Diploma subjects

What are the aims of my subject?

What does it mean to be 'good at' Math, for example? What does it mean to think like a scientist, for example?

An opportunity to go to the heart of each subject in the Diploma Programme through an exploration of subject aims. An activity that asks teachers to identify core concepts and thus gain an understanding of how the Diploma Programme is built on conceptual understanding and is not merely an assessed curriculum.

The page also provides an overview of the IB rubrics surrounding subject choices.

What we are trying to do?

At the heart of each group are subject aims. Every IB teacher should keep these constantly at the forefront of their minds. It is instructive to ensure that students are constantly reminded of these, not least in an age of high stakes assessment when it is tempting to teach to tests and lose sight of the reason for studying the subject discipline.

The IB Diploma Programme is focused on building conceptual understanding. These aims are rich in concepts. The concepts are the building blocks which help a student get inside a subject, develop a deep understanding of how the subject works and work like a scientist, a historian, an economist etc.

It is noticeable how certain leitmotifs occur across subjects, pointing to the trans disciplinary nature of the IB Diploma Programme and the need for horizontal and vertical articulation. This is especially the case in relation to aims which speak about appreciating the international dimension of subjects, the development of intercultural understanding, the development of critical and creative thinking, becoming globally aware and understanding the relationship of one subject with other subjects.

I am grateful to Jim Noble for the ideas in this page on his InThinking Maths Studies site.

Key documents

Activities: Going to the heart of my subject

Read the aims of your subject group by clicking on the appropriate subject gallery below.

Teachers to work in their subject groups to explore and then present what is at the heart of their subject.

  • Discuss what it means to be 'good at' your subject. Use the Cover Story protocol to present your case to all of your colleagues in a plenary session.

  • Use the Heart of the Matter protocol to deconstruct your subject aims by identifying the top concepts at the heart of your subject.

  • Present your work around the room for all to see. Use a Gallery Walk protocol to identify links between subjects.

Subject Aims

Aims of Studies in Language & Literature

Aims of Language Acquisition

Aims of Individuals and Societies

Aims of Science

Aims of Maths

Aims of The Arts

Play the whole subject game

The IB approach to learning is very much one of “learning by doing” rather than “learning by receiving”. A past Chair of the IB described it this way: “This begins in the Primary Years Programme where students are actively involved in inquiry and continues through to the Diploma Programme where, for example, students practice the arts rather than learn about them, where mathematical investigation is a key part of this subject and where during philosophy classes, students practice philosophical reasoning.” (Seefried, M., The IB, educating hearts and minds to meet the challenges of today’s world, IBO, 2008).

In his book Making Learning Whole, David Perkins (2009) talks of the tendency of schools to teach a subject in terms of its elements rather than letting students “play the whole game” of science, math, history etc. He calls this tendency “aboutitis”: teachers teach ‘about’ a subject rather than immersing them in the subject. This tendency is exacerbated in schools that feel pressure from high stakes standardized testing, which splits a subject into the bits that have to be learnt.

The IB advocates an opposite approach. Although students are assessed in each of their subjects the IB approach should be to immerse them in the subject, or to use Perkins’ analogy to ‘play the whole game’. Rather than learning about science students become scientists, rather than learning about literary criticism they become literary critics etc. Understanding a subject means being immersed in its processes and ways of thinking as well as knowing the content of a subject. In his book Creating cultures of thinking Ron Ritchhart explores how teachers can do this by, for example, framing learning objectives. He uses the following example: instead of a science teacher framing the objectives as “Today we are going to learn about chemical reactions” a teacher who is trying to immerse students into scientific process would say, “Today as scientists we are going to be investigating how chemicals react under various circumstances.” The student therefore takes on both discipline based roles (artists, historians, scientists etc.) and process-based roles (e.g. thinks, researchers, commentators etc.). Deep understanding of a subjects enables students to effectively communicate (to express, justify and communicate one's thinking and ideas) using the rich vocabulary of the subject.

Activity: Learning like a ....

In subject groups identify what it means to 'play the whole game' of your subject discipline.

  • Identify key subject discipline roles.
  • Identify key process-based roles that are integral to your discipline. What types of thinking do you try and make routine in your classrooms? What kinds of thinking will students need to do to build deep understanding?
  • Refer to the Thinking Routines that Harvard's Project Zero has designed. Go to their webpage by clicking here and here. Find routines that match the kind of thinking you wish to develop in your subject.

IB rubrics - subject choices for IB Diploma

The Handbook of procedures for the Diploma Programme contains lists of all subjects available for examination.

Click here to access a brief overview of the DP.

Subject groups 1 to 6
  • Diploma candidates may take EITHER  2 Standard Level (SL) subjects + 4 Higher Level (HL) subjects; OR 3 SL + 3HL.
  • A subject must be selected from each of groups 1 to 5. The sixth subject may be selected from group 6 or from groups 1 to 5 or an interdisciplinary subject (see below). A candidate may offer a second group 1 subject instead of a group 2 subject.
  • ALL HL + Core must be taught over the two years of programme.
  • One or two SL subjects can be completed and assessed at the end of the first year. This is not possible, however, for Languages ab initio and pilot subjects. A student may then take a second SL subject and complete it in the second year (excluding Languages ab initio and pilot subjects). If a student is taking 3 SL's one of these must be taught over the two year programme.
Subject Alternatives

Click here to access the IB online page which describes the choices.

  • Interdisciplinary subjects: These SL subjects meet the requirements for two groups through a single subject. If a student takes one of these interdisciplinary subjects they must then choose a sixth subject from any of the groups in the DP. Currently there are two interdisciplinary subjects: Environmental systems and societies (SL) meeting the requirements of groups 3 and 4. Literature and performance (SL) meeting the requirements of groups 1 and 6.
  • School-based syllabuses are designed by the school, can only be offered at SL and only in groups 2 to 6. A student can only study one school-based syllabus. The school-based syllabus cannot be part of a bilingual diploma. The IB works with a school or schools on the development of school-based syllabuses.
  • Pilot subjects are sometimes developed by the IB with a limited number of schools authorized to offer them.
Bilingual Diploma

The IB do issue bilingual diplomas if a student successfully meets the following criteria:

  • Student gets a grade 3 or higher in two languages selected from group 1.
  • Student gets a grade 3 or higher in group 1 language and a subject from group 3 or group 4 which is taken in a language that is not the same as the candidate's nominated group 1 language.
Non-regular diploma

Occasionally university entry regulations dictate that a candidate takes a choice of subjects that are not specified by the IB. The school must first consider offering a subject as an additional seventh subject (that does not contribute to the diploma). If this is not possible the school may submit a request to the IB for approval with evidence from the university. The IB may allow a candidate to make a reasonable substitution of a subject where appropriate documentary evidence is presented.

Diploma courses online

Click here to access the IB site which provides information on which courses are available to be taken online.

IB courses online extend subject choice for students as well as create intercultural classrooms for learning which may not be available in all schools.The IB provides these courses in collaboration with Pamoja Education.

If you are interested in offering online courses you should read Diploma programme courses online: An overview for schools which can be accessed here.

Schools which use such courses need to appoint a site-based coordinator (SBC) who needs to complete training to fulfill their responsibilities. Refer to Diploma programme courses online: An overview for schools for an outline of their responsibilities.

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