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How Does the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme Promote Learning?

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How does the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme promote learning?

The International Baccalaureate Diploma programme was established to provide ‘the educational needs of globally mobile students’ (IBO 2012 p.3), allowing them to gain a recognised qualification to allow them access to further education in universities around the world. Beyond these very broad objectives the initial programme was based on three fundamental principles, which outlined the IB’s approach to learning: * to provide a broad education, establishing the basic knowledge and critical thinking skill * to develop international understanding and citizenship * to provide choice within a balanced curriculum to allow the students interests to be fulfilled (ibid).
The aim as Peterson has suggested was to not to just provide a place for the ‘acquisition of general knowledge, but the development of the general powers of the mind to operate in a variety of ways of thinking’ (IBO 2012 p.4).
This is expressed further in the IB’s Mission Statement which states its desire to create a better world through education, which it claims can best, be achieved through international-mindedness. It adds to this by stating that ‘the International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect (ibid). As with the other programmes, the PYP and MYP, the DP ‘promotes the education of the whole person, emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth’ (IBO 2008 p.2) which it claims would encourage the student to become an ‘active compassionate lifelong learner’ (IBO 2008). Thus, the education the IB gives can be seen as preparing students for a fulfilling productive life in which their skills and attribute are ‘constantly challenged, developed and applied as part of their lifelong learning, and in this sense can be, according to Hare, holistic (Hare 2010 p.3). This is further enhanced by the Learner Profile, which aims to ‘develop the whole person, emphasizing intellectual, personal, emotional and social growth in all domains of knowledge’ (IBO 2006 p.1). This then, is the supposed to be a shared vision to create internationally minded students who can create a better and more peaceful world.
Aside from these overreaching aims the IBDP is designed around a hexagon model of six domains of knowledge, which have ‘grown from a western-humanist tradition though it claims other cultures are increasingly important’ (IBO 2008). At the centre of the hexagon is the core this consists of the Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and Creativity, Action and Service components. The Theory of Knowledge course provides time for the student to reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing across the domains of knowledge. The Extended Essay is ‘a self-directed piece of research, culminating in a 4,000 word paper’ where the student can develop the ‘capacity to analyse, evaluate and synthesise knowledge, with personal choice of topic’ (IBO 2012 p.7). The Creativity Action and Service (CAS) projects require the student to demonstrate involvement in creativity, sporting aspects and giving service to the wider community. The main aim here however, even though CAS can provide service to the community, is not about serving but about learning (Linden 1995 cited in Kukundu F. and Hayden M. 2002 p.31). The major themes of learning where by a student can develop intellectually, through critical thinking, personally and emotionally, that is the development of a student as a whole person who is internationally minded and a lifelong learner, are at the core of the IB’s claims are linked to constructivists ideas about learning. In the its publication ‘towards a continuum of international education’ (2008 p.12) the IBO stress that the ‘key principals that underpin the IB programmes are based on a constructivist understanding of how children learn’ and that its programmes ‘are designed to stimulate young people to be intellectually curious and equip them with the knowledge, conceptual understanding, skills, reflective practices and attitudes to become autonomous life long learners’. In the IB learner profile review (2013) the IBO is more specific and says that its approach to learning is ‘grounded in social constructivism’. This essay aims to look at what theories, in particular social constructivist model, lie behind the IB’s approaches to learning and how successful it has been at implementing them, with specific emphasis on the IB’s approach to the learning, the Learner Profile and the Theory of knowledge.
The six subject areas are in directed in part by their learning outcomes or the assessment objectives, which are reflected in the subject aims. These are requirements of the skills that the students should demonstrate that they have achieved by the end of the course, to ‘show they have learned what was expected of them (Woolfolk 2012 p.564). Those these objectives are grounded in behavioural ideas they can be either behavioural or cognitive depending how they are framed. The objectives that the IB uses are closely linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which sees academic activities as delineated in terms of the cognitive demands they place on the individual. Bloom defined six levels of these objectives: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. The IB History course, for example, uses four levels knowledge and understanding, application and interpretation synthesis and evaluation and the use of historical skills.
