IB system, enquiry-based method & individualized learning

My first child went to an international school under the international baccalaureat system which acquainted me with the enquiry-based educational method. I found it such a superior teaching method that a few years later when I began to homeschool my own kids, I picked up where the schoolteachers left, and carried on using the enquiry-based method at home. It is also an extremely flexible method that lends itself well to homeschooling purposes.


The enquiry-based educational method is well-known as being the key to the success of international schools accredited under the I.B. (International Baccalaureat) system. In this post, we’d like to see how look at the further development of the enquiry-based method has been developed.


In an interview with Carolyn Simmons (source) in response to the question “How is the I.B. taught in the Primary and Middle years?” her response was as follows:

The Primary and Middle years programmes are characterised by enquiry-based and individualised learning. Subjects are taught in an integrated way across the curriculum in order to avoid a fragmented approach. And, of course, the curriculum is international.”


Perhaps less well known is the research and development project exploring questions of educational change called Enquiring Minds.

The aim of the project with its partner schools, is to enable students to take more responsibility for the content, processes and outcomes of their learning. Enquiring Minds underpinning belief is that students bring to school valid and important knowledge, and the project is an attempt to bring about deeper engagement in learning by starting from students’ own interests and needs. For teachers, Enquiring Minds offers the possibility of an extended view of their work as they find ways to respond sensitively and practically to children’s lives and existing knowledge.


Teaching Enquiring Minds: The Theory

Enquiring Minds is based on the idea of education for empowerment, i.e. through Enquiring Minds students are able to understand the forces that shape their lives. Empowerment requires knowledge. So teachers who empower students ensure that they have access to knowledge: functional, cultural and, most importantly, critical knowledge. Quite simply, if knowledge is passed on without an examination of how it was constructed, by whom and for what purposes, then students are disempowered.

Enquiring Minds teaching is demanding teaching, going beyond the notion of ‘restricted’ professionalism (“my job is to teach my subject as well as I can”) to an expanded notion of professionalism (“my job is to contribute to a broader concept of the ‘public good’ and to understand the social and political context of my work as a teacher”).

The Enquiry Minds Theory in Action: The Enquiry cycle”

The Enquiring Minds ‘enquiry cycle’ is an approach to planning and carrying out any sort of enquiry-based activity. This enquiry model can be used by teachers and students to help visualise progress on any extended activity. Click on the segments for information about each stage in the cycle.

Stage 1: Initiating and eliciting

The Enquiring Minds cycle is a schematic way of plotting and carrying out any sort of enquiry-based activity. It is presented it as a wheel or cycle as it is believed that students’ enquiries may well ‘cycle’ around in deeper and deeper levels of sophistication. The enquiry model is intended as a focus for teachers and students to use in order to visualise progress on any extended activity.

The four-stage enquiry model presented in this section is intended to allow teachers to develop the type of teaching and learning described in the previous section. Of course, it is quite possible to use this model in a way that does not allow students to develop a critical approach to knowledge. In the end, the success of an enquiry approach depends on the extent to which it allows students to be creators of knowledge which is relevant to them.

The Enquiring Minds cycle draws on existing approaches to enquiry-based learning and has been developed through our work with teachers and students in our partner schools. The cycle we present here prioritises four key (and overlapping) stages in order to foreground certain practices which we think are central in supporting the goal of developing students’ capacities to critically engage with and create knowledge starting from their own experiences, ideas and interests.

Additionally, Enquiring Minds aims to foster teaching and learning that does not simply stop at the stage of critique. In the following pages we explain what is happening at each stage of the cycle. The stage with the least detail is the final stage – communicating and presenting. This doesn’t mean it is unimportant. In fact, the most important thing is what students decide to do with the knowledge they produce. Our vision for the project is that students produce knowledge that makes a difference to their lives. What this might mean is impossible to predict in advance, since it depends on the specific nature of individual enquiries. However, we hope that teachers engage students in discussions about ‘really useful knowledge’.

To know more about how Enquiring Minds approach works, refer to this page.  


