What Curriculum Studies can tell us about the IB Diploma Programme

Though the field of curriculum studies is relatively young, curriculum is an ancient concept (Egan, 2003 in Corrigan & Ng-A-Fook, 2012). The word itself comes from the Latin currere, which means to run (Goodson, 1995, p.25). Despite this historic root – or perhaps because of it – ‘curriculum’ has come to mean different things to different people, both inside and out of the academic field.

Traditionalists might claim that a school curriculum consists of a collection of classical subjects and essential skills (Behar-Horenstein, 2000, p.8): Bestor (1956) wrote that curriculum was ‘disciplined study in grammar, literature and writing, mathematics, science, history, and foreign language’ (Behar-Horenstein, 2000, p.10). However, it is usually conceived of as something much more complex than that. Indeed, as Colin Marsh points out, according to Portelli (1987), more than 120 definitions of the term appear in the professional literature devoted to curriculum (Marsh, 2004, p.3).

The written curriculum, though perhaps the obvious place to begin,  is arguably but one aspect of a much broader idea, to the extent that Rudolph (1977) has warned us “the best way to misread or misunderstand a curriculum is from a catalogue. It is such a lifeless thing, so disembodied, so unconnected, sometimes intentionally misleading” (Goodson, 1995, p. 17).

Alistair Ross argues thus:

A school’s curriculum consists of all those activities designed or encouraged within its organisational framework to promote the intellectual, personal, social and physical development of its pupils. It includes not only the formal programme of lessons, but also the ‘informal’ programme of so-called extracurricular activities as well as all those features which produce the school’s ‘ethos’, such as the quality of relationships, the concern for equality of opportunity, the values exemplified in the way the schools sets about its task and the way in which it is organised and managed.

(Ross, 2000, p.9)

This explains the argument that curricula work on various levels, or in various layers. Cuban (1993) writes of the official, taught, learned and tested curricula (Joseph, Bravmann, Windschitl, Mikel, & Green, 2000, p.4); Kelly of the educational, total, and hidden curricula (Kelly, 2004,  p.3); Burke of the manifest, hidden, expressive, and school curricula (Burke, 1995, p.4). These give credence to Kelly’s assertion that “there are more aspects to curriculum than are dreamed of in the philosophy of most teachers, and certainly of most politicians (Kelly, 2004, p.7). The tensions between these layers are also recognized. Kelly again speaks of the conflict between planned and received curricula, between formal and informal; and Aoki claims that it is through these tensions that pedagogy comes (Aoki, 2005, p.159).

Curriculum, then, can be seen, and has been described, as “everything that goes on within a school” (Oliva, 1997, in Behar-Horenstein, 2000, p. 13). Needless to say, this view is too nebulous and inexhaustible to facilitate a worthwhile analysis of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). And so we shall take our cue from Walker (1990), who usefully argues that the fundamental concepts of curriculum are: purpose, content, and organization (Marsh, 2004, p.7).

Curriculum Aims

In its early years, Curriculum Studies as a discipline seemed to favour scientific, reconstructionist, instrumentalist formulations of what curriculum should be (Kelly, 2004, p.56), which led to the objectives-based ideologies of education (Kelly, 2004, p.58) which still reign in the majority of school systems today. Through this intellectually restrictive approach of education, knowledge, opinions, structures and values are transferred and legitimized (Hollins, 1996, p.1). It is this process, many argue, which is largely responsible for the quiet maintenance of societies’ structures of dominance and subservience, class, and cultural control by those with power over the purpose and functioning of schools (Apple, 2004, p.2).

However, this is a view of curriculum which has long since been challenged by academia, as well as by different stakeholders in education, and it is widely accepted that the aims of education can be intrinsic as well as, or indeed instead of, instrumental  (Thompson, Hayden, & Cambridge, 2003, p. 30). Joseph Goodlad (1979) wrote of a range of purposes across this spectrum, listing academic, vocational, social and civic, and personal as four types of curriculum goal (Joseph, Bravmann, Windschitl, Mikel, & Green, 2000, p.10), and Lepage and Socket assert three approaches: social preparation, cultural knowledge and individual development (Lepage & Sockett, 2002, p. 5).