These educational objectives seem hierarchical and can be considered at least progressive, as that following levels are presumed to have essentials of the previous ones. As Eisner (Cited in Bullock 2012 p3) explained, ‘each level of intellectual activity is dependent on the one(s) below and is a prerequisite of the one(s) above’. These assumptions have been criticised as, depending on the question, as those that are asked requiring the earlier levels could prove more difficult than those concerned with the later. E.g. A question based on comprehension could prove more difficult than one requiring synthesis; as Bullock (ibid) points out that the educational process is not always linear. Skelton does not see this as a problem as he takes an argument put forward by Wilber and instead of seeing the process as hierarchical with one part being more important than the other he views it as ‘holarchical’ (Skelton ), each holon being just as important than the others. It should be noted though the IB’s grade boundaries are treated following hierarchical fashion, with synthesis and evaluation gaining more marks than knowledge.
The Learner profile is as IBO (2006 p1) states the ‘mission statement translated into a set of learning outcomes for the 21st century’. These are, it continues, the values that should ‘infuse all elements’ (ibid) of the IBO’s continuum of education. The Learner Profile consists of ten attributes: Inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective. These van Oord claims were not only designed to show coherence between the various programmes but also ‘showed a desire to place more emphasis on the implicit social mission embedded in its academic curricula’ (van Oord 2012 p. 208). The IBO recognises that the success of the full implantation of the all programmes is reliant on the culture and ethos of the school and believes that all the stakeholders in the school should adopt a ‘shared vision’ provided by the learner profile.
The IBO does provide some guidelines through forums on the Online Curriculum Centre website that provide shared practice as well as publications on how the learner profile can be implemented in schools. The IBO also provides workshops in which the learner profile can be discussed and studied in more detail. Nevertheless, what is not clear, as there is according to Wells (2011, p.184) a lack of evidence, is the extent to which each institution implements these guidelines and fully uses the learner profile.
The attributes of the Learner Profile can be grouped, according to Bullock, into four related themes, though she points out that is a considerable amount of overlap. * intellectual, this include the attributes knowledgeable, thinkers, reflective. This theme is linked to the ‘cognitive process of acquiring in depth knowledge and understanding’. * personal, which includes attributes of inquirers and principled. This is concerned with self-efficacy and ‘explores the meta-cognitive notions of responsibility for, and awareness of one’s own learning. * affective or emotional theme covers the attributes of caring, risk takers and balanced. These ideas are based in ‘theories of self development and self-concept’ and look at these in regard to their relation to ‘social responsibility’. * culture and social growth theme, includes the attributes communicators and open minded and are concerned with the ‘community where learning takes place’ with he emphasis on collaboration.
These themes then Bullock claims ‘mirror key paradigms of learning’ (Bullock 2012 p.2) (IBO 2013 p.10). The IB learner profile in review report and recommendations confirms these themes and adds that ‘this inquiry-based journey lies at the heart of international-mindedness’ (IBO 2013 p.10). The educational core values of the Learner Profile it states are ‘grounded in the enlightenment, and shaped by social constructivist theories of learning’ (ibid). van Oord has questioned this calling the attributes virtues as a more adept term as they refer to ‘virtuous dispositions for the internationally minded’ (van Oord 2012 p.209). He continues claiming that the Learner Profile implies a ‘value judgement about which human attributes are needed’ (op cit p.210), that is the IBO have handed these attributes down with little explanation as to why and what values underpin them and in doing have limited the ‘process of internalising knowledge through a dialogue between the individual and the social world’ (op cit p.213). Though it should be noted that the IB learner profile review ‘involved a variety of stakeholders’ (IBO 2013 p.2) in focus groups.
