Faculty Insights: The Unofficial IB Subject Guide

Faculty Insights: The Unofficial IB Subject Guide

It’s the time of the year again when the Grade 10 students are deciding which IB subjects to take, or to even take the IB at all. Because this is a big decision to make, and many difficult questions may be bouncing around their heads right now, Dragon’s Print compiled information from probably the most knowledgeable people on the IBDP: the teachers themselves.

If you’re interested in a course but confused as to what it requires and expects of you as an IB student, this is what your teachers have to say:

Skip to a desired subject group here:

Group 1: Language and LiteratureGroup 2: Language AcquisitionGroup 3: Individuals and SocietiesGroup 4: Sciences
Group 5: MathematicsGroup 6: The ArtsAdvice on Choosing Your Subjects


Group 1: Language & Literature

Mr. Russell Greene [English HL]

What kind of students should take English HL?

They [would be] students who maybe have some sort of affection towards language. It is a very language-centric course. Obviously, we’re studying literature along with studying language, but even with literature we have to understand how words work, how words are used, and how they affect people. So we get very in-depth into these different ideas, so you have to be the kind of person who’s willing to do that and has a critical mind.

Why should students choose the HL course over the other?

Aside from me, who is really a wonderful reason—you can put that in by the way—I don’t know, it really depends on the person. I don’t think this course is for everyone. It really depends on, again, who you are and what you want out of the IB program. If you enjoy literature more, you enjoy this kind of in-depth conversations, if you are a stronger writer or want to become a stronger writer and communicator overall…then this is a good course to take.

What are the benefits of taking English HL if that student does not want to pursue an English-related career?

There are, I think, numerous benefits to taking English HL even if it doesn’t, at least obviously, fit someone’s career path. It probably still helps them in ways that maybe they don’t realize. One of the things we do in English is focus a lot on critical thinking and critical analysis, which really is a skill which could help somebody in every aspect of life. This includes any career path but also outside of work-related skills. Also, because it’s a language and literature course, we’re not just studying literature. Even though I do think that’s interesting, we look at a lot of readings about culture and about ideas. It just helps to make someone a  more well-rounded person. Finally, it improves your writing and good writing always helps anyone.

Mr. Corryn Smith [English SL]

Who/what kind of students should take English SL?

English SL students come from a variety of backgrounds, I want to make it clear for students that SL is not just a course based on a student’s ability or proficiency in the English language. It also is a combination of factors that includes the decisions that the student makes on what HL courses they want to pursue in IB.

Why should students choose the SL course over the other?

In the SL course there will be two fewer novels in part 3 and part 4, which refer to critical study and text in context, so that might be a consideration for you in terms of how heavy your other loads are. In SL your time spent is largely in the text themselves, so there’s very little time for English grammar and conventions. SL might be more appropriate if you would like more intensive work on grammar in relation to speaking and listening skills. A lot of students have the experience as non-native English speakers that the SL can be an opportunity for more practice in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. It also is less intensive, of course. But then again, the student has to make a careful decision about what their priorities are in terms of the SL features. As far as making decisions within English itself, I would think that any student that is interested in matriculating into a university in North America or in any European or Asian institution would still need a solid background in English whether you have to take the IELTS or not, having at least an SL foundation in English would be important for today’s colleges and universities.

What are the benefits of taking English SL if that student does not want to pursue an English-related career?

Regardless of the fact that the student has an English emphasis in the university studies, we know that the benefits of having English for a non-native speaker manifold, the biggest of course being that it gives the student greater accessibility for the admissions process. For example, if you are a non-native speaker, most institutions would require you to take the IELTS exam, and I think that the SL course could help you succeed in that.

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Group 2: Language Acquisition

Ms. Gloria Rodriguez [Spanish ab initio]

Who or what kind of students should take Spanish ab initio?

Students who have not taken any Spanish [classes] before and have no prior knowledge of Spanish are allowed to take Spanish ab initio.

Why should you choose Spanish ab initio?

Spanish is a language spoken by 500 million people. Now, more and more people are interested in speaking and learning the language, and because we live in a global world, Spanish is gaining more importance in business and social interactions.

What are the benefits of taking Spanish ab initio?

It helps you a lot. Even though it’s Spanish ab initio, you start from a beginner level to an intermediate level. After two years, you are able to write, listen, and speak in different situations. You are able to express your ideas and [even] learn how to write formal and informal letters.