Characteristics of the teacher using the Enquiring Minds approach

The ‘good’ Enquiring Minds teacher therefore has the following characteristics:

  • a thorough understanding of how knowledge is produced, and a desire to learn about how ideas and knowledge are produced in subjects other than their own
  • an ability to produce knowledge, ie to research topics, to find out, to make connections between ideas
  • an understanding of the social context in which she or he is operating
  • insights into the lives of students and a willingness to engage with aspects of students’ cultures
  • an appreciation of critical educational goals and purposes3.

Exposure to this type of teaching can have a profound effect on students’ cognition, because it challenges them to develop their enquiry skills to make sense of a complex world. Teachers who possess these characteristics are not prepared to allow theories, ideas and knowledge to go unchallenged.

The process of reaching new understandings of the world is one of co-construction: teachers and students together create knowledge that is personally and socially meaningful. This suggests that the relationships between students and teachers must be predicated on ideas of sharing, trust and reciprocity; in short, the values of democratic classrooms. At each point in their enquiries, students are involved in decisions about how to proceed4.

All this means that Enquiring Minds is a challenging approach to teaching and learning, not least because it appears to go against some of the most deeply held beliefs about teaching and learning in our current system. For instance, it questions the ideas that students bring little to the educational encounter and that the role of the teacher is to pass on either (a) the commonly accepted stock of knowledge valued by society or (b) the skills young people need to take their place in the economic system. Although these are important goals, they need to be part of an education that serves to develop students’ capacity for democratic deliberation, critical judgement and rational understanding. Underpinning the Enquiring Minds approach is a belief that the challenge teachers face is in connecting with aspects of students’ interests and experience, encouraging them to examine those things and better understand the forces that shape their world.

The Role of Pegadogy and the Teacher

The shift to enquiry pedagogy does not represent a clean break from existing principles of effective teaching. Enquiring Minds instead builds on existing good practice. It relies on good interpersonal relationships and mutual respect between teachers and students. This involves being honest, challenging ideas and (where necessary) confronting patterns of behaviour.

It is important to clarify the difference between Enquiring Minds and other social constructivist approaches to learning. The fundamental difference is that in Enquiring Minds students choose the content and the focus for enquiry and teachers adapt and respond to this. This places knowledge at the centre of the teacher-student relationship and demands that the teacher’s role is to advance students’ knowledge and understanding. The central tenet of Enquiring Minds is that the development of the curriculum starts with students’ interests, ideas and experiences. This requires strategies to make visible students’ interests, ideas and experiences as a valid subject for enquiry and to recognise the potential value in them. Some of us do not find this easy in the face of children’s cultures that seem dominated by commercialism and celebrity. However, enquiry pedagogy is committed to engaging with and working with students’ interests, whatever they may be.

How does Enquiring Minds approach differ from other child-centred or interest-led educational approaches?

A common misconception about enquiry might be that it involves the teacher setting students off and letting them get on with things. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, successful enquiry requires high level skills on the part of the teacher. It is important to state that Enquiring Minds is not about personal preferences that simply reflect children’s immediate worlds, nor is it a progressive child-centred pedagogy that places the greatest emphasis on the individual and what they are able to do for themselves. The teacher’s role in an Enquiring Minds classroom is crucial, starting with where students are at and then helping them to explain, expand and explore further from that starting point. It might be useful to think of this in terms of a ‘critical pedagogy’ which enables teachers and students to work together to illuminate or decode aspects of their experiences.

The subjects of the curriculum are the crucial building blocks for undertaking enquiry. This is because they provide distinctive perspectives and approaches to understanding the world. For instance, an enquiry into ‘how school dinners can be improved’ would benefit from ideas and concepts from a range of subjects, including science, economics, geography and history. In communicating their research, they may draw upon skills and concepts from English and media studies. The point is that in such an enquiry, school subjects provide perspectives that enable students to further their knowledge and understanding. It is important to recognise that many questions and problems require an interdisciplinary approach (for instance understanding an issue such as climate change) and this creates challenges for teachers and students.

How Enquiring Minds classrooms work

Enquiring Minds classrooms are characterised by a restlessness that results from wanting to know more, and then seeking to take that knowledge apart to see what assumptions it holds about the world and what students can contribute to changing/developing/building on this knowledge. Empowering teaching demands that teachers take seriously students’ lives and cultures. If the real experiences of students do not form the basis of study, then enquiry is not student-led.

