Skills, Skills, Skills

We talk about how vital they are to student success.

We come up with intricate plans to sequence them.

Hell, Gangstarr even wrote a whole song about them.

But do students, as Guru puts it, feel it when we drop those?

As education (or a small subset of education) realizes that the traditional content-based approach to teaching and learning is increasingly becoming obsolete, skills make their way to the forefront of many discussions around pedagogy in the 21st century. In IB schools, we have (or should have) a massive focus on what we call Approaches to Learning (ATL) Skills. These permeate all three IB programmes and are central to the learning experiences students should be engaging with in class.

These skills are often the focal point of our lessons and assessment, however – much like content – choice around skill development often rests with the teacher. I struggle with this regularly. There are skills I know my students need in order to be successful on a variety of levels – socially/emotionally, to be a discerning member of a digital world, to keep themselves organized, or to pass their DP exams. I identify these skills and design pathways by which students can become more proficient in using the skills I have so lovingly identified on their behalf.

No harm intended. After all, I’m wise and have my students best interests at heart.

What I think I’m missing out on though, is the opportunity for student to identify, for themselves, what skills they would like to learn.

I’ve taught a lot of subjects within the IB framework – Mathematics, Language and Literature and Media – and I see them all as “skill based” subjects. In fact, we could look at the ATL skills as being “macro” skills with the more subject-specific skill set being “micro” skills. When looking at the IB’s recommend list of ATL skills, we can notice the opportunity for macro skills to beget micro skills.

Using Media as my test subject, I’m about to try out a framework whereby we blend both models of skill development – both student and teacher chosen ATL skills.

Here is the plan I intend to follow:

1. Identify the macro skills:

These are the broader skills which will allow my students to (hopefully) identify and develop subject-based skills of their choosing. For our upcoming unit, in which students are going to develop a filmmaker’s portfolio as the basis with which to somehow creatively contribute to the school, local or online community, I identified three skills which I feel will support students’ development of subsequent skills of their choice. We will be using the following:

  1. An organization skill: Plan short and long term projects and meet deadlines
  2. A media literacy skill: Find, evaluate, synthesize and use information from a variety of sources
  3. A communication skill: Share ideas with audiences using a variety of digital environments and media

2. Support students to develop these macro skills:

Our first step is to ensure students are equipped to plan towards their own intended learning outcomes. We will look at the philosophy of backwards design, setting success criteria, reflecting upon and adjusting those criteria (hello Personal Project) and using digital tools such as Outlook, ManageBac and our mobile phones (“There’s a calendar on my phone?!?”) to set incremental and key deadlines.

Step two is to look at some of the characteristics that make good and not-so-good resources for learning filmmaking skills online. Pretty much everything you’d ever want to know about filmmaking can be found on YouTube, however some of this information is presented very well and others…need improvement. We also need to look at scenarios in which (gasp!) a written or even (double gasp!) human resource might be superior to an instructional video. A key idea here will be that of synthesis. It is paramount that our students are taking the ideas from multiple sources and using them to fulfil their own creative intentions, not simply regurgitating the work of others.

Step three will come towards the end of our unit where we will examine the variety of ways in which we can use our newly developed skill set to support those who might benefit from it.

3. Support students to choose the micro (subject-specific) skill areas they would like to develop:

Screenwriting? Costume design? Lighting? Audio effects? Whatever their area of interest, students should now hopefully feel empowered to learn the micro skills that interest them.

As an aside, isn’t this the whole point to the Approaches to Learning Skills? That students, once equipped with a variety of these skills can be empowered to drive their own learning, confident in the notion that they have, not only the skills to learn, but also the skills to evaluate whether or not that learning is helpful for them to achieve their goals?

4. Identify other skills that have developed along the way:

It’s foolish to think that all learning can be planned in advance. As students work their way through this process, a variety of other ATL skills will almost certainly be developed – something that can be noted and discussed on a student-by-student basis. Here is where I think I get carried away sometimes and have my students over-reflect. In the past, I’d have them retroactively take a look at the entire ATL skills chart and identify further skills they’ve developed. This time, I’m going to take a much more casual approach, as I’ve found in the past that a more rigid reflection leads to even greater instances of teenage groans and further alienation from the process of ATL skill development.

5. Celebrate the crap out of my students’ success:

I’m excited for this unit. Not only because my students can have a large degree of say towards that which they are learning, but because they are all going to learn something that matters to them. So unlike a more traditional assessment (I’m looking at you essays), students will hopefully be more inclined to be proud of what they have done because it is personally relevant. Of course, I hope the big-picture takeaway from this experience is that my students feel empowered with a process that will allow them to direct their own learning in the years to come. But if, in the end, their big takeaway is that they got to learn something they wanted, in a way they wanted and then do something personally relevant with that learning – I think that’s a win too.

Hopefully this balancing act between skills I have chosen and skills the students have chosen works out to be a framework I can use in my other, perhaps more traditional, teaching areas. I’ll update on the process, successes and drawbacks as the unit progresses.

What are some of the ways that you have found to engage students with learning macro or micro skills?

Do you have a framework for supporting students’ skill development? Please share!

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