Ms. Jinhua Zou [Mandarin ab initio]

What kind of students should take Mandarin ab initio?

The students who take Mandarin ab initio need to have no prior background in Mandarin. It’s possible that they may have had it as a second language before, but they feel like they would struggle too much to do Mandarin B, so then they can choose the ab initio. However, this learning would be for a very short period. If they have tried learning Mandarin for over a year, then they have to go to Mandarin B. IB has very strict policies we must follow. It also helps if you come from a strong Asian background as Mandarin and other Asian languages, such as Korean and Japanese, are very strongly related.

Why should students choose the Mandarin ab initio over the other [Mandarin B]?

The two courses [Mandarin ab initio and Mandarin B] are on two totally different language levels. So if the students want to go with Mandarin but they don’t feel very confident and they have just started learning, it is better to go to AB Initio. Actually both Mandarin ab initio and B are not easy but that is when your interest and motivation will come in to help you.

What are the benefits of taking Mandarin if that student does not want to pursue an Mandarin-related career?

Since China is becoming one of the biggest marketing bodies, I think that the benefit of learning Mandarin is that you have a better chance of connecting with the Chinese. I am sure that within the next 50 years or so, China will still have a huge economy and presence in the market, so it is good to build connections. There are also a lot more job offers opening in China so it is really beneficial to learn Mandarin. For instance, with Saudi Arabia, they just announced that in all public schools learning Mandarin will be mandatory. So that is a very important signal for everyone.

Ms. Elaine Jin [Mandarin B]

What kind of students should take Mandarin B?

The Mandarin B class is for those students who have been taking Mandarin for their World Language. It has two different levels: SL and HL. Both levels will be in one class in both Grade 11 and 12. Mandarin B requires students to be able to read, write, speak and listen to certain topics, such as global warming, healthy lifestyle and etc. It includes three assessments: IA (the speaking assessment), Paper One (the writing assessment), and Paper Two (the listening and reading comprehension assessment). HL has the same assessments but requires some literature reviews. The [biggest] difference is in the IA assessment. The speaking materials are based on literature pieces.

Why should you choose Mandarin B over the other [Mandarin ab initio]?

Mandarin is becoming a more and more popular language. One out of six people speak Mandarin. [Learning] the language will help you in the future, either in traveling in Mandarin speaking countries, or doing business with Chinese people. There are many Chinese business people around the world. If you are able to speak fluent Mandarin, you will get more chance to have the business done. For Mandarin students, since you have learned the language, it is a big advantage to continue the subject and improve more on your listening, speaking, reading and writing skills. Although Mandarin is not an easy language, learning a difficult language helps and keeps your brain thinking, building up a good learning habit and getting you more prepared for the future. The demand of being able to speak Mandarin and English is quite high in China and also other countries, so I hope the Grade 10 Mandarin class students could continue learning Mandarin.

What are the benefits of taking Mandarin B if that student does not want to pursue a Mandarin related career?

Studying anything has many advantages, and languages are no different. There are personal and professional advantages to be derived from studying them. Right now in the world, Chinese is moving into a position to be the rising language and cultural force for the 21st century. So it follows that learning Mandarin just makes sense because it will change your life. As I mentioned previously, learning Mandarin is a challenge but it also develops critical and creative thinking skills as you need to put effort and think about different strategies to learn the language. By studying Mandarin, the students will develop an appreciation for Chinese culture and history. We are not only learning the language but also learning the culture. There are many Mandarin-speaking countries and they share similar and a little different culture. It will be interesting to learn these similarities and differences.

Unfortunately, due to conflicting schedules, we were not able to obtain a meeting with Mr. Daniel Goldstein who teaches Spanish B HL and SL.

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Group 3: Individuals and Societies

Ms. Emily Cornet [Business HL/SL]

What kind of students should take Business?
Really with IB Business, anyone can take it. I mean, that’s the reality. Anyone can take it. They don’t have to want to go into Business. But the thing about it is that what you will learn is what you will end up learning are things that you can apply no matter where you end up working in your life. Because we’re all going to work jobs. So we all have to know something about business. The question is what part of the business we’re going to work in. So the IB Business course teaches different parts whether it is hiring or firing, or managing the money, or about how about how to market or advertise. Those are skills anyone can have. And so the reality is, who should take it? Anybody can take it.


