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Enlightenment through understanding

Enlightenment through understandingTeachers are on the frontline when it comes to fostering international - mindedness. Kath Stathers looks at global examples of effective practice, and finds out what the term means to those who must deliver it


While other organizations might talk about ‘global awareness’ or ‘international relations’, for the International Baccalaureate, the key phrase is ‘international mindedness’. This distinction is not mere semantics:  the term ‘mindedness’ is very important in defining the IB learner’s approach.

Ian Hill, IB deputy director general, argues on page 16 that understanding that people of different backgrounds hold different views – and examining why they hold them – is integral to an internationally minded education:

“This is what leads to understanding and respecting another point of view without necessarily accepting it – knowing where it came from.”

While other organizations might talk about ‘global awareness’ or ‘international relations’, for the International Baccalaureate, the key phrase is ‘international mindedness’.

“The manipulation, misrepresentation and misinterpretation of nation, culture and religion might be the greatest intellectual and moral challenges that our students face as adults,” says Julian Edwards, secondary principal at the New International School of Thailand, about his understanding of the term. “Our students need to be able to rationalize what is most likely true about the present, but also to ‘mind’ – in the sense of ‘care’ – enough about the future to dream up plausible alternatives and enact them.”


Get an early start

So, ‘mindedness’ is about having empathy and not just knowledge. It isn’t something that is taught in any particular class; instead it is so embedded in the way an IB student learns that it becomes part of their consciousness. And it can start as soon as they begin school. “Even aged three in the nursery, children know that not everyone’s the same,” says Sarah Harris, Primary Years Programme coordinator for the Western Academy of Beijing, China. “We get the point across that there are many, many differences between people, and foster a culture of respect.”

Although the school’s intake of more than 50 nationalities makes it easy for pupils to understand the notion of different cultures, it also works hard to connect the children’s learning to the host country and to celebrate Chinese culture as part of a wider world. “How it is done has to come from the teacher,” says Sarah. “Usually it’s richest when they’ve already taught a unit, then they go away and think about how to bring international-mindedness into it.”

“We get the point across that there are many, many differences between people, and foster a culture of respect.”

Sarah Harris - Western Academy of Beijing

Last year, for example, when teaching symbolism at year 3, a Western Academy teacher wanted to explore the subject through Chinese culture, so she invited along some members of a Chinese ethnic minority –- the Miao – who told traditional stories, and brought in clothes and jewellery that were laden with symbolism for the children to try on. In physical education, she also introduced Wushu, a Chinese martial art that is rich in symbolic actions.


Harnessing parent power

Sarah believes teachers are attracted to IB schools by the opportunity to make different cultures such a core part of their job. “Teachers are given the opportunity to make decisions about the curriculum,” she says. “They can be explicit about the international-mindedness aspect and really make it a focus. It’s not something hidden.”

She has created a series of podcasts on different IB themes, including international-mindedness. Originally, they were to help new teachers to immerse themselves, but they have proved popular with parents, too. Involving parents is beneficial not just for continuing themes at home, but some regularly come in to the school to demonstrate aspects of their own culture. “Parents are a great resource,” says Sarah. “We’ve had them in to cook with students or read to them in different languages. One dad came in and taught Finnish folk dancing to the kindergarten.”

Julian Edwards also recognizes the importance of getting parents on board. “We are teaching approaches to leading a good life and not just habits,” he says. “So it’s extremely important to engage parents. I know parents who can articulate how involved they consider a school to be with its host country. Now that is a great result!”

“We are teaching approaches to leading a good life and not just habits,” he says. “So it’s extremely important to engage parents. I know parents who can articulate how involved they consider a school to be with its host country. Now that is a great result!”

Julian Edwards, secondary principal at the New International School of Thailand

Approaches to international-mindedness will differ from school to school. Julian, who has taught at three international schools, says: “IB schools have huge connections and similarities. They also have quite specific contexts. Some aspects can seem more conspicuous than others. In Tanzania, perhaps, it was the concept of service, in China the feeling of ‘otherness’ and engagement with the host country. And in Thailand, we have a target to approach international-mindedness at three levels – global, personal and social (or community).”

Julian’s school has launched a special challenge to build ‘mindfulness’ in students, who must set themselves targets that will connect them to their community at these three different levels. “It is hard to genuinely care about saving the planet if you don’t care about the students next to you in class, the old lady who cleans the street in the morning or your own sleep patterns as a Diploma Programme student,” says Julian. “Being ‘mindful’ at one of these levels helps make mindfulness at another more likely.” Students have been setting personal goals around their individual aspirations or their approach to learning, while the social and global goals are tackled in service or action-related projects. “I guess in some ways what we’re doing is giving a ‘branding’ to international-mindedness,” says Julian.


Keep an open mind

This ability of individual schools to interpret international-mindedness in their own particular way is something that Nélida Antuña Baragaño, IB regional director for Africa/Europe/Middle East region, welcomes. “Personally, I am more in favour of open-mindedness,” she says. “International-mindedness is part of that but it’s restricted because it’s related to nations. Open-mindedness starts at home and can be applied to any context at any moment.”

