International schools in Hong Kong

IB shapes young minds

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2012, 12:00am

Jerrick To Tsun-ki got off to a rough start with the International Baccalaureate diploma programme last year. He was overwhelmed by the demanding curriculum and felt snowed under.

'My grades dropped a lot in the first term. IB has so many activities, you have to adapt to cope with everything,' said the Yew Chung International School Year 12 student.

With perseverance, self-discipline and support from teachers and classmates, To managed to balance work and play and come to appreciate the programme.

'I'm proud of being an IB student,' he said. 'I'm studying a very challenging course and doing it with students from around the world. There is a real sense of fulfilment.'

Adjusting to the IB programme can be daunting, given the sheer amount of work and activities it entails and the use of a teaching and learning style that often differs from that many students are used to. It can be especially difficult for those accustomed to passive learning and expected to recall knowledge for exams.

Designed for young adults aged 16 to 19, the programme seeks to nurture independent learning, critical and analytical thinking, and international awareness. Students with these skills and attributes or who are acquiring them will find the adjustment easier.

As part of the programme, six subjects including languages, humanities and sciences are studied alongside a theory of knowledge course, a 4,000-word extended essay based on independent research, and a creativity, action and service module that consists of a range of extra-curricular activities.

The IB also includes the primary years programme (PYP) for children aged three to 12 and the middle years programme (MYP) targeting those aged 11 to 16.

Iyad Matuk, a co-principal at Yew Chung, said IB students learned how to process information and acquire knowledge at a higher level than they would in a typical classroom, where they would be 'sitting there writing notes'.

'IB is a very rigorous programme,' Matuk said. 'Students have to be highly motivated and well disciplined to cope with the pressures.

'It is tough for [academically] weak students or those who are not motivated, or even for top students who can't adapt to the style of learning and teaching.'

But he said those who fitted into the programme would benefit tremendously. 'This system of education opens up the world for a young child in a different way to a traditional system of education.'

Yew Chung starts preparing its students for the diploma programme when they enter the secondary school, helping them develop the character and habits of independent learners. This is achieved partly by exposing them to issues and activities outside the school and conducting assessments in the form of projects and group work.

The school also modified the curriculum of the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, an exam its students sit at the end of Year 11, by introducing subjects such as global perspectives, which have a heavy research and group work component and focus on international issues.

There are 44 IB schools in Hong Kong offering one or more of the three IB programmes. Of these, 24 teach PYP, eight have MYP and 24 offer the diploma. More schools will adopt the system, including the German Swiss International School (GSIS), which will be switching from A-levels to the IB diploma programme from August next year.

Kellie Fagan, a deputy head of the school's English secondary section, said the holistic nature and the international mindedness inherent in the programme and the breadth of subjects required made it the 'obvious choice' for GSIS.

A-levels allowed students to specialise in a relatively limited range of subjects, Fagan said.

'A great deal of our professional development has involved our staff attending numerous IB workshops in a variety of areas,' he said. 'We are working with IB diploma schools in Hong Kong and [mainland] China to offer the best programme possible.

'We also deliver forums to keep parents up to date with developments and to help them with their understanding of the course.'

Discovery College, run by the English Schools Foundation and which has been teaching PYP and MYP, will be offering its first batch of Year 12 students the IB diploma this year.

'Continuing with the IB diploma programme will be a natural progression for our first group of MYP graduates,' said principal Mark Beach. 'The MYP, with its emphasis on learning through concepts, interdisciplinary links, communication and intercultural awareness, leads naturally into the diploma programme.

'The personal project, a piece of independent work based on the student's choice of topic, will develop research skills needed for the extended essay.'

St Paul's Co-educational College, a direct subsidy scheme school that enjoys flexibility in curriculum design, student admissions and use of resources, offers two IB diploma classes of 20 students each and five Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) classes of 33 students each.

Students choose between the two when they are in Secondary Three. While those opting for HKDSE will then enrol in a three-year programme, others will go through a pre-IB course in Secondary Four before moving on to the two-year diploma programme. The first group of the school's IB students will sit the diploma exam next year.

Principal Dr Anissa Chan Wong Lai-kuen said her students began acquiring an 'inquiry-learning' approach as early as Secondary One, picking up skills she believes are important for both HKDSE and IB. These include the ability to ask meaningful questions, investigate and research, and discuss and debate with others.

'The two programmes are both reputable and rigorous. Some of our students doing HKDSE have received conditional offers from top universities [in the United States and Britain],' Chan said.

Students should choose the one that is the best fit for them. Those who have set their minds on pursuing a particular path or are especially interested in sciences or humanities, for instance, will benefit more from HKDSE, as the curriculum is more focused.

The IB diploma is more suitable for the self-initiated who are willing to dig out resources by themselves, as well as those with strong language skills, since IB involves extensive reading and writing and requires students to speak up in class.

Matuk said students should not go into IB blindly. They should find out what the requirements are, do a lot of reading and activities outside of their home, get involved in the community, and start being aware of what is happening in the world.

'If you are used to always waiting for teachers to tell you what to study and how to prepare for exams, try to think differently,' he said. 'IB is really about changing your character and becoming more independent, mature and responsible for your own well-being.'

For information on IB schools in the city, visit