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Relevant to pupils: answers to five most important questions on International Baccalaureate

Society frequently discusses the out-of-date secondary education curricula which are still based on memorising facts and retelling but basically do not foster thinking, argumentation, creativity and other important skills. Some Lithuanian schools offer some alternatives, for example, instead of a usual curriculum for grades 11-12 they call to opt for International Baccalaureate (IB). What is it? How is it useful to pupils? How does it differ from an ordinary curriculum?

History and Ethics teacher Gražvydas Kaškelis says that IB taught at “Erudito licėjus” is a prestigious international programme which is recognised and valued among both local and international universities. ‘IB pupils work hard and systematically, they improve various competences, they are taught time management skills, application of advanced thinking skills, so that employers find employees who create value added attractive in the future,’ claims he. IB is taught in over 150 countries worldwide, this curriculum is based on fostering intellectual, personal, emotional and social skills.

Which skills are fostered by IB?

IB covers several programmes for different age groups of which Diploma Programme (IBDP) is designed for 11-12 grade students. According to teacher Dr. Donatas Šinkūnas, who teaches history and theory of knowledge at “Erudito licėjus“, IB pupils build strong foundations for future studies and career.

‘IB programmes, as pretentious and trendy as may be, have an actual system and methods which enable teaching pupils autonomous thinking, rather than making them simply memorise and retell what they learnt. It also depends on how comprehensive and focused the learning material is. pupils choose what they want to learn themselves and they receive a very targeted, meaningful and concentrated content,’ says he.

The teacher states that the most important thing is that the programme fosters thinking, it encourages the pupils to actively construct arguments on their own, become acquainted with various perspectives, draw up fact-based opinions on different global phenomena. ‘Another significant aspect is that IB trains people of an extremely broad and universal profile. A lot of IBDP graduates have told me that when they entered the university later on, they did not encounter any challenges, contrary to their peers who graduated from other educational programmes,’ points out teacher D. Šinkūnas.

How are IB curricula and methods different?

The IBDP programme is characteristic of targeted and consistent fostering of pupils’ competences. According to D. Šinkūnas, reliance on memory is not enough as the basis of the IBDP programme does not entail an attempt to memorize a large amount of frequently unrelated information which is forgotten several days after the exam. IBDP fosters particular competences of research, synthesis, evaluation, analysis, communication, etc.

‘For example, during history lessons, pupils study, in a detailed and in-depth manner, around 5-8 broad and specific topics depending on a level of the chosen subject. Pupils learn to analyse sources, evaluate different historical traditions, compare them, develop arguments and process information in various ways,’ says D. Šinkūnas.

Teacher G. Kaškelis agrees: ‘A standard curriculum requires knowledge of history of the World and Lithuania from the Ancient to Modern Times. And these are enormous and wide chronological boundaries; therefore, it is impossible to delve into every topic. IB learning resembles studies at university when certain courses are studied and analysed, and the focus is on the enhancement of thinking skills.’

Teacher D. Šinkūnas says that one of the greatest differences between standard curricula is that most tests and exams consist of open questions which must be answered by giving essay-type replies. ‘A lot of pupils who come from standard schools are astonished when they are asked to write the reasoning and present a reasoned assessment and analysis of the problem, comparison of the problems, etc. This is not usual for them,’ notes the teacher of “Erudito licėjus”.

How is the pupil-teacher relationship different in IB programmes?

One of the differences pointed out by the teachers is a lower number of pupils in IB classes. D. Šinkūnas says that this allows the teachers to notice who is performing and who is struggling more quickly, they can immediately respond and take the needs of different pupils into account. ‘In smaller classes, pupils are able to receive more social and academic attention. Most importantly, detailed personal feedback is possible. It is this method exactly which brings the best results. Teacher’s work is also facilitated by the universal e-learning system ManageBac – pupils can upload their written assignments, and teachers can leave their feedback: comment, colour sentences, underline misspelled words or doubtful arguments, comment on the text or next to it’.

Teacher G. Kaškelis emphasizes that feedback is very strong in IB classes. ‘For example, I take notice of pupils’ achievements during every lesson and I observe their individual progress. We carry out interim individual conversations, set personal learning objectives for every semester and monitor their achievement. Also, pupils receive detailed reflections which overview their strengths and identify the areas for improvement,’ says he.

Nevertheless, D. Šinkūnas points out that despite a closer pupil-teacher relationship, learning is focused on fostering pupils’ autonomy. ‘Pupils come up with the survey questions on their own, they choose topics, literature, assess it, write essays and follow formal instructions, commit to deadlines,’ notes he.

Which language is IB conducted in?

In IB programme, most subjects, text-books, assignments are done in English. It is only Lithuanian lessons that are taught in Lithuanian. D. Šinkūnas identifies this as an important advantage.

‘Even those who have never studied in international programmes before are improving at a very fast pace. They expand their foreign language skills, vocabulary and terminology used. It is namely this learning method that enables fast learning and becoming used to English in practice’, says the teacher. In his opinion, it is more effective than simply discussing several different nuances of the use of the past tenses and doing grammar exercises.

What is Theory of Knowledge (ToK) and how is it important in the educational process?

IB pupils are taught Theory of Knowledge (ToK) as well. This, according to G. Kaškelis, enhances the ability to look into the same things from various perspectives and, at the same time, teaches to respect different views. ‘Pupils, when speaking of various phenomena and historical moments, assess them through their experience; this fosters their creativity in constructing answers, communication skills and they learn to provide arguments,’ says he.

According to teacher D. Šinkūnas, ToK is integrated in almost every topic of the subject. To clarify what ToK is, he gives an example: ‘Let us say, you and your friend are having coffee in a sidewalk café. The topics you are discussing may vary from work to some new discovery in the North Pole. To some extent, you are ‘philosophizing’, you learn and discover something new, unexpected and unlooked for during the conversation. The theory of knowledge, although it is more specialised, framed and formalised than a coffee drink, is ‘mental gymnastics’ which is as useful.

The teacher says that the theory of knowledge teaches other ways to talk about the world, for example, when history and theory of knowledge are integrated, pupils are encouraged to discuss the individual’s opportunities to make an impact on society and environment as well as the extent to which an individual is defined and limited by external factors and the extent to which he can freely transform external circumstances; when a geopolitical situation is discussed, pupils discuss the extent to which the morality should determine the foreign policy; they discuss how pragmatic and idealistic approaches manifest themselves in history, which of them is the predominant one and why.

Therefore, according to teacher D. Šinkūnas, IB should be chosen by inquiring, curious and ambitious pupils. ‘These should be people who are interested in the world, society, science and want to go deep. Pupils who think and are not satisfied with an overfactual, encyclopaedia-type, memory-based traditional approach,’ says the teacher of „Erudito licėjus“.