Mathematics in an IB School

Mathematics at ISBerne

There may be no subject in a school curriculum that generates as much debate as mathematics. And this is proving to be true at ISBerne.

The International Baccalaureate requires all students to take mathematics, offering the subject at Higher, Standard, and Studies levels in the Diploma (grades 11 and 12). Unlike the national systems many of us experienced, where we could drop mathematics after a certain grade, this is not an option for our students. In addition, ISBerne, with students from over 50 nationalities, is in the position of addressing a significant spread of curriculum requirements, skills, attitudes, applications and more, as a consequence of our students’ previous experiences. To show how significant this can be, please have a look at the spread of scores as shown by the PISA results, found at: (zoom in for a longer list of countries).

The spread of results indicates more than a three-year gap between the highest and lowest performing countries in mathematics. A student achieving outstanding grades in a national system at the bottom of the list might well be out of their depth when transferring to the IB. This would certainly be a result of the gaps in knowledge, rather than the consequence of work ethic or aptitude. The reverse is equally true of students from the top-performing systems, who may well find they have studied work that is now being ‘re-taught’ to them.

Clearly, addressing these issues (and those in Reading, Writing, and Science) present international schools with interesting challenges in discerning where strengths and needs lie for individual students. Parents have an important voice in this conversation, and I would encourage ongoing engagement with teachers, as well as the Programme Coordinators, in this regard.

Happy Expats?

A recent survey carried out by HSBC on expats around the world investigated, amongst other things, quality of life, raising a family, and cost of living. Switzerland ranked first amongst expats when these measures were combined. The survey can be found here:

I, for one, am happy to be here. At the same time, I acknowledge some of the expat benefits apparent in other regions of the world. My last position was in China, where teacher salaries are amongst the highest in the profession – high enough to cancel out the pollution levels, for a period of time in any case. Previously we lived in the Philippines, a nation that has been ranked as amongst the happiest in the world. And we left behind New Zealand, ranked by HSBC as the best place to raise families.

Consequently, like you, I can reflect back on previous experiences and relate them to our day-to-day lives in Switzerland. In a conversation with a colleague, a few things became apparent. Foremost was the relationship we have with landscapes: Here’s mine…


It seems as though we relate to the landscape of our youth, and this becomes the yardstick against which we measure everything else, for better or for worse. Don’t get me wrong – Switzerland is stunningly beautiful (I love mountains, and living with a view of the Alps is certainly ‘uplifting’) – it just doesn’t have that smell of the Atlantic, the sea breeze, the crisp sand. And perhaps this is the nub of the question: Can ‘different’ be as good?

I also wonder how much our reflections bring to bear when we compare all those things we leave behind. We bring with us a range of memories apart from ‘landscapes’ – essentially, landscapes of the mind – memories of previous schools for example. In doing so, we always compare that which is new (ISBerne) to those schools of our past.

I’m not sure of how to end a reflection such as this. Perhaps a reiteration of the fact that we are happy in Switzerland, but cognizant of what we leave behind. A topic for a future Pechakucha?


Richard Swart

Director ISBerne

Predictably Irrational

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 12.07.43 PMPredictably Irrational is the title of a book by Dan Ariely that details a range of experiments undertaken to shed light on human behaviour. The premise is that our behaviour, as individual and quirky as it might seem, conforms to drivers that are universal – and predictable. Here’s one experiment that sheds light on what we understand by organizational culture.

Two groups of participants are placed in separate rooms and asked to complete a scrambled sentence task. For some the sentences comprised words such as aggressive, rude, annoying, and intrude. Others were given words such as honour, considerate, polite, and sensitive. The second part of the experiment involved both groups waiting while other subjects were given instructions that dragged on… How long would the subjects wait before their patience ran out? For those primed with polite words, they waited about 9.3 minutes before interrupting. For those primed with rude words, the time was 5.5 minutes.

A second set of experiments primed one group with scrambled sentences that focused on the concept of elderly while the other group was primed with youthful words. The experimenters then timed the groups to see how long they took to walk down the exit passage. Sure enough, those primed with the elderly words walked slower!

Why is this significant in learning communities?

Because we learn! And the words we use in our community are important – they have meaning for our behaviour beyond their intent. Consider the impact our words have on community culture, on the emotive climate created, on the opportunities for effective communications in the context of the experiments above. I’m interested in your views.

Richard Swart
Director ISBerne

Our Piece of Peace

Today our students get together to bring their ‘piece of peace’ in a gesture that, I believe, typifies international schools around the world. Madiba is, I believe, right on track when he points to the following:


I began my teaching career in apartheid-era South Africa, and was fortunate to teach in the only ‘mixed’ school in the Eastern Cape – a geographical area similar in size to Switzerland – and the only such school in the region. We held similar events then to the ‘Piece of Peace’, watched by the police, and not particularly well supported by our neighbours. The school leadership never wavered in the face of significant opposition – students shot and arrested in townships, our school bus petrol bombed, our sport teams barred from participation. I often wonder how our school families reflect on those times, and if they recognize the significance of their contributions to the creation of a better world.

Some may say that idealism has no place in our ‘real’ world. I could not be in greater disagreement with that. Education has a critical role to play in moving towards a world where greater equity is a real possibility. International schools will continue to lead in this. And should we think this to be impossible, let’s reflect on the following:


Richard Swart
Director ISBerne

Bear With Me

The ISBerne student literary magazine, Bear With Me, is an impressive and entertaining publication that was produced last spring by a group of Secondary students. The magazine is both fun and thought provoking with essays and dissertations on subjects ranging from the societal effect of violent video games to the rendering of certain knowledge as obsolete. These are interspersed with fun articles such as The Real Football and Skateboarding in Bangkok. We have made the digital version of the publication available for download on below. 



ISBerne offers on-campus experience to Online students

Sarah Senanayake is an ISBerne Online student who opted to take advantage of the Study Abroad program in order to spend some time in a campus environment.

An ISBerne 5th grade student explores electric cars

Noah Lofthouse, a 5th grade student at ISBerne, researched electric cars for his end-of-year exhibition. In this video segment, he is interviewed by Ms. Deirdre Coghlan, Communication Coordinator at ISBerne.




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