Written by Dan Worth
Tes sits down with International Baccalaureate director-general Olli-Pekka Heinonen to chat about everything from digital assessment and his ‘head, hand and heart’ mantra for education to why The Crown served as an unexpected source of inspiration.
The Crown may not sound like an obvious source of inspiration for leading a global education organisation through a pandemic and into a rapidly changing world. But for Olli-Pekka Heinonen, director-general of the International Baccalaureate (IB), looking back over history is something he has been doing a lot since he started the job in May 2021 – only the eighth director-general in the organisation’s 53-year history.
“Part of the learning process I went through was to think about the future by looking to history – I wanted to understand what was in the minds of the people who created the organisation more than 50 years ago,” he tells Tes.
Which is why, when he was unwinding by watching television over the holidays, he drifted towards The Crown.
“[It] is a description of those times when the IB was created – it was good to have the possibility to reflect on the circumstances of those times,” he explains.
What this reflection led him to realise was how “courageous” and “future-looking” the founders of the IB were when, in 1968, they launched their education model to the world, based on their belief that another system was possible. This, in turn, made him understand just how important a job he has now in ensuring that he builds on what the IB founders started all those years ago.
“Those people would not be happy if we just continue doing the things that they did because the world we’re living in today has different challenges,” Heinonen says.
“We need to create teaching and learning that helps our students to go with the existing challenges and the challenges of tomorrow that we might not be aware of – that’s the heritage I’m responsible for.”
IB for 2022 and beyond
Now is certainly a time when big changes seem more achievable. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to cause education disruption across the world and with that comes hope for new ways forward, but also a great deal of complexity.
Fortunately, complex challenges were, Heinonen says, part of the allure of the job: “I do like complex environments,” he admits.
With his previous roles including minister of transport and communications in the Finnish government and director-general of the Finnish National Agency for Education, he has a CV to back up that claim. Expectations of his impact, as a result, were high.
Indeed, the chair of the IB board of governors, Dr Helen Drennen, speaking about Heinonen’s appointment last May, said he would “bring a leading, influential voice to shaping the future of international education and to the next era of the IB”.
Head, hand, heart – it’s a pithy, alliterative, rule-of-three way to crystalise his vision. But what does it mean for the future in terms of practical changes to its programmes?
Heinonen does not reveal specifics just yet, but says he and his team are actively working on how these ideals could inform changes to the IB’s programmes of study, chiefly its popular Diploma Programme.
“We are starting the ideation phase of the Diploma Programme review and these are the issues we are considering and trying to find solutions to that would make sense,” he says. But he adds: “That is, of course, more easily said than done.”
However, the IB is not doing this work alone – after all, it has schools around the world working with its curricula every day that will have ideas about how things could evolve, or will already be trying out new ways of working – something Heinonen is keen to learn from.
“This is not something we will just come up with in IB headquarters and then push down to schools – it’s something we’re doing together with the larger community involving the knowledge that there is in our schools,” he says.
“It’s about creating trust for collaboration and finding solutions together, sometimes experimenting with things, piloting things, asking schools who are willing to move faster to find new ways to do that and seeing whether there are wider insights that could be covering the whole organisation.”
Introducing digital assessments
Of course, without specifics of what might change, it’s hard to know exactly how revolutionary he and his team will be in adopting ideas – whether created in a brainstorm meeting or proposed by an innovative school – and how this will feed into his “head, hands, heart” maxim.
But schools should not have too long to wait to find out, with Heinonen saying that over the next 12 months there should be “a lot more” to share about the strategic direction of the IB – with the intention to then work at “full speed with implementation” on whatever they decide.
However, one area where he is a bit more candid is in revealing the work being done to see how the IB could bring digital assessment to its Diploma Programme – Heinonen says he believes now is the right moment for this to be evaluated.
“I think we have now come to the moment for the IB to move into that area, and that is something that we are looking at,” he says.
Digital assessment is, in fact, something the IB has been offering since 2016 through its Middle Years Programme (MYP), with optional two-hour exams provided through mixed-mark, on-screen examinations in subjects such as language and literature, geography, history, maths and sciences.
Some school leaders have been wondering if the IB might do something similar with its Diploma Programme.
Heinonen, though, thinks it was “wise of the IB not to rush into this area” with the Diploma Programme, given that it is the final stage of assessment that IB students face and so ensuring that any changes are fully thought through is key.
“[It’s] important to make ethically sustainable decisions and this is an area where it’s very, very important to [create] ethical, sustainable solutions because with digital assessment you can go badly [wrong],” he says.
“Because the digital world makes it so easy to measure certain things that might not be at all worth assessing, which would not be supporting learning, which is the aim of assessment. For that reason, we really have to be very conscious of the solutions we are [proposing].”
However, it seems clear that Heinonen is confident that a move to digital assessment in the Diploma Programme is in everyone’s best interests. “Digital assessment can open doors to a model that supports learning better than the traditional model and…we are trying to create the conditions for us to move to that,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this work is being developed in conjunction with the aforementioned work on rethinking the structure and focus of the Diploma Programme. “It would not be wise to do them as separate processes,” he adds.
What might this look like in reality then? Will students be writing long-form essays on laptops, or answering multiple-choice questions on tablets?
Will they have access to the internet to demonstrate their research skills or will accessing wi-fi networks be an instant fail offence?
Details are, for now, not forthcoming – but it does not sound like there will be too long a wait for more information here either. “I am confident that definitely during this year you will hear more about this,” Heinonen adds.
No doubt IB teachers, parents and students around the world will be waiting with bated breath.
The impact of Covid
However, perhaps a more pressing question for those in the IB ecosystem is what will be done about this year’s exams – the more traditional type? Are there any plans to adapt those in light of the Omicron Covid disruption?
“One of the skills of our times is to live with the uncertainty, and that’s definitely [the case] with assessment,” acknowledges Heinonen.
At the time of the interview, he told Tes that the IB was monitoring the impact of the Omicron disruption on its schools to decide on a way forward, but he said no plan had been reached. “We cannot give, for the time being, any exact kind of solutions for that,” he said.
However, just over a week after we spoke, the IB confirmed that it would be adopting the same mixed approach to assessment this summer, with an update on its website saying it will “use processes that we have refined over the course of the pandemic to award grades without exams”.
It also says that “appropriate grade boundaries will be set to account for the disruption to education”, suggesting that efforts to tackle grade inflation will not be immediate – which chimes with Heinonen’s view that this can only be done when it will be fair to do so for students.