The International Baccalaureate within the Asian context


The debate about which approach to teaching prepares children for their future has been an ongoing one and is becoming more urgent in the midst of a fast-changing global landscape. To take a position on the issue, we must first and foremost ask ourselves, what role does the school play in children’s upbringing? Does it have responsibility only over the cognitive capacities of children or it needs to take care of their behavioral and emotional development? Does it prepare children simply for their future careers or for life in general? Current methods of teaching represent a departure from the traditional approach to education where the acquisition of knowledge was the sole objective of teaching. In a globalized world with an exploding number of personal, social, and environmental issues, we had to reevaluate our views and to start thinking of the school system as a means of preparing students not only for entering the workforce but for life.

According to my personal opinion, the International Baccalaureate with its inquiry-based inter-disciplinary approach, best prepares children for facing the challenges of a dynamic landscape. It is a programme that starts with turning inward, looking at and knowing one’s self before trying to understand and change the world for the better. The learning is planned around six trans-disciplinary themes – who we are, where we are in place and time, how we express ourselves, how the world works, how we organize ourselves, and sharing the planet – that guide the inquiry . Not surprisingly at all, what drives this process of introspection, what propels and supports growth and change, and what directs people to understand and act is the practice of asking questions. And here emerges the significance of the International Baccalaureate in teaching students how to skillfully formulate purposeful and effective questions to get inside oneself, others, situations, events, and topics in order to understand and act on the information. Henry Murray once said: “There is nothing so powerful as the well-phrased question.” When teaching aims to educate children on how to acquire information, distill the essential aspects of it, and turn this into an insight with a personal, social, or environmental impact, then it has an ever-lasting significance.

Somehow, the International Baccalaureate framework of education naturally fits into the context of Asian collectivist cultures where being generous and tending to the needs of others is of greatest importance. In essence, the International Baccalaureate programme aims to create a better, more peaceful world by encouraging students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners. That is why, such a seed can grow in a field where each person is encouraged to be an active player in society and to do what is best for it as a whole rather than for themselves alone.

Making and donating toys and educational materials for the students of a national school

Perhaps this will sound less Utopian, however, if I carry on with some brief remarks about certain collectivist traits that impede the effective implementation of the International Baccalaureate. As mentioned earlier, the process of bringing about any change on a broader scale starts and ends with self-knowledge, self-esteem, and self-confidence – personal characteristics which are not quite prevailing among the members of Asian cultures. That is why, in our teaching we place such a great emphasis on affirming children’s identity, building their self-esteem and on valuing their personal needs along with valuing the needs of the community. As mentioned in another blog post, without the feeling of confidence, students struggle finding enjoyment in the learning process.

Unlike the International Baccalaureate, traditional approaches mould children into individualistic and competitive members of society while characteristics such as cooperation, collaboration, and mutual help remain secondary. To start with, let’s look and compare the IB classroom and dress-code of Grade 5 students (left picture) to those of the “traditional” classroom in a typical American school (right picture) as shown in a scene from the movie Wonder:

While watching the movie, I couldn’t help myself from drawing parallels with the school I used to teach at and I kept on asking myself “what made my Asian students show understanding, care, and support towards their disadvantaged classmates and what prevented the kids from the movie from being tolerant and sympathetic?” Aware of how direct and indiscreet, at times even harsh, kids could be in their remarks, I have always been on the lookout for inappropriate behavior that might constitute verbal even physical bullying of the disadvantaged kid. Apart from a few “Miss, you better skip student X (I will keep his identity anonymous) as he doesn’t understand” (and we know kids tend to be impatient) what I have witnessed myself is a group of 23 students attempting not only to sympathize with their disadvantaged classmate but also to help him face his daily struggles from carrying his books to explaining lessons and class activities.

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