Making skills visible

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A couple of months ago, at my school, we had the opportunity to participate in the Beta testing of the ATL tracker app with MYP year 5 students. The reflection in this blogpost seeks to analyze some of the challenges we have come across when developing the MYP skills framework at school and the opportunities applications such as this one can offer schools.


Live it, don’t laminate it! Making skills visible

There is lately a lot of talk about making learning visible. We know that understanding is not a solipsistic endeavor, we understand through our encounters with others and we can only show significant understanding when we put our ideas into meaningful action through some type of performance.

When thinking about how, when and why we teach ATL skills it’s important to avoid falling into two very dangerous traps or illusions. The first is what we can call the inevitability illusion which implies thinking that since skills are an ubiquitous and omnipresent elements of everyday life in the classroom, since students are “always using” skills, and since we are always putting them into use, in some way or the other, then there is no need to do much more about them than what we usually do (i.e. “we always do skills). The other illusion, which we will call the fatality illusion, derives from the idea that skills are not something you can do anything about (i.e. “we cannot do skills”), and there are many different manifestations and justifications around this illusion related to lack of time, lack of training, lack of resources, lack of perceived sense of use and purpose and determination narratives. Paradoxically, this latter illusion is a very powerful and enduring trap, precisely in contexts in which the teaching of skills is most needed.

As we well know, the role and value of factual knowledge is changing with its exponential growth and click-away access, skills and concepts are becoming increasingly more important. However, content and skill development should not be seen as incompatible, but rather quite the opposite, as intrinsically and inseparably linked. Skills and concepts never develop in a vacuum but rather provide the necessary frames and tools through which to use, create, manipulate and apply contents in meaningful ways.

It is not innocent that the IB has used the term skills, instead of concepts like abilities, in the sense that these are not innate and stable but can be rather intrinsically and extrinsically developed, and they can be learned, practiced, and improved.  Sure, we are always using skills in our classes, but only when as schools and practitioners we take the necessary time to foster the spaces to plan, develop, teach and apply skills is that we can ensure we are moving beyond the terrain of sclerosis and inertia, and really assuming our role in educational change. Granted, perhaps its reserved separate place in the MYP unit planner does not always allow us to think of these skills as the part and parcel of the learning that takes place. But, if we manage to move beyond the formulaic approach of “filling in” the box, the purposeful explicit planning of instances of skill-development allow us to structure how and when skills will be implemented, scaffold their development and ensure that we give students ample opportunities to practice them at increasing levels of sophistication. This is why it is useful to think about skills development as a continuum, and not something we have or don’t have; it´s something you can act upon and, if based on evidence, all the better.

Several arguments are used to justify implicit over explicit teaching and learning of skills; a) it’s difficult to find the required time; b) the burden of content heavy curriculum; c) favor disciplinary expertise and skills over generic ones; d) our objectives already encompass skills development, no need to detour.  For their part, students often tend to see skill-development as a) naturally occurring; b) something the teachers teach, and the students learn; c) something difficult to visualize, talk about and let alone act upon. As a result, some schools have chosen to include standalone subjects or mini-classes where students are given the opportunity to develop skills. However, fragmented chunks of “teaching” of skills, even if useful, are not as effective as joint efforts and comprehensive school programs. Enabling space for skills to explicitly feature in our classes and making them object of instruction and learning makes these much more meaningful; it places them in the right context and it allows them to become the alpha and omega of everyday classroom practices.

When students enter MYP year 5, and the personal project experience requires them to develop a metacognitive understanding about their own skill-development, students struggle to do so. And frankly, we can´t blame them, as many are committing to this experience for the very first time. The question is how we, as educators and educational communities, provide students the necessary tools that enable them to explicitly reflect and track when and how they are developing skills, and then give them ample opportunities to act in accordance. It´s all about giving student agency and empowering hem to learn and make decisions based on evidence of their learning. Apps such as Skill tracker can certainly help us in this journey. Trackers of this type allow us to use technology to foster instances of self-reflection to enhance skill development, enabling teachers to make informed decisions on how to best use instructional time and make changes to meet the needs of our students, helping students to better understand their own role as learners, and identify areas of improvement and self-development. This new approach will allow ATL skills to transition from nice posters on a classroom wall to true pedagogical tools in our students’ journey of self-discovery and growth.

As all technology and all educational resources, this ATL tracker app has not come to save us, but it can nevertheless serve to an end which should be saving ourselves from the two illusions sketched above. As teachers, we mediate the learning experience that takes place in the class between “inputs” (educational resources, however technological) and “outputs” (what we deem important for students to learn). Technology can help spark the necessary conversations and provoke changes in practice; it will not supplant us in having these conversations and forums like this provide privileged space for these much-needed collaborative conversations to take place.

Gabriela González Vaillant

Humanities teacher and doctor in sociology. Approaches to Learning leader at Saint Brendan´s School in Montevideo, Uruguay. Fulfills several roles in the IB Educator Network.


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