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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The International Baccalaureate diploma and a fresh approach to education

On par with the students: Paula Baxter, Elementary School Principal at International School Phnom Penh, takes a break in the playground.
On par with the students: Paula Baxter, Elementary School Principal at International School Phnom Penh, takes a break in the playground. JULIUS THEIEMANN

The International Baccalaureate diploma and a fresh approach to education

The International Baccalaureate Organization’s high school diploma program is the fastest growing of its kind in the world, with currently some one million students in 3,500 schools throughout 145 countries studying for it. The program offers an education for children from as young as 3 years old up until high school. While the IB diploma enjoys the highest academic recognition due to its demanding curriculum, its teaching standards and learning methods are anything but conservative. Instead of drills, ex cathedra teaching and dull theory, IB students enjoy great freedom in their learning, allowing them to discover the world through play and to develop an individual approach and their unique skills. But how can 3-years-olds and adolescents be responsible enough to learn independently such a tough curriculum? The Post’s Julius Thiemann went back to school and found out more about the IB program from Paula Baxter, Elementary School Principale at International School Phnom Penh, one of two IB schools in Cambodia.

What has made the IB program so successful over the last couple of years?
Among the basics of the IB is a learner profile, consisting of 10 attributes, or form foundations of the program from prereception to high school. Our students are described by attributes like “being risk takers, being caring, being knowledgeable” . . . we look at how we can best develop the whole child towards international-mindedness because we want them to be citizens of the world with options around the globe.

We also know that most of the jobs children go to school for now don’t even exist yet. Of course we have a knowledge-based curriculum but we want to teach them to ask and answer questions for themselves in a world that is constantly changing. Of course we cannot feed all of that to the children with the daytime curriculum. For all that doesn’t fit into the frame of the curriculum, we have the after-school activities, which are very individualised for the children – of course not every child wants to learn music or another sport.

Do the children who join after-school activities perform better in the regular classes than those who don’t?
The percentage of children taking part in after-school activities is very high and we raise the type of children with a very wide range of interest here anyway. We have a different view on what intelligence is and want to nurture every part of the individual child.

Children that have the profile to join our school tend to have an interest in different learning opportunities. So back to the question if these kind of children in an IB school are different from others: I think they are more open-minded and take more risks, are more tolerant of other people, and have a wider perspective of what they can do and what their opportunities are. If they don’t see opportunity themselves they would ask for it.

That is a very different approach from the classic ex cathedra teaching (a hands-off approach). How do children who change from a rigid system into the IB system cope?
In the transition phase they tend to be very quiet because our classrooms are very lively. The children are encouraged to ask questions, do things for themselves and show their independence. We encourage them to be sociable, while in many strict curriculums children sit in rows and face the teacher. In our classes, children are grouped and desks are put together and they are expected to learn cooperatively. Depending on where a new child comes from it can take a bit of time. Some children come from a part of the world where they are not allowed to ask questions and have to learn what the teacher says only. They have to learn to deal with the freedom. An example would be multiplying numbers. In a rigid system there might only be one acceptable way of solving a problem while for us it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you get the answer right. If a child has a different way of solving the problem it is encouraged to share it with the class. Maybe it works best for somebody else as well.

Is the open approach you take a necessity to harmonise children that come from so many different cultural backgrounds?
I think it works very well like that because we teach tolerance and acceptance, and being self-aware is also part of that. We have courses under the motto “Who we are” where the children reflect on themselves as citizen of the world.

Many parents of the students have gone through a very rigid school system. Do they take the open approach seriously?
Of course parents project their own experiences at school onto their child. Because it is brand new to them, we do a lot of parent education so they understand that the learning of their child is different than their own – which doesn’t mean that it is better or worse, only different. Obviously the fact that many of the parents move around different countries and they send their children to an international school shows that they are very open to new approaches. Our parent workshops are very well attended because they want to understand how their children are learning. Ultimately they don’t understand.

When is learning enjoyable?
Hopefully all through life, beginning with the day we are born. In our first years we are learning through play. This is what we follow in our PYP (Primary Years Programme) from prereception, through kindergarten to year one. Everything is play-based and we are showing the children that learning is fun and hope to maintain that sense of enjoyment as the children grow older.

How can playing be the same as learning?
There are many types of playing and we structure the playing in a way that kids can learn. For example, we have a pond and in one week there may be rubber ducks swimming on the pond with letters under them. The kids pick up the rubber ducks and try to read the letters.

Last week they were doing measuring. So they had all different kinds of measuring cylinders with water and the teacher would ask them if the water from one cylinder fits into another cylinder. To find out they need to pour the water through which they develop their motor skills but also mathematically predict if one volume will fit into another.

There are endlessly many games to teach children counting from one to 10, manipulate numbers, group numbers and so on. This way, children learn to enjoy numbers and they hopefully will enjoy them when they start practising mathematics on a higher level.

How can learning remain enjoyable when playing is no longer part of the curriculum?
We teach older children and youth in an open-minded and fun way. When you take a tour through our classrooms you will rarely see a teacher standing in front and talking at the class. Sometimes you don’t even see the teacher because they are crouching down and talking to students. The teachers don’t direct the learning. They enable the students to direct their own learning.

At the end, however, people have to sit the IB exam. How can freedom in learning meet the criteria of strict syllables?
We have a very solid curriculum framework built in right from the beginning when children join at age of 3. It is as strict as the IB curriculum but looks different for a 17-year-old than it does for a 3-year-old.

Having a strict curriculum and playful freedom at the same time – doesn’t that sound like a paradox?
It does sound strange for many parents who say that the program consists of opposing ideas: A tough curriculum versus an open-minded approach. But it all blends together.

What’s the link here?
For one there is the learner profile. This is the bedrock. Then there are the social and self-management skills, the research skills and other basic concepts we teach the children which permeate through all areas. When the younger kids are driven to school, for example, they expect someone to carry their water bottles and bags.

We teach them really quickly that it is their responsibility because the things belong to them. It’s the little things we train these children in, like getting changed for swimming, tying one’s own shoe laces, feeding oneself – those are life-long skills that foster independence and responsibility from a very early age.



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