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This Curriculum Could Help Students Compete In A Global World. So Why Aren’t More Schools Adopting It?

With the resurgence of sentiments like “America first,” teaching a global perspective in schools is crucial for American students.

As college-bound American students prepare for high school, they often must choose between several arduous paths. Do they begin self-selecting into advanced placement courses in the hopes of taking as many as humanly possible? Do they purposely choose easier electives in order to focus on a STEM-heavy academic path? Or do they aim to do it all: sacrificing sleep and social lives to become the ideal competitive college applicant with a long list of extracurricular activities, meaningful community service experiences, and all the honors courses their schedule will allow?

Currently, the traditional American educational system is built on multitasking, cramming in standards, and rushing through diploma requirements, which often leaves students stressed out and allows little room for personal reflection. Worse, in a system built around subject checkboxes, the “speed through 10th grade English so you can sign up for AP Literature” mentality creates no requirement or need to join humanities concepts with math skills or to see the world for what it is: a series of infinite problems, desires, and questions that connects each human to another. While we don’t live in a vacuum, most American schools are not currently preparing students to think and live in a global world.

“Today’s children are growing up in an increasingly isolationist time of uncertainty,” says Stephen Spahn, chancellor of Dwight School. “[This climate is] underscoring just how necessary it is to teach students to be open-minded critical thinkers who respect other people and their differences, which is exactly what [the International Baccalaureate program] was created to do 50 years ago.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Today’s children are growing up in an increasingly isolationist time of uncertainty.[/quote]

Founded in 1872, Dwight School is an institution with five campuses around the world. Its flagship New York City campus has focused on global education from the get-go and was the first in the Americas to offer a comprehensive IB curriculum for students from preschool through grade 12.

The program began “as a universal curriculum, enabling the best educators in the world to develop an academically vigorous and ethically oriented curriculum absent of any government influences,” Spahn explains. Half a century later, the movement is spreading. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of IB programs offered worldwide has grown by 39.3%, and in the U.S., interest continues to increase.

Initially designed in 1968 by teachers at the International School of Geneva to “provide students with a balanced education, facilitate geographic and cultural mobility and to promote international understanding,” the IB curriculum can be found in public, private, parochial, and charter schools across the U.S. To be considered an IB school, each institution must complete an authorization process with the International Baccalaureate Organization, a process that varies depending on which of the four programs a school wants to offer: the Primary Years Program for ages 3-12, the Middle Years Program for ages 11-16, the Diploma Program for ages 16-19, and the new Career-related Program as an alternative to the Diploma Program. The IB programs’ requirements help students to think in an interconnected and interdisciplinary way, from the Primary Program’s six transdisciplinary themes of global significance to the Diploma Program’s three core elements. There are currently 1,797 IB World Schools in the U.S. that offer one, or more, of the four IB programs.

For U.S. high schools offering the IB curriculum, students can have the option to pursue the demanding Diploma Program, combine IB coursework with state-based curriculums, or even take IB and advanced placement coursework side-by-side. However a student engages with the IB curriculum, the program’s mission — “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect … [and to] encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right” — remains the same.

Here’s how the IB Diploma program accomplishes these goals:

The High School Academic Curriculum

Those seeking the IB diploma will take at least three subjects at a higher level and the rest at the standard level and will receive a grade ranging from 7 (the highest) to 1 (the lowest) for each course attempted. Students who earn at least 24 points and complete the three essential elements — theory of knowledge, extended essay, and creativity, action, service — will be awarded the IB diploma. Within each of the six subject groups, students are encouraged to consider global perspectives, something that can have a significant impact when a student is learning about conflicts.

Students at the Dwight School. All images courtsey of the Dwight School.

For instance, the IB’s global politics course creates a space for students to look beyond the facts and sound bites of war into the abstract political concepts and multiple perspectives key for understanding the complex phenomenon of war. According to Chancellor Spahn, the IB curriculum was “designed to be immune from nationalistic tendencies and biases to emphasize the importance of global thinking and learning in global contexts.” The emphasis on analysis, interdisciplinary connections, and critical thinking is key to bringing an international mindset to students.

