The IB Deputy Director General, Sally Holloway, represented the International Baccalaureate (IB), in the International Education and Skill Summit, to discuss the future of education. Read her inspirational speech below.
This year’s International Education and Skill Summit theme was Nurturing Sustainability, Education and Learning: 2022 and beyond took place between 27-30 January and featured educational experts and leaders from all around the world. Delegates of UNESCO, OECD and the World Bank, alongside global educational leaders, policy-makers and government ministers shared invaluable insights about the future of education.
The following remarks were provided by the IB’s Deputy Director General, Sally Holloway, on 29 January 2021 on the topic of “How can we design better learning experiences, cultivate curiosity, and encourage learning by doing?”.
Sally Holloway, IB Deputy Director General: Thank you for inviting me to speak today regarding a topic that perhaps has never been so important as we face uncertain times. Education has been significantly impacted by the pandemic and teachers and students have had to adjust to new ways of learning with little, to no, preparation.
The IB has been actively progressing many of the ideas and concepts being discussed at this Summit since our foundation in 1968, and our IB heritage, present practice and future vision are all about designing learning experiences, cultivating curiosity, and encouraging learning by doing.
I started my teaching career in a state (government) school; an enthusiastic, energized new teacher, ready to take on the world. I had great things planned for my class of 6-year olds and I was ready to create great learning experiences for each and every student, preparing them in their foundational years for the next phase. Unfortunately, I soon learned that the direction of learning that I was required to follow was determined by those who had never taught a class in their lives and who were swayed by public opinion on what really mattered, producing an educational pendulum swing that was neither centred on best practice nor focused on preparing children for the world in which they would enter as adults in 12 years’ time. Two years later I was burned out with all the changes and contemplating my next steps, which fortunately for me, brought me to the IB. The attraction for this sat within several aspects:
- Inquiry-based learning
- Focus on critical thinking
- Teacher and student-centred
- Independent of political pressure
Our IB Mission is encapsulated in the phrase A better world through education. We believe that excellent education isn’t confined to the classroom—we believe it creates a better world. And the IB Mission isn’t just a form of words—all IB schools are aligned with it, and delivering it as part of their individual schools’ missions—it’s a key driver for our schools across the globe, uniting students and educators. Furthermore, the effect that our students and alumni have in their communities is part of the IB’s broad-based social impact across the world. One of my greatest senses of achievement as a Head was having alumni come back to school and talk about their on-going sense of social responsibility, something that I know is shared by other IB Heads.
The IB learner profile is an integral part of the whole continuum of an IB education from 3-19 years old. It describes the qualities of IB students, who are principled, knowledgeable, inquirers, caring, open-minded, communicators, risk-takers who are balanced and reflective. The development of learner profile qualities begins with the Primary Years Programme (PYP) focus on the early learner, inspired by early brain development theory, through the personal project in the Middle Years Programme (MYP), and Creativity, activity, service (CAS) and the extended essay in the Diploma Programme (DP) and Career-related Programme (CP). So, although the IB is rightly famous for academic rigour, we are equally focused on fostering the “whole student”.
The Theory of Knowledge is another good example of this in practice—assessed through an oral presentation and a 1,600-word essay, students reflect on the nature of knowledge, and on how we know what we think we know.
In all of this, the encouragement of strong critical thinking and student agency is key. Research shows that they are key determinants of individual and collective success. An Oxford University study found that IB students appear to have a distinct edge in the area of critical thinking when compared to other curricula.
In these ways, IB curricula develop well-rounded individuals with agency, and this also applies to the way in which we assess our students.
In our Assessment, the focus is not on testing students on what they know, but on assessing their problem-solving skills and critical thinking. The positive impact of this is recognised by universities and employers, who actively seek out IB students. IB graduates in the UK are 57% more likely to attend a top 20 university than A-level students. And an Asian Pacific study into 21st-century skills found that DP students were assessed as better prepared in the areas of innovative thinking, global-mindedness, and taking leadership roles.
This area is crucial because today, as the Fourth Industrial Revolution unfolds, and access to the internet is (slowly) becoming universal, we no longer need to rely on memorisation of facts. We do however need to know how to ask the right questions and ensure we have appropriate and reliable sources.
When I first moved to Asia in the late 1990s, I wanted to visit a PYP school, as we were planning on introducing it in my school. At that time there were very few PYP schools as the program had only just been introduced. During the visit to the school in Vietnam, I observed the power of an inquiry-based program.
The young students were asking extremely pertinent questions and I realised that as an adult I was unable to formulate such good questions so easily or naturally. It made me reflect on my own education which started, as in many cases, in the home, exploring the world around me. We are all born with a natural curiosity which helps to stimulate the brain. The world is an exciting place. However, things changed when I started school. At that time someone else determined my time in 30-minute increments, and they had already decided what I needed to know (and remember); I was no longer free to explore. The questions were already decided, and I had little to no input. If I did have a question I had to raise my hand and hope that the teacher would call on me (unlikely in a class of 30). In contrast, the children in a PYP classroom play a key role in developing the questions that will help to frame the direction of the program.
As a teacher and School Head, I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach in three of the IB Programs (PYP, MYP and DP), and I saw their impact on the development of the students at first hand. The programs encourage student agency, and this is particularly through the capstone projects of the PYP Exhibition, MYP Personal Project and DP’s Extended Essay. Here the students are in the driving seat, and the teachers are mostly there to support as needed. In a continuum school, you really get a sense of how the programs nurture critical thinking. Listening to 11-year olds passionately walk you through their Exhibition, explaining the central idea that frames their inquiry, and how they decided to approach this, makes you wonder what we were doing at the same age (actually I found it hard to compare my 16-year-old self to these impressive youngsters). 5-years later students take on a Personal Project, and I was honoured to be a mentor for a student every year. This time the students engage in an independent study of an area of particular interest, applying skills and knowledge developed throughout the MYP. This is an incredible opportunity for students to really explore something of personal interest and their creativity shines through.
I was always blown away by the diversity of the Projects, the exceptionally high level of engagement and maturity in their learning. By the time the students entered the DP they had already demonstrated their capability and were ready to approach their Extended Essay, a 4,000-word research essay, something many of us didn’t have to do until our undergraduate or even post-graduate dissertation. It is not hard to see why universities know that the IB students come to them well-prepared for their university studies. And while IB students are certainly well known for their academic capability and critical thinking skills, it is the well-roundedness of these students, their proven competencies and sense of social responsibility that make them stand out and prepare them for life.
As the pandemic progresses, it is becoming clear that education is undergoing a radical global challenge that will affect every aspect—from curriculum design through classroom practice, teacher training and assessment. This will impact the content of what we teach as well as the processes and channels through which that content is taught. The IB has always encouraged curiosity, problem-solving and learning by doing—alongside a range of educational approaches designed to develop the individual strengths of each unique IB student. And so, we’re ahead of the curve in many of these necessary developments, and our commitment to delivering the best for students and schools has been energized still more by the desire and necessity to embrace change, grounded in best and proven practice.