Many are those who see the true purpose of education as purely intrinsic, process-based, or student-centred.  Dewey (1916) believed that schools should be about shared interests, freedom in interaction, participation, and social relationships, in a curriculum based on the needs and interests of students that urged students to learn how to think rather than what to think (Behar-Horenstein, 2000, p.12), and Lee (1963) stated that the goal of education “is that of happy, free citizens fulfilling their personal and public destiny” (Lee, 1963, p.41). Furthermore, creativity, imagination, vision and insight should be promoted to encourage the questioning of accepted wisdoms and structures (Longworth, 2003, p.79); indeed it is such “challenge, critique, dialogue and debate” that Kelly claims should be “the essence of education” (Kelly, 2004, p.44).

All of these ideas and others are nicely summed up by Meira Levinson:

The aim of liberal education is to teach children the skills, habits, knowledge, and dispositions for them to be thoughtful, mature, self-assured individuals who map their path in the world with care and confidence, take responsibility for their actions, fulfil their duties as citizens, question themselves and others when appropriate, listen to and learn from others, and ultimately lead their lives with dignity, integrity, and self-respect.

(Levinson, 1999, p. 164)

In addition to this, there are many who attest that any such education must be based around a pluralistic, multi-cultural and international view of society and the world at large (Smolicz, 1996; Longworth, 200; Hollins, 1996; Kelly, 2004; Hill, 2002), and must focus on issues illuminated by such a view.

Stakeholder Perspectives

There are various groups identified as being ‘stakeholders’ in education and education policy, including teachers, principals, parents, university-based specialists, industry, community groups,  government agencies and politicians (Marsh, 2004, p.8). However, it has been noted that education policy is rarely determined by educators (Abbey, 2000, p.252), and looking as we are at an international curriculum, we will discount those groups concerned on a national level and focus on those with a less culturally- or geographically-fixed interest in such a curriculum and its outcomes: the parents who pay, the students who study and the businesses which employ.

Parents, as the fee-payers, are increasingly cast as the consumers of this type of education (Coffey, 2001, p.22). This suggests that they are clear about what they want, and informed and determined enough to seek it (Kelley-Laine, 1998). Some studies support the idea that parental involvement and influence in curriculum decision-making can be beneficial, with a demand from them for improved quality leading to better outcomes for students (Lewis, 2008). However, as Tom Peters (1997) witheringly puts it, ‘Caution: The Customer’s Perception of Quality Can Be Perverse’ (Schwartzman, 1995). Parents’ views can be provincial and prejudiced in their opinions of what a high-quality education might look like (Schwartzman, 1995). Furthermore, it is argued that they are likely to make judgements based on a belief in the validity of the hard data that results from formal testing and assessment (Coffey, 2001, p.23), which Meier argues “is not ‘hard’ at all; it is soft and sloppy and highly accessible to our not-disinterested manipulations” (Meier, 1999, p.63). It is for these reasons and more that many insist that parents should have little power in influencing curricula and school policy (Levinson, 1999, p.144).

From the perspective of the students themselves, it seems that they increasingly doubt the efficacy of a traditional academic curriculum, question the artificiality of subject, age and ability boundaries, and view themselves as global citizens for whom curiosity, adventure and collective endeavour should be the curricular driving-force (Burke & Grosvenor, 2003, p.58).

The voice of students is rarely heard in such debates though (White, 2003, p.181), and it is usually left to academics to determine what the students want and need. That said, a great many are in agreement that the aims of any curriculum purporting to be in the students’ interests should be focused on learning to learn (Longworth, 2003, p.141), in order to facilitate the development of independent thinkers, problem solvers, and decision makers who are able to find and analyze information and create new ideas (Silva, 2009) in a world where the lifelong job is likely to be replaced by the portfolio of jobs (Skelton, 2002, p.43).

What may come as a surprise to those who read newspapers and  follow government policies in many of the world’s leading nations is that business interests and student interests are very closely aligned, and that while politicians, parents, journalists and even teachers ask ‘how can we better teach for the good of business and the economy?’ (Levinson, 1999, p.163), students and businesses already have the answers. Technical competences, communication, adaptability, inter-personal, teamwork, problem-solving, analytical, and leadership skills all appear time and again in the literature of curriculum studies (Velasco, 2012), but the skill that stands out the most is the ability to learn (Greenberg, 1993; Velasco, 2012; Longworth, 2003).

