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Expanding Our Options

By Adam J. Smee
Expanding Our Options

As the world continues to change at an uncanny speed, it’s difficult to keep pace with what is most relevant in terms of providing the best education for the future of our students. It seems we often opt for the persistence of convention as the safest route to curriculum planning, as it creates the least amount of friction in the school community. Perhaps the needed changes to our educational institutions are seen as too provocative, or too abrupt so as to affect the direction of a school. These types of decisions are definitely part of the mission and vision of schools, and implementation is slow as it includes many stakeholders. Opting for slow change or no change is usually the safest course of action to maintain enrollment and a happy parent community. If nothing is broken, why fix it?

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Program (IBDP) has persisted as one of the dominant standards of education. But as the world changes, I encourage the examination of the benefits and limitations that the IBDP offers. The IBDP was designed to offer a rigorous academic program for students who were willing to accept the challenge of intense, higher-level academics during the latter part of their high school years. Although there are other aspects that contribute to student growth, the majority of the student’s time in the last two years of their high school education includes research, analysis, writing skills, and the preparation of academic papers. These are undoubtedly important aspects of academic growth, and the IBDP continues to be a well-formed outline for preparing students to be successful in the university setting. But here is where we need to take a pause and examine the greater scope of what is being offered. We’ll get back to this in a moment.

For many teachers, academic rigor supplies us with some of the fuel cells of our profession. Particularly for upper-level high school teachers, we thrive on the challenge of delving deeper into our disciplines—the joy of academia that, for many of us, brought us into the work in the first place. The learning is fun. The challenge is stimulating. The knowledge is rewarding. And we want the opportunity to share this knowledge with willing, interested and capable students—one of the intangible satisfactions of our profession. But I question the number of willing, interested and capable students who are actually represented in the IBDP program, and how many students participate because it is the convention of the school, or the perception believed about its import to university entrance, or even the external pressure put on them by parents or the institution. I also question what future is represented and served by the IBDP curriculum.

I admit that as a young person it took me a while to arrive at the place of enjoyment for academic rigor. I believe this is not uncommon, and those students who have a proclivity and drive to excel in this area, to find the fun in the academic work, are the exceptions. We know the adolescent brain of a 17- or 18-year-old has a myriad of other preoccupations and stimulations that may not necessarily include enjoying the hard work of academic research and writing, which in its essence sits at the base of the IBDP. We must also understand that not all students are apt for this type of work, and that each student may have talents and interests that are not represented in academia. We know much more about brain science and learning, the physiology of the adolescent mind, the plasticity of learning, the role of experience, as well as the unpredictability of what skills and talents will be most relevant for the future of work and living. The IBDP clearly has some deficiencies in filling these gaps for students who are not interested in academia as a career. In a diverse and rapidly changing world, we must question the relevance of what the IBDP offers.

My major concern with the IBDP is the all-consuming nature of the coursework, which spans a two-year period. During this time, students are growing and immersed in self-discovery, yet the intensity and longevity of the IBDP academic work is confining and not differentiated for students of diverse interests. Larger schools may have greater resources to select students who clearly fit the profile and provide alternative curriculum for other students (and they should show some wisdom in these offerings), but for medium sized or small schools, this issue becomes more problematic, as students can be limited in what they are able to choose. We need to be careful not to hold the IBDP as a gold standard and have enough vision to provide alternative curriculums that allow students to perform, experience, create and learn constructively.

In the end, this is a problem of curricular offerings and understanding the role of an educational institution. In many schools, the IBDP program is a selling point for the families who send us their children. Indeed, it is a well-organized and systematic course of study that meets an external assessment standard at an international level. This is valuable, but clearly more valuable for some than others.  And what about the world outside of academia? What are we doing to provide students with opportunities to build and adapt, create and fail, negotiate and compromise? Standardized tests do not offer this opportunity, and it seems counterintuitive to block out two of the most influential years of a student’s high school education in preparation for the university setting. In this, the IBDP is a dated educational program.

As progressive educators, we need to work to create interesting and much needed alternatives to more rigid academic programs like the IBDP. These programs are still needed, as they clearly fit the profile of the students who are interested in this work; but we must also consider the everchanging nature and relevance of higher education, the opportunity for experiential learning and the reality of an adolescent who learns through self-made experiences.


Adam J. Smee is the Curriculum Coordinator and Librarian at Escuela Campo Alegre in Caracas, Venezuela.

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