International schools in Hong Kong

In praise of a programme that encourages students to think

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 May, 2012, 12:00am

The International Baccalaureate (IB) encompasses programmes in primary, middle and diploma years for students aged from three to 19. While many schools in Hong Kong now offer different curriculums leading to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, they may not adopt all of the IB programmes from the primary level.

Those that do offer them award diplomas after students finish their middle years programmes.

Some schools offer diploma programmes in conjunction with the International General Certificate of Secondary Education or the General Certificate of Secondary Education. As a parent, it is important to consider which high school credential your child will present for admission to university. Is it more suitable for your child to have an A-level, the American High School Diploma, or an IB?

If your child will be taking the IB Diploma Programme, then it is necessary to consider which programme would be the best lead-in: the middle years programmes or sitting the exams for the general or the international general certificate.

The middle years programme for students aged 11 to 16 is designed to help them make connections between traditional subjects and the real world and become critical thinkers. But how do schools go about implementing this philosophy?

The unique characteristic of the middle years programme curriculum lies in the areas of interaction, which aim to nurture effective lifelong learners. They are English, world languages, maths, sciences (biology, chemistry and physics), humanities (history/commerce/geography), creative arts (music/art/drama), technology (design technology, information technology), health and physical education, and a personal project that focuses on one or more areas of interaction.

The personal project, completed during the fifth year of the middle years programme, is a significant student-directed inquiry done over an extended period. It lets them demonstrate the skills they have developed in a truly personal and creative work of their choice.

It is also an excellent foundation for the IB Diploma Extended Essay. Candidates who pass the middle years programme with more than 36 points out of 63 and with more than 15 CAS points (stands for 'creativity, action, service' accumulated from the final two years) will each receive a certificate from the programme. Those who fail are sometimes discouraged from continuing with the IB diploma and encouraged to consider the IB certificate.

Grades in the middle years programme are awarded on a scale of one to seven, similar to the IB Diploma. Though the criteria are different for each subject, they follow the same principles, and allow students to get used to the system before moving onto IB Diploma Programme.

For example, the IB middle years programme's science area uses six criteria for assessment: one world (understanding of the role of science in society); communication (skills in conveying information competently and confidently); scientific knowledge and understanding (constructing scientific explanations, solving problems and formulating arguments); scientific inquiry (designing and carrying out investigations independently); data analysis (ability to organise, process and interpret quantitative and qualitative data); and scientific attitudes (adherence to safe, collaborative practices when carrying out experiments).

Reports on individual levels of achievement are organised in ways that provide students with detailed feedback on their progress in the assessment criteria for each subject group. There are external checks by the IB organisation. But since teachers can modify these criteria, it is they who set the tasks that are assessed internally in the school.

The middle years programme aims at being flexible. Criterion-based assessments encourage students to focus on the process of learning rather than learning by rote. Although the students do not sit a standardised exam, they are assessed internally, and their work is often moderated with other middle years programme schools. The programme depends almost entirely on what the school and teachers put into it.

As a parent, I would therefore also consider how well a school implements the middle years programme when deciding whether my children should take that path to the IB Diploma Programme.

Schools with middle years programmes resonate with the philosophy of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget: 'The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.'

Anjali Hazari teaches International Baccalaureate biology at an international school in Hong Kong