IBO Director Signals Major changes to IB Ahead

On the eve of the publication of the International Baccalaureate results, the Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organisation has published a major article looking at the future development of the IB programmes.
IBO Director Signals Major changes to IB Ahead
By Lyn Soppelsa
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The article entitled ‘Past, present, future: the IB is a leading edge in a changing world’ clearly indicates changes ahead in regard to a number of key areas which will impact schools, teachers and students directly.

The article covers a wide range of topics, addressing the unique challenges and uncertainties that the world currently faces (from climate change to digital technology, from the war in Ukraine to the call for inclusion, diversity and equality and a focus on well-being) and, of course, the impact of Covid 19 and academic and moral impetuses which affect the delivery of education in terms of not only its content, but how it is taught and also how it is assessed and examined.

Introducing the article, published on the IBO website, Olli-Pekka Heinonen who was appointed to the most senior position within the organisation in May 2021, says:

“With the horrors of the Second World War still fresh in their minds, the founders of the International Baccalaureate (IB) were motivated to imagine a better way of thinking about education – and how, in turn, education could help build a better and more peaceful world. Unfortunately, the recent events in Europe demonstrate the importance of those words, stated in the IB mission, still today.

Further, he goes on to say “at the same time, we are experiencing an era of change or even a change of era. The challenges that we face today, although in many ways different from those confronted by the founders of the IB 54 years ago, have renewed our passion and sparked courage to create a better world through education. For students to thrive and make a difference, we are called to engage in open, forthright conversations about what we teach and how we teach it; how we can help our students become the agents of change we so desperately need. It is never easy, but I believe the IB is uniquely placed to empower the next generation of students with the confidence – and the agency – to make a significant impact on the world they are to inherit.”

Assessing the role of the IBO in 2022, Mr. Heinonen notes that the IB’s founders would not have wanted the IBO to standstill in the face of the opportunity to help today’s world as it faces “its own unique challenges and uncertainties.” Instead, he asserts, the IBO’s founders would have wanted the organisation to evolve, and turn the COVID-19 crisis into a chance to renew and refresh their vision. 

The challenges confronting the organisation are different in nature from those that came before, according to the leader of the IBO. “They are more complex, more global, and more multifaceted.” They demand that the IBO thinks differently. As an example, he cites the climate emergency, advocating that this is not solely for scientists to conquer. Although the world’s population needs scientists, he advocates the need for social scientists, behaviourists, communicators, and business experts working together to overcome the challenge of global warming.  

This is not just an academic problem, but also a moral one, her believed: “

We need to think about ways to tackle the selfishness, greed, and apathy - human conditions connected to what we value, how we behave and treat each other - around the globe. We need to emphasize the need to think about the ways in which we develop and foster a sense of shared humanity.” 

Commenting further, Mr. Heinonen writes, “Both facets – the academic and the moral collective one – are central to how we think about what we want our education system to become and what we want the International Baccalaureate to do. I believe the history and legacy of the IB has made us incredibly well-suited to educating the citizens of the future to be active participants doing their share to save the world from man-made global warming.” 

Mr. Heinonen believes that global warming and the moral steps needed to be taken are not the only challenges to be addressed. In addition to the aftermath of Covid-19, the IBO also needs to consider the digital revolution that is transforming the world at a previously unthinkable rate. He notes that new technology is a challenge to education on two fronts. “Firstly, it is a challenge to how we teach. Secondly, it is a challenge to what we teach. The IB cannot afford to ignore either of these – the change in society is accelerating and not slowing – and the IB needs to be at its cutting edge.” 

But again Mr. Heinonen also believes that the IBO is ideally placed to be at the head of this revolution, helping to shape it as a force for good since the legacy of the organisation is not in the control of any one government; that it is truly independent, that it is truly international.

In his article, Mr. Heinonen addresses, the “how” in respect of the IBO’s future role and he most certainly paints a picture that suggests a real demand for change. “For too long we have thought about education as the synchronous relationship between a teachers at the front of a physical class, imparting information to a group of children writing things down on pieces of paper. Similarly, the idea of linear courses culminating in in-person exams feels to me, archaic.”

In a remarkable admission for the leader of an organisation that is essentially responsible for the current ‘how’, he says that the standardised ways of teaching and learning only fit some, and therefore fail to uphold the principle of equity. “This way of thinking about teaching was a function of a bygone era, and it completely fails to reflect the world our students – but also our teachers – now occupy.”

He confirms that the near future of the IB involves moving beyond these ‘anachronistic ways of thinking’ about teaching and assessment, stating that there are developments to explore in terms of digital teaching, digital assessment and digital qualifications that the IBO must commit to exploring and piloting.

The second key element of any change is the impact of the digital environment to the “what” that is taught in terms of curriculum content and subject material, including the fact that everyday technology now provides all of us with tools that can process information in a way that is faster, better, and perhaps more reliable than humans. 

