A healthy dose of leftovers – Teaching ATLs that don’t “fit”

In our recent work with the MYP’s Curriculum Connections pilot project, our staff underwent the process of aligning the Approaches to Learning skills with their subject’s MYP Objectives. This process will hopefully allow for a more streamlined approach of planning for teaching, offering feedback on and assessing ATL skill development with our students.

What we noticed, upon completion of this alignment is that not all of the ATL skills “fit” with the subject objectives. While we have called these the “explicit” ATL skills (as they need to be explicitly planned for outside the context of the subject objectives), they have come to be affectionately known as the “leftovers”.

While the name might compare these skills to the tupperware-bound deliciousness that usually makes up the majority of our lunches, we also noticed that these skills are some of the most important ways we can empower our students to not only become better IB learners, but more confident and competent young women and men. Skills like, “practice failing well”, “meet deadlines”, “contribute to social media environments” and “take responsibility for one’s own actions” are just a few of the crucial skills that made the leftovers list.

As a team, we came together to create a plan for how we could work collaboratively to support our students in developing these keys skills – even if they exist outside the realm of the almighty objectives.

We decided that we would tackle four of these skills per year (one per quarter), as an entire MYP staff, from year to year. So, MYP 1 teachers would spend the first quarter of the year all working collaboratively to support students in developing an explicit skill, MYP 2 teachers would select their own explicit skill and so on.

Our process for doing this was fourfold:

  1. As a grade, reach consensus on the skill you would like to help students develop in the first quarter of next school year;
  2. Plan several sequential or simultaneous learning experiences that will help students develop efficacy with this skill;
  3. Plan how students will receive ongoing feedback on their development of this skill;
  4. Create a rubric that will let students know if they are working at a novice, learner, practitioner or expert level.

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MYP 2 teachers voting on which “leftover” ATL skill they would like to support students in developing at the beginning of next school year. No surprise that “Bring necessary equipment and supplies to class” was the winner…

After some deliberation, our staff reached consensus on the following:

MYP 5 – Self Management: Reflective Skills: Develop new skills, techniques and strategies for effective learning.

MYP 4 – Research: Information Literacy Skills: Understand and implement intellectual property rights.

And perhaps not surprisingly, without any collusion, our MYP 1-3 staff all happened to select the same skill: Self-Management: Organization Skills: Bring necessary equipment and supplies to class (sounds about right for middle schoolers in September!).

After the selection, the real thinking began around how we were going to teach these skills. It is not enough just to tell students, “Bring your things to class”; we need to teach them the value in coming prepared and show them the merits of preparedness in order to achieve maximum student buy-in – easier said than done!

In the end, our teachers came up with some amazingly creative ways to teach and develop these skills with their MYP students next September.

More than seeing how these learning experiences unfold, I for one am looking forward to the community building aspect of this project. How wonderful it must be, from a student’s perspective, to see all the teachers in your school working collaboratively to support you in reaching a common goal. As adolescent learners, they might not always articulate this, but knowing that the adults in your life are working together to support you creates an atmosphere of teamwork and support that we can’t achieve if we are only working on approaches to learning in our individual classrooms.

I think ultimately, if this goes well, I would like to see the students be the ones who decide on the ATL skills they would like their teachers to support them in developing – I think this would build an even greater sense of shared learning and community within our school.

How do you work with “leftover” ATLs at your school? 

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Caught between two worlds – An MYP Educator’s Response

Please note that these are simply my opinions and not those of the IB.

As she often does, my wife provoked my thinking this morning with her post regarding PYP assessment and strategies such as success criteria, exemplars and bump-it-up walls. It’s a great read, but to sum it up here in a nutshell, Taryn questions whether these three strategies actually promote learning, or if they instead simply assist students in “doing school”. Earlier this year, David Didau similarly provoked my thinking in his article “Why I struggle with learning objectives and success criteria”. I wanted to take the opportunity to weigh in on something that, like my wife, I continue to struggle with in an MYP environment.

Success Criteria: In the MYP, we are charged with creating task-specific clarifications for students with regards to assessment tasks. Often these come in the form of rubrics created by teachers. To this end, I feel that we are stealing the students thinking if we do not let them determine their own criteria for success on tasks. This is echoed by researchers (Tomlinson, 1995; McTighe & Ferrara, 1998; Yeshiva & Harada 2007; Kohn 2006), who advocate for rubrics to be, at the least, co-constructed by teachers and students and who point out that when rubrics are simply given to students, autonomy is lost and students become less focused on the process of learning.

Exemplars: I had a teacher come to me yesterday and exclaim, “I hate exemplars!”, as one of his students had recently submitted an assignment that was, essentially, a copy of the teacher-created exemplar. While this is surely not an isolated incident, I don’t mind exemplars if they are used correctly, because they allow students to develop a means by which to create their own success criteria. In fact, I think exemplars can be an integral part of the inquiry process – if students are given the opportunity to find their own exemplars, rather than always being presented teacher-selected exemplars. Which leads me to…

Bump-it-up Walls: I have serious beef with bump-it-up walls. I find them to be inauthentic and in no way indicative of the learning process. Learning is messy. Learning is trial and error. Learning involves making mistakes, and seeking improvement through inquiry. Bump-it-up walls give students too much opportunity to practice mimicry over learning. No one has ever provided me with an explicit picture of how to “bump up” my unit planner, or the collaborative planning meetings I facilitate, or the way I make Cesar salad. In real life there aren’t ready-made exemplars for you to follow to improve your personal or professional self: there is no way for us to bump up solutions to the type of novel, authentic problems we want our students wrestling with; these exemplars exist only the realm of “doing school”.

Aside from my own personal feelings, from an MYP standpoint, the biggest thing that makes me uncomfortable with these three things is the wording of the MYP achievement levels for students with an overall achievement of level of 6 or 7 in an MYP course: “Produces…ocasionally innovative” or “produces…frequently innovative work”. If provided with success criteria by their teachers and exemplars for “bumping up”, how can a student possibility innovate? Here we run the risk of celebrating students who are successful at “doing school”, rather than students who are exemplifying the IB Learner Profile traits of being risk-takers, thinkers and inquirers.

This thinking leads me back to something I am a huge proponent of – student developed assessment. When the students are the ones developing the assessments, they are creating their own success criteria, finding their own exemplars and devising methods for discovering how they can “bump up” their own work, in their own way. Herein lies the opportunity for innovation – through genuine student inquiry into the process of how to effectively solve problems and share learning with others.

I think we need to examine what our goals are for education. If our goal is student achievement, then certainly these three things are extremely helpful. However if our goals is to “develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect” as the IB mandates, I am not sure that these things help us achieve this mission.

However, to echo my wife, I am not sure and I’d love to hear different perspectives on this. Where do you stand on the use of these three elements within an MYP classroom? How can we make effective use of success criteria, exemplars and bump-it-up walls in order to reach the mission of IB schools? Can we?