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Student-centred: what it means

At the centre of learning

An IB teacher makes use of the knowledge and understanding that students bring with them to the classroom and aims to ignite a sense of wonder about learning and knowledge. Francis Beckett discovers how IB programmes produce lifelong learners through a student-centred approach

You have to be careful about saying ‘student-centred’. Head of Diploma Programme Tristian Stobie, for one, thinks the words may summon up expectations of students deciding their own curriculum, in a manner that was briefly fashionable in the 1970s ‘progressive’ education. “It doesn’t mean that anything goes. It doesn’t mean you just send them out to discover,” he says. Shani Sniedze-Gregory, acting head of the Middle Years Programme, says firmly: “There’s a difference between student-centred and student-driven. We mean that the teacher looks at the needs of the student, and considers how to make the learning relevant and meaningful to the student; we don’t mean that the student decides the curriculum, even though they may have some input.”

Group of IB students working at desk

All the same, students are encouraged to explore the questions that interest them. The Diploma Programme includes the famous 4,000-word extended essay on a subject of the student’s choosing, which remains a remarkable opportunity for self-determination in learning. The Middle Years Programme ends with a personal project lasting over several months, which the student chooses, and students are expected to choose something they feel passionate about doing. Head of programme development Judith Fabian remembers a German student who had become deeply interested in African drumming. For her project, she offered to teach it to fellow students and teachers, gave a concert, and evaluated the whole experience.

But it is not just these parts of the programme that make IB programmes student-centred. It is the philosophy of learning that runs through all the programmes. This comprehensively rejects the style of teaching in which students are regarded as empty vessels to be filled by a teacher’s store of knowledge. An IB teacher makes use of the knowledge and understanding that the students bring with them.

This theory of learning is called constructivism, because students are constructing their own meaning and understanding. Tristian Stobie explains it like this: “Learning can only occur if students’ current understanding is challenged. It encourages teaching for understanding, which many traditional teachers do not do, and their students fail to apply what they have learned.”

Judith Fabian – an English literature teacher before joining the IB – offers an example of how it works in practice. “Everyone reads a novel differently because the meaning we impose on it comes from what we know. So a class might be asked, at the end of one chapter of, say, Jane Eyre, to predict how the story will develop; or to write a synopsis for a sequel. The different approaches the students adopt to these tasks will provide material for a fruitful discussion.

“It’s about valuing the learner and the resources the learner arrives with,” she says.

Teacher helping students in classroom

But it’s also about the nature of learning itself. In an IB classroom there is some of what Judith Fabian calls “transmission teaching” – the teacher giving students information – but a great deal more of equipping students to find things out and to solve problems. The intention is to produce lifelong learners who will have, all their lives, the skills and the inclination to go on learning. “We hope they will always have that sense of wonder and excitement about knowledge,” she says.

You cannot do this unless you have learned how to learn. So IB programmes, in addition to requiring individual work, also require students to work in groups and discover things for themselves – often things outside their own intellectual comfort zone. Thus, in the Diploma Programme, science students come together – biologists, chemists, physicists – for a joint project to which they can bring their different skills, and learn from those of the others. Judith Fabian remembers one of them well: “In Tanzania we looked at the environmental issues raised by the stretch of beach near the school, and they were all able to have an input into it.”

All of this is fine for older students, but can student-centred learning apply to young children? The Primary Years Programme aims to do just that. “It’s about students inquiring into, and understanding, the six trans-disciplinary fields, that is themes that address shared human experiences,” says Jennifer Giddings, head of the Primary Years Programme. “The big shift is putting the student at the centre of the learning experience and having teachers support that, instead of having teachers deliver the learning. It is changing the relationship between teachers and students so that students are active participants not passive recipients.”

Diploma students in discussion

She offers examples. In most primary schools, at some point, children make masks. But in an IB classroom there will be a context to it. They will also be finding out about how people express themselves. “We are looking to expand the context of the learning.” In Colorado, she says, young children learn something of the history of the state – but in a school operating the Primary Years Programme, it must be plugged into a broader context. This might be the history and effects of migration globally, and how this applies to the gold-rush state of Colorado.

Learning in IB programmes always has a context – social, personal, behavioural – and it is no different with young children, who take the learning they have everywhere they go. It informs all of their behaviour. “For example, the child sees some bullying in the playground; the child should be able to say: ought I to do something about it?” says Jennifer Giddings. “Perhaps the answer is: yes, but I’m not brave enough or grown-up enough. And that’s okay at that age, but they need to go through the process of thinking: should I take action, and what action?”

IB students working on creative project

At the centre of this argument is the idea that students must own their own education. Jennifer Giddings believes, in the final analysis, that: “It means having young children understand as early as possible that this is their education and that their teachers are only facilitators.”

But to be successful facilitators, teachers have to be what the IB calls ‘creative professionals’. And if they are, they will educate people who, all their lives, will fit what the IB terms its ‘learner profile’. That means they will be inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, and balanced. Quite a tall order for a programme designed for students at such a young age – but if it can’t be done in schools, it’s much harder to achieve later.


Primary Years Programme

Jennifer Giddings
Head of the PYP

Jennifer Giddings, head of PYP

Teachers have to identify central ideas which students must understand. These ideas are used to define part of the curriculum and structure in-depth student inquiry. Teachers define lines of inquiry for the students to explore from the perspectives of their own, and the teacher’s questions.


Middle Years Programme

Shani Sniedze-Gregory
Acting head of the MYP

Shani Sniedze-Gregory, acting head of MYP

The MYP gives schools a framework within which they can develop their school-specific curriculum. This framework includes conceptual and skill requirements within the subject groups, as well as the areas of interaction that can organize, focus and make content meaningful.


Diploma Programme

Tristian Stobie

Head of the Diploma Programme

Tristian Stobie, head of Diploma Programme

Student-centred is about ownership of learning. Students are responsible for their own learning and are active in it. What matters is the interaction between students and teachers. The teacher discovers and engages the students’ levels of understanding, and engages the students in instruction and activities that challenge and develop their understanding.


For the complete version of the above text please refer to the hard copy of IB World.