The Extended Essay

Another required element of the IB diploma program is the extended essay, an independent, self-directed piece of research, typically completed between ages 16-18, culminating in a 4,000-word paper. At Dwight School in New York, students have written on a range of topics, including biases in education that discourage women from pursuing STEM professions and whether the Harry Potter series is an allegory for Nazi Germany.

Creating an opportunity for high school students to take charge of their own knowledge base in an area that genuinely appeals to them is the perfect template for the self-directed, peer-reviewed research requirements of many college classes. According to a research study by the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching & Learning in Higher Education in 2013, when compared with former AP students, IB students at the University of Virginia “were significantly more likely to indicate that they: felt prepared for college-level coursework involving research; had executed a research project at UVA; were proud of their research; intended to conduct future research; and found their research skills to be important to future success.” This same study also found “a statistically significant relationship between [a student’s extended essay] score and college grade point averages.”

Spahn sees the IB curriculum as preparing his students to thrive and prosper anywhere in the world because it equips “students with the strong language, communications, and critical-thinking skills needed to bridge cultures and countries to solve whatever problems may arise on a global scale.”

Theory of Knowledge

One of the educational cornerstones for all high school students pursuing the IB diploma program is the two-year seminar style theory of knowledge course. The course asks students to reflect on the nature of knowledge itself, which is assessed through an oral presentation and a 1,600-word essay. It focuses on purposeful inquiry questions that help “students gain greater awareness of their personal and ideological assumptions, as well as developing an appreciation of the diversity and richness of cultural perspectives.” This focus on using inquiry to evaluate the world and themselves gives students valuable tools for analyzing the global economy, different cultural value systems, and political rhetoric, among other things. At Dwight School, faculty and students in a theory of knowledge classroom examine “questions connected to the real world, rather than those that are purely philosophical in nature.”

A student presents her project.

The TOK course is the epitome of critical thinking skills, which can be crucial for incoming first-year college students who will be taking on challenging required courses like English, history, and economics, where they will be expected to be critical of not only their course texts, but their own assumptions. As a college English instructor who went to a public school that offered the AP curriculum, this course seems like a great solution to the need to build critical thinking and intensive research skills before students begin their college career. As Spahn explains, “TOK may be the one course that will serve IB students best for the rest of their lives.”

As higher education costs continue to rise — despite increased conversations about growing student debt and the need for free community college education — the IB’s new Career-related Program is already anticipating the need to prepare students for quality apprenticeship and vocational employment while continuing to provide a rigorous real-world education. When the U.S. education system consistently falls short of countries we consider peers, looking to the potential in a growing international program and the demand for well-rounded, global-minded students, communicative students, the IB program has much to offer.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]With the resurgence of sentiments like 'America first,' teaching a global perspective in schools is a crucial skill for American students.[/quote]

Despite its benefits, as with any curriculum program, the IB curriculum may not be the best fit for every student. The workload of the Diploma Program may make it difficult for students to participate in as many afterschool activities as peers in non-IB programs. Moreover, unless schools can absorb the cost, the price of sitting for official IB Diploma Program exams, much like the price for taking AP exams, could be a deterrent for some.

Still, with the resurgence of sentiments like “America first,” teaching a global perspective in schools is crucial for American students entering an increasingly connected world. Educators at every level are responsible for preparing students for the world that is and the world that will be, and the idea that restricting national borders, the right to protest, or decreasing global humanitarian involvement will somehow “Make America Great Again” is flawed logic that erases the infinite ways the U.S. has benefitted from serving as the melting pot for ideas, cultures, and people from all over the planet.

From the rise of shared economies to the prediction that within a decade freelancers will be the majority workforce in the U.S., we can, and increasingly have to, work directly with people of various nationalities, ideologies, and worldviews. Because of this, it’s our duty to ensure students can thrive in this 21st century global economy. K-12 education should include more than just core subjects; it should create the space for students to reflect on the world and the kind of global citizen they hope to be. The International Baccalaureate program, and the schools that adhere to its curriculum, might just be the approach we need.

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