Re-contextualising ATL Skills – Part II

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By David Spooner

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Students learn how to think about things, not in the abstract. They learn how to manage the time available for the things they have to do (which, as students, is educational stuff – writing essays, planning projects, writing book reports and the like). They learn to research about things. And so on. If they are studying History, they will learn how Historians think, research, collaborate etc. If the subject is Economics, they learn how to think like an Economist and how Economists focus their research. ‘Creative Thinking’ is not an abstract skill and, in this sense, it is not transferable – the ‘creative thinking’ that Moral Philosophers ‘apply’ to the creation of a thought experiment is inseparable from knowledge of the ethical theories that they are trying to test; ‘creative thinking’ about designing an experiment for a Psychology Internal Assessment is, likewise, inseparable from knowledge of the Social Psychological theories that the student wishes to test for. ‘Critical Thinking’ is not a ‘skill’ that exists in a vacuum – it depends fundamentally on what you are thinking critically about. These ‘skills’ are directed at certain objects – ‘problem-solving’ is directed at solving a problem in a certain context.

ATL “skills” are not skills – they are part and parcel of the content of what they are learning about, inseparable from it, and to reduce ‘them’ to a set of ‘transferable skills’ is to strip them of relevance, usefulness and, ultimately, put one more nail in the coffin of education strictu sensu, and move it one step closer to utilitarian ‘training.’

As educators we, of course, want to reflect upon how we can do better what we do, and reflecting upon how we try to encourage certain skills in our students is one thing we do all of the time. It took me a good few years to learn that, just because I put students into groups to work in class, that did not necessarily mean that they were learning and developing the skill of effective teamwork and collaboration. However, to detach this ‘skill’ from the context in which it is being ‘employed’ is overly reductionist, robs teachers of their professional judgement and turns the whole thing into a box-ticking exercise. When students realise this (and they do…CAS ‘hours’ anyone?) it threatens to strip away the legitimacy of what made IB programmes desirable to both teachers and students in the first place.

This, of course, is only one view, that of a Diploma teacher, workshop leader and Verification Visitor for the Diploma programme. However, it seems as though ATL “skills” as a ‘separatable’ are here to stay. An apologia is “a formal written defence of one’s opinions.” I would love to hear your thoughts on this apologia  – and what it is about – below.

Thank you again to David Spooner for contributing this piece!

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