Behaviourism had firmly established itself in education in the 20th century, influenced by people like Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike and Skinner, and is based on objective observable measurements. It has been according to (Jarvis et al 2004 p. 24) ‘the most common theoretical perspective used in education because it seems functional and scientific’, ‘behaviourist approaches to, and explanations of, learning developed out of the study of what can actually be seen’ (Pritchard 2009 p.5). Learning then can be defined as new behaviour that has been acquired, which can be changed by rewards or reinforcement. Rather than concerning itself with knowledge and values etc., it strength lies in ‘measurable behavioural outcomes of learning’ (Jarvis et al 2004 p. 25). Thus by using tests and examinations not only can it be shown that the learner can understand what has been taught but also can demonstrate their ability in that area. The curriculum would then be ‘carefully sequenced to ensure that students were acquiring the necessary prerequisite skills before the introduction of more advance material’ (Sullivan Palinscar 1998 p.347). Although it may have started incorporating other view points Anderson et al explained that one of its ‘salient features…as a psychological theory was to reject the idea of mental structures and to assert that one could understand human thinking wholly in terms of external behaviour’ (Anderson et al 1998 p. 228). Cognitivists regard knowledge as learned and it is that which can make changes in behaviour possible and whereas a behaviourist sees reinforcement as a means of strengthening responses the cognitivists regard as a means to provide feedback to aid learning (Woolfolk et al 2012 p.290). Moreover, instead of being a passive receiver of information the learner is encouraged to have an active part, discuss, think critically and reflect on their learning. Cognitivists see learning as extending and transforming understanding in the construction of knowledge (ibid).
Piaget is regarded by many as the founder of cognitive constructivism though his early years of studying children’s reasoning and then on their phases of development reflected his functionalist concerns, that is the psychological mechanisms underlying the child’s activity (Marchand 2012 p.166). Though his main focus remains similar throughout as he concerned himself on the development and learning of the individual, particularly the differences between adults and children in the way and thinking evolves. Taking biology as a template for cognitive thought he viewed development as ‘a process of construction of structures leading to a bigger and better balance’ (op cit p.167). The construction of the way we think would change dramatically as we ‘constantly strive to make sense of the world’ (Woolfolk et al 2012 p.38). Piaget named four factors in explaining how we did this, maturation, activity, social experience and equilibration (ibid). Piaget observed that a child goes through certain cognitive changes as they matured; sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational, he claimed that these four stages of development were sequential and universal. Though he gave general guidelines on the ages that a child was to reach each stage he noted that in some cases children would take longer.
Piaget accepted that the ability to organise was inherent in all people, though this should not be confused with possessing innate knowledge. He believed that it was the ability to organise and categorise into schemas that ‘are the basic building blocks of thinking’ (ibid). They start simple and become more complex as the child moves through the stages of development. These schemas do not develop by themselves but rather they ‘evolve as the result of more complex interactions with the world’ (O’Loughlin 1992 p.793). Piaget used analogies from biology to explain the relationship between the processing of knowledge and the outside world where the organism would seek equilibrium so does the thinking process. He saw this achieved through two processes of assimilation, whereby the learner uses their existing schemes to make sense of something new, and accommodation, whereby the learner alters or modifies these schemes to fit new situations. Equilibrium ‘is established through the dialectical interplay of assimilation and accommodation’ (op cit p.794). This equilibrium he saw as being dynamic, in that it was constantly being tested between assimilation and accommodation, which creates a contradiction, which prompts disequilibrium that in turn is decided by a new idea. As Piaget said ‘disequilibrium forces the subject to go beyond his current state and strike out in new directions’ (Piaget 1985, quoted in Sullivan Palinscar 1998 p.350).
