For a while now I’ve promised an article outlining my views on the International Baccalaureate Program (IB). I was enrolled in three IB classes, Theory of Knowledge, English, and History. The Theory of Knowledge course was a course in philosophy, which I really enjoyed, largely because I love philosophy, and I had an amazing teacher. However, I would not recommend the English course, or the History course, to anyone looking to get a quality education, as both classes pale in comparison to their Canadian Public Education equivalents.
I was in the regular program for English in grade 10 and 11, and, though I was a little bored, I rather enjoyed them. However, when I found out that I could take a higher level English, I was interested. I thought that it would be more challenging, more engaging, and perhaps even more interesting. Since I had an exceptional mark in English Literature Grade 11, they let me jump straight into Grade 12 IB English. Despite the fact that my expectations for the higher-level course were by no means unreasonable, I was incredibly disappointed by the results of my choice. Instead of getting a better course, I found myself enrolled in a make-work course that was less engaging and less informative than the regular level course, and as I continued in the course, things just got worse.
The first major shortcoming I noticed was an overemphasis on literary analysis, but a lack of teaching on the subject. One day, as we were discussing poetry in groups, I found myself teaching four or five of my classmates about iambic pentameter, what it was, what was important about it, and how to identify it, this after three years of reading Shakespeare. In grades 10 and 11 I was required to not only know what iambic pentameter was, but be able to write verses using it. My classmates had never been taught it. Similarly, I was shocked when, as a side note, the teacher said, “Do not attempt to discuss irony unless you are absolutely sure you have identified it correctly. I’ve received too many analyses that confuse irony and wit.”
Though it is hard to believe that a course that puts so much emphasis on analysis doesn’t ensure that the students understand the features they are meant to be commenting on, it is the sad truth. The result is a group of students that spends most of their time talking about the obvious features, such as imagery and rhyme scheme, rater than spending it on the more important usages of metaphor, theme, irony, contrast, and other less apparent aspects. Yes, the discussions on poetry in IB English were more on topic, and more academic, than the discussions that were had in English Lit, but far more insightful observations were presented in the supposedly “lower-level” class.
Another conspicuous difference between the regular and IB English courses was content. In the regular program, we studied fewer books, but spent a larger portion of class time on learning what was important about the books, and gaining context for the stories. We also spent class time discussing the important themes of the books, and talked about why they are still relevant. Additionally we spent time learning about writing itself, including the literary devices IB students seemed so oblivious of, as well as grammar, point of view, dialogue, and voice. This was strangely contrasted with the IB program, in which I don’t believe I learned a single thing. Full class discussions in IB English were extremely rare, and tended to focus solely on question selection for examinations. The only teaching time gave a quick overview of the lives of the authors, and only the shortest glimpse into the context in which the book was written. When group discussions did occur, they consisted of equally uninformed students sharing their tentative (and often completely baseless) conjectures about whatever text had been set in front of us, and tended to be wholly unhelpful. The remainder of class time was dedicated to work periods, presentations, and in class examinations.
The lack of education in the area of grammar and actual writing was the most frighteningly bad aspect of the course. Most IB English students I talked to had no knowledge of the finer points of grammar, such as comma use and dialogue punctuation. Many of them did not know how to properly include footnotes, endnotes, and bibliographies. In fact, when we handed in our major history paper for the Grade 12 year, an astounding number of them had to be handed back for changes, because the discrepancies in formatting and citation were so numerous.
In fact, over the entire grade 12 year, the only work I did for English class that did not have the primary goal of assessing understanding of literary features and content was the Provincial English Exam. Every other question I was presented required either a basic comparative or an analytical essay or long answer. I analyzed quotations, passages, and poetry. I compared novels. But I was never once required to use the poetic and literary features I was meant to be studying. You see the IB English curriculum fails at what should be its primary objective. It does not teach students how to speak or write the English language.
On the opposite end of the scale, Grade 10 and 11 regular English required me (in addition to what was done in the IB course) to write short stories, children’s books, persuasive essays, articles, and poetry. Regular English taught me what IB did not. The difference between them in this area is obvious even through a simple comparison of the IB rubric with one for any regular-level project. Such a comparison shows that, while the typical IB rubric gives only a maximum of 10/25 marks for the actual writing of the piece, the typical rubric I was given in grades 10 and 11 attributed between 15/25 and 25/25 for the written work. Why is it that you could write terribly and still pass an IB writing project? They give more marks for understanding and interpretation of the text than they do for ability to write the language it is their prerogative to teach. That is a problem if I ever saw one.
To take an abrupt left turn away from English class, the IB History course I took came closer to living up to my expectations than the English did, however I found that it still fell flat in comparison to the regular-level histories I had taken. As with English, I was exited to move into a higher-level History course because I love History and was looking for a more engaging experience. The IB History course has one major accomplishment, and that is that, as far as content goes, it certainly covers ground. In my History class I learned pretty much everything major that happened in Western history from the French Revolution to the end of the Cold War. The speed we had to go at to cover this volume of information was astounding. We learned all of the French Revolution (which included at least eight government bodies and their actions during the period), in the first month of school.
This accelerated learning was actually too much of a challenge, and the sheer amount of information I was expected to memorize ensured that, by the end of the year, no amount of studying would have allowed me to learn more than a fifth of the more than three hundred pages of detailed notes I had been given. Luckily, all examinations took the form of essay tests, so a fifth of the information sufficed. There were several other problems that emerged as a result of the content overload.
The most obvious problem was that there was no way on earth it could all be taught to the extent it should have been, and basic geographic understanding of the regions in question was assumed where it probably should not have been. A side note about events in Manchuria during the interwar period, for instance, would leave students confused for lack of context. Even though I have the vast majority of European and Asian countries memorized by location, I was often confused. When it came time for tests and exams, though, I would often spend a large portion of my time explaining what the notes were saying by sketching out maps of the areas in question. The geographic aspects were so important to understanding of the wars and conflicts in the history we studied that any understanding would have been better than what was offered.
Similarly, the sheer amount of content made it extremely difficult to keep track of the hundreds of names we were suddenly meant to know. On my final exam I wrote a whole essay on Napoleon the first before I realized that the years I was being asked about referred the reign of Napoleon III, who was a rather minor side note in what we studied (he got, perhaps, a paragraph or two). I ended up having to scrap the essay, but I did manage to finish a replacement. Names and dates are difficult enough when all that is being studied is Canadian History (which I also took), but when you are expected to know well over 200 years of French, British, American, Italian, German, Austrian, Russian, Canadian, and Cuban history, with extensive side notes about the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Australia, Finland, and Turkey, it becomes, in practice, impossible. The most disappointing effect of this was the fact that I actually learned less overall in a year and a half of IB history than I did in either Canadian History or Geography. Yes, I studied more in IB history, but I could not, and did not, retain it.
Another problem I noted was that basics such as the differences between left and right wing politics were not covered extensively enough to foster a good understanding. Neither were the base values of different political affiliations. Systems of government were also not covered in enough depth. This didn’t help the general confusion.
Overall, I would not recommend the International Baccalaureate Program’s English and History courses to anyone. The education I received in them was decidedly substandard when compared to the content of the courses offered in regular-level streams of study. I found that the courses as a whole taught me less in terms of usable long-term knowledge, while completely failing to cover basic essentials. If you are looking for something that will prepare you for university, or even just life, IB isn’t it.