Approaches to learning: aligning skills with concepts

One of the things that I love about the IB Middle Years curriculum is the different pieces that fit together to create the big picture. It is a rich and layered curriculum that, if managed strategically, can add depth and breadth to a student’s learning experience. The key word here is strategically. Any of the various elements of a unit (key and related concepts, statements of inquiry and inquiry questions, global contexts, and approaches to learning) can be treated superficially, and perhaps the easiest component to neglect is the approaches to learning (AtLs). We’re all doing it, of course, merely by teaching our subjects, but it’s not always explicit — and it should be.

I’ve been looking at ways to make our integration of AtLs within the English Department more purposeful, as opposed to merely plucking a skill from a list of over 200. I created an AtL tracking document several years ago which maps the skills that we teach in each unit in each year, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s kind of pointless because it’s merely a tick list. We don’t have a systematic way of integrating those skills across the subject. We already work backwards from the summative assessment task and consider those skills which students need to demonstrate most to achieve success, but I still wouldn’t consider that strategic.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Lenny Dutton’s Excited Educator blog, and she had a post which was really thought-provoking; in it, she advocated for aligning specific skills with subject group objectives. This makes good sense: aligning skills with disciplinary objectives seems a much more organic way of embedding AtLs within the curriculum; in this way, the skills are essentially derivatives of the course as opposed to a tick box exercise.

Over the past couple of months, as we have worked on tightening up the conceptual focus of each of our units, it has struck me that, if skills can be aligned with objectives, they can surely be aligned with concepts. In fact, the IB states that “The most effective way to develop approaches to learning is through ongoing, process-focused disciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Teachers can use key and related concepts along with global contexts as vehicles for teaching effective learning strategies. Likewise, approaches to learning can be powerful tools for exploring significant content. This dual focus (content and process) promotes student engagement, deep understanding, transfer of skills and academic success.” (Emphasis is mine. I cannot find the original source of this material, but it can be easily accessed here.) This seems compatible with Lois A. Lanning’s Structure of Process, which is summarised nicely here.

So I have started playing around with this idea and have aligned the key concepts for Language & Literature with what I think are the most compatible AtL skill categories and clusters. Of course, there is some overlap as some AtLs align with more than one concept, and this is definitely open to interpretation (for example, someone else might think that thinking skills also relate to the concept of perspective, and that would absolutely be valid).

This could of course be extended further to the related concepts, highlighting those related concepts which link to each specific skill strand. I have demonstrated some of the skills within the communication cluster below and how they might align with related concepts. As above, this is also open to interpretation, and this is just that: my interpretation. I’m also not a design expert, so this may not be the most attractive way of presenting this information, but hopefully it serves its purpose.

So in practice, we can choose a skill which aligns with a unit’s key concept (and/or one of the dominant objectives since units should ideally focus on 2-3 skills which are explicitly taught) and supports students towards success on the summative assessment task. Learning experiences, including opportunities for formative feedback, can then be designed around that skill to support students towards mastery of that skill. For example, a recent unit my Grade 9 students completed on archetypal characters and themes in Macbeth centred around the following SoI: Many characters, situations and themes connect with universal voices across time, place and genre. The summative assessment task was a comparative essay. Students had a choice of topics; either comparing the treatment of female characters in Macbeth and Robert Browning’s poem “The Laboratory” or comparing Macbeth to the principles of Machiavelli or simply arguing who was the real villain in Macbeth by comparing and contrasting the main characters. In completing the task, students had to demonstrate critical thinking by gathering and organising relevant information to formulate an argument. The nature of the task required students to demonstrate their ability to evaluate similarities and differences by connecting features across and within genres and texts (Criterion Aiv); in doing so, they had to address the related concept of intertextuality, which links to the key concept of connections.

Each school has different ways of coordinating AtLs at the school-wide level and integrating them at the subject level, and I would never advocate for a one size fits all approach. Indeed, nothing about the MYP should be approached in a linear fashion. This is one way to integrate AtLs in a disciplinary context, which may or may not work for more knowledge-focused disciplines. However, I do think aligning skills with concepts has the potential to help frame AtLs within the bigger picture so that they feel less like a bolt-on; making these deliberate choices forces us to treat these skills more explicitly.

Note: Sometimes, an AtL is obvious. I’m not suggesting that we should always engage in some contrived route towards choosing AtLs, but often just the process of mentally aligning a skill with a concept can facilitate conceptual thinking.

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