Understanding the International Baccalaureate (IB) Structure & School Subjects
Whether growing up in Canada, Europe, Australia, Thailand or elsewhere, most of us attended school that offered a national curriculum. This can make the IB challenging to understand due to its many differences in both philosophy and approach. At NIST we maintain our own unique academic programme based on the IB and expanded to suit our context and vision. In contrast, this page provides an overview of the common school subjects and structure across all IB schools.
Historically, almost all education systems have provided separate classes for each subject. Taught in isolation, these typically included mathematics, language, science, social studies or history, art, and a handful of others. While some similarities exist, in an IB school subjects are first taught together through units that center on a common theme. Though unfamiliar to many parents, this approach fosters foundational skills—critical thinking, self management, communication, creativity and collaboration—throughout the Primary Years Programme (PYP), the equivalent of elementary school in most educational systems.
Subjects become more defined as students advance from the PYP to the Middle Years Programme (MYP) and Diploma Programme (DP), but the connections between subjects continue to be reinforced through projects, collaboration between teachers and other approaches, all of which are usually referred to as transdisciplinary learning. This empowers students to engage with content more deeply in the MYP (the equivalent of middle school and the first two years of high school) and DP (the last two years of high school) by tapping into the skills they develops in the PYP.
What Makes the IB’s Approach to School Subjects & Learning Unique?
While many differences can be found between the IB and other curricula, four key elements woven through the PYP, MYP and DP make the IB unique compared to national education systems across all school subject areas:
An International Focus
Unlike every national curriculum, the IB is not tied to any one country. As a truly international programme based in research, it pulls in best practices from all systems and all the schools within its global network. This evidence-based approach means an IB diploma will be accepted by almost all universities worldwide.
A Belief in Multilingualism
In many countries students only experience a second language upon reaching middle or high school. The IB is committed to developing multilingualism from a young age. This reflects a strong belief that the ability to communicate and collaborate with others is essential in a continually evolving, globalized world.
Inquiry & Critical Thinking
The image many people have of a classroom includes students in rows of desks, with the teacher lecturing at the front of the room. The IB overturns this outdated model, encouraging children to be active, curious learners who question assumptions and reflect on their learning, teaching them to learn how to learn.
The IB approach strongly ties to real-world contexts. Students grow to understand how their learning reflects our experiences outside the classroom. This helps them to develop an appreciation for the ways in which communities are connected, and how we can all contribute to solutions at the local and global levels.
The Primary Years Programme (PYP)
The PYP is structured first and foremost to develop agency, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning. This contrasts to the traditional educational model of the teacher as a deliverer of knowledge. Children thrive when they have the freedom to explore and question, and have a voice in their learning. At the same time, teachers still structure the learning programme and tie learning outcomes to units of inquiry, an in-depth exploration of a central theme or idea that crosses over all school subjects.
The Three Pillars
Building on the idea of agency, a heavily student-centered approach, the PYP includes three key pillars that ties the curriculum together: learning and teaching, the learner, and the learning community. Learning and teaching not only represent the school subjects and transdisciplinary themes (what is taught), but also the ways that students are supported. This connects to the learner and the outcomes they are achieving, set by the school and by themselves, represented through the IB Learner Profile.
The third pillar, the learning community, could be seen as both the driving force and culmination of the PYP. Learning doesn’t happen in isolation. We learn from one another and together, and the goal of the PYP is to encourage students to put their learning into action. Doing this means sharing their learning and applying it to real-world contexts. culminating with the PYP exhibition at the end of their final year.
PYP School Subjects
As the PYP is not a set curriculum, but rather a curriculum framework, schools have the flexibility to adapt how and when they teach particular concepts, content and skills. This means students will not necessarily have set blocks in which they first study only math, followed by other subjects one after the other.
However, the PYP framework does include six subject areas taught across all schools: language, social studies, mathematics, arts, science and PSPE (personal, social and physical education). Another unique factor reflects the IB’s commitment to multilingualism: students must acquire an additional language. Beyond these requirements, most PYP school subjects expand to include some other specialist courses that suit their own contexts and needs. This provides a well-rounded, enriching experience for all students.
Although there may be times when students will have lessons dedicated to a particular subject, they more often learn through six themes that build in scope and complexity throughout the PYP. These tie the learning together, giving context to the knowledge, skills and understanding for students. The six themes include Who We Are, How We Express Ourselves, Where We Are in Place and Time, How the World Works, Sharing the Planet, and How We Organize Ourselves.
For example, in a unit centered on Sharing the Planet students could explore how humans impact the environment. This might include math through quantifying the amount of waste we generate versus how much we recycle, science through an exploration of how pollution affects animals physically and biologically, social studies through questioning how modern societies contribute to waste and pollution, and art by creating products from recycled materials.
The Middle Years Programme (MYP)
Moving from the more open-ended approach in the PYP, the MYP begins to structure IB school subjects within separate classes. However, the transdisciplinary approach still plays an important role. Students must take part in at least one interdisciplinary unit per year, which bridges two subjects to encourage new learning and understanding, and connect content and skills across the subjects. Additionally, the MYP further encourages students to connect their learning to their experiences outside of the classroom and consider how their actions impact the world.
Context provides a powerful way to connect learning to the real world, and in many education systems it unfortunately plays a small role. Students learn content and concepts in isolation, often in hypothetical scenarios. (Think of how many old math problems involve counting apples or how many dry history lessons make no connection to modern society!)
The MYP take the opposite approach by grounding learning across all subjects in several contexts: identities and relationships, orientation in time and space, personal and cultural expression, scientific and technical innovation, globalization and sustainability, and fairness and development. These help students understand how that learning applies to their lives. Using the global contexts, they explore human identity, global challenges and what it means to be internationally minded.
MYP School Subjects
The MYP expands from the six required subjects of the PYP, growing to eight subject groups, each of which is taught independently: language & literature, language acquisition, individuals & societies, sciences, mathematics, arts, design, and physical & health education. This broad range ensures that students receive a balanced education that addresses both traditional core subjects and those now relevant for the 21st century. Like the PYP, the MYP is a framework rather than a fully defined curriculum, allowing schools to focus on particular areas, concepts and outcomes most relevant to them.
Students also begin to experience more freedom of choice as they further develop their independence. They select the additional language that they would like to study, and can choose from several options with the arts and design subject areas.
Approaches to Learning
One major change students experience in almost all national education systems is the shift from one teacher at the primary or elementary level to multiple teachers in secondary or middle school. The IB recognizes the that this can create anxiety and challenges for students. To support the transition, the MYP uses the approaches to learning (ATL) to provide consistency across all subject areas.
The ATL frame learning in a way that empowers students to evaluate their learning and recognize the learning styles that work best for them. This includes the development of key skills that help them manage the wider scope of the MYP: communication skills, social skills, self-management skills, research skills and thinking skills. Developing each of these not only allows them to recognize how to learn, but also master skills that are crucial in the DP.