How and why did ATL develop across the continuum of IB programmes?

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As many of my friends and former IB colleagues will recall, sometimes with annoyance, I believe that institutional knowledge can be valuable. This is one reason I wrote History of the MYP (2010)! Frequently in meetings I would challenge everyone by highlighting how certain IB programmes had ended up being as they are. As we often said, ‘in order to embrace the future we need to value the past’. I am often asked by people in schools about the origins of elements of each programme. This blog is intended to give a small glimpse at the history and development of ATL (Approaches to Learning) skills across the four IB programmes.

Over the last ten years or more the IB programmes have started to be moulded towards showing a sense of continuum and a common approach. This started in 2006 with the adoption of the PYP student profile in MYP and DP, and the re-branding as the IB Learner Profile. This was a first attempt to show that common values and ideals were common to each programme, each of which had been developed at different times by different people and for differing reasons.

The next obvious aspect that could be lined up relatively easily between programmes was via ATL. The PYP had operated successfully for many years with transdisciplinary skills at its core. Those skills were sub-divided into five categories: communication skills; thinking skills; self-management skills; social skills; and research skills. A project in 2008-09 led by the MYP team at the IB was called, MYP: Avoiding the gap. One of the key outcomes of that project was suggested by Tristian Stobie, then Head of DP Development. His idea was that by introducing ATL into the DP, that DP learners would see greater achievement and provide a better transition between MYP and DP.

This idea was placed on the back-burner for the next few years. However, after publishing History of the MYP in September 2010, the MYP launched the MYP: the next chapter project in November 2010. This project was prompted as a result of the ideas coming from the Avoiding the gap project and from what was learned during the authoring of the History of the MYP.

The MYP had been originally built in the 1980s and 1990s around the idea of ‘learning to learn’, and it was felt that it had moved away from that original intention. In fact, ATL was originally conceived as a methodology for ways of thinking in preparation for TOK. The cornerstones of the evolutionary MYP: the next chapter project were: concept-based unit planning; consistency across subjects; development of ATL skills; simplifying teacher paperwork; and the creation of a reliable external assessment. It was satisfying to see that as the MYP returned to its ‘ATL roots’, it also influenced further continuum development.

At this point it was agreed across the three programmes to use the PYP terminology for ATL categories across the programmes. The revised approach to ATL in the MYP was published in 2014. The DP ATL guide of 2014 used the same terminology but was less specific in laying out specific skills to be taught and reinforced. However, this marked the beginning of a strategy by the IB to encourage DP teachers to consider skills and pedagogy and to plan units in ways inspired by PYP and MYP.

The Career-related Programme (CP) was developed during this time of change in MYP and DP. Initially it was organised around a core component called ATL, which was a discrete course designed to teach critical and ethical thinking. Over time it has changed name and emphasis and ATL in the CP will start to look more like ATL across the rest of the programmes.

From September 2018 the PYP will re-brand the transdisciplinary skills as ATL skills. Therefore, the effort to develop a continuum, at least in terminology, will be complete. PYP, MYP, DP and CP will now all refer to ATL skills and each will reference five skill categories: thinking, research, social, self-management and communication. MYP differs in that these five categories are further sub-divided into ten clusters, whereas the other programmes leave any further division up to schools.

Research published by the IB on their blog and discussed at conferences appears to indicate that the ‘new’ ATL in the MYP is supporting student achievement and improving learning. Therefore it would be reasonable to say that by carefully monitoring and tracking ATL skills across grade levels can help teachers to know whether or not students are prepared for the DP or CP.  The tracking of skills is a priceless tool in ensuring smooth transitions and predicting the readiness of learners. Now that we have a common language for ATL across programmes the ability to plan and track skills has been made easier.

Do you think the MYP is driving improved teaching practices across the continuum? Was Tristian Stobie right, is ATL the best place to start when considering transitions between IB programmes? What do you think? Has ATL driven best practice or reduced unit planning to a tick-box exercise?

Malcolm Nicolson was Head of MYP Development from 2007 to 2013 and was the architect of MYP: the next chapter. As Head of DP Development from 2013 to 2015 he introduced ATL to the DP.

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