Piagetian constructivists developed the ideas further focusing on the individual this has led to some, like von Glaserfeld, to propose that humans use ‘the understandings they create to help them navigate life, regardless of whether or not such understandings match an external reality’ (Raskin 2002 p.). Taking his ideas from Darwinism he sees it as a survival response for humans to adapt their perceptions to suit their survival in the real world. ‘Constructivism, thus, does not say there is no world and no other people, it merely holds that insofar as we know them, both the world and the others are models that we ourselves construct’ (von Glaserfeld, 1995, cited in Raskin 2002). This highlights the subjective nature of cognitive constructivists who look at the development at structuring of the individual and overlook the importance of social factors. Critics, like Broughton, Winger and Valsiner have accused Piagetian constructivists of genetic individualism, as understanding human constructivism in a social vacuum and regarding all cultures are subjects to the same rules as Broughton put it ‘the stucturalist theory of Piaget refers to knowledge without history and self’ (Broughton 1981 cited in Lourenço and Machado 1996 p.150).
Social constructivists moved away from the internal schemas that individuals constructed and saw cognition as mediated by material and semantic artefacts founded in purposeful human activity, which has been developed historical, and changes at the sociocultural level (Packer and Goioechea 2000 p.229). This sees cognition not as a separate construction of the individual but as developed through a complex interaction between the individual, activity and ‘culturally organized settings’ (ibid). Vygotsky has been seen, as the major spokesperson for sociocultural and social constructivist theories, at the core of his ideas was that learning could not be separated from the cultural settings where it took place. All tasks in which a child attaches ‘meaning to their experiences are reflected in cognitive strategies, derived from the culturally patterned environment into which they born’ (John-Steiner and Mahn). This interdependence between the individual and the social process was embedded in Vygotsky’s ideas. In his ‘genetic law of development’; he saw each function in the development of a child appearing twice; ‘first between people as an interpsychological category, afterwards within the child as an intrapsychological category’ (Valsiner 1987 cited in Palinscar 1998 p.351). The child would then co-construct this higher mental function with another, though this person would not be their peers or equal rather they would be an adult or ‘people who are capable or advanced in their thinking’ (Woolfolk et al 2012 p.52). A child’s learning and development then was not merely a copy of the external world, nor due to internal growth separate from it but rather in the interaction of the child with the environment and learning, as Vygotsky said, ‘results in mental development and sets in motion a variety of developmental processes that would be impossible apart from learning’ (cited in Palinscar 1998 p.352).
In order to show how activity and development were central to the human consciousness Vygotsky used the concept of semiotic mediation, whereby use of cultural and psychological tools would ‘mediate social and individual functioning and connect the external and the internal, the social and the individual (Wertsch and Stone cited in John-Steiner and Mahn). These tools would take the form cultural, including material ones, e.g. rulers, hammers or even computers or psychological, including symbolic, signs or language. Both were necessary for development as one would aid the other in external creation but what is important for internal development are the psychological tools not least being language which enhances the child’s ability to use the tools in their own activities. Thus, they internalise through the co-construction of knowledge and strategies. Language and culture are, according to Vygotsky, inextricably interwoven with cultures developing the language that it is important to them. Moreover, he also believed it is important for cognitive development as ‘thinking depends on speech, on means of thinking, and on the child’s socio-cultural experience’ (Vygotsky 1987 cited in Woolfolk et al 2012 p53).
As opposed to Piaget’s notion of equilibration, where conflicts are resolved internally to develop understanding and knowledge, Vygotsky believed that learning involved psychological, the internal, and society, the external. He saw learning taking place in the zone of proximal development that is the distance between what the learner actually knows and their potential of knowing. The learner therefore is on the verge of understanding but cannot reach this without the ‘adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Vygotsky 1987 cited in Palincsar 1998 p.353). A good example of this is scaffolding whereby a learner is given enough support to enable them to solve a problem by himself or herself. Learning is not separate from the culture where it came and is tied to certain time and place, thus what is seen, as knowledge is dependent on what fits into those cultural norms. Learning is not regarded as transferable but rather as specifically situated in the place where it is learnt and to learn is ‘described as enculturation or adopting the norms, behaviours, skills, beliefs, language and attitudes of a particular community’ (Woolfolk et al 2012 p.407). Some sociological constructivists look at knowledge as being constructed by society in this way ‘individuals acquire or internalize the knowledge, values, beliefs and attitudes of society’ (Jarvis et al 2003 p.46). Jarvis like Bernstein sees learning as tied to social structure and that being part of a social group determines the ‘manner in which a person perceives and interprets their experience’ (ibid). Bernstein placed his emphasis on linguistic codes, the restricted and the elaborate; the type of code that a child developed would affect the subsequent school performance. These codes underpinned Bernstein’s class theory, as success in education was determined by how much one related to the elaborate code.