How Enquiring Minds approach differs from conventional methods

Conventional approaches to learning involve what some people have called ‘transmission’ pedagogy which has a number of features:

  • teacher teaches and the students are taught
  • teacher knows a great deal and the students know little
  • teacher thinks and students are thought about
  • teacher talks and students listen
  • teacher chooses and enforces her/his choice and students comply
  • teacher chooses the course content and the students adapt and respond to it.

The features of enquiry pedagogy include:

  • teacher and students are co-learners
  • teacher uses her/his knowledge and understanding to elicit and bring on students knowledge
  • the classroom is a place where teacher and students think together
  • teacher and students develop ways to talk together
  • students take on more responsibility for how the classroom should be and how learning takes place
  • students choose the course content and teachers adapt and respond to it.

Organising classrooms, resources and time

The changes in approaches to knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy we are advocating imply particular types of interactions in classrooms.

In most classrooms the resources used are chosen and controlled by the teacher. These may include, for example, textbooks, videos, worksheets or websites. In an Enquiring Minds approach there will be a wider range of resources available for use in learning and these will be suggested (and in many cases supplied) by students. In addition, we would expect to find a wider range of people involved in the process of enquiry as learning may take place beyond the classroom walls. What this means is that resources and sources not necessarily regarded as educational in the conventional sense are likely to be prominent and important. The Enquiring Minds classroom is as likely to feature a stack of teenagers’ magazines as history textbooks. The point is, enquiry approaches that start from students’ own ideas, interests and experiences are likely to require creative thinking about the resources that can be used to develop knowledge and understanding.

Adopting an enquiry approach also does not mean forever reinventing the wheel in terms of redeveloping resources or conceptual frameworks. For example, textbooks can be used in both transmission and enquiry approaches, but they would be used in different ways and for different purposes. They are still, however, resources that might be identified and mobilised for use by both students and teachers.

The process of enquiry will involve different patterns of time use and organisations of space. Though the organisation of time is a central aspect of the work of the school, not all learning proceeds at the same pace. For example, it is possible to imagine lessons being geared to the paces of individual learning. Different students may be working at different speeds and in different parts of the classroom. In an Enquiring Minds classroom, students will have a greater role in determining when a task is finished, or how long they wish to spend on a task.

Teachers usually control the time it takes to complete activities because it is the best way of ensuring that lessons have pace and that all students are keeping up with the work. Therefore, disrupting these temporal arrangements is likely to be difficult and challenging to manage. Yet it will become increasingly imperative for teachers working in an Enquiring Minds classroom to have to differentiate time targets according not only to students’ abilities but to the type of activities in which they are engaged. This certainly does not mean allowing students to ‘coast’. It means agreeing with students time-bound targets and involving them in reviewing and monitoring their progress, and working out with them a realistic completion target.

When it comes to space, the design of a classroom is considered … for instance, tables with students seated around each table suggest a democratic, participatory pedagogy, and a constructivist approach to curricular knowledge. It suggests that knowledge can be produced by students in the work of talk and discussion, out of their own resources, augmented by the teacher. On the other hand, the panoptic arrangement of rows of desks suggests a need for surveillance or control.

A number of classroom routines are also patterned by the space it provides. For example, students routinely ask to be allowed to move around the room, or request to go to the library.

Although it is often difficult to rearrange classrooms already cluttered with furniture,

An enquiry approach implies that classrooms can be reorganised as flexible spaces. This includes being able to move tables according to activity and groupings, and use of wall space not just for presentation of completed products but as spaces for the collaborative collection of ideas. Furthermore, Enquiring Minds envisages that learning does not always need to occur inside the classroom.

Online information, software and other such media are useful in supporting the kind of learning at the heart of Enquiring Minds. The idea that information is easily available, and that software enables people to communicate and share information and ideas, has the potential to enable students to participate in knowledge sharing and collaborative production of knowledge both within classrooms and in collaboration with others.