What’s the difference between HL and SL Business?

The biggest difference in terms of course work is the IA. The SL internal assessment is very different than the HL internal assessment and the reason for it is that HL [IA] is based entirely on primary research as the basis for the paper whereas SL is secondary research. And what that means is that for an HL student, you have to have access to somebody inside a business because you need to do interviews or surveys,or collect financial data. Whereas for an SL student, they can go look into a business holistically and not have access to that inside knowledge or data. So in terms of summatives, that is the biggest difference: the IA’s.

Both HL and SL take a paper 1 and paper 2. There is a small difference in the content of the course itself. There is a little bit more depth in HL but the bigger difference is the math skills. HL requires more math. So if you’re a student currently struggling in math you might find HL Business more challenging than SL Business. But even so, if you look at reading skills, writing skills, and analytical skills, both HL and SL are going to require students to do a lot of depth.

Mr. David Horne [History SL/HL]

What kind of students should take History?

Students who are interested in going to law school should take History SL or HL, either one. For sure, if you think you want to be a lawyer, then that’s what you should do. If you think that you’re gonna have military service in your future, then you should study History as well. To a lesser extent, I think International Business majors benefit from history. Obviously, you need to take Business, but I think if you’re interested in doing business outside your border, then taking a History class gives you perspective that will enable you to be a stronger person within your career. That would be my recommendation.

What’s the difference between SL and HL and which would you recommend?

Okay. The big benefit to SL is that we do all the topics your junior year. So your senior year, your History class then is strictly working on your IA. If you do the HL, you have topics all the way up through mock exams. I would suggest [students] who are serious about going to law school should do HL. If you are interested in business, then SL is enough to give you the background you need. Someone who’s interested in going in the military, I think HL would actually benefit them probably the most out of anybody. So it is not to say that you have to be one of those to take History, but I think those are three very clear areas where history helps you.

Unfortunately, due to conflicting schedules, we were not able to obtain an interview with Ms. Choco Laplana who teaches Psychology HL and SL.

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Group 4: Sciences

Ms. Jacqui Street [Biology SL/HL]

What kind of students should take Biology?

I think Biology is appropriate for anyone who’s interested in nature and the human body and how the world works. Anyone’s capable of [learning] it, it’s just you’ve got to have an initial interest in those things.

What is the difference between HL and SL and which would you recommend?

The big difference between HL and SL isn’t…it’s not necessarily that HL is harder, it’s just more content, so, if you’re HL you do all the SL topics, but then you also have the extra topics on top. Most of them follow on from the ones that you’ve done in SL, but then there’s a few like plant biology which SL doesn’t do. So, it’s the [difference in the] amount of hours, really, that you’re expected to put into. You do 150 hours for SL, and then an extra 90 hours for HL topics (240 hours total).

Ms. Jean Wood [Chemistry SL/HL]

What kind of students should take Chemistry?

Student that are passionate about chemistry should take Chemistry.

What’s the difference between HL and SL and which would you recommend?

Higher level has a more material in terms of the breadth of the curriculum and it also has a lot more depth. I would say that students who are strong in Mathematics can consider HL; if Math is something that they are still working on, then SL would be more appropriate.

What are the benefits of taking Chemistry if that student does not want to pursue a Chemistry related career?

It rounds out the person as a student, just in terms of environmental and health issues. It is a nice integration between subjects such as Physics or Biology, so that is a consideration if they like those two subjects. If they do take HL and excel at it and it is not their major, a lot of universities do give credit.

Ms. Jean Wood [Physics SL/HL]

What kind of students should take Physics?

Probably students who love to problem solve and learn more about the microscopic world, so all about the atom and what’s inside the nucleus as well as the macroscopic world. If you are interested in Astronomy, we do study Astrophysics as one of the options. I would also say people who are interested in Engineering.

What’s the difference between Physics HL and Physics SL and which would you recommend?

Similar to Chemistry, Higher Level has more depth and breadth, and for Standard Level, they study the same topics but not as deep or broad as the Higher Level students.

What are the benefits of taking Physics if that student does not want to pursue a Physics related career?

I mean, who knows? You might end up taking a career that links to the sciences, like robots and artificial intelligence. That’s a big field that’s coming out and so I think it is just good knowledge to have. It also might trigger questions you may wonder about, such as how the universe is designed or how it is organized, and learning more about what’s around us.