There are some similarities between constructivist thought both have similar learning goals including ‘developing abilities to find and solve ill structured problems, critical thinking, enquiry, self-determination and openness to multiple perspectives’ (Driscoll 2005 cited in Woolfolk et al 2012 p.407). For the cognitive constructivist the emphasis is placed on the individual learner, with teacher being the facilitator and observer, the learner is encouraged to be actively involved in their learning, hence learning is linked to individual experience and discovery which is then discussed with other members of the class and the teacher. For social constructivists this provides too much emphasis on self-discovery; learning should be assisted and mediated by the teacher and not left for the learner to rediscover, that which already exists within the culture. Assisted learning or scaffolding then guides the learner by providing prompts, models, controlling the difficulty of tasks throughout the lesson as well as giving detailed feedback at the end. There is an emphasis with social constructivist or providing real situations as well as working collaboratively ‘to establish and defend their own positions while respecting the positions of others and working together to co-construct meaning’ (op cit 408). Windschitl has suggested as well as strategies such as eliciting ideas, working collaboratively, providing a variety of challenging tasks, applying knowledge in real situations he also stressed the importance encouraging ‘students’ reflective and autonomous thinking’ (Windschitl 2002 p.137). This is supported by Schon and Boud, who ‘suggest that the quality of reflection is of greater significance to the eventual learning outcome than the nature of the experience itself’ (Bullock 2012 p.6). Watson (2001 p.143) points out that the dialogue between themselves and the teacher encourages strong mediation between students and allows them to make intellectual progress by incorporating and discussing learning strategies and self regulation and thus building their metacognitive awareness. As well as concerning themselves with reflection students should also approach subjects critically, that to analyse, synthesise and evaluate problems. This again would be done as part a group co-constructing an outcome through discussion.
What is apparent by applying critical thinking is that the learner’s approach to learning changes as Caxton () points out ‘as we study so we learn more about what it means to study and what it means to be a student’. Education then, especially for the young, is seen as a foundation on which ‘more specialised learning will be built’, ‘it is an apprenticeship in the craft of real life learning’ (op cit p.22). He argues that as society has changed so should education, there is no longer a job for life and the workplace demands a more flexible workforce and if education is to offer an effective preparation for life it should develop transferable, real-life learning skills and dispositions (op cit p.24). The biggest problem he sees in fully implementing this change is to over come three discourses in which education can be framed. Firstly, the ‘psychologized construct’ he refers to as ‘epistemic mentality and the epistemic identity’; that is the ways of knowing and learning and the ways an individual views themselves as a learner, secondly socio-historic construct, that is the impact of social and cultural practices on learning. Here he claims that the cultural impact on the epistemic mentality and identity causes an epistemic milieu. Thirdly there is the irreducible situated moment that is the moment that the ‘zone of proximal development is expanded’ (Salomon 1993 cited in Claxton p.25) through the unique interaction whereby the intermental becomes the intramental. He emphasises that although the last discourse seemingly discounts the other two it cannot be seen in isolation, as ‘people are enculturated into a view of learning, and themselves as learners’ (op cit p.26) and are deprived of the opportunity to develop their ‘own resourcefulness’ (op cit p.33). He concludes by stating that ‘only by adopting a ‘framework within which a view of education is itself foregrounded ….. that more powerful educational cultures can be created’ (ibid).