The Aims of the IBDP

The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) was founded on the establishment of three main aims: to promote international understanding and peace, to provide a recognizable international qualification, and to promote critical thinking skills (Hill, 2002, p.20).

The clearest manifestation of these aims today can be seen in widely-published and promoted ‘IB Learner Profile’ (see appendix 1). This fact alone is testament to espoused student-centred focus of the curriculum. This profile seeks to describe the ideal learner. In doing so, it demonstrates its position as part of a process, and on-going (ideal learner, not ideal learned), and thus promotes continued development beyond the course itself.

As well as claiming to develop ‘internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world’ the IB Learner Profile describes students who strive to be ten things: inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective.

This list of words seems, at first, devoid of real substance. There seems little here that can be measured. ‘Knowledgeable’ certainly fits with many people’s view of a curricular aim; ‘thinkers’ matches well the problem-solving, analytical aims mentioned above; ‘communicators’ is a clear priority for many stakeholders; and ‘inquirers’ speaks again of the thirst for life-long knowledge. The other five though, seem more idealistic, perhaps more in line with the programmes origins.

These though are just the written aims, and even then in a form which is not explicitly so. Anyone with experience of the IBDP – its syllabi, structures and assessment procedures – can have little doubt that at its core lie all of the aims of Levinson’s liberal education and many, if not all, of the aims of a curriculum as seen through the eyes of progressive academics, businesses and students themselves. These things, detailed above, are all promoted and required by the subjects, pedagogies and assessment practices prescribed and promoted in the IBDP.

Curriculum Content

Kliebard (1977) suggested that the fundamental question for any curriculum theory is: ‘What should be taught? (Marsh, 2004, p.199); and there are various approaches to categorizing the stuff of curriculum content, based on academic disciplines, topics, or skill-sets. Lawton (1975) wrote of a ‘subject-based’ or ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum, and Goodson (1987) of the ‘academic’ curriculum (Ross, 2000, p.97), and despite the growing recognition of the artificiality of this imposition of boundaries on content (Kelly, 2004; Matus & Mccarthy, 2003) it is this view of subject specialism and compartmentalization which still dominates in common-sense and everyday understandings of what a curriculum consists of (Coffey, 2001, p.40).

The field of curriculum studies, however, is increasingly questioning not only the nature of the imposed boundaries, but also their very existence. A subject-based timetable teaching a subset of information in discrete topics at set times during the school day is irrelevant, argues Longworth (2003, p.139), and all students should be entitled to a curriculum which makes sense as a whole and does not fragment into isolated items (White, 2003, p.183); and students, too, recognize this, seeing the need for a general education of strong foundations as preferable to being treated as ‘proto-specialists’ in distinct fields of study (Burke & Grosvenor, 2003, p.59), a view which White supports: “Schools’ first duty is not in the preparation of specialists, but with providing a sound general education in line with subject-transcending aims” (White, 2003, p.14).

According to Marsh, (2004, p.227) rising in popularity are approaches to curriculum content based on a more post-modern view of knowledge. Curriculum needs flexible content in changing world (Kelly, 2004, p.50). As such, many theorists now support problem- or issues-based content, built around the real, lived-lives of students (Graham, 1991), race and gender, beliefs and commitments, religious bigotry, political repression and cultural elitism (Parker, 1997), the body, the spirit and the cosmos, and the various environments, large and small, internal and external, in which students exist and operate (Atends, 2000). This is further supported by the view, promoted by Kelly, that content should be recast as a ‘cultural amplifier’, selected to achieve capacities rather than knowledge (Kelly, 2004, p.51), or, as Marx puts it: “although content is vital for effective education … it is process…that pulls the expanding mass of knowledge into a coherent whole” (Marx, 2006, p.6).

