Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Director General of the International Baccalaureate

Olli-Pekka Heinonen became Director General of the IB in 2021. Previously, from 2017, he was Director General of the Finnish National Agency for Education. Mr. Heinonen was Minister of Education and Science (1994-1999); Minister of Transport and Communication (1999-2002) and a Member of Parliament (1995-2002) in Finland. From 2002-2012, he was Director of Yle, the Finnish national public broadcasting company, before joining the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office as State Secretary, and subsequently State Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Culture, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development and Ministry of Finance of Finland.

Recently, in an exclusive interview with K12 Digest, Mr. Heinonen shared his insights on how the K12 education landscape has transformed over the last decade and its future, what makes the International Baccalaureate unique, significant career milestones, pearls of wisdom, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

How has the K12 education landscape transformed over the last decade and where is it heading now?

In recent years, K12 education has navigated numerous challenges, particularly during COVID-19, where educators worldwide were confronted with a wide range of areas where old paradigms were challenged and questioned. Amongst the many challenges resulting from the pandemic has been the accelerated speed and character of change.

Technology is a rapidly expanding and increasingly essential piece of student learning, which experienced unprecedented acceleration in recent years as many schools around the world shifted to digital learning platforms.

I anticipate that globally we will see more diversified models of K12 education and schooling. Many countries and systems are struggling with learning outcomes, and the traditional ways of schooling don’t achieve educational equity and inclusion as they are expected to deliver or as they have done before. Online learning, different pedagogical approaches, schools as community learning hubs, strict centrally controlled curricula, homeschooling etc., are methods that diversify the extended way of schooling which has its roots in the industrial era.

We are discovering that interdisciplinary and advanced disciplinary competencies are required to cope with the uncertainties of the pandemic and our rapidly changing world. In this age of artificial intelligence, we still must rely on humans to create ethically sustainable solutions, to understand what is relevant and valuable to society.

Wellbeing is also becoming more central, not just as a condition during the school years, but as a competence for human flourishing, including for future generations and the planet.

The IB (International Baccalaureate) recognizes that the world is changing, and that education must adapt to prepare the learners of today for the future. Our purpose is to help young people flourish by supporting the educators who equip them with the knowledge and skills to do so, especially now – in an ever-changing world with complex challenges. The IB is fully committed to not only continuously improve the support and services we offer, but to grow purposefully, increase access to high-quality education, and plan for future generations with innovative initiatives that will transform the landscape of education.

What are the challenges in the current field of education, and how and what can we do to improve?

To thrive, today’s students must prepare to enter a dynamic and challenging world that requires transferable and adaptable skills. To compete, today’s nations must build an entrepreneurial generation of disruptors, equipped to reinvent, reimagine and redefine not just the nature of work but entire industries and societies. Education systems must be able to demonstrate that they are part of the solution in our societies, not part of the problem. The transformative power of education requires that there is a direct motivational link between the learner and the world, and that education is not developed as a separate silo but as a vital means to create a better and more peaceful world.

With an unpredictable future, education is our greatest source of hope. Only by developing and empowering our youth can we equip them to become the thinkers, creators and engineers of tomorrow, ready to solve society’s most pressing challenges and build a better, more sustainable world for us all. To do this, students need an education for life. Not for one career, but for many. Not for one culture, but for all. And, most importantly, for a world where a qualification is not the end state. It is the beginning.

Critical thinking, curiosity about the world, creativity, and the ability to formulate a hypothesis around a perceived problem and then use a research process to design a solution are irrefutably top-of-the-chart skills for our students. We need to continue to work as an international community to advocate for the whole of the educational experience, not just the test scores of high-stakes exams.

We quite often think about what the building blocks of a functioning education system are: professional development for educators, curriculum, assessments, the relationship between school and home. But I think what is most essential is how these are interconnected. All these components must be considered and supported, coherently and consistently, to create educational settings that enable students’ holistic development.

Can you please give us an overview of the IB education? What are its key strengths and what makes it unique?

The International Baccalaureate is more than an education, it is a lifelong opportunity.

The IB continuum comprises four distinct programmes: the Primary Years Programme (ages 3-12), the Middle Years Programme (ages 11-16), the Diploma Programme (ages 16-19), and a Career-related Programme designed for the same age group. These programmes offer a flexible and adaptable curriculum that educators can tailor to meet the specific needs of their students and communities.

By embracing an inquiry-based approach, the IB fosters curiosity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills in students. This approach encourages students to ask questions, explore diverse perspectives, and actively engage in their own learning process. It aligns with the evidence-based principles and objectives set forth by state and local education authorities across the world, enabling students to thrive while meeting local standards and objectives.

