What is IB? An Interview With Ms. Vandervliet

To celebrate City High Middle’s 10th anniversary as an IB school I interviewed Ms. Vandervliet, City’s former IB Coordinator and current Vice Principal, about the history of IB and what makes the curriculum so unique.

In general, what’s cool about IB? Why seek out a program like City’s?

To start from the beginning, the International Baccalaureate initially came to fruition in Europe because there were people who moved from country to country much like people would move between states, except that there was no standardized education. So, as that became more common, people wanted some standardization, so they created this college preparatory program which became known as the Diploma Program.

As it [the Diploma Program] became a worldwide thing, teaching students to be internationally minded was really something they decided to focus on. A lot of times you’ll look at US schools and you’ll see that they’ll learn history, for example, with a very US focus, and the designers of IB wanted to look at the history of the United States but also to look at it through different lenses, such as perspectives from Europe or Asia. The curriculum is designed to give people a well-rounded depiction of what’s going on instead of focusing so much on the United States and our perspective.

Even more than that, as a college preparatory program the DP (Diploma Program) is supposed to really dive into subject areas in context, looking at depth and breadth. Instead of just touching on a lot of subjects shallowly, IB encourages students to look at things analytically, learn how to make their own justifications, and develop their own opinions and feelings.

As the program has become more established in the United States, the IB Diploma has become more valuable not only as an international diploma that will be recognized overseas but also for the college admissions process here in the US. There are lots of colleges who say that if you’ve received the IB Diploma you have already completed all of your Gen Eds and you can start college as a sophomore. For example, we’ve had students who have left here with their IB Diplomas and gone to Alma college, which recognizes the diploma, and at 18 years old they’re a sophomore in college already.

Not all schools recognize the diploma as a full entity, but many will look at different scores in various classes and award college credits. Most college websites can provide what’s called a “recognition policy”, and many of them will accept IB scores as proof that a student has already completed some of their classes. In those cases, colleges will often skip students forward so they can start with the next classes, or they award them immediate credit that will count toward their degree.

Each college and university is very unique in how they look at IB, but even in the last ten years Michigan colleges and universities have taken great strides in recognizing the diploma because now they’re truly seeing the value of what IB can offer to students.

You mentioned how IB started with the DP program but at City there’s an MYP (Middle Years Program) too, so what is the distinction? Are they different programs?

The Diploma Program was first created in the 1970s and it was just for those kids who were getting ready to exit high school and move into post secondary education [at City only the 11th and 12th grades]. But then they started looking at it and they thought international mindedness and global perspectives are great ideas that younger students should be learning too, so they developed the Middle Years Program (MYP) for grades 6-10, although we only offer it for grades 7-10.

They also have the Primary Years Program which is for grades PreK-5, and then in the last few years they also added a Career Program which I don’t know as much about because it didn’t exist yet when I got my Masters degree in education, with a focus on IB. From what I know, the Career Program was developed for people who are not necessarily on the post secondary track but are still looking for an IB education that will best meet their needs.

The MYP is not a structured curriculum like DP. The Diploma Program gives us the content they want us to teach, content that will be reflected on internal and external assessments like the IB exams, while the Middle Years Program is more a framework. MYP is supposed to help our teachers use strategies like inquiry based questioning or critical thinking while still focusing on the state standards, so it’s more of a lens that we can apply to whatever curriculum we’re teaching while still encouraging students to start thinking outside the box and look at themselves as different types of learners.

I have heard several teachers say that the DP Program is a lot like being in college, would you say that’s accurate?

Yeah, I would think so. The Diploma Program offers up content that they want you to get through but they don’t necessarily give the teachers a required structure or method of delivery, so even though many classes in the DP are single extended classes that last two years if you have a different teacher the second year they might teach it very differently because IB is all about flexibility.

Often colleges will have things called blue books where you walk in to take an exam with a small five to ten page notebook where you just write your answers because it’s about what you know and how you spit it back out on the paper. That’s a lot like what IB does, they give you all the basics, all the information and education you need, but then they turn it over to you and it’s about what you think about it and whether you can think critically and explain it on paper.

They might give you a statement about one of the wars that you study, but they’re not going to tell you that they just want facts, they want you to develop your own arguments and talk about what you learned, your opinions, your viewpoints, and your perspectives.

That’s what makes IB so different from other educational programs, it’s not just about the regurgitation of facts, it’s about taking those facts and thinking about them critically.

If I remember correctly you used to be an English teacher, were you teaching under the IB curriculum?

The only year that I taught at City I was trained in the Middle Years Program and we were starting to develop that, so I think it did help me. IB is just good teaching practices, essentially. As we’ve moved throughout these years I’ve noticed that there are a lot of other programs that are adopting techniques similar to what IB does because it’s just good teaching and learning.

We want students to ask questions and become independent thinkers, we want students that are well rounded individuals so they can go out and participate in a global society and make a difference.

When I was training in MYP English back in 2008 we started developing my lessons around those ideas, like posing big questions. When we would go through a novel our goal would be to answer that big question, and I think the best part was that I didn’t want everyone to have the same answer.

A lot of times when I was first teaching it was like “read this book, respond to these questions” and everyone would have the same answer because they were all facts based. In IB, there was still some of that, because you need to know the reading, but then we’d take that extra step and look at it in a different way: posing those questions and saying now that you’ve read all these texts, tell me more. What do you think about this? What do you feel? That’s another way that I think IB is a lot like a college course because it’s not just about content it’s about learning skills.

So would you say that in contrast to other curricula IB is more focused on creativity and coming up with your own ideas?

Yes, I would say that one of IB’s main focuses is critical thinking, teaching students to think for themselves and not only develop their own ideas but justify and support those views.

That was all of my questions, is there anything else about IB that you would want to share with students or parents?

I think a lot of times people look at City’s program and notice the limitations. You can go to other high schools and get classes like woodworking or underwater basket weaving or other classes that are different. We don’t have those opportunities here at City and I think that some people look at our program and think “Why are we doing this? It’s really limiting that our students can’t take these electives.”

One thing I think is a selling point is that IB considers each and every subject area part of the core curriculum. At another school the cores might be English, Science, Social Studies, and Math, and nothing else, but there are other things that help develop a student like the arts and technology classes and everything else.

We consider everything here as a core class and I think that’s what helps set us apart. While some people may see that as a limit, I honestly think it’s something that brings to life the fact that we’re trying to create and support and develop well rounded students who leave here not thinking that English, Math, Social Studies, and Science will be their only tools to be successful. It’s developing students as well-rounded people so that they can go out and explore whatever their passions are without being limited to only what people consider core subjects.

I think that’s what makes this unique and you know how passionate I am about this program in general, I’ve watched it develop over the years and I think it’s amazing how far we’ve come as a school. IB is not set in their ways, they’re always looking for ways to develop and help keep moving everyone forward. I think that City students who take IB seriously and commit to the program will definitely reap the benefits in their futures.


Former Editor in Chief of The City Voice, finally graduated City High Middle School as part of the Class of 2022.

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