So while the majority of schools build curricula around subjects, and national governments, such as that in the UK, continue to promote content above all else (Kelly, 2004, p.58), the growing consensus in the academic field seems to be that it is skills and capacities, developed through process and critical inquiry – as outlined above in our discussion of curricular aims – that should be the backbone of any school curriculum.

Content in the IBDP

Content areas in the IBDP are subject-based. Subjects are grouped, and students choose one from each group: Language A1 (first language and literature), Second Language, Individuals and Societies, Experimental Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science, and the Arts – although this last is optional and can be replaced by a subject from any of the first five groups. In addition, there is a requirement that students complete a set number of hours engaged in ‘Community, Action and Service’ (CAS), an ‘Extended Essay’ project, and Theory of Knowledge (TOK), a compulsory subject designed to critically appraise knowledge and its construction as well as tie the other subjects together.

Though the groupings of subjects may appear broad, and arguably do provide a broad base for educational experience, they are nevertheless populated by traditional subjects with traditional boundaries: biology, physics, geography, history, and so on. At present, there is only one subject – Environmental Systems and Societies – that is explicitly identified as ‘transdisciplinary’.

However, a closer look at the details of the subject syllabi reveals a great deal of outward-looking ‘content’, and taught well, the subjects in the IBDP should cross subject boundaries and cross-pollenate. As well as this, TOK actively promotes interdisciplinary study and critique.

Curriculum Pedagogy

Just as the dominant content-packaging of curricula remains the school subjects, so the dominant organizational and pedagogical framework remains one of knowledge delivery. W. James Popham, among others, favoured and promoted a technicist, objectives-based curriculum modelled on behaviourism (Scott, 2007, p.21), and this has stuck. In such a curriculum model, abilities, capacities and knowledge are used as ever-divisible targets to be achieved and measured, and subjects are selected, ostensibly, for their suitability in facilitating the delivery of these targets (Ross, 2006, p.116). Such a system supports a model of teaching that equates teaching with transmission, or delivery, of knowledge, from the expert teacher to the student (Ross, 2006, p.116), and of course raises questions of who is in a position to select the knowledge in question, and for what purposes.

This, in turn, often leads to an education that comprises little more than rote-learning, and, as Vygotsky insists, learning needs to be internalized, not rote (Scott, 2007, p.90). The majority of serious studies and the weight of academic research and assessment would seem to support this stance. As Corrigan & Ng-A-Fook (2012) put it, “the present brick-and-mortar model for educational institutions needs to make way for a new model in order for education to be truly democratic”.

The most consistent features of the change in the curricula being advocated in the literature are those of the role played by the teacher, and of the process of education usurping the outcomes. In contrast to the traditional view outlined above, teachers are being reconceptualised along the lines of ideals long espoused by John Dewey or Lawrence Stenhouse, and re-tasked as guides, facilitators and enablers of learning (Scott, 2007; Ross, 2000; Luterbach & Brown, 2011). Here, teachers are positioned as mentors, Socratic questioners, and as equals in a learning process.

Stenhouse has long supported an inquiry-based, process curriculum in which students construct their own knowledge and learn through doing (Scott, 2007, p.31); a curriculum concerned with the development of the individual, and freed from seeing goals, aims and intentions as extrinsic (Kelly, 2004, p.78). The question remains though: what should that process consist of?

Here, opinions are varied and plentiful. It is argued that inquiry should be interdisciplinary and based on the constructed nature of knowledge (Matus & Mccarthy, 2003, p.80). It is contended that the work should be topic-based, issue-based (Ross, 2000, p.141) and socio-historically located (Alba, González-Gaudiano, Lankshear, & Peters, 2000). Dewey advocated an experiential approach to learning that was child-centred and flexible (Ross, 2000, p.137), as do Luterbach and Brown (2011); indeed, the child-centred approach can be traced back to Jean-Jaques Rousseau in the 18th century (Ross, 2000, p.136). Withrow (1999), among others, has proposed a project-based curriculum addressing real-world issues (Marx, 2006, p.22), and curricula based on scenario planning and interdisciplinary themes have been discussed as a means of knitting together otherwise disparate fields of study (Alba, González-Gaudiano, Lankshear, & Peters, 2000, p.17).

