How do we enable students to be well-rounded in the IB?

Students in school uniform gathered around a teacher

Written by Abi

6th February 2018

Our guest writer for this week is Chris Lister. Chris is an IBDP Visual Arts teacher at the United Nations International School of Hanoi. He is an IBDP & MYP Visual Arts moderator, team leader and senior examiner, with twelve years of IBDP, IBMYP, IBPYP and IGCSE experience.

Being well-rounded is one of the key characteristics of a successful IBDP student. This is one of the most critical aspects of the programme, as being a well-balanced individual is clearly outlined in the IB Learner Profile. But how do we enable our students to become balanced or well rounded? I will discuss the fundamentals of the IBDP programme and how they all work together to enable students to be balanced and inquisitive learners. I will also consider some of my own practices, which all help to enable our students to be well-rounded.

How the IBDP programme is designed

As part of the IBDP programme, students must take six subjects: one each from Groups 1–5 and either one from Group 6 or a permitted substitute from one of the other groups. This in itself creates a wide range of knowledge linked to a variety of subjects. In order to deliver these courses successfully, teachers work incredibly hard to maximise students’ knowledge and understanding of the subject matter covered.

Interdisciplinary units can further help students understand powerful and relevant links within their subjects. Although teachers plan parts of units accordingly, this discovery of connections also happens naturally in a lot of cases, which further showcases the IB’s philosophy of enabling students to be balanced in their learning. Demonstrating that subjects do not always stand alone enhances each student’s overall perspective and point of view on key concepts

Along with studying their chosen subjects, students also take part in Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS). CAS aims to provide students with opportunities for personal growth, self-reflection, intellectual, physical and creative challenges, and awareness of themselves as responsible members of their communities, through participation in social or community work (service), athletics or other physical activities (activity), and creative activities (creativity). By participating in these activities, they draw conclusions linked to their learning in the classroom, and often this enables students to see their subjects differently, thus allowing them to understand why and how they are connected. Often these projects open up new opportunities for students, which complement such a rigorous academic programme.

Theory of Knowledge and The Extended Essay

Theory of Knowledge (TOK) introduces students to theories about the nature and limitations of knowledge and provides practice in determining the meaning and validity of knowledge. This is a compulsory course and is highly valued by the IBO, as it gets students to see knowledge from different perspectives. It raises questions about ethics and searches for other meaning in content. This enables students to understand and contemplate what they are learning, as well as how different types of knowledge lead to more concrete understanding of the world around them.

The Extended Essay (EE) is another component that enables students to be well rounded, because it requires them to really concentrate on a specific aspect of a particular subject, either one they are studying, or something completely new. Students must write an independent research essay on a subject from the list of approved EE subjects. However, the EE may not be written on an interdisciplinary topic. The reason for this is that the essay allows for a focused and elaborate approach to a chosen topic. Often, students use the EE to research a topic they are really passionate about, which leads to some high-quality outcomes.

Assessment Structure

Assessment in the IBDP enables teachers to give clear and structured feedback to students and parents. Assessments are broken down into different subject-specific criteria, which focus on key skills, concepts, knowledge and reflective analysis of the subject studied. Using both formative and summative assessment tasks, students can pinpoint specific areas on which they can improve in order to achieve higher outcomes. Although the assessment criteria vary within the programme, all subjects are weighted on a 1–7 grade scale, which is clear when looking at the students’ completed diploma scores. This type of assessment model evidently encourages more varied perspectives and outlooks on subjects and types of knowledge.

How do we ensure that students successfully demonstrate that they are well-rounded?

Because the IBDP encourages this type of teaching and learning, a major part of students becoming well rounded happens organically. By participating in stimulating and challenging learning environments, students really benefit from such an exhaustive and refined programme. In my opinion, this is the number one reason for the IBO’s success in creating well-rounded students.

As an IB teacher, I am always experimenting with different ways to deliver my courses to my students. Getting students to work both collaboratively and independently really has an impact on how they approach tasks and often results in unexpected outcomes. I spend a lot of time teaching skills and content, but also link the units to the “bigger picture”. This reinforces the subject matter and reminds students of how different subjects and knowledge are related, and that nothing is isolated.

As teachers, we often plan our courses based on the requirements set out in the IB Guides, but we also spend time collaborating and trying new approaches to teaching and learning. These may be based on content, the order in which units are taught throughout the year, or presentations to other classes, to name a few. Sometimes the students discover meaningful and critical links to relevant topics within their chosen subjects, thus expanding their own knowledge and understanding. When this natural curiosity is stimulated, students really start to show the characteristics of well-rounded and balanced learners, which is great to see for both students and teachers alike.


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