Nélida believes the way the IB syllabus is taught helps to develop this open-mindedness. “It’s not just a teacher standing in front of the class telling pupils what to think. Student input is very important too. It’s very interactive,” she says. “They’re not just given one set of facts in history, for example, but diverse options of facts.”

One student in the United States who has recently started the IB Diploma Programme having been at a regular public school gives a clear example of this, when he says that in history at the public school he’d always written about ‘we’. As soon as he began studying the Diploma Programme history course, he had to write about the USA in the third person, as the syllabus examined the country in the context of world history. “Even with mathematics, where two plus two equals four, the way you present it will make it richer,” says Nélida. “You can make the connection with different cultures, by explaining how mathematics is very old in Eastern cultures, and that builds cultural knowledge and enhances open-mindedness.”

As IB examiner Guven Witteveen of Michigan, USA, puts it: “Staff acting as role models, and case studies, are still the most powerful way to instill global awareness in students. These things demonstrate the value of exercising respect, curiosity, and mindfulness of context when trying to understand a person or an organization’s behaviour.”

“When you feel responsible, your mind is open,”

Nélida Antuña Baragaño, IB regional director for Africa/Europe/Middle East

In 1968, when the IB was developed, international-mindedness was seen as a key ingredient in how education could bring cultures together and create a more peaceful world. Today, it is more important than ever. It is not just conflict resolution that can benefit from greater understanding, but industry, communications, what we buy in our supermarkets and what we wear on our backs. Through international-mindedness, the IB teaches students to take responsibility. “When you feel responsible, your mind is open,” says Nélida.


From pole to pole

They may be 9,516 miles apart, but the IB’s most northerly and southerly schools share the same ethos of international-mindedness


José Antonio Vergara

Diploma Programme coordinator, The British School –Punta Arenas, Chile

Punta Arenas, Chile, is widely believed to be the world’s most southerly city. With a population of 120,000, it is renowned for its links to the oil industry as well as its extreme weather

IB What’s your background?

JAV I was born in Punta Arenas and I have worked at the school for 12 years. My first speciality was history but I have gradually moved into economics.

IB What challenges does the school’s location give you?

JAV Without contact by land with the rest of the country until recently, it was very difficult to maintain a link with other schools. Our closest contact is with schools in Argentine Patagonia, with whom we have sports and academic exchanges: this allows us to overcome some of the geographical and mental isolation. Technology has changed things too – it had previously been difficult to access up-to-date information, but now we have introduced a range of blogs and wikis into the classroom.

There are some things we cannot change: between May and August, there are only a few hours of daylight, and so we begin the day before sunrise, and when we finish it is already dark. In summer, it’s the opposite – we only have four hours of darkness. Culturally speaking, the isolation of the area has allowed us to create a very clear identity. We are the grandchildren of immigrants who arrived looking for better living conditions and created an original way of living together in an inhospitable environment.

IB How important is it to ensure your students receive an internationally-minded education? How do you make sure they do this?

JAV One of the main reasons we decided to become part of the IB community is the international nature of the curriculum. The global vision it provides us with is a vital complement to our strong local tradition. Due to our location, it is very valuable to enter into contact with schools from around the world and feel part of a global community that shares values and interests.

For example, all Antarctic expeditions stop off at Punta Arenas, and this offers our students great possibilities that we can share with other schools in the IB community.


Brynjar Nordgård

Biology teacher, Finnfjordbotn Vidaregåande school

Finnsnes, Norway

Finnsnes is a town 40 miles from the city of Tromsø, with a population of 11,000. It is well-known for its trade links, as well as its Arctic climate, which brings heavy snowfall

IB What’s your background?

BN I was born and raised in northern Norway. I have taught at Finnfjordbotn since 1984, mainly information and communication technology (ICT) and biology.

IB What challenges does the school’s location give you?

BN It can limit opportunities to enjoy long-distance trips to central European areas. The Arctic winter offers challenges to us all: ice and snow, blizzards, frost and cold, and clear days combined with short periods of milder, rainy days can sometimes make you feel that there is far too much weather for any reasonable purpose. With the sun gone from late November to mid-January you could easily draw the conclusion that this must be depressing, but it’s not: the Northern Lights are spectacular and although we don’t see the sun, it makes the sky and the sea alive with wonderful colours. Sure, it can be tiring during the long winter months, and you need an extra gear to motivate some of the students, but imagine their energy from April, when the midnight sun enters the scene and darkness disappears. Mind you, not all that extra energy is expended at school…

IB How important is it to ensure your students
receive an internationally-minded education? How do you make sure they do this?

BN Living in the Barents region, which unites the northernmost parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland and north-west Russia, we are especially focused on international cooperation. The region shares a similar culture and environment, as well as natural resources and a mutual desire for political and economic stability.

Arctic biology encompasses understanding and awareness of all these concepts and should be an integral part of our biology course and our students’ understanding. Also, international-mindedness is in a broad sense woven into Norwegian educational practice in general. Most subjects in a Norwegian school deal with and look at international relations in different ways.