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Group 5: Mathematics

Mr. Edward Clements [AA Math HL]

What can student expect from the new Math curriculum next year?

So at the moment, the Higher Maths concentrates on calculus and now the IB wants to broaden the curriculum a little bit, and to say other areas of Mathematics for application might be worth studying as well at the Higher Level. So then, we want to introduce things like network theory and statistics.

What kind of students should take AA Math HL?

I think, to study at the Higher Level, certainly you’re going to have to really want to do this. I think it’s quite a demanding course, but hopefully a pleasurable one as well.

Why should students choose the HL course over the other?

I think this depends on the demands of the university and in their general interest. I’m happy to have students who just want to do it because they’re interested, but also, it may be a means to an end, where people want to study Science or Engineering.


Unfortunately, due to conflicting schedules, we were not able to obtain an interview with Mr. Nicholas Arnsby who will be teaching AA Math SL.

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Group 6: The Arts

Mr. Jessie Saclo [Art HL/SL]

What kind of students should take Visual Arts?

The type of students I think who should choose the Visual Arts program, should have the interest and passion for the Arts. They don’t necessarily need the “skill” because passion and endurance will help them learn to harness their techniques better. However, a lot of students approach me and refrain from join the Arts programme because they’re afraid of the writing involved. I think the writing isn’t difficult nor should it affect their [self] esteem because most kids are prepared to write creatively since elementary school.

What are the benefits of taking Visual Arts if that student does not want to pursue an Arts-related career?

In the long run, they will learn and harness their ideas, capability of designing, and creativity. They should be interested in art, not necessarily skilled. What is important is their capacity to preserve and accept challenges that the IB and the world have to offer.

Why should students choose the HL course over the other?

There are minimal differences between the HL and SL options for the Visual Arts class, however there are 3 assessment parts in the Visual Arts: the Exhibition, the Comparative Study and their Process Journal/Portfolio. The most significant difference is the quantity of artworks and art making forms the SL and HL students have to submit. The HL students need to submit a minimum of 8 artworks, and a maximum of 11 within the two year period of the IB. The SL kids need only 4-7 artworks within the two year period as well. For Art Making forms, the SL students need only 2 art making forms from two columns (the three columns being 2D, 3D, and Digital) whereas the HL students have to have a variety of all three columns. Overall, I would suggest to take the HL option for the Visual Arts, as the significance of differences between the two are so minimal.  

Mr. Michael Swank [Music SL/HL]

What kind of students should take Music SL/HL?

If you’re thinking about choosing Music, you need to ask yourself: am I proficient at an instrument? Am I a proficient singer? Do I understand music theory? Do I know how to use music notation software? Those are the kind of questions you could ask yourself.

What’s the difference between HL and SL and which would you recommend?

There are three components to the HL track. The components are musical perception, which involves listening to music and analyzing it. The second component is creating. The third component is performing for HL. For Music SL, it’s also musical perception, and you choose either solo performing, group performing, or creating. The tracks are very similar, but at the Standard Level, you get to choose whether you want to focus on performing, or if you want to focus on creating.

What are the benefits of taking Music if that student does not want to pursue a Music-related career?

Playing music has a lot of benefits.  Learning an instrument can refine your time management and organization skills.  In order to get good at an instrument, you have to practice regularly. Playing in a group can also boost your team skills.  A number of year ago, companies like IBM, when hiring, used to give preference to applicants who had experience playing in a band or orchestra.  They knew musicians were good team players. Other studies have shown that music betters your mathematical ability and improves your reading and comprehension skills.

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Advice on Choosing Your IB Subjects

I would suggest to take the subjects they are comfortable with and not to worry too much about what subjects are going to be stressful in the long run.  As early as now they should start asking juniors or seniors what subject areas they enjoy. Don’t choose teachers – choose subjects. Don’t be afraid of every teacher as well because they are here to help. Weigh your choices in the most practical and efficient way for you. -Mr. Saclo

It’s a big decision. Try and weight up as many factors as possible, and if you can achieve a balance, then that’s great! A balance between the university requirements and what you enjoy. -Mr. Clements

First, make sure that they are interested. They should ask themselves, why would they like to learn the language? How will the language help them? They should be motivated to know more about the culture, read articles, learn about famous people or people who have influenced the language. They also need to think what their major would be and how the language might help. –Ms. Rodriguez