Benefits of the Enquiring Minds approach

The promise of Enquiring Minds is that it potentially allows students to expand their cognitive capacities in the following ways:

  • Enquiry focuses student attention on thinking about their own thinking – it induces them to take seriously how they see the world and how others see it.
  • Enquiry creates an analytical orientation towards their lives – they learn to ask questions, to look for deeper reasons.
  • Enquiry helps students learn to teach themselves. Few activities better prepare you for a task than an ability to conduct research. Students begin to do things for themselves rather than rely on experts.
  • Enquiry negates reliance on procedural thinking. The messiness of doing research forces students to recognise the limits of methodological purity – when they get stuck, they have to interpret the situation and find ways to make sense of what they see.
  • Enquiry moves students to the realm of knowledge production as it induces them to organise information, to interpret. They are no longer passive receivers of expert knowledge. They become responsible agents who engage in their own interpretations of the world around them.
  • Enquiry improves thinking by making it just another aspect of everyday existence. Adopting an enquiry approach means seeing answers as tentative and provisional. Findings are always being revised and reconsidered, and in the light of new evidence can never be regarded as final.



Print out the Guide (available in three formats):

Source: enquiringminds@futurelab.org.uk


If you are interested in IB programmes, I recommend perusing the following links…

Why the Bacc is the way forward


Admissions tutors and employers like it. But the IB must be right for the pupil too, finds Caroline Haydon

Thursday, 18 September 2008


Two important boosts for schools offering the International Baccalaureate to sixth-form students have come from university admissions tutors and one of the country’s largest private sector employers.


In a survey by ACS International Schools, university admissions’ tutors said while A-levels should not be phased out, the IB was the “best preparation for university”. In another fillip for students undertaking these studies, audit and consulting company Deloitte, which takes on more than 1,400 graduates and undergraduates in the UK each year, says the points system used by the IB makes it easier to differentiate between candidates.

Sarah Shillingford, graduate recruitment partner at the company , says it sees growing benefits in the IB system as well as the new A* classification for A-levels, which students starting courses this year will be able to attain for the first time.

“With so many of the people applying for our graduate positions having attained top grades, it is difficult to differentiate between A-level candidates on academic results alone,” she says. “The points system used does make it easier to differentiate.”

Fifty-one admissions tutors contacted by ACS International said the IB is considered to provide the “best preparation to thrive at university” of the main sixth-form exam in the UK. Over one-third, 35 per cent, believe the IB provides the best preparation to thrive, compared to 18 per cent citing A-levels, and six per cent the new diploma.

Les Webb, who runs baccalaureate.eu.com, a site which advises how to choose an IB school, says that while debate has raged over the status of A-levels, there’s been “staggering interest” in the IB from parents. He says they should be aware that only the A-level modular system offers total freedom of subject choice, and the IB does restrict choice.

At Sevenoaks School in Kent, for example, where IB courses have been run for 30 years, IB co-ordinator Nick Allchin says students have studied Japanese, Mandarin and Danish, as well as a wide range of the performance and visual arts. The school decided to drop A-levels entirely in favour of the IB four years ago.

“For us it’s the coherence of the overall package which stands out,” he says. “It’s a diploma package where all three parts of the core that is studied promote not just content but thinking skills, critical thinking and crucially, the ability to learn new skills. What you see in the IB is not just academic, it’s a philosophy of education that has ideals lacking in the national system. And it inspires teachers.”

It has inspired teaches at Westbourne School in Penarth, where the school has taken the decision that the new sixth form will study only the IB. “The IB philosophy fitted with ours – we want to develop all-rounders who give back to the community,” says the school’s IB co-ordinator Lindsay Emyr.

Teachers also say parents should ask whether the IB diploma, which requires students to keep up a range of subjects including maths and science, will suit their particular child.

“Parents need to assess their child before choosing. Are they self-motivating? Can they manage their time? If so they will be suited to the IB diploma, which needs application and independent thought,” says Paul Clark, who runs the IB programme at Felsted School in Essex.

“A-levels might suit a child who is very strong in one area – say, an engineer who is not a linguist – who doesn’t want to keep up a range of subjects.”

Head of Taunton School, John Newton agrees. “It’s more about attitude than aptitude”, he says. Taunton, echoes the view that the IB is for the “independently minded person who is disciplined about study”.

But the IB, with its insistence that studies relate to how other cultures learn and view things, is perfectly suited to the global future children will face, he says.


Why the Bac is the Way Forward?

Can the IB promise ever be realised?

