Past, present, future: the IB is a leading edge in a changing world


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Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Director General of the International Baccalaureate

Source: International Schools Journal, Vol. XLII, NO 1, Spring 2022

With the horrors of the Second World War still fresh in their minds, the founders of the International Baccalaureate (IB) were motivated to imagine a better way of thinking about education – and how, in turn, education could help build a better and more peaceful world. Unfortunately, the recent events in Europe demonstrate the importance of those words, stated in the IB mission, still today. 

At the same time, we are experiencing an era of change or even a change of era. The challenges that we face today, although in many ways different from those confronted by the founders of the IB 54 years ago, have renewed our passion and sparked courage to create a better world through education. For students to thrive and make a difference, we are called to engage in open, forthright conversations about what we teach and how we teach it; how we can help our students become the agents of change we so desperately need. It is never easy, but I believe the IB is uniquely placed to empower the next generation of students with the confidence – and the agency – to make a significant impact on the world they are to inherit.

So, what is the role of the IB in 2022? How do we help today’s world as it faces its own unique challenges and uncertainties? The IB’s founders would not have wanted us to stand still in the face of this opportunity, but instead to evolve, and turn the COVID-19 crisis into a chance to renew and refresh their vision. 

Certainly, the challenges confronting us today are different in nature from those that came before. They are more complex, more global, and more multifaceted. They demand that we think differently. Take for example the climate emergency. It is conventional to think that it is problem for scientists to conquer – and that we should support and fund them in this endeavour. Although we do need scientists, to overcome the enormous challenge of global warming we also need social scientists, behaviourists, communicators, and business experts to all work together.  

There is more. Tackling this huge international crisis is not just an academic problem, it is a moral one. We also need to think about ways to tackle the selfishness, greed, and apathy - human conditions connected to what we value, how we behave and treat each other - around the globe. We need to emphasize the need to think about the ways in which we develop and foster a sense of shared humanity. 

Both facets – the academic and the moral collective one – are central to how we think about what we want our education system to become and what we want the International Baccalaureate to do. I believe the history and legacy of the IB has made us incredibly well-suited to educating the citizens of the future to be active participants doing their share to save the world from man-made global warming. 

But this is far from the only huge challenge we face. As well as surveying the aftermath of Covid-19, we must also look around at the digital revolution that is transforming the world at a rate previously unthinkable. New technology is a challenge to education on two fronts. Firstly, it is a challenge to how we teach. Secondly, it is a challenge to what we teach. The IB cannot afford to ignore either of these – the change in society is accelerating and not slowing – and the IB needs to be at its cutting edge. 

A deep understanding of the interaction between human-machine relationships is needed in order to sustain human value and meaning. The legacy of the organisation – that it is not in the control of any one government, that it is truly independent, that it is truly international – means that the IB is ideally placed to be at the head of this revolution, helping to shape it as a force for good. 

First, the “how”. For too long we have thought about education as the synchronous relationship between a teachers at the front of a physical class, imparting information to a group of children writing things down on pieces of paper. Similarly, the idea of linear courses culminating in in-person exams feels to me, archaic. The standardized ways of teaching and learning only fit some, and therefore fail to uphold the principle of equity. This way of thinking about teaching was a function of a bygone era, and it completely fails to reflect the world our students – but also our teachers – now occupy. The near future of the IB involves moving beyond these anachronistic ways of thinking about pedagogy and assessment. There are developments to explore in terms of digital teaching, digital assessment and digital qualifications that we must commit to exploring and piloting.

Which leads me onto the challenge that digital presents to the “what” we teach – the way we think about curriculum content and subject material. The fact is that everyday technology now provides us with tools that can process information in a way that is faster, better, and perhaps more reliable than humans. 

And while we must not ignore the need to transfer knowledge and culture between generations, we are also faced with an enormously complex world that doesn’t necessarily need its citizens to be expert in the regurgitation of facts (that are now available at the tap of a button). We now need to think about developing capabilities and skillsets that will help a new generation to cope and then flourish. Without being trite, in a world of AI, what are the things that the humans of tomorrow are going to bring to the table? I contend that the answer lies in the ability to imagine solutions, to prioritise and to make moral and ethical decisions. 

It is not at all clear, for example, if the need to be good at this kind of subjective, creative, and moralistic decision-making means that the IB of the future should de-emphasise the teaching of a certain body of knowledge in traditional subjects. The things that are most easily taught or measured or tested in these disciplines are also those that are the easiest to be programmed.

