Many IB schools tend to focus on the HL option in the first year of the IB program for a number of reasons.  For those doing Route 2 one reason is that the HL Options begin around 1750, rather than 1900 (starting point for the 20th century core).  Another reason is that the ideas and events of those prior years provide both historical context and the foundation for the events of the 20th century.  Lastly, we have the pragmatic reasons: matching up state or provincial requirements with the IB.

There is one HL option for Route 1 (details can be found beginning on page 33 of the subject guide); there are 4 for Route 2, and they are divided geographically: Africa (page 38), Americas (page 44), Asia and Oceania (page 51), and Europe and the Middle East (page 58).   Each option is divided into 12 sections – and schools are required to cover 3 of the 12.  The school has to declare the option selected but does not have to declare which of the 3 sections they have chosen, and many schools may do elements of more than 3.

It is important to understand that the IB expects 90 hours of instruction time for the options – and that means 30 hours per section – or 6-8 weeks, depending on the school schedule.    The expectations for each section are provided in detail and as long as those details have been covered, your students will be prepared.

One example of the HL Option is the Americas.  It begins with independence movements in the Americas and progresses through nation building, involvement in international affairs, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War and the post-Cold War world to 2000.  It is important to note that this syllabus is for the Americas – not the US – and as such, most of these options demand knowledge of Canadian, US and Latin American history (including the Caribbean).  There are two exceptions – the US Civil War, 1840-1877, and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1940.

Regardless of the 3 sections that are chosen, they must be done comprehensively.  So – let’s say that you choose the Mexican Revolution as one of your sections.  The guide tells you that you must cover:

  • Causes of the Mexican Revolution: social, economic and political; the role of the Porfiriato regime
  • The revolution and its leaders (1910‑17): ideologies, aims and methods of Madero, Villa, Zapata,
  • Carranza; achievements and failures; Constitution of 1917: nature and application
  • Construction of the post-revolutionary state (1920‑38): Obregón, Calles and the Maximato; challenges; assessment of their impact in the post-revolutionary state
  • Lázaro Cárdenas and the renewal of the revolution (1939‑40): aims, methods and achievements
  • The role of foreign powers (especially the United States) in the outbreak and development of the Mexican Revolution; motivations, methods of intervention and contributions
  • Impact of the revolution on the arts, education and music (suitable examples could be Siqueiros, Rivera, Orozco); the impact of Vasconcelos’ educational reforms; the development of popular music; literary works on the revolution

The first thing you probably notice is that the Mexican Revolution may begin in 1910, but these bullet points specify that causes of the revolution must be covered, and that means going back further in time to establish the root causes.  If the students are not familiar with Mexican history, a brief tutorial of Mexico from the colonial period to Porfirio Diaz is definitely in order.   It does not have to be lengthy or too detailed, but they need to understand how Mexico became the country it was by 1910.

It is difficult to find texts that are suitable for IB students.   The time frame is much longer than most studies of the revolution, so the texts need to demonstrate both breadth and depth.  One of the most popular texts is appropriately titled, The Mexican Revolution 1910-1940 by Michael Gonzalez, University of New Mexico Press, 2002.  He is currently working a new edition but this one covers the time frame well.

Additionally, students will need to know the vocabulary, which in this case means some Spanish terms – criollo, mestizo, tienda de raya, científicos, haciendas and peón must be understood.  Other terms, such as vertical integration, cash crops and monopoly may need to be explained as well.  To ensure that students understand these words it’s a good ideas to have them submit brief definitions. And, this will help them when it’s time to prepare for the IB examinations.

Another thing that is evident is that students must go beyond political history and look at the arts, culture, and society in Mexico during the revolutionary period.  Many courses include the following work to stimulate students to think about the revolution in its artistic context:

David Siqueiros, Los soldados de Zapata

 This mural shows the supporters of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata by an eye-witness to the revolution, David Siqueiros.  He is now known for his artwork, but he was a member of the Constitutionalist Army of Venustiano Carranza and a member of the Mexican Communist Party.  Students should be able to explain the message of the painting, and its importance, as long as this has been covered in class.  They should also understand Mexican muralists in the larger contact of the presidency of Obregón, and the education secretary Vasconcelos.

Since this unit on the Mexican revolution will most likely take 6-8 weeks, students will need to write at least 2 essays on the subject – giving them the necessary practice and preparing them for the questions on the exam.  Sample questions could be:

To what extent were political factors the main cause of the outbreak of revolution in Mexico in 1910?


Compare and contrast the success of the agrarian policies of Álvaro Obregón and Lázaro Cárdenas.

 These will give the students the opportunity to give their opinions and demonstrate their knowledge of the subject.  It will also be concrete practice for the essays they will be required to write.

Once the material has been covered, the essays written, and graded and returned, you can move on to the next section of your syllabus.  It may be another one of the Option sections, or it may be part of the core that follows thematically or chronologically.  Either way, students will continue to build on the skills from the Mexican Revolution section as they continue through the curriculum even if they don’t revisit the material until it’s time to revise for the IB exams.

The next blog will focus on the Internal Assessment.  In coming blogs between now and the end of the year, I’ll be discussing the other 2 curricular components and the skills needed to be successful in this course.