IB or Not IB?: An Education Question

Published on: March 13, 2014

Designed to meet the needs of globally-mobile families, the International Baccalaureate programme lets children learn through discovery, say our Bangkok-based teachers  By Dina Kassymbekova   Inquiry. Knowledge. Thinking. Communicating. Principled. Open-minded. Caring. Risk-taking. Balanced. Reflective. These attributes express the values of International Baccalaureate (IB)  education and demonstrate the ideal outcomes from students’ learning. IB is an educational approach with two concepts at its core:
  1. inquiry-based learning
  2. educating students to become internationally-minded global citizens, who will help to “create a better and more peaceful world”.
A glance at the history of IB helps us to understand why this educational system exceeds traditional educational goals and aims to develop students’ awareness for global issues.  

History and development

The IB Diploma Programme was created in Geneva in 1968 to meet the needs of “internationally mobile students,” being children whose parents worked overseas. The curriculum was intended to prepare senior students for university, irrespective of the school system, or country, where they would choose to study in the future. Over the years the IB system has been further developed and now consists of four programmes offering a complete curriculum for students from 3 to 19 years of age:
  • Primary Years Programme (PYP)
  • Middle Years Programme (MYP)
  • IB Diploma Programme (still the best known and most recognized of all IB programmes)
  • IB Career-related Certificate – a recently introduced programme for senior students.
The IB programmes are governed by a non-profit educational foundation known as the IB Foundation, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Schools authorized to teach the programmes are referred to as IB World Schools.  

The Primary Years Programme

Designed for students from 3 to 12 years of age, the PYP was introduced in 1997. The curriculum is defined by six transdisciplinary themes:
  • Who we are
  • Where we are in place and time
  • How we express ourselves
  • How the world works
  • How we organize ourselves
  • Sharing the planet
Each year students inquire into these same themes, but as the children grow older they study each theme in greater depth. Each transdisciplinary theme is explored through units of inquiry that are in-depth and last for several weeks. These provide a framework for teachers and PYP coordinators to design their own curriculum and integrate topics relevant to the particular school or region. Before introducing a new unit of inquiry, teachers work collaboratively to identify a central idea for each unit and choose concepts to look at the units of inquiry through.
Our students are confident in their knowledge but open-minded to other opinions. This attitude builds a solid foundation for their social skills and helps the students with their transition to other environments.
“Learning in IB is conceptual not thematic”, explains Kate Lynch, teacher and early years coordinator of NIST International School, “that means that the purpose of learning is not just collecting information but developing a deep understanding.” Six subject areas (language, social studies, mathematics, arts, science, physical, social and personal education) are, as much as possible, integrated into modular study. PYP students are encouraged to take action as a result of their learning. Pinsuda Srisontisuk, a teacher from Magic Years International Kindergarten, tells us that children’s actions demonstrate their learning was successful. For example, if a child starts turning off water while brushing their teeth after learning about limited natural resources, this shows that this student has developed an understanding for learning in the context of their daily life.  

Learning in the early years

So how is a unit of inquiry explored within the early years programme? During a unit of inquiry related to the theme of, “How the world works”, children inquire into the phenomena of light. They look into sources of light, ways light is used by people and develop an understanding of its importance. To awake children’s interest in the topic, teachers set up an active learning environment. They create dark places and provide torches for children to explore them and/or a projector and a screen are set up so that children can play with shadows. Once children start playing and exploring, teachers guide them by asking questions and drawing children’s attention to what discoveries they have made. Children can then experiment with light, shadows and reflections of light.
The IB encourages students to become lifelong learners.
Our contributor, Kate Lynch, also explains that before introducing a new unit, teachers decide which resources can be provided for children to support their learning. For this, books are selected, sometimes a visitor can be invited into school or a field trip organized. Children learn through discussions, experiments and playing with things that stimulate their inquiry. Children’s interests have a big impact on the curriculum. Each class explores the same unit of inquiry and central idea in their own way. Ms. Lynch recounts how in one year, while exploring a unit about change and growth, her class focused on physical changes because one of her students remarked that his teeth started changing and his classmates showed interest in this topic. Another year, studying the same unit, the class focused on development of skills (such as learning to ride bikes). Subject areas such as arts, maths and language arts are integrated into the units. For example, in the above-mentioned teaching (dealing with change and growth) children created graphs showing how many children in their class had lost no, one, two, or more teeth. Ms. Lynch believes that subjects should be integrated genuinely. If it is difficult to make a meaningful connection between subject areas and the unit of inquiry, they are taught during class routine time. For example, children practice maths during the morning circle time by figuring out how many children are present in the classroom that day. Fellow teacher Ms. Srisontisuk adds that each unit of inquiry also focuses on the development of students’ non-academic skills, such as social skills and self-management. Social skills are considered to be particularly important for early year students.  


Assessments provide feedback to students, parents, and teachers. They reflect the progress of a student’s knowledge and understanding of the world. An important part of the PYP assessments is its evaluation of a student’s inquiry process, and its results. Teachers consider whether students are asking more in-depth questions, developing an ability to define problems and to find solutions. An important criterion is the student’s capability to work both independently and collaboratively. The three-way conferences used in the primary programme provide students, teachers, and parents with an opportunity to reflect on a student’s progress and identify individual learning goals. Every student’s learning journey is documented in a portfolio, which includes pictures and samples of the students’ work, chosen by teachers and students. A report at the end of each semester gives students and parents feedback on strengths and learning targets, as well as social and self-management skills.  

Teacher-student relationship

One of the main beliefs expressed in the PYP is that children learn best through their own inquiry. The teacher’s role is to give the inquiry meaning and purpose. “We are facilitators of children’s own learning,” says NIST’s Ms. Lynch. “We provide children with tools and the environment they need for their inquiry, help children make their own discoveries and build up their own knowledge.” From the primary years point of view, Ms. Srisontisuk adds, “The IB encourages students to become lifelong learners. We teachers are the children’s peers in learning. We provide the guidelines, but children take a lot of the initiative.”  

Benefits for children

“In IB the emphasis is on students being inquiring rather than following a knowledge-based curriculum,” says our experienced early-years teacher Mrs. Lynch. “Guided inquiry allows children to discover knowledge for themselves and develop understanding for what they learn. Knowledge acquired through a student’s own experience is long-lasting.” Ms. Srisontisuck echoes this sentiment saying, “Our students are confident in their knowledge, but open-minded to other opinions. This attitude builds a solid foundation for their social skills and helps the students with their transition to other environments.”   

Criticism of IB and PYP

With regard to the primary years programme, (and the middle years programme), some parents and teachers who have experience with the IB say the programme doesn’t offer sufficient structure for learning. This is criticized for resulting in students’ weak academic performance, even though the children are very motivated and teachers engaged. In another aspect, some opponents argue that the IB thrusts its own values upon schools and because it works within a global context, it can push local cultural and religious beliefs and values into the background. It is also suggested to lessen the sense of belonging to a particular community and country.  


International schools and pre-schools in Bangkok offering IB Primary Years Programme

Useful links

  • www.ibo.org: The official site of the International Baccalaureate (IB)

About the Author

Dina comes from Almaty, Kazakhstan. After graduating with a degree in philosophy, she moved to Germany to get her master’s degree in public relations from Freie Universitaet Berlin and worked as a freelance PR-consultant and a children’s book editor.
The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects. BAMBI News welcomes volunteer contributors to our magazine. Please contact editor@bambiweb.org.