Finding some headspace after a hectic year

It’s hard to believe that we have completed the first full school year in three years. What once felt so normal, so routine, now feels like a novelty. Despite some individual hiccups, collectively we made it through three full terms, two parent-teacher conferences, countless parents’ evenings and events, and a return to trips (including some residential, both in the UK and abroad).

I did not anticipate how much headspace this year would demand — not just because I moved into a new role in senior leadership, but also because of the general adjustment to post-lockdown life and work. When I was stuck in it, I didn’t really notice; I was just on autopilot. Now, with the headspace to really reflect, it’s hard to remember an uninterrupted year. Being in perpetual motion is exhausting; after years on the treadmill, I think (I think) I’ve finally learned how to pace myself.

While I haven’t been keeping up with this blog so regularly, I did manage to write an article on the approaches to learning over the Easter holiday, which was just been published last week on Professional Learning International’s blog. There’s a lot more in my head that I hope to share next academic year; I just need the summer to reboot.

Practising affective skills: becoming effective learners by managing state of mind

It’s almost here: the second edition of Personal Project for IB MYP 4 & 5: Skills for Success is in production and scheduled for release on 27 August.

I wrote back in February about some of the changes to the Personal Project, but you can check out my latest guest blog post on the role of skills in the project on Hodder Education’s web site, where you will also find sample pages from the new book as well as content from my co-author, Laura England.

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.