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The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: The IB Education Model

This article was originally published on the CACE Blog on July 28, 2020.

In this series, we spotlight six particular approaches, or design models, used to implement Christian Deeper Learning. For each, we will ask four questions to school leaders implementing the featured model:

  1. What was the reason you adopted this design model?

  2. How does this model promote Deeper Learning?

  3. How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?

  4. What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?

International Baccalaureate Programmes

In this posting, we explore the International Baccalaureate program or IB for short. The IB program is an educational framework used in over 5000 schools in over 150 countries. IB is organized into four programmes: PYP (Primary Years Program) for ages 3-12 (grades preschool – 6th), MYP (Middle Years Program) for ages 11-16 (grades 7th – 10th), DP (Diploma Program) for ages 16-19 (grades 11-12), and the CP (Career Program) also for ages 16-19 (grades 11-12).

Why did you adopt the IB model?

Powerful past experiences prompted two heads of schools to lead their institutions in implementing International Baccalaureate programs. David Michel, Head of School at White Rock Christian Academy, a PK-12 school in Surrey, British Columbia, had led an IB program at a large Christian international school in Indonesia; and Mitch Salerno, Head of School at Monte Vista Christian School (MVC), a grades 6-12 school in Watsonville, California, taught in a public school using the IB model. White Rock is in its sixth year of implementation, and Monte Vista is in the beginning stages, expecting to complete its authorization process in the 2021-2022 school year. Both are enthusiastic about how the IB combines best practices in education and produces excellent student results.

Gerry Goertzen, veteran principal of the Junior School at White Rock, appreciates how IB’s PYP presents a comprehensive framework. It articulates Approaches to Teaching, Approaches to Learning, and Student Agency components, leading to “all aspects of a school being focused on best practices.” The transdisciplinary themes that organize the curriculum for each grade level “tie beautifully into a biblical worldview”–a demonstration of the connectedness and coherence of all creation through Christ (Col. 1). The international mindedness that threads through all years of the program lead students to ask the question, “How do we serve our neighbors?”

Senior school principal Joel Slofstra is impressed with how the IB model has translated into this COVID-19 era. When the pandemic hit, the MYP staff implemented Project 20, a trans-disciplinary approach based on the British Columbia curriculum, which incorporated an intentionally biblical worldview and gave room for each student to go deeper into learning. Students responded in several creative ways. Joel explains, “We are simply showing students the way, and they are going as far as they can with it!”

Within the DP program, Biblical Foundations Coordinator and teacher Kevin Mirchandani points to the TOK (Theory of Knowledge) course as being critical in helping students understand how knowledge came to be, how to make sense of it, and how to put it in proper context. The course helps students “know why I believe what I believe so that I can be part of God’s restoration.”

Mitch (MVC) appreciates how IB provides high accountability/quality control to help schools meet their goals. As with any successful fitness or change effort, Mitch believes that “you need someone pushing you… IB holds our feet to the fire to get stuff done.” He sees IB as a more intentional, focused path to school improvement and change than typical accreditation processes (For more on accountability, see my blog post of August 2019.).

Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction Josh Davis points out that one of the differences between IB and AP is that not only are students developing knowledge of the content but they are being trained to think like a professional in that discipline area. He notes that the shared framework of what is to be learned by students serves as a platform for teacher professional development. He feels like IB provides the framework to take their school into deeper and richer learning than what they could do on their own.

How does IB promote Deeper Learning?

In case you missed our introduction to this series, I will restate the definition of Deeper Learning (DL): “a set of competencies students would need to compete globally and to become engaged citizens at home in the 21st century.” Coined by the Hewlett Packard Foundation, Deeper Learning’s competencies include content, collaboration, critical (and creative) thinking, communication, a positive/growth mindset, and independent learning (becoming leaders of their own learning).

Does IB meet these criteria? Because exposure to IB in the United States has been primarily the Diploma Program for grades 11/12, there may be some misunderstanding about the programs.

David (White Rock) seeks to address this misunderstanding in an excellent paper, “The Five Myths about International Baccalaureate.” He states: “IB is one of most effective programs in preparing students for the 21st Century. Extensive research has identified the following essential 21st-century skills for today’s students: collaboration and teamwork, creativity and imagination, critical thinking, and problem-solving. These skills are all addressed in all IB programs supporting students and teachers starting in Kindergarten.”

In contrast to the Advanced Placement approach, Michel sees IB as developing competencies, not just content. Monte Vista Christian MYP coordinator Amber West agrees: she believes that the global emphasis and the Approaches to Learning skills are especially critical at the MYP level.