Windschitl (2002 p131) has pointed out that ‘implementing constructivist instruction has proved more difficult than many in education realize. This would particularly relevant to the IBDP which, although giving guidelines on what type of learner they wish to inspire, can be vague how they reach that end. Peterson one of the founders of the IBDP saw its philosophy based on humanist and liberal beliefs which aimed to: stimulate the imagination rather than filling the mind with facts, ensure there is an obligation to do independent research, give a balance of academic work and community service, develop critical thinking skills and provide a central role to the theory of knowledge (IBO 2004). He believed then education was more than collecting of facts it needed to expand ways of thinking to allow the learner to apply this understanding in new situations. Hill, when talking about the beginning of the IBDP saw the its aims as ‘to promote critical thinking skills ... via a balanced programme in the humanities, the experimental sciences and experiential learning (Hill 2002 cited in Marshman 2010 p. 3). Hill maintained that acquiring the skill of critical analysis required ‘working cooperatively, independent research, interdisciplinarity, developing the ‘whole person’, and learning how to learn’ (op cit p.4). The There should then be a concurrency of attitudes and access to knowledge across the disciplines, that is learning becomes ‘mutually enhancing’ (op cit p.3). The theory of knowledge course then ties the disciplines together as it explores the ways of knowing in each subject. It asks the students ‘to think about the nature of knowledge, to reflect on the process of learning in all subjects’ (IBO 2013b), but more than this, as Marshman (2010 p.12) states, ‘the DP is predicated on the belief that the richest understanding is engendered by simultaneous learning in the disciplines and in the TOK, the latter providing the essential epistemological framework’. The IBO specifically declares the theory of knowledge is ‘about critical thinking and inquiring into the process of knowing’ (IBO 2013 p.8) this entails students exploring the ways of knowing and the areas of knowledge. They are required to produce an individual essay and give a presentation that is done in a group. Though aside from this student are asked to think about ways of knowing in a critical and collaborative way in which they construct meaning in the class with their peers and their teacher.
Social constructivism as Caxton points out should use educational enculturation, that students adopt the culture, language, value and norms of the educational community. For the IB this would entail embracing the beliefs, norms and values of the IB’s ethos expressed by the mission statement and the learner profile even though this might be at odds with their own culture. Many look to the Western Humanist origins of the IB and point out that this is at odds with some cultures. Drake shows that in some cultures a learning style that promotes uncertainty and is seen as ‘disruptive and people seek to reduce it and to limit risk by hanging on to the way things have always been done’ (Dimmock 2000 cited in Drake 2004 p195. He also argues by adopting the IB’s concept of critical thinking, which leaves those who hold received wisdom open to criticism, produces cultural dissonance. van Oord takes this further as sees that IB as representing western humanism as the dominant culture over others. Learning is a sociocultural experience whereby each culture passes on, not only what is taught but also how it is taught and learnt and what kind of learning is valued of others; van Oord (2007) refers to this as ‘meta-learning’. Taking the ideas from Balagangadhara he places culture should in ‘terms of a specific configuration of learning and meta-learning’ (van Oord 2007 p.383) and stresses that when cultures mix there will always be one dominant and the other subordinate. The other culture, it should stressed, does not cease to exist but ‘will be perceived as derived from or applications of the dominant kind of learning’ (ibid). Not surprising then culture clashes occur which van Oord places at the meetings between these different configurations of learning. The IB then follows the ‘western configurations’ of learning and meta-learning where critical thinking and understanding, that is ‘the capacity to take knowledge, skills and concepts and apply them appropriately in new situations’ (Gardner, 1993,cited in van Oord), is considered to be dominant of other styles. Thus, learning for understanding is more important than memorizing facts, concepts are better than facts and learning outcomes such as synthesis and evaluation are placed above knowledge. Consequently the IB learning configuration is held with western humanistic concepts, which place other forms learning subordinate to it, even though it may be alien to and in conflict to their own culture and thus limits the idea of enculturation into the IB style of learning.


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