Pedagogy in the IBDP

The International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) promote a range of pedagogical approaches in their literature. There should be a high degree of interaction between teacher and students, and between students and each other. The teacher should position his or herself as a ‘supporter’ of student learning, as opposed to a deliverer of content, with independent student thinking as the goal, facilitated through teacher’s providing of meaningful questions and contexts, and tasks should be varied, taking place as whole-class activities, group-work and individual study. It is also stresses that, although they recognize that the syllabi contain a great deal of content, the focus should always be on the way in which the material is approached and presented (IBO, 2009, p.37).

The IBDP as she is Taught

“Since teachers and pupils are human, the realities of any course will never match up to the hopes and intentions of those who have planned it” (Kelly, 2004, p.6). This is certainly true of the IBDP. Reflecting on seven years’ experience of the IBDP at three schools on three continents, it can be confidently said that the curriculum as lived is often significantly different in aim, content and pedagogy to that which the IBO would seem to intend.

It is very difficult to assess the extent by which the aims of the IBDP are met. If we accept that the assessment models and criteria used are designed to test the traits outlined in the IB Learner Profile, then alignment between planned and taught curricula would seem to be confirmed by student success in attaining a diploma. However, many claim that such skills are hard to judge and quantify, and as such, it is difficult to tell whether or not success equates with a meeting of curricular aims. Certainly, most would argue that the three founding aims – the promotion of international peace, the provision of a recognizable qualification, and the promotion of critical thinking skills – were broadly met.

Far easier is the task of identifying discrepancies between the content detailed and aspired to in the published literature – and in turn its desired effect – and that which actually reaches the students. One of the more obvious realities is that the choice of subjects offered by the IBO is rarely the choice available to students. Due to limits in staff numbers, expertise and experience, and budget-constraints, the breadth of options available in each group is often quite limited, and when it is, it is usually limited to the more ‘traditional’ subjects. Within the subject syllabi themselves, where the content is deliberately malleable, it is often the case that teachers will bend and shape it in ways that suit their previous experience and knowledge, or to avoid controversy, in order to remain within their ‘comfort-zones’. This, of course, will affect the intended outward-looking, cross-curricular nature of much of the study.

TOK, CAS and the Extended Essay are often treated as add-ons rather than composing the core, as is the IBO’s intention. For the same reasons as noted above for the limited range of subjects offered, staff in charge of these areas are often inexperienced with the aims and objectives of each, and are given such responsibilities because they are the people available rather than the best qualified or best suited. TOK gets side-lined, CAS becomes a box-ticking exercise and the Extended Essay seen as a chore rather than an opportunity, largely because staff are not used to them and see the curriculum in traditional terms, as hard and fast subjects. This is particularly true of teachers arriving from national systems such as that of the UK, which is still firmly delineated into disciplines.

It is these same teachers too, as well as many students who are used to being educated in national systems which still promote knowledge delivery and rote learning, who struggle to adapt to the pedagogical operandi of the IBDP. As such, it is clear that not all of the IBO’s recommendations – that interaction is dynamic; that teachers act as guides and supporters; that work be varied; and that the focus be on process rather than product – are evident in the classroom. Would seem that everything is affected by the common obstacle of international school development: staff mobility, and shifting student populations (Marsh, 2004, p.83).

Implementing Curriculum

As noted above, many teachers who work in schools where the IBDP is taught have little experience with the programme, either because it is new to them or because they are new to it. Change requires careful management:

The emphases on survival, anxieties about making the grade, preoccupation with short-term planning, and a lack of encouragement for visioning suggest to us that creating a culture of curriculum in the contemporary educational climate is a struggle. In the prevailing culture of schools, the curriculum is driven by a body of incentives and disincentives rather than by visions. Furthermore, we should never underestimate the power of the status quo order to maintain itself.

(Windschitl & Mikel, 2000, p.166)

Curriculum literature is replete with advice on how change should be handled, and much of this can be seen as directly relevant to the implementation, by individual teachers as well as by whole schools, of the IBDP.

