Learning Disabilities and IB

written by: Jason Przypek
Many people only vaguely familiar with the IB Diploma Program might describe it as a prestigious and rigorous course of study, well respected but demanding, the kind of thing that makes high school juniors and seniors pull out their prematurely graying hair. What they might not know is that IB is committed to making its programs accessible to the widest range of students. A whole range of accommodations is available to students with learning (dis)abilities. And, most importantly, the program is wonderfully flexible, leaving day-to-day pedagogical decisions and instructional methods to the discretion of the teacher in the classroom.

IB is a good fit for many LD students

The Diploma Program’s curriculum reflects IB’s emphasis on critical thinking and skill development as opposed to memorizing content. While many LD students have difficulties with short- or long-term memory, or both, they often display relative strength in analyzing, thinking creatively, and making connections between ideas. In small classes with attentive teachers, slow processing does not stand in the way of deep understanding or mastery of skills, especially when teachers can give students immediate constructive feedback and tailor lessons to suit needs.

IB assessments often take the form of essays, usually in response to questions the student can choose from among many options. The choice of question allows a student to play to her strengths while the essay response provides an opportunity to display knowledge and ideas that never come into play in a fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice exam. While the AP exams are essentially a summative assessment, simply measuring student performance against set benchmarks, IB assessments are both summative and formative, measuring student progress in a way that can inform teaching strategies and improve instruction. 

IB courses often involve collaborative group projects. Project-based learning is precisely the educational milieu in which goal-oriented, hands-on students thrive, while collaboration not only facilitates a rich exchange of ideas and opportunities for students to teach and learn from peers, but also affords the opportunity for social growth and the development of pragmatic interpersonal skills. Students who struggle with executive function benefit from practicing the necessary planning out of long-term, multistep projects, within a safe, structured, and supervised environment.

IB fosters and appreciates creativity, decidedly an area of relative strength for many LD  students. Creative thinking is encouraged and rewarded in all IB courses and particularly in the Visual Arts course. In this class students compile a portfolio of their artwork, the portfolio itself becoming the assessment piece.

The interdisciplinary nature of the IB program along with its insistence on concurrency of learning leads to deeper understanding and facilitates the fluid interconnection of ideas. The Theory of Knowledge class is taken over two years concurrently with the 6 subject area courses. Concepts garnered in the various subject courses are examined in the light of principles from other disciplines. Ideas are tested and the very footholds of knowledge are closely examined. LD students will benefit tremendously from explicitly practicing this kind of interdisciplinary examination, learning to see how parts fit into the whole and how concepts can be applied across disciplines. 

IB’s Approaches to Teaching and Approaches to Learning are simply based on good, solid educational principles that explicitly call for differentiated instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners. As we well know, the success of any educational endeavor does not lie exclusively in the set of cognitive aptitudes of the learner but hinges on the complex and adaptive interplay between learners and teachers. With this principle in mind a well-executed Diploma Program can put the meeting of world-class standards well within reach of many diverse learners.
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Learning Diversity is a blog hosted by Eagle Hill School where educators, students, and other members of the LD community regularly contribute posts and critical essays about learning and living in spaces that privilege the inevitability of human diversity.

The contributors of Learning Diversity come together to engage our readers from a variety of disciplines, including the humanities, social sciences, biological sciences and mathematics, athletics, and residential life. Embracing learning diversity means understanding and respecting our students as whole persons.


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