The IB’s methodology moves beyond standardized testing to build skills like research, critical thinking and self-management. This develops a sense of confidence, resilience and purpose that students can rely on throughout their educational journey and beyond. IB learning methodologies give students a competitive edge, helping them to enter universities and careers of their choice and perform better when they do.

The IB is intentionally designed to be flexible, allowing students, teachers, and community leaders to draw from best practices in education tailored to their own local culture. This approach transforms learning into a real-world experience, emphasizing analysis and relevance over memorization of facts or dates.

What are the four foundational and interrelated elements that are central to all IB programmes?

Together with the IB community, IB students and graduates’ pride themselves on making a positive difference in the world. Through inquiry-based learning, an IB education inspires young people to become independent lifelong learners— fostering open and enlightened minds. The IB learner profile is central to IB’s mission: it describes a broad range of human capacities that go beyond academic success – developing globally-minded and empathetic people who recognize their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet.

How are students encouraged to become active, responsible, and globally-minded citizens in an IB programme?

IB programmes foster diversity, curiosity and a positive attitude towards learning, encouraging personal development and academic achievement. Students are challenged to think critically, ask the right questions and think across disciplines, ultimately setting them up for success in higher education and the workforce.

The IB’s curriculum is designed for students from all cultures and backgrounds across the world. This flexible, well-rounded approach to learning gives students the grounding to develop the cognitive, social and emotional skills they need to thrive.

The IB is also renowned for its global-minded atmosphere, where students can master a second language and develop nuanced cultural awareness, helping them become more open-minded as well as providing the opportunity to live and work in different countries. The IB centres empathy in its instructional approach, giving students opportunities to get involved in their local community through personal projects and service. Students build the creativity and confidence to reimagine solutions, or devise better ones, to make the world a better place.

What are your thoughts on the role of AI in the K12 education system?

The IB is focused on exploring the educational opportunities that this software has created and is now trying to imagine what a world in which artificial intelligence (AI) software is routinely used will look like.

The IB believes that AI technology will become part of our everyday lives, and therefore, we need to adapt and transform educational programmes and assessment practices so students can use these new AI tools ethically and effectively.

We encourage educators to engage with this new technology as part of teaching and learning. The IB curricular framework highly emphasises exploring different ways of knowing and diverse perspectives. One of the DP (Diploma Programme) core subjects, Theory of Knowledge (TOK), deals with this explicitly as a required course which then supports learning and teaching in other subjects.

How would you describe your leadership style?

For me, leadership is a quality of an organization, not a single role. My role is to create the conditions that enable leadership to be distributed as widely as possible throughout the organization. Building trust and psychological safety, clarifying the meaning and purpose of work, and creating a structure that enables interactions inside the organization and with schools and other stakeholders for us to be able to fulfill our purpose, are the central elements of my leadership.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Life itself has given me so many opportunities for learning and growing. And any hard times and difficulties I have faced have molded me the most to become the person I am today. More than any individual person, I am grateful to the communities I have had a chance to be part of. Playing varying compositions of music with different bands has taught me so much about human interaction, creativity, leadership and how to achieve something beautiful and valuable by working together.


What are some of your greatest achievements in your career till date? What makes them special?

I became a Minister in the Finnish government at the age of 29, so I experienced power quite early in my career. The word “minister” derives from the Latin word meaning “servant”. The use of power to help others to reach their full potential motivates me highly. Being able to create various leadership teams in different sectors, to be a mentor and tutor to a lot of talented people and to give numerous lectures and speeches about human development, leadership, changemaking and systems learning, are the achievements I value more than any substantial decisions or changes I have been responsible for during my career.

What are the most important recommendations you would like to drive home for administrators and leaders at other K12 schools regarding the integration of IB curriculum?

The IB is a non-profit foundation, so we are driven by our mission of making a better and more peaceful world by supporting students, who are our ultimate beneficiaries. Therefore, the IB works closely with schools, governments and international organisations to empower and equip students to be forces for change and innovation in their communities, building partnerships and rigorous programmes that encourage students to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners.

The IB embraces differences so schools can flexibly adapt a curriculum that reflects their community and culture. Since programmes encourage collaboration, innovation and solving real-life problems, schools are able to make a real difference in their communities. Global-mindedness is also central to the continuum of IB programmes, giving students a nuanced and multi-faceted outlook and understanding.

The IB offers schools support and advice tailored to their specific needs and works closely with administrators and educators to implement all programmes. We also support schools’ development plans to address current challenges and achieve their long-term ambitions to deliver quality education.

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