One of the aspects of IB that Josh appreciates is that throughout the program, students are required to take leadership of their own learning, how to both learn content and use the tools of the discipline. He notes that this approach happens at the upper levels not only through required courses but also in program components such as the Extended Essay, TOK (Theory of Knowledge), and CAS (Creativity, Activity, and Service). He points to how the inquiry model is intentionally built into the entire program.

How has this model helped you meet your mission as a Christian school?

Our definition of Christian Deeper Learning (“People of God’s story engaged in real work that forms self and shapes the world”) contains three elements: celebrating the learner as made in God’s image, mindfulness of learning design, and responsiveness to culture. Let’s look at how these three elements are visible in White Rock’s and MVC’s implementation of IB in their contexts.

One of the things that White Rock has done is to take the IB Learner Profiles (a required element of the program) and articulate them through a Christian perspective, reflecting their core purpose and values. David gives examples of these adaptations in the aforementioned paper.

Josh says that besides IB, “at Monte Vista Christian, we have rich language to bring to the “why”–concepts like image-bearing and community.” Mitch agrees: “We can finish the story.” Because IB asks students to scrutinize why and how they know what they know, students will be more prepared to articulate and defend their faith in the future. View MVC’s work on their Learner Profiles here.

All of the administrators at the two schools agree that the learning design of IB is the best they’ve seen. Amber from MVC states, “I continually take a deep breath of thankfulness that something has encapsulated what I believe is best about students, teaching, and teachers.” [As a Christian teacher, I have seen how it] “forces students to think critically about their place in the world, about who we are as people, how to see beyond themselves….I think it is fantastic, and I am excited to be a part of it!” One of the outstanding design elements is the PYP Program of Inquiry (see below). It is trans-disciplinary, interconnected, and beautiful!

Student mastery resulting in “beautiful work” happens in the context of Colossians 1:16-18, 2:3–all things connected through Christ. Our current disintegration of knowledge into subjects and disciplines, although efficient categories for organization and communication, do not reflect a true understanding of the interconnected world we see through Christ. Furthermore, disintegration may lead to a utilitarian individualism or an incomplete understanding of the interconnectedness of the world’s problems.

Within the program, teachers and students are taught skills and competencies through the Approaches to Teaching (ATT) and Approaches to Learning (ATL) components (see below) – critical skills and competencies that help equip teachers with best practices and students to become self-directed learners. Ongoing PD for faculty that is required through the program gives school support and accountability that is usually lacking through accreditation.

Graphics credit: Chris Gadbury (images are available for download on his website)

According to David, one of the key elements of IB over its 50-year development has been its international-mindedness–its commitment to developing a global student outlook. On our increasingly shrinking planet, the global emphasis of the program enlarges students’ answer to “Who is my neighbor?”

What impacts have you seen on students, teachers, and community?

IB holds great promise for Christian schools to consider for its actual programs or as a model. As Metha and Fine suggest in their recent book In Search of Deeper Learning, IB represents the best of what we know works in education with an inquiry, student-directed approach: “The requirements of the program ask students not only to learn content but also to develop enough facility with the tools of the discipline to produce work similar to that of scholars in the field. In contrast to the traditional pattern in American secondary education, wherein students are primarily asked to assimilate content, the IB consistently requires students to discover knowledge, produce original work, and reflect on the processes critical to doing the work of the disciplines.” Metha and Fine express a very favorable view of IB: “IB is also intriguing because it strikes a middle ground between more radical and more traditional visions of deep learning.”

Whereas IB may have been previously viewed as intended for elite students, it is now being implemented across the socio-economic spectrum and producing results (Sarah Sparks, “International Baccalaureate Saw Rapid Growth in High-Poverty Schools“). At a recent conference, I was compelled by the successful use of IB in the most disadvantaged, lowest-performing schools in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system. They use IB continuum approach, also called IB for All, in grades K-12.

White Rock is the first Christian school using IB for All in North America in a K-12 setting. In their sixth year of implementation, David sees great promise using the IB program: “IB has always represented ‘best practice’ in teaching and learning, and many school systems are now recognizing and being influenced by the importance of teaching inquiry, competencies over content, global understanding, and helping to prepare students for an ever-changing future in both local and global communities.”

Mitch believes that IB has already helped MVC broaden its global outlook and, at the same time, sharpen its mission and purpose: “IB has helped a Christ-centered institution of 95 years crystallize its vision for God’s redemptive work throughout the world!”

Note: This article is part of a series on different paths to Christian Deeper Learning. You can read the introduction to the series here: The Many Roads to Christian Deeper Learning: An Introduction.


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