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Other people, with their differences, can also be right

By Robert Harrison

Sometimes the IB’s mission can seem quite lofty and disconnected from the real world of teachers who feel overworked by their responsibilities and students who feel overwhelmed by course work and examinations. Can education really help to make a better world?

The genius of the IB has always been tying up the practical details of teaching and learning with a higher purpose. What’s important is the global community of IB World Schools that puts these high principles into practice. Together we develop rigorous standards and hold ourselves mutually accountable to them.

Take the high-minded idea that ‘other people, with their differences, can also be right’ from the IB’s mission statement. How do we embed it deep within learning and teaching in IB World Schools when there are so many serious disagreements in the world? If we are honest, most of us are pretty sure that other people who have very different values, opinions and worldviews are wrong! We enjoy being around people who agree with us. We’re pre-disposed to look for evidence that confirms our views, and we are pre-programmed to devalue or ignore ideas that we dislike.

Fifty years ago, an inspiration for the IB’s founders was a straightforward theory of change. They believed that if we put young people together in their formative years, they’ll be less likely to wage war on each other as adults. Schools could literally create a better and more peaceful world, by educating its leaders in how to overcome common obstacles. Today, many IB programmes are still implemented in educational contexts that put students and teachers from different cultures and belief systems together into a mixing bowl of shared experience.

It’s important that students struggle together. Their common struggle may be something as mundane as making it through all those examinations! They learn what they have in common: that they are not alone, that they can meet and conquer significant challenges, that there is more in them than they thought.

But as someone trained in the social sciences, I also think that the IB’s mission does get embedded in programme frameworks, and in even more specific learning outcomes. All IB students learn approaches to learning skills that help them form and maintain positive relationships, resolve conflict, manage complexity, and dealing with difference. In the Middle Years (MYP), Diploma (DP) and Career-related (CP) Programmes, courses in ‘Individuals and societies’ require students to investigate, describe, evaluate, and celebrate what binds us together and what sets us apart. When students in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) explore ‘Who we are’ and ‘How we organize ourselves’, they are following related transdisciplinary lines of inquiry.

In the DP psychology course, there is a goldmine of directly relevant content. My favourite example these days is part of the syllabus that explores emotion and cognition, including the often-low reliability of our own cognitive processes. Students explore how our preconceptions and social affiliations affect what we (think) we know—and why it’s so difficult for us to change our minds.

Of course, not everyone can be right. Some differences destroy the human spirit and erode the common good. But at its best, the IB’s practically-minded education is an act of hope in the face of an always-uncertain future, calling forth the very best from students and educators alike. Only the very best critical thinking and most honest reflection can help us prepare for living and working in our complex, highly-interdependent world. That was true 50 years ago, and may be even more true today.

Robert Harrison is Head of Programme Development for the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP).