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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Strategies for Creating a Successful IB or AP Program

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 18, 2018 14 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the keys to a successful International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement program?

As a teacher in a very diverse and successful IB program, I thought it would be useful to have a column considering what made these types of advanced programs effective - and not effective.

Today’s guests -Tan Huynh, Sean Llewellyn and Andrew Miller - share their reflections on the topic. I’ve also included comments from readers. Though this column doesn’t have an accompanying podcast, you can still listen to past ones here.

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:

The International Baccalaureate (IB) Program is a framework of instruction created in the 1960s. Its focus is to provide an academically-rigorous learning experience that prepares students for college. Student-centered learning and making connections between disciplines form the core of IB’s philosophy. Because I only have experience with the IB’s Middle Years Program (MYP) for students between the ages of 12-16, I can only advise from this particular perspective.

A successful MYP IB program must do 3 things:

  1. Teach students through inquiry-based learning
  2. Apply the content to real world situations, and
  3. Have students themselves evaluate their work and thinking.

Promoting Inquiry-Based Learning

In an inquiry-based learning approach, students themselves drive their learning. For example, in Mr. James’ Individuals and Society class (IB speak for humanities), students learn about the importance of rivers. Mr. James opens the unit by asking students what they think they already know about rivers. After a brief share, they read an infographic about the Mekong River, and then the students themselves ask questions they’ve formed from reading the infographic.

These questions then drive the learning for the rest of the unit. As students read articles and watch a documentary about the Mekong River, they return to their questions - crossing off ones that were already answered and adding new ones to the list. Students are even able to go to a company that builds dams on the Mekong to ask more questions.

Applying Knowledge

Another gear that drives a successful IB program is the real-world work that students are asked to do. It’s not enough to learn the content; students have to apply it to solve real problems.

In Mr. James’ class, they present that they are either lawyers defending the damming companies or the villagers that live on the Mekong. Students work on teams to represent their pretend clients by gathering evidence, organizing research, and collaborating on writing opening statements.

Their learning becomes meaningful because it’s not t the typical report-writing, poster-making, or Powerpoint-preparing activities. Students have a problem to solve and use their knowledge to provide solutions.

Reflecting on Learning

In many schools, learning stops at the end of the assessment. Not so in an IB school. We have our students reflect on their how they learned and how they worked during a unit.

The IB calls the habits of a learner as “Approaches to Learning”. They identified that communication, social, self-management, research, and thinking skills are the most important ones students needed for a life of learning. For Mr. James’ Rivers Unit, he wants students to reflect on their research and social skills, so he has them journal about:

1). what they learned from conducting research,

2). what was difficult about collaborating, and

3). how to apply what they learned to other classes.

Asking students to reflect on their learning is a powerful way to develop a growth mindset in students and foster confidence. Through reflection, they realize that no one is born with these skills, and these skills can be learned and improved upon.

A Program for Everyone

These 3 components of a successful IB program are available for all schools who want a student-centered approach to learning.

Structure learning so that students can:

  1. Create using the knowledge,

  • Develop a deeper knowledge as they create,
  • Reflect on what they produced,
  • Work with others, and
  • Become critical thinkers.

No educational program can or should own these positive traits. What makes an IB program different is that they have systematized these traits into their teaching practices. All schools have to do is create systems that incorporate these gears into their routines. Once going, the system can be improved, innovated, and sustained.

Response From Sean Llewellyn

Sean Llewellyn is the Supervisor of International Baccalaureate for Pelham Public Schools in Westchester County, New York, one of the first public schools in New York State to implement the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme. Prior to his work in Pelham, Sean worked as an English supervisor, middle school assistant principal, high school English teacher, theater director, and musician:


Implementing a program as complex and extensive as the IB Middle Years Programme is, inevitably, a multi-year process. While it is possible to meet all of the requirements and obtain authorization more quickly, there is the danger that the curricular and procedural changes will be merely superficial and the underlying reform agenda won’t actually take hold.

In our case, we set ambitious goals as to when elements such as unit plans, policies, and planning charts would be completed, but we were also not afraid to revise those plans if they turned out to be unrealistic. The best decision we made, early on, was to clear teachers’ plates of any competing initiatives and allow them to focus on their IB work. Weekly meetings that would usually be focused on building or departmental issues were given over to dedicated IB professional development sessions and time to work with colleagues on curriculum. This single-minded focus allowed us to complete our authorization process in two years. Now that we are moving towards a more differentiated, PLC model, we continue to make sure that teachers have ample common time to collaborate on their IB work.


IB programs are rare in the Northeastern United States, and the Middle Years Programme is even less common. As a result, we needed to make sure our community, parents, Board of Education, administrators, and faculty had a solid understanding of what the program was, what it wasn’t, and how we felt it could improve our instructional program. In order to accomplish this we gave presentations at school board, PTA, and faculty meetings. We made sure our Superintendent was prepared to discuss IB in both formal and informal contexts, and participated in lengthy sessions in which administrators at all levels of the organization were able to discuss the program and ask questions. When community members or school board members raised concerns, we responded quickly, and in detail. We created a website just for our IB work, with dedicated pages for parents and teachers. Working with students from our high school, we created a video to promote the program, which we shared via our website, Twitter, and YouTube accounts.

When we felt that faculty members were not communicating all of their concerns in meetings, we used online surveys to gather more data on what they were thinking and feeling. We gave interviews to local newspapers, and allowed journalists to film classes to share on the web. Throughout this process, I found Simon Sinek’s concept of the “golden circle” as detailed in his books Start with Why and Find Your Why to be very helpful in reminding me to focus on the reasons we believed this program would be great for our kids rather than getting lost in the weeds of the implementation process.


The Middle Years Programme is, by its very nature, a collaborative process. Again and again, the International Baccalaureate documentation emphasizes the fact that the development of the framework: MYP unit plans, subject-group overviews, approaches to learning planning charts, assessment policies, etc. takes place through a collaborative effort in which all stakeholders participate. It is through this collaboration that we invest all members of our school community with a sense of shared purpose. In order to accomplish this, we formed dedicated committees - including parents, teachers, administrators, and Board members - to oversee each aspect of the program’s development. We shared all key documents with the faculty and administrative team via Google Drive and posted these on our IB website.

Luckily for us, our middle school staff was already adept at working together, and adapted well to the idea that they would be meeting regularly to plan shared curriculum and assessments. To date, this is probably our greatest accomplishment in our IB implementation: the fact that our teachers have dedicated so much time to discussing, creating, implementing, and reflecting upon bringing excellent inquiry-based instruction and authentic, performance-based assessments to our students.


While there are elements of the Middle Years Programme that must be a part of any school’s implementation (the IB learner profile, the eight subject groups, key concepts, global contexts, the subject group objectives and strands), there is a great deal of room for flexibility and creativity. In our IB work, we have tried to start with ideas teachers were excited about working on, and then proceeded to help them accomplish this work in an IB context. So, during the first year of our authorization process, teachers chose whom they wanted to work with, and on what. Some chose interdisciplinary pairings, some chose to work with their subject and grade-level colleagues, some worked alone. Some adapted old units to the new framework and some took the opportunity to explore a new area of study. In this way, teachers had the pleasure of working on a task they were already motivated to undertake with colleagues they were excited to collaborate with.

Subsequent to authorization, we have taken this a step further by asking teachers to identify an area of inquiry they would like to explore further, beginning with questions (“How can I encourage the students in my classroom to think critically and creatively on a daily basis?” “How can I encourage students to see my subject discipline in a context that includes current global events?”) rather than with predetermined outcomes. In addition to building in motivation, this also allows us to better differentiate our professional development efforts for teachers who may be at different points in their comfort and facility with the program.


The stated mission of the International Baccalaureate is, among other lofty goals, to “create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” It aims to develop young people who are not only inquiring and knowledgeable, but “caring,” “balanced,” and “principled.” In my twenty-fourth year as an educator, it would be understandable if some of my initial enthusiasm and faith in our system as the means through which to improve students’ lives, rectify social ills, and save the world from looming catastrophe might be dulled somewhat. Working with the International Baccalaureate has instead rekindled the optimism that led me to teaching in the first place: the wish not only to make a living, but to make a difference.

Education is hard work, and it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind, but when I see teachers getting excited at the prospect of moving beyond content and recall to instead inspire students to care about issues and one another, to see the common struggle and responsibility that unites them with young people all over the world, and to want to get out into the world to make a change, I feel like a bright eyed newbie on my first day of classes again, brimming with ambition and hope.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller started his teaching career at a traditional high school in the areas of English and Social studies. He then transferred to be founding faculty member at a new school focused on Project Based Learning and STEAM education. After successfully implementing numerous projects across grades 6-12 he took the opportunity to become a full-time faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education, where we he traveled internationally to work with teachers to implement PBL across all grade levels. He has been with the Institute since 2010. He is also a consultant with ASCD and writes regularly for Edutopia. Currently, Andrew is back in the day-to-day work of education at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China where he serves as an instructional coach:

Project-Based Learning is an effective way to deliver instruction and assessment aligned to Advanced Placement. When I mention this, I often get “push-back” from educators that they don’t have time for projects and that they really need to focus on covering the curriculum. I think this comes from a place of misunderstanding. PBL is rigorous and requires students to learn content and apply it in new and relevant contexts. PBL helps students retain the learning for latter application in an AP test. In fact, Lucas Research has been investigating the effects of PBL in AP classes such as AP Government and Politics, AP Environmental Science and AP Physics I. So far they have found promising results, as students have performed better or as well as students in non-PBL AP classes.

In addition, when PBL is used to deliver Advanced Placement with high-poverty students, the success rate is much higher than the national average. PBL not only helps to engage all students in the AP Curriculum, but makes learning stick for the AP Exam. AP educators should look into delivering their major units of instruction through projects. Related to that, AP educators can use old AP exams and their knowledge of what is tested to make decisions about priorities. We can’t teach it all, and we need to be ok with that, even with a content heavy course and exam like the AP. What we can do is make strategic decisions to ensure our students are prepared for as much of the exam as possible. This means moving from breadth to depth and using PBL to target frequently tested concepts or skills. When we use PBL to address those areas of our AP course, we are doing the best we can to help students retain that knowledge they gained from a PBL experience.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Tan, Sean, and Andrew, and to readers, for their contributions!

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