I would say think about what career or field you are interested in, and then work backwards. If you are not sure, there are online career surveys that you can take and that will give you a general idea on what you may be interested in. Then, once that is figured out, you can work backwards and see what universities you are interested in applying to and look at the requirements. Take the courses that you are most interested in because you will be studying it for 2 years. I would say Chemistry is a little more concrete and there’s a lot of material; for Physics, it is more abstract, so there may not be as many units but if you love mathematical proofs, then that is something that’s in line with Physics. -Mrs. Wood

Choose carefully. Don’t choose Music just because you think it’s going to be easy. It’s very challenging and, especially HL, you have to have really strong music skills, proficient in one or more instruments, you have to understand music theory, and you should have some experience composing and working with various music notation software. -Mr. Swank

Choosing subjects now is tricky. I understand that at Grade 10, it’s a big decision to make. So they want to think, first of all what their strengths and weaknesses are. I know a lot of students would maybe take English HL because maybe they just don’t feel strong enough in the Sciences and Math. So at least they can possibly handle English HL, where they wouldn’t be able to for three other courses. So that’s a realistic thing but more than that, and certainly most importantly, I would say think about your own future. What do you want to study at university? What kind of career do you want to have? Choose the courses that will best prepare you for what’s ahead. –Mr. Greene

The biggest piece of advice for students selecting courses now is to make sure you want it. That you’re not choosing the course because your friends are in it, or your parents are making you, or somebody else says that teacher is easy. You have to want it because you’re going to be in that subject for two years. And that’s a really long time if you have no desire to be in there. So the biggest thing I’d tell to students is you’ve gotta want it. If you’re not interested in the subject, two years is a long time. So look at the other options to figure out if there are ones you’re more interested in, because you’re the one in the course. -Ms. Cornet

I would say to choose a course that they’re very interested in. This is because with IB, you have a two-year commitment and sometimes it’s really hard to handle. When things get very busy, you’ll need a strong motivation to go through all the subjects. Around the time that the second semester comes, IB students will start to find themselves very busy, so motivation will be a very important factor in their studies. -Ms. Zou

It is important to remember that there will still be that 3-week window during Grade 11, so don’t worry too much about choosing between the 2 courses. So, if you feel like the courses you pick [now] is not a fit for you, there will be that 3 week period where students can still pick and rearrange. So don’t stress out too much about it, but certainly do make an informed decision. -Mr. Smith

Well, we’re not supposed to say this but *laughs* the reality is you need to choose the subjects that give you the best chance at getting your IB Diploma, which typically means you need to choose within your strongest interests and your strongest subjects, so you need to make very rational decisions, not emotional ones. Emotional decisions are usually, “My dad owns a business and he wants me to come back and work in it”, and that might be the best thing for you, but you need to actually evaluate and decide if it is or not. So you need to make a really rational decision about “What is my best path from here to my diploma?” and those are the courses that you should take. I just have concerns about a student who’s taking courses for someone else — “How motivated are they going to be? How worn out are they going to get?” — because the expectation is you have to make somebody else happy versus “I’m doing this for myself”. Typically, it’s human nature. You work harder when you benefit. -Mr. Horne

I recommend that they look at what content is going to be covered before they commit to it. Talk to the teachers and find out. [IB] is a two-year slog, and you want to make sure that you’re going to be able to be well-balanced throughout the years. There are students talking about how they want to do Medicine and they don’t really like chemistry, but they think they should do Biology and Chemistry. Two years is a very long time for you to be studying these subjects, and you need to make sure it’s something that you’re going to enjoy. -Ms. Street

For the students who are thinking about the subjects now, I will suggest you think about what do you like and what you are able to do. Find some subjects that you would really like to continue in Grade 11 and 12. The choice is on you. Also, when considering the subjects, think about if the subject will be a good choice for your future study and future life. Good luck everyone! -Ms. Jin

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We hope that the pieces of advice given to you by the IBDP teachers will guide you in picking subjects that will not only help you pursue your future careers, but also pique your personal interests.

If you have any questions about a certain IB subject, feel free to approach any of the teachers who teach the said subject.

We’d like to thank all of the teachers for their time in doing this interview!

Written by the Dragon’s Print Staff

Feature image by Katrina R.

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