Baccalaureate beats A level, say universities

Why the broad IB beats A levels

IB A better prep for the university?

Why we’re signing up for the Bac

Aiming for the Middle A new International Baccalaureate program is raising the game in middle school By Jay Mathews From the Post Magazine Sunday, November 4, 2007

From around the late 1990s till recent times, there was a parental revolt against schools that tried to implement the IB system in schools in the US, this article explains the conflict and how the remaining few schools that did stick with the IB have shone through.



“Some parents and teachers at Langston Hughes, and next door at South Lakes High School, where the MYP continued for ninth- and 10th-graders, distrusted a program invented in Switzerland and alien to what they remembered of their own more traditional middle school days. Other parents and teachers thought the MYP was wonderfully rigorous, with its commitment to global awareness, foreign languages and writing. The differences of opinion appeared to reflect tension between Americans who thought the country was too soft and those who thought the country was too dumb.
“Who won? A visit to Langston Hughes this fall reveals that the people favoring smarter students have beaten those fearing foreign influence to an apparently invisible pulp. It is hard to find anyone who even remembers when the school’s unusual curriculum was considered a threat to American values. Instead, past and present Langston Hughes parents are greeting an unexpected jump in SAT scores at South Lakes — the biggest this year in Fairfax County — as proof that they were right to go with the MYP, perhaps the most challenging middle school program in America for non-magnet schools.
It can’t be proved that the MYP helped SAT scores go up. But the fact that all Langston Hughes students are in the MYP, and that the MYP emphasizes skills tested on the SAT, is enough for many parents. Lou Ann Armstrong, who has had two children go through Langston Hughes, says she loves how the program has enhanced her children’s critical-thinking ability. Her daughter Sophia, now a South Lakes junior, agrees that the MYP “definitely made us think, and not through rote knowledge, but making connections to the rest of the world.”
The Middle Years Program differs from standard middle school fare in several ways. It is a systematic way of teaching that links subjects, relates in-school learning to the outside world and develops an appreciation of world cultures. Writing is stressed in all courses. Seventy-five percent of Langston Hughes students — all except those needing remedial English — take foreign languages, compared with the 25 to 45 percent in Fairfax County middle schools without the MYP.
James Albright and Janet Croon, the teachers who run the IBMYP program at Langston Hughes and South Lakes, say their program still gets lots of criticism — not from parents but from the MYP and IB system itself. Each year, they and their teachers must submit sample student work and grades to MYP moderators and wait anxiously to be told what they are doing wrong.
This happens to MYP teachers all over the world. The program for seventh- through 10th-graders does not have the five-hour exams, written and graded by outside experts, that the IB diploma program for 11th- and 12th-graders has. But it insists on critiquing the projects and tests that MYP teachers are giving, and telling them each year in great detail where they need to get tough.
This year, the moderators informed MYP teachers at Langston Hughes and South Lakes, who work together in the program, that one task they submitted was “an interesting but superficial assignment.” As a result, the moderators reduced the number of points even the best students could get for that assignment. One of the South Lakes MYP essay tests was panned. A failure to indicate how another task was assessed brought sharp comment. The moderators were also ill-tempered about the Langston Hughes and South Lakes MYP teachers’ submission of group work and work based on oral presentations, which made it difficult to assess individual students. The process can be painful, Croon said, but it “guides teachers toward an international standard of rigor.”
American middle schools have suffered from wavering standards and stagnant achievement in the past three decades. As everyone knows, middle school grades do not usually count for college, so even parents don’t worry about them much. Many middle school educators embrace the idea that this age group should be allowed to sample a number of skills and concepts, but not be required to master them.
That makes the MYP a very provocative addition to American public education. It is expensive, particularly with the optional moderators, about $104,000 a year, or $65 per MYP student at Langston Hughes/South Lakes, all paid for by the school district. Montgomery, Prince William and Arlington counties also have the MYP in some schools; Prince George‘s will have some MYP schools next year; and other local districts are considering the MYP. Even parents worried about the program’s foreign origins likely will be impressed with the fact that the other two Fairfax County high schools with the biggest SAT gains this year were Mount Vernon, whose students come from Whitman Middle School, and J.E.B. Stuart, whose students come from Glasgow Middle School. Both of them have the Middle Years Program.”

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