While the digital revolution challenges us to creatively question almost every aspect of our work at the IB, there is another cultural transformation taking place around the world, one that also challenges us to be better versions of ourselves. There is a generational shift taking place in the way we think about each other as humans – I am talking about efforts to support diversity, equality and inclusion – often driven by young people and their desire to make the world more inclusive. Within our work as an educational organisation this presents us with challenges – not least of all when it comes to the content of the curriculum. More specifically, the issue of “decolonising the curriculum”. 

This is something that we need to consider with empathy and understanding. After all, all curricula continuously evolve – not just with new developments such as scientific breakthroughs or new works of literature – but also as societies and cultures change. Nobody who works in education can afford to ignore the often righteous demands that are being made to rethink decisions around the material that is chosen to be taught in schools. The commitment to embrace this challenge must be even stronger and even deeper for the IB with its proud progressive history. These movements – which are often led by IB students themselves (a fact that we should be inordinately proud of) – also present us with another challenge: the question of access to the IB. If young people are asking us to be inclusive when we think about what we teach, they are also now asking us to be inclusive on the question of who we teach. 

It is not entirely accurate (nearly half of the schools that teach the IB are in the state sector), but there is a caricature of the IB as being elitist, of being expensive, of being the preserve of children of affluent white families in private international schools. I know that there is so much more to the IB than this, but like all stereotypes, it contains a grain of truth. For some schools around the world, our courses are simply too expensive. For others, they don’t have the teachers or facilities to deliver it. This must change. I am committed to bringing down as many barriers to accessing the IB as possible. There is no way an organization with our shared philosophy and progressive history can do anything else. 

And while we’re on the subject of what the young people of 2022 tell us they want from us, we cannot ignore the issue of mental health and wellbeing. It should come as no surprise that anxiety among young people around the world has rocketed in the two years since the pandemic began – but it was already soaring. As adults, we have experienced many difficulties and understand that, in time, the COVID-19 pandemic will pass. But, for our youth these uncertain times are notably unsettling as they struggle to navigate the school system. Will schools stay open? Will my teacher be well enough to come to class? Will I be mandated to wear facemasks in the corridors? Will the protective bubble around my school day burst? Will I be able to master enough of the curriculum to succeed in my exams? Will there even be exams? The issue of school wellbeing is now at the top of the agenda. We are talking more and more about the need to depressurise schooling; to think about the whole student, and the whole school community, not just curriculum models and exams. 

The IB is very much part of this international conversation. It is one of the reasons we have always put such stock in coursework and internally-marked work as part of our assessments. It’s also why we are so keen to encourage teamwork, inquiry and creativity in our schools and frameworks. We don’t do this just because we think it makes for better qualifications, we do it because we think it makes for better and happier young people. We must do even more in this space. We are told by students across the globe that IB courses can be stressful and create anxiety. We know that learning requires perseverance and stamina but being stressful is not a characteristic of quality education. While true of almost any qualification, I am committed to looking at ways to make the journeys that young people undertake with the IB less fraught.

Which brings us back to the question of what we want the IB to do; of what it is we want young people to take away from time spent engaging with the IB? The answer I keep coming back to is agency. Education is not only about what knowledge, skills, values and attitudes students should get, but also learning to value what the world is asking from each one of us. If humanity is to survive the climate crisis, if it is to thrive in a digital world and if it is to become more democratic, more inclusive and more progressive, then we will need students to think critically, to look for solutions, and take on these challenges. And we will need inspiring teachers who are with them each step of the way. Agency is central in creating conditions for young people to flourish, as individuals, but also as communities taking into consideration the planetary wellbeing and flourishing of future generations. 

At the IB, we are working on our strategy for the next few years – and I am determined that it should be iterative, responsive and evolving. I feel sure that the IB in 2030 will be more open, more progressive and more forward-thinking. At the same time, we are not departing from the ethos of the founders of this organization but becoming more committed to addressing the challenges of our times through an IB education. 

And I think this is just as our founding fathers would have wanted it. 

Olli-Pekka Heinonen started his tenure as the eighth Director General of the International Baccalaureate (IB) in May 2021. Previously he served as the Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education and, prior to that he held various positions in the Finnish Government, including State Secretary 2012–2016 and Minister of Education and Science 1994–1999. He graduated with a Master of Laws (LL.M.) from the University of Helsinki in 1990.