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Cheryl Boughton, head of school at Elmwood School in Ottawa, with students Mila Mierins, left, Grade 6, Annabel Hay, Grade 2, and Justine Beaule, Grade 12.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

The International Baccalaureate program, started decades ago as a standardized curriculum for the children of diplomats, is catching fire worldwide as a teaching method, reaching well beyond that original mandate.

Canada now has 348 IB schools, the second highest number after the United States. Not only do Canadians have more IB schools to choose from, but the program is becoming available earlier. While the main focus used to be preparation for university in Grades 11 and 12, more schools are offering the primary years program, designed for ages 3 to 12, and the middle years program, for those 11 to 16, as well as the university-prep curriculum, for 16 to 19. To be certified as an IB World School, at least one of the three levels must be offered.

"So many people think that IB is just the final two years, and for a minority of students," says Cheryl Boughton, head of school at Elmwood, a private girls' school in Ottawa that was the first in North America to offer all three programs. "Really, it's an approach to learning that is appropriate for all students. I do think the power of the program is when schools offer all three levels to form a continuum of learning."

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IB is an inquiry-based, interdisciplinary, research-oriented method that is focused on problem solving. Ms. Boughton says it's never too early to get started.

Take one of the "units of inquiry" offered to Grade 2 students at Elmwood. Called Gizmos and Gadgets, it is designed to teach how simple machines can make work easier. Students study various machines, the relationship between forces and movement, and how simple machinery is used in modern technology. They are asked to come up with ways machines might make tasks easier. They display data in pie charts and bar graphs. Not your grandmother's Grade 2 curriculum.

At the same time, university prep in Grades 11 and 12 is a core part of IB. Earning an IB diploma in those two years usually conveys an advantage when it comes to university admission, as well as some university credits.

"Many universities will give preferential treatment to IB candidates because they know these are kids who have pushed themselves more at the high-school level, so their chances of being successful is probably greater," says Richard Calderwood, principal, senior campus, at Glenlyon Norfolk School in Victoria.

To earn an IB diploma, students take courses in six subjects, he explains, three at a higher level and three at a standard level. They must also take a course called Theory of Knowledge, write a 4,000-word research paper and complete the Creativity, Action and Service requirement, which emphasizes personal growth outside of scholarship. They are graded by IB examiners from around the globe, according to worldwide standards.

"There's a lot of pressure," Mr. Calderwood says. "You're covering many of the same topics as the provincial curriculum, plus additional topics. And you're covering those topics to a greater depth – in the higher level to a much greater depth.

"A higher-level IB math course, for instance, may cover concepts usually taught in second-year university. Students in a higher level biology class are expected to have a thorough understanding of photosynthesis, a topic no longer included in the standard provincial curriculum," he says.

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But the higher-level IB curriculum also comes with flexibility. Some students can choose not to earn the full IB diploma. In Grade 11 they can sign up for one or more IB courses; completing three will get them an IB certificate. Completing six will earn the diploma, Mr. Calderwood says.

The University of British Columbia is in the forefront in training teachers to work in IB schools. It started a program last year in which a student who has completed a bachelor's degree can choose to take the IB stream in the one-year bachelor of education program that follows. More than 85 per cent of such students chose to go IB.

Certification allows them to teach in IB schools worldwide, where they can work to impart critical thinking and the international perspective necessary to thrive in a globalized world, says Gary Little, newly named director of International Baccalaureate educator programs at UBC.

He offers an example from a history class: Instead of lecturing students about the root causes of the Second World War, a teacher might ask them to find translations of newspaper stories of the time from Russia, Germany and France and encourage them to ask questions and draw conclusions.

The IB curriculum is designed to cultivate and nurture student's natural inquisitiveness about the world, Mr. Little says. "But there's no magic in IB. It's an educational framework that brings together various elements that are tested, proven and effective."

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