While it is recognized that outside agencies such as the IBO are invaluable in the process of curriculum implementation (Kelly, 2004, p.116), it is the role of leadership within the school which is seen by many as the most vital aspect. Berman and McLaughlin (1977) and Mortimore (1988) claim that it is the active support and purposeful leadership of the school principal that is important, a view echoed by Hall et al. (1980), who identify the principal’s actions and concerns as the driving force behind successful implementation (Fullan, 1992, p.82). While this is no doubt true, experience suggests that the role of the ‘IB Coordinator’ in a school is equally important, if not to the staff then certainly to the students. This receives little attention in the literature, other than Kelly agreeing that curriculum coordinators are a good idea (Kelly, 2004, p.116). An effective leader for change, writes Scott (1999) will give positive support, be caring and enthusiastic about education, be committed to doing things well, tolerate ambiguity, be action-oriented, posses a wide repertoire of communication skills, and understand and work with the dynamics of change (Marsh, 2004, p.84).

Training for new approaches is essential (Fullan, 1993; Kelly, 2004). However, training once, or in the wrong way, will be ineffective in helping staff learn a new curriculum with a new pedagogy; it must be ongoing (Kelly, 2004, p.118). Workshops with no follow-up are unlikely to produce results (Knight, 2009), and in certain cases, it is argued, training can have an adverse effect: the old model of ‘an expert talking to a room full of strangers’ can be frustrating and patronizing (Knight, 2009), and professional development which is subsequently ignored can lead to a loss of confidence in the school and the curriculum in question (Richards, 2002, p.99).

The teacher is central, critical, to the success of a curriculum (Kelly, 2004, p117). However, education systems are recognized as being fundamentally conservative (Fullan, 1993 in Marsh, 2004, p.79) and Corbett and Rossman claim that teachers have a reputation for being inherently and universally stubborn when facing change (Marsh, 2004, p.79). Zimmerman (2006) found that age played a part too, with older or more experienced teachers being less open to change then their younger counterparts (Bantiwi & King-McKenzie, 2011). Teachers need to believe in the change; a change needs to be powerful and easy to implement (Knight, 2009), and teachers need to be persuaded of its efficacy (Bantawi and King-McKenzie, 2011). For this, they require three key things: ownership of the curriculum (Richards, 2002; Trowler, 2002; Kelly, 2004; Varhuti & Rihls, 2009; Knight, 2009), collaborative structures and inputs in a unified culture of collegiality Fullan, 1992; Trowler, 2002; Marsh, 2004; Mustani & Pence, 2010), and the requisite skills, (Marsh, 2004, p.65).

Luterbatch and Brown (2011) suggest that a teacher possessing such skills will:

  • Have a strong background in psychology and human development;
  • Possess subject matter knowledge;
  • Know how to communicate effectively to large groups;
  • Possess knowledge and instructional strategies and processes, including problem-based learning, group-based learning, authentic tasks, criterion-based assessment, and ways to manage students progressing at different paces;
  • Be able to facilitate group processes and group work;
  • Understand how to utilize technology as learning resources;
  • Be sensitive to differentiation;
  • Be able to use ICT to keep records, plan for learning, instruct and assess;
  • Know how to install software;
  • Possess some knowledge of school and societal systems;
  • Recognize that teaching requires continual practice, reflection, and learning.

This seems like a lot to ask.


From a close look at a few selected areas from the wide field of curriculum studies – aims, content, pedagogy and implementation – we can see that the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme has a great deal to be said for it: its explicit and implicit aims are broadly in line with those held by academics, businesses and students; its pedagogy reflects academic study suggesting the best ways to educate and to learn; and its content, if a little old-fashioned in structure, contains much which can be seen as progressive and positive. It is a mix of idealism and pragmatism in design. In its implementation, however, it often falls short of its target.

Success in implementation requires inspirational leadership, high-quality, on-going staff development, collegiate and collaborative school cultures and a new breed of teacher.

In turn, a look at the IBDP can tell us much about curriculum as a field of study: that it recognizes well the aims, content, and pedagogy of a great curriculum; but also, that it must go some way yet before anybody listens. While some schools, leaders and teachers pay attention, most do not. And the IBO may be progressive, but most national governments are not, despite the evidence that they ought to be. Perhaps curriculum theorists should try to look for better ways to be heard.


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