An important aspect of this wealth of information is that whilst the transfer of knowledge and culture between generations should not be ignored in an enormously complex world, it is not necessarily a requirement for its citizens to be expert in the regurgitation of facts (that are now available at the tap of a button). Instead, Mr. Heinonen advocates the need to think about developing capabilities and skillsets that will help a new generation to cope and then flourish.

He asks the question:

“Without being trite, in a world of AI, what are the things that the humans of tomorrow are going to bring to the table? I contend that the answer lies in the ability to imagine solutions, to prioritise and to make moral and ethical decisions.” 

At the same time, Mr. Heinonen suggests that the need to be good at subjective, creative, and moralistic decision-making means that the IB of the future should place less emphasis on the traditional content, instead focusing on those areas that cannot be replaced by technology and digital content.

A further area that needs to be considered by the IBO is the cultural transformation taking place around the world, “one that also challenges us to be better versions of ourselves”. He notes that the generational shift taking place in respect of efforts to support diversity, equality and inclusion, often driven by young people and their desire to make the world more inclusive – also presents challenges to the IBO as an educational organisation, particularly with regard to curriculum content.  

Mr. Heinonen notes that nobody who works in education can afford to ignore the often righteous demands that are being made to rethink decisions around the material that is chosen to be taught in schools. The commitment to embrace this challenge must be even stronger and even deeper for the IB with its proud progressive history. These movements – which are often led by IB students themselves – also present the IBO with another challenge: the question of access to the IB. "If young people are asking us to be inclusive when we think about what we teach, they are also now asking us to be inclusive on the question of who we teach." 

In a very direct analysis of the IB’s reputation Mr. Heinonen recognises that although it is not entirely accurate (nearly half of the schools that teach the IB are in the state sector), there is an impression that the IB is elitist, expensive, and the preserve of children of affluent white families in private international schools. He acknowledges, like all stereotypes, this impression contains a grain of truth, and the fact that for some schools around the world, IB courses are simply too expensive and for others, they simply do not have the teachers or facilities to deliver the IB programmes.

Mr. Heinonen is clear in his views on this situation:

“This must change. I am committed to bringing down as many barriers to accessing the IB as possible. There is no way an organisation with our shared philosophy and progressive history can do anything else”. 

There is an acknowledgement that the IB cannot ignore the issue of mental health and wellbeing. Noting that it should come as no surprise that anxiety among young people around the world has rocketed in the two years since the pandemic began, anxiety was already soaring before the advent of Covid 19.  For young people, these uncertain times have been unsettling as they struggle to navigate the school system and the uncertainties and changes that have come with the pandemic. He acknowledges that the issue of school wellbeing is now at the top of the agenda. Educators are talking more and more about the need to depressurise schooling; to think about the whole student, and the whole school community, not just curriculum models and exams. 

The IB says that it has always shown awareness of this issue through the focus on coursework and internally-marked work as part of the assessment process, and is keen to encourage teamwork, inquiry and creativity in its schools and frameworks. In addition to offering better qualifications, the IB believes that this approach encourages better and happier young people. Mr. Heinonen agrees that the IBO most do more to address the stress and anxiety that students say can be created by the IB programmes. Whilst learning requires perseverance and stamina, creating stress is not a characteristic of quality education. He states that “I am committed to looking at ways to make the journeys that young people undertake with the IB less fraught.”

This brings the Director General to the question of “what we want the IB to do; of what it is we want young people to take away from time spent engaging with the IB?” His answer is agency.  He believes that education is not only about what knowledge, skills, values and attitudes students should receive, but also learning to value what the world is asking from each citizen. 

In Mr. Heinonen’s view, if humanity is to survive the climate crisis, if it is to thrive in a digital world and if it is to become more democratic, more inclusive and more progressive, then it will need students to think critically, to look for solutions, and take on these challenges. And they will need inspiring teachers who are with them each step of the way.

“Agency is central in creating conditions for young people to flourish, as individuals, but also as communities taking into consideration the planetary wellbeing and flourishing of future generations.”

In concluding thoughts, Mr. Heinonen says “At the IB, we are working on our strategy for the next few years – and I am determined that it should be iterative, responsive and evolving. I feel sure that the IB in 2030 will be more open, more progressive and more forward-thinking. At the same time, we are not departing from the ethos of the founders of this organisation but becoming more committed to addressing the challenges of our times through an IB education.
And I think this is just as our founding fathers would have wanted it.” 

The full article can be found here

Olli-Pekka Heinonen started his tenure as the eighth Director General of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in May 2021. Previously he served as the Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education and, prior to that he held various positions in the Finnish Government, including State Secretary 2012–2016 and Minister of Education and Science 1994–1999. He graduated with a Master of Laws (LL.M.) from the University of Helsinki in 1990.

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