IB sets pupils on a journey of discovery

30th March 2012 at 01:00
The freedom of the International Baccalaureate is perfect for primaries, says Mary McCarney

To IB or not to IB? That may be the question facing secondary schools, but should primaries consider the International Baccalaureate, too? Like many British teachers, I had no idea the IB offered primary and middle-school programmes alongside its much-debated diploma until I moved to the US.

Back in 2007, as the national curriculum became increasingly prescriptive for primary teachers, I was longing for the very freedom now suggested in the national curriculum review. It was only when I started teaching first graders (six- to seven-year-olds) at Atlanta International School that I discovered a curriculum can, and should, allow teachers and pupils creative control over its direction. I now feel that I'm doing the best teaching of my career, thanks to the IB's Primary Years Programme (PYP), a framework for learning that sets teachers (and pupils) free.

The PYP is built around six transdisciplinary themes that focus on the development of the whole child as an enquirer. Guided by these, teachers and pupils design their own units of enquiry that transcend conventional subject boundaries. Skills are acquired within a meaningful international context, allowing pupils to connect their learning to real-world issues. There is a huge emphasis on pupils formulating their own questions, researching the answers, reflecting on their findings and taking action.

My first graders are researching endangered plants and animals. One child wants to investigate why orang-utans are almost extinct and what can be done to protect them. Other pupils will use maps to locate habitats and explore the environmental impact of issues such as global warming on endangered species. They are excited and engaged, while naturally making connections. Effectively, they are devising their own programme of study by posing key questions and identifying activities that will help them to find the answers.

As their teacher, I support their planning and investigating while encouraging independent learning. Right now, I'm not certain where their journeys of discovery will take them, but at the end of this unit the children will present their work to their peers and I will assess their learning. In terms of assessment, this is about as far from Sats papers as I can get.

Mine is one of almost 900 schools around the world that have already adopted the PYP. Although the IB diploma is becoming more widely available as an alternative to A levels, the primary programme has been a slow starter in Britain so far. Leverhulme Community Primary School in Bolton, one of only 12 PYP-authorised schools in the UK, has successfully integrated current government requirements into the programme, and was recently praised by Ofsted. "We began by using the PYP as an overarching set of skills to underpin our entire curriculum. We have since indulged in more creativity and let our children become more involved in designing their learning," says Nigel Ashton, the school's headteacher.

"Some relaxation by the government already means schools can be more creative. I feel there is now the best opportunity ever to embrace the PYP. However, each school needs to be at the right stage of its development. For example, it must be confident about its direction, vision and curriculum," he adds.

From my position as an onlooker here in Atlanta, I'll be interested to read the outcomes of the curriculum review next September. If the government really is serious about granting schools greater freedom, this will ultimately encourage UK primaries to explore more creative vehicles for delivery, such as the PYP. It's a big step, but I'm optimistic that schools will have the confidence to put teachers and pupils in the driving seat and take back ownership of the curriculum. To quote American poet Robert Frost, "Freedom lies in being bold."

Mary McCarney is a first grade teacher and grade level leader at Atlanta International School in the US.

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