opportunities for self-determination and collaboration with others, fostering a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment from their work. At the same time, CAS is an important counterbalance to the academic pressures of the DP [diploma program].” Creativity, activity, service. (n.d.). International Baccalaureate. https://www.ibo.org/programmes/diploma-programme/curriculum/creativity-activity-and-service/
If a school provides an environment where students can engage in a variety of extracurricular activities (sports, service, theater, school newspaper), it’s typically not challenging to satisfy the CAS requirement.
Who should pursue the IB diploma?
Engaging in the IB diploma program is a student-driven process. A student can’t feel like they are doing it for others, they need to feel like they are doing it for themselves. But because they are given choices, a student who wants to be challenged with the IB curriculum can follow their passions in an optimal environment to succeed.
When deciding whether or not to enroll, a good place for a student to start is by thinking about what gets them up in the morning and what about school excites them. “Allowing the student to describe that passion and how they wish to express themselves really helps determine the best route,” says Benner.
Another critical piece is the advising offered at school. The advisor can help a student walk through the decision-making process with an understanding of the student's needs and the program’s rigor and offerings. They can determine if the student would benefit from enrolling in individual courses or pursuing the full diploma––it’s all about meeting the needs of students and their families.
Finally, families should consider the Learner Profile provided on the IB organization’s website, ibo.org
, which describes IB students as: