I have written here about one of the questions facing IB schools and teachers, namely in which order one might best go through the syllabus. Naturally this is a question for all subjects yet the discussion here is confined to economics.

Briefly recapitulating, I have put forward that there are costs and benefits in following a strict syllabus order. The benefits are ease of following the progression for students and that when students move (as frequently happens in IB schools) it’s easier to jump into the new class if both are following the syllabus. A weakness herein is that this approach limits students in terms of both Internal Assessment (IA) and extended essay (EE) writing since one will hardly get through much more than micro and macro the first year.

Key concepts – syllabus plan

There is a third variation which, until now, I have not been confronted with. Nor am I entirely sure as yet what I think about it. There are, naturally, costs and benefits that are easy enough to see – yet I really cannot see if there are net benefits in the LR.

This variation rests on the concept of ‘core’ vs HL – e.g. that the SL parts of the syllabus build a common core for all economics students. Assume three classes of IB1 students, 15 – 18 in each, a sum of 45 to 54 students. Assume, hopefully reasonably realistically, that 20% will do SL and 80% HL. This means 9 – 11 SL students amongst the three classes for the first year – and then one class of SL and two classes of HL during the second.

Rearranging the time line for this, we get roughly the following for the first year ‘core’:

Section 1, micro

  • Supply and demand, taxes, subsidies, maximum prices, minimum prices (no incidence of taxes/subsidies, no linear supply and demand functions)
  • Elasticities
  • Market failure (not information asymmetry or imperfect markets)

Section 2, macro

  • GDP, GNI, real and nominal (no calculations)
  • AD-AS, Keynesian vs monetarist school, macro objectives (no calculations, weighted price index, Phillips curve, marginal tax, Gini coefficient)
  • Monetary, fiscal and supply-side policies

Section 3, trade

  • Reasons for and barriers to trade (not comparative advantage, no calculations of tariffs/quotas)
  • Exchange rates (no calculations)
  • Balance of payments (no calculations or evaluation of surpluses/deficits, no J-curve)
  • Economic integration (no trade creation/diversion)

So, assuming one gets through the above in the first year (not too sure about this yet!), one would separate the three classes into two HL classes and one SL class and then ‘pick up the missing pieces’ in year 2:

Higher Level:

  • Micro: Linear supply and demand, incidence of taxes/subsidies, information asymmetry and imperfect markets, entire theory of the firm)
  • Macro: national income calculations, weighted index, Phillips curve, marginal taxes and Gini)
  • Trade: comparative advantage, calculations of effects of tariffs/quotas, exchange rate and balance of payments calculations, J-curve, trade creation/diversion
  • Economic development: everything

Standard Level:

  • Revision of micro, macro and trade issues
  • Economic development: everything except terms of trade

It was my intention to include a rough time-line for Year 1 and 2 but I really am to unsure of how far through the syllabus we’ll get! I would hope to do most of trade by the end of Year 1, and then spend a goodly effort on revision and development in year 2. Having said that…I’m simply not sure as yet.

Apologies for tiresome detail in syllabus outline above! It seemed necessary to do so in order to evaluate the pluses and minuses that now arise.

One immediate conclusion above is simply that SL would have far more available time than HL. Not really; while the hours are the same in year one, in year two SL has 4 x 45 minutes while HL has six such sessions. This makes quite a difference over the course of the year!

There are several advantages to the system. The pace of going through micro and macro enables students to get a ‘bird’s eye view’ of economics rather than slaving away with supply/demand and elasticities for the first half of the first year. Another plus is that the first year enables students to move up to HL (or indeed down to SL) with a minimum of disruption (though of course there will be repercussions with other SL/HL subjects!). I have also seen that my IB2 students, having done a rather wide range of the syllabus in year one, have a much easier time linking disparate HL economic concepts/models to other areas of the syllabus – economies of scale to LRAC and trade, to name but one.

However, three key downsides emerged very quickly in going through the HL concepts with groups that in essence have only been subjected to the SL syllabus. The first is that they are really not prepared for the level of mathematical and diagrammatic analysis they are subjected to in, say, theory of the firm. This leads to number two: possible/probably grade inflation, where students’ year one grades have in fact been based on a SL syllabus with no account taken to the higher level subject matter.

The third is the classic problem of ‘progression’ and ‘immediacy’; much of the IB syllabus is in fact in a kind of order, where for example HL concepts such as incidence of tax and dead-weight loss follow (rather naturally) the concepts of consumer/supplier surplus and elasticity. When following basic micro in a linear fashion, it seems easier for students to follow the progression from consumer/supplier surplus – net loss of surplus – dead-weight loss – income and redistribution effects due to indirect expenditure taxes. The last is a HL area while the preceding are SL concepts.

Thus, the benefits of students being able to link new concepts to previous (known) must be weighed against the time loss in having to revise a goodly many core concepts in SL in order to make the jump to new HL areas. I cannot as yet make up my mind whether the final effect will be net positive or negative…not to mention how I would objectively measure it!