Skills and Concepts, Concepts and Skills

Please help me thank Tania, a PYP Educator who commented on a previous post Portrait of a Self-Directed Learner and nudged some thinking about how skills are linked to conceptual understanding.

Tania said, My first thoughts from a PYP perspective were that we use the Transdisciplinary Skills (ATLs) to help develop the conceptual understanding in our young learners. So our ATL skills would be embedded within conceptual understanding.

Is this model different because the students are older and already have some base of developed skills? or is the understanding / methodology different?

In my experience, MYP and Diploma students don’t necessarily experience the structure of understanding (Erickson, 2008) differently from PYP learners. One slight difference might be that the concepts in the PYP are macro concepts, large ideas which organize understanding that encompasses all the transdisciplinary learning in the PYP.

In the MYP, our key concepts have some macro concepts shared with PYP, such as form and perspective, but our key concepts are ‘smaller’ in the sense that they can easily be unpacked from the macro concepts in PYP. For instance, one of our MYP key concepts is systems, which can be easily part of the macro concept of form.

Another source of a slight difference between PYP and MYP skills and concepts stems from the structure of our programme. In the PYP, learning is transdisciplinary and learners interact with concepts and rehearse skills in the context of a unit wherein the learning isn’t framed by subject or discipline. As students learn in the MYP, the eight subjects begin to have very clear disciplinary concepts, which we call related concepts. These are linked in interdisciplinary ways through our key concepts and global contexts (“transdisciplinary themes” for PYP).

We also know that each year a student rehearses an ATL skill, they are being asked to perform it at a higher level of complexity. The ways we ask students to perform the skill of analysis in MYP Year 5 for instance is highly complex compared to how a learner might be asked to perform analysis at MYP Year 1 or PYP Year 4.

The spiral of learning as students move through the PYP through the MYP and then onto Diploma touch concepts in increasingly more and more complex performances of understanding. Concepts also increase in number as macro concepts are unpacked into micro-concepts that organize bodies of knowledge and areas of knowing. The areas of knowing are disciplinary, and there are skills that are specific patterns of learