ATL Skills and the Teaching of Virtue Ethics

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By Erika Elkady (Twitter: @secondary_jbsis )

Last week in our blog David Spooner suggested re-contextualising ATL skills, seeing them as not something ‘separable’ from content. This week Erika asks us to re-imagine ATL skills as virtues and urges us to be explicit in our teaching of affective skills.

If you work in education, you undeniably will have heard that our role is to prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century. The IB programs, and in my opinion especially the Middle Years Programme (MYP), aim to do just that. However, how good are we at putting theory into practice?

The inquiry section of the MYP unit planner asks us to identify and link (a few) Approaches To Learning (ATL) skill indicators to objective strands which students are then to practice during the course of the unit. In practice, we tend to choose too many, often randomly selecting skill indicators.  Not surprisingly, in lessons these ATL skills, let alone the affective skills, are not taught explicitly. The focus is still very much on content and concepts, and not so much on the skills which we all agree are needed for our students to be prepared for jobs which do not yet exist.

When we have a close look at the ATL skills, we can only come to the conclusion that almost all of them are actually ‘virtues’. The Jubilee Center of the University of Birmingham identifies four categories of character virtues. The intellectual character virtues that are required to pursue knowledge, truth and understanding such as critical thinking, creative problem solving, curiosity, and reflection. The moral character virtues that enable us to respond well to any situation are traits like courage, self-discipline, compassion, gratitude, integrity and respect. The civic character virtues are traits necessary for engaged and responsible citizenship contributing to the common good.  The fourth category, the performance character virtues, have an instrumental value in enabling the intellectual, moral and civic virtues. Examples are resilience, grit, confidence, teamwork, and motivation.

The purpose of teaching virtue ethics is, according to Aristotle, to create habits which will ultimately lead to practical wisdom; knowing how to decide when the demands of two or more virtues collide. Ultimately, this will lead to flourishing individuals and societies.

Dr. Martin Seligman and Dr. Christopher Peterson, the former often called the founder of positive psychology, published “Character Strengths and Virtues” in 2004 in which they identified six virtue groups consisting of 24-character strengths. The authors concluded that cultures who adopted these traits throughout history enjoyed increased levels of happiness. The Institute of Positive Education aligned these 24-character strengths with the ten IB Learner Profile traits in a neat infographic.

As mentioned before, the MYP has all the ingredients to prepare students for the 21st century. The ATL skill indicators, the IB Learner Profile, and participating in meaningful Action and Service projects help students to develop character strengths. What we need to do better as educators is to make a concerted effort to teach the ATL skills deliberately inside and outside of our classrooms and to allow students to meaningfully reflect on the skills they are learning.

Erika Elkady is a Principal of an international school, encouraging student happiness through positive psychology whilst promoting academic excellence. 

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