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“We are seeing if we can live up to the IB Learner Profile. We are seeing if we can live up to the values that we have written down and deemed important. Now is the time that they are being measured in real life.”

Almost a year into his tenure as IB Director-General, Olli-Pekka Heinonen has had to lead the organization through one challenge after another. Amidst a learning and teaching crisis magnified by the pandemic and harrowing global conflict, strong leadership has rarely been so important.

But while the global landscape has thrown up hurdles to overcome, it has also produced opportunities for more meaningful Service Learning initiatives and an enhanced awareness of student well-being. As we look towards the future of the IB and CAS, the Director-General will be instrumental in helping to realize the full potential of the program and ushering the IB into a new era. 

With this in mind, we sat down with Mr. Heinonen to discuss this pivotal moment in the history of the IB. He shared his thoughts on the transformative power of Service Learning and how it can help students be true to what they believe in, the role of tech in CAS and the IB curriculum, and how each one of us is being called to live up to the attributes of the IB Learner Profile by supporting Ukraine and all those standing up for peace and freedom around the globe.


You’ve become Director of the IB at a very challenging and interesting time. How has the pandemic changed the outlook for CAS and experiential education? Can you share any specific experiences that have allowed you to appreciate the potential of Service Learning first-hand?

It has presented obstacles and possibilities—especially for entities like CAS. Of course, avoiding human contact meant that providing service had to reshape itself, and we needed to come up with alternatives. On the other hand, it has prompted new ways of implementing CAS, what it means, and what it could mean.

My best experience with Service Learning is from Finland, where I am most familiar with their approaches. One CAS initiative that we have had there for many years is a program for 14-year-olds designed around prompting them to find ways to build peace in their communities. And by building peace, I mean building peace between everyone in the community, whether that means bullying, other conflicts between actors in the community, or any number of challenging situations—the idea is to build coherence.


“Once you are involved in the act of doing good with others, then you are also engaged in changing who you are.”

It is done on the school level, so the whole school community gets involved. The thing that I feel is most important with this is that above and beyond the service, it teaches the fact that, quite often, you cannot help others to do good for them, but rather to do good with them. And I think that is really central, as once you are involved in the act of doing good with others, then you are also engaged in changing who you are.


CAS can be a transformative experience for a lot of students. It sounds like this project allows them to see the impact of their actions around them. 

Yes. The best service learning situations are very valuable for young people who come from a difficult background, are not doing well at school, might struggle to speak up, or don’t have a strong voice. Service projects can help them find their truth and be heard by others. They feel involved because they realize they are making an impact in the real world.

These moments are when CAS has impressed me the most. For example, regarding the model in Finland, they also document everything and actually make a film of their experience. This turns it into something they can share with others and that others can learn from too.


It seems almost everyone agrees about the value of CAS. Still, we often hear from students and CAS Coordinators that CAS can be hard to prioritize since it is not graded the same way as the academic components they feel more pressure to fulfill. 

This is also related to the fact that there have been suggestions that the IB could be doing more to support students’ mental health. How could CAS play a role in this improvement? Are there any plans in the works to change evaluation methods or offer teachers more support when it comes to CAS?

It’s an excellent question. We are currently doing the DP review and looking at the different elements of the program. Of course, this is always tied to assessment. We realize this is an important factor in how things get prioritized.


“I don’t want to give anything away beforehand because we are in the middle of the work, but the points you refer to—including the well-being of the students—are central.”

We are trying to find a way to have an assessment system that supports the kind of learning we want to happen. And I don’t want to give anything away beforehand because we are in the middle of the work, but the points you refer to—including the well-being of the students—are central. So we are trying to ensure students have the support they need to extract the most value from all the elements of the IB DP, from Theory of Knowledge to CAS.

When I’m speaking with students, sometimes they say that not all teachers are well prepared to understand what CAS is all about. We also need to think about what kind of professional development tools we can have for teachers to help them do a better job implementing CAS. It is a work in progress, but we are very seriously looking at what could be done on the program and assessment levels to bring these elements more to the front.


We look forward to hearing what solutions you will arrive at. In the meantime, what advice would you have for teachers seeking meaningful ways to engage students with CAS or use it to help unpack other program elements?

That type of learning, experiential learning, will continue becoming more important, both in secondary school and at university. For me, there are three important elements in learning. First, there is the knowing part—you need both disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge. Then, you have the capacity to act based on that knowledge. And the thing is, you will not act anything out if you do not have the will, motivation, and the ability to value certain things. The strength of CAS is that it combines all of these. It tackles the knowing, acting, and valuing together in a real-world situation.


When talking about learning that happens in real-world situations, we are talking about deep learning. By valuing and acting out what you know, that becomes part of your identity. That is a durable thing that no one can take away from you. You will have that as your own capital for the rest of your life.

And when we’re talking about real-world situations, although it might sound strange, technology can create possibilities for confronting real problems. Virtual Reality, for example, is something I feel we should be getting to know better and using to develop solutions. It takes away a lot of the limits and reminds us how technology can be used for something good. We talk about social media and its negative effects, but it is not the tech that is bad. It is how it is used. I think in tomorrow’s world, that kind of machine and human relationship will be central to all of us, and that’s another point that CAS can make stronger.


It holds so much potential to help students understand what people in different situations are living through. It is also related to the point that CAS is where the IB Learner Profile has room to flourish. Could you comment on how it helps cultivate the attribute of International Mindedness in particular?


When you think about the students who will be doing their IB DPs in the next ten years and the challenges they will be looking at, all those major challenges will be global in nature. They are also challenges connected to the way we all as humans behave.

You cannot solve these challenges just through leaders, scientists, or innovators. You have to include everybody in making that change. For that to happen, we have to be able to create a global identity for all of us. It is not contradictory to each of us having other identities, but they need to support and reinforce each other. As humankind, we do not need solutions that no one as an individual person would want to have. To comprehend that, having a strong global identity is very important.


That is such an important point, especially in the moment we are living through. You are also in a unique position to understand that, as you work with schools worldwide and have to determine how to prioritize so many competing issues. No doubt the war in Ukraine has been at the top of the list in recent weeks. How is the IB working with partners in the region to offer support?

We are helping in many ways. The most acute one has been to assist students in Ukraine in finding solutions for the future and remaining safe. We will continue to do this. But also, in all schools, we are trying to encourage teachers to provide a safe environment to host difficult discussions. There is a lot of fear, with conversations around WWIII, etc., they are very troubling issues, and students are scared. We need to help students cope with that situation and lead secure lives within the uncertainty that exists—and the school is the right place for this. So we are trying to help our schools have the material, understanding, and approaches to tackle that challenge.

It has also been inspiring to see how strongly the IB community has been reaching out and trying to help. So we are trying to channel all these initiatives, empathy, sympathy, and support in a positive way to help the people who most need it, both in Ukraine and in the neighboring countries. The last thing is also focusing on what we can do not to generate hate or bias towards anyone in particular. We want to ensure that no one is judged/evaluated on their nationality and that we don’t fall back on stereotypes. There are people on all sides that hold different views. We are here to condemn the violence and work for a more peaceful world for everyone who wants it.


And here we come back to CAS. It is essential for all of us, and young people, in particular, to feel that they have an outlet to help during these times.

Yes, it is a CAS for all of us at the moment. That is what Ukraine is. We need to be of service to others and with others and focus on doing good. Last week, I attended a meeting with the Association of Central European IB Schools, and the teachers and leaders and everyone in that meeting—it was phenomenal to see how meaningful what they were doing was to them. These are decisive moments in that sense. We are seeing if we can live up to the learner profile. We are seeing if we can live up to the values that we have written down and deemed important. Now is the time that they are being measured in real life.


We could not agree more. In the past few weeks we have seen and heard some incredible examples of community togetherness amongst IB and international schools clubbing together to donate aid, raise funds or awareness for those adversely affected by the war in Ukraine.

And just as we witnessed in the many stories of positive student impact in 2021’s CAS Project Challenge submissions, the caring generated through intercultural awareness and open-mindedness to the reflection needed to take principled and decisive action, the principles of the IB program have and will continue to guide us through good times and bad.

We have always believed in the transformative power of CAS and are encouraged to see how its role is evolving within the IB curriculum. A sincere thanks to Mr. Heinonen, and we wish him and his colleagues all the best as they endeavor to find the solutions required for the times we are living in.

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