For a brighter tomorrow

Ankita Rajasekharan

Dr. Siva Kumari is the seventh Director General of the International Baccalaureate. She started her tenure as the Director General in January 2014 and is the first woman to hold the post. She was in India in March 2016 and the following are excerpts from a conversation with her, with a focus on IB Teachers and the contextualization of the global IB Curriculum.

First of all, I am delighted to be speaking to a magazine that is particularly for teachers. Most often I only get asked about the numbers and statistics, so it is delightful to be speaking about teachers for a change. One of the reasons I joined the IB is because of the teachers. Earlier, I was working in a university and I met some of the most brilliant teachers through the IB. I wanted to know more about the organization that is generating this kind of thinking. The IB tries to understand why teachers become teachers. Typically, they are not in it for the money; they are going in there because they have a real passion for educating and being with the student. And I think, sometimes, educational systems forget that teachers are individuals with minds of their own and who have a real proximity to the learners. So what we try to do is create programs that involve a huge amount of engagement on the part of the teachers. The program that we are most known for is the diploma, which is a school leaving certificate that is known world-wide. Even in that, we co-create the assessment with the teacher. I think this is the best way to be partners with the teachers because we all have the same interests; we want the child to be the best that he/she can be. So, in that regard, we see teachers as people who uphold our mission. We want our teachers to be learners, continually. The second aspect is that we build master teachers. For instance, here, in India now, there are teachers who do peer teaching. They might really be doing some great, best practices; they take them and show them to other teachers. A teacher from India might be leading a workshop here, which has participants from Australia, the UK….so we create confidence in the teacher to say that you are not just good in the classroom, you can also be great in helping other teachers and leading other teachers; peer teaching is quite something and we build a community around it. The third aspect is that we don’t change everything all the time. Sometimes because educational policies are created by politically appointed people, every person has his/her own view of what education should be. One instance, the whole system is going one way and then someone else comes to power and it goes another way. This is frightening for teachers because it takes a long time to plan and get things right. One of the things I hear from teachers all the time around the world is the dependability on the IB; that some standards are always kept the same. It doesn’t mean we don’t innovate. We innovate all the time but we ensure that we communicate to the teachers where the innovation is, when it is coming, how they can plan, and the resources they can use.

Could you talk a little about the backgrounds of the teachers joining the IB, here in India? How have they gotten to the IB?
Schools hire the teachers to satisfy whatever local guidelines are in place. What we do is when the school expresses an interest in the IB and makes a commitment to becoming an IB school, we provide a lot of training. We are not a body that you can just pay some money to and get a seal. Or not a body that you can just pay some money and take an exam. It’s very aligned for us. We are seen as an examination board, but we are not really an average educational board. We are about different kind of teaching and bringing the school up to speed to be able to do that kind of teaching. We evaluate the school to see if all of the elements are there, to provide the right conditions for the school to succeed with our program. We ask the school – Are you willing to make a commitment to work, plan, and share collaboratively with other teachers? Do you make the commitment to follow the philosophy that we have? We want the students to be thinkers, we want the students to be caring, we want the students to be risk takers. Then we want the school managements to be aligned, we want the teachers to be able to teach and focus on teaching without worrying about, do I have the support or do I have this, do I have that. When we engage more deeply with the school, what we ask them to do is work towards these standards. Show us evidence that you are planning in a collaborative manner. Show us your lesson plans and we evaluate all of that with the help of some other teacher from some other school.

There seems to be a general idea that parents who send their children to IB schools do so because it will be easier for the child to go abroad for further education. Is this something you have also observed with the IB schools in India?
I don’t know if this is a common trend or what the rationale of the parents is that brings them to IB. What I find is that, and this is of course hearsay, there are limited number of seats in good universities here. So, I suppose, if I was a parent here myself, I would want the best for my child. And if I know my child is fully capable and is not going to get into a deemed university here, and there are so many universities abroad that are going to welcome my child and maybe even with a scholarship, then I think parents should have the right to do that. You can go abroad with other programs as well with an acceptable international credential. I think what I admire about the parents who choose the IB program is that it is a very difficult program to do; that path that both the parent and the school and the student has taken is one to be applauded. I would say, there is no better preparation than the IB for that student for life.

The IB curriculum is a global one. How do teachers contextualize this curriculum to enrich the class with local cultures and knowledge?
The curriculum is the same, whether it be China, India, or Japan. It is the same curriculum, the same exams. But understanding the local is as important for us. We want the students to be proud of their heritage. We are not trying to convert people into something they are not. In fact, the opposite. So, to do that, we spend an extraordinary amount of money and time to ensure that there are exams available in Bengali, Hindi; I think only two students take the exam in Bengali, but we still run it. From an examination point of view, our aim with our curriculum is to make it the most rigorous course of study. Because it is a brand and it is a diploma that is valued worldwide. The teacher might give them marks but we moderate those marks. Then when they take the exam, they are competing internationally. It’s not about a particular teacher or your relationship with the teacher or a local board. Whatever the student scores in the diploma, means the same, irrespective of whether the student came from India or any other place. And that is important for us. We are saying, this is the credential for universities in the world to give the student the same value, regardless of where that student came from. In that sense, we are preparing students for the best universities everywhere.

We also insist on a second language learning, which is not a problem in India, because many of us do learn two to three languages. But in other parts of the world, we insist that the student learn a second language. And that also allows you to keep your heritage. So you can choose a language of your choice and we encourage physical action in all three of our programs (PYP, MYP, Diploma). So you know, the student will be doing the local dances, they could choose their local music. It also has to be easy for the teachers to teach. I was in a history class the other day, and the students were talking about the India-Pakistan separation and whether it was a good idea or not. So yes, it’s very local.

Siva-visit-to-Oakridge-International-School,-Hyd The assessments are the same across countries. You work on the curriculum to ensure that the child connects to his heritage, respects his culture. How are these aspects assessed? For example, a student studying history in India, the history she studies will be different from other countries. How does the assessment address this?
We actually don’t test the content. I grew up here, in India. And I remember studying about Ashoka and his conquests. I had no inspiration to study about Ashoka though because all it reminded me was that I had to remember the start date, the end date, the places he conquered. The IB is different. When we assess in the IB what we try to do is assess concepts, say power or great leadership. So the student could locally be studying Ashoka or Sivaji and what we assess is how well the student studied across these things and how well he/she is able to articulate his/her views. So it is a higher order assessment which requires the student to think through. So the student here might be writing about that, while a student elsewhere, say in Jordan would be writing about the dynasties there. That is how their curriculum is localized. Another aspect is that science is science everywhere. But what that topic is and what the student studies will be something that matters to their context and we also ask that they study it in a global context. If they are studying water issues; here in India, there certainly is a water issue but there are water issues elsewhere in the world too. So I think the student can study their local water issue problem and that is what we evaluate – are they able to understand the problem, are they able to apply their knowledge to global contexts, are they able to articulate, are they able to form a thesis? Those are the things we look at. That’s why it’s been successful in 140 countries. Otherwise we would not be able to operate if we don’t keep our minds on what is universally good learning and what is universally good assessment of that learning. So it is very different from other exams because we spend a lot of time to think through it; we have the learner profile – is the student a thinker, have they been reflective, have they been caring in their responses.

The Middle Year program, the last two years, there is this flexibility to allow students to meet local requirements and personal learning goals. Could you tell me a little about what happens in those two years? What are the kind of projects that children take up?
This is the coolest thing. In the middle years, the student’s mind is very different. We ask the students to take up a project that requires rigorous research. So, identify a problem that you feel passionately about, collect the data and research needed and then create a practical objectification of your idea. There is one student who created a cricket bat out of paper mache. I found that incredible! You know, for the pressure and all that a bat has to withstand. And then there was a child who wanted to help Bangladesh because she went and visited some villages there and they didn’t have electricity at all. She also realized that the government has no plans of giving them electricity. She decided she was going to use kinetic energy from rickshaws and bicycles and take alternate current from one space and distribute it to another. She designed this whole thing and showed me how it works. What we want the student to do is to develop deep knowledge about the problem that they are trying to solve and to keep the world in mind while solving that problem. It amazes me that children at that age create such wonderful things. A brain like that, to have both the exploration and discipline to finish something and to actually demonstrate!! I mean, come on! Kids like that, who doesn’t want them?

Would you be able to comment on what kind of careers students from the IB are choosing? What has your observation been?
Thousands of students take the diploma. So we currently don’t track them to see where they are going. We do have an effort called IB alumni, where we collect stories. But it is voluntary. I think people do different things. We have doctors, professors at Harvard and we have people who are changing the world in big and small ways. I think the hope we have is, whatever profession they choose, they are very, very mindful of changing the world. There are two things that I get as a resonant theme when I talk to alumni – one is that they find this experience to be the most critical of their learning journey. I was speaking to a professor of business at Harvard and he said, ‘There is nothing like it, this was the best experience’, because it built him to be strong for everything else that came up after. We just met in our offices recently, a very young minister of education who has an IB diploma. She is in Sweden and she is so inspired by her IB experience that she came to sit with us and talk to us before making some policies and I think this is what we want. We want people who are very, very thoughtful individuals who make a difference with their education. What we hope to do is, on a systematic basis and in a purposeful manner, build many individuals who will contribute to humanity in different ways and be mindful of what good can do and resist what hate can do.

The author is currently working as a facilitator at Shriram Montessori School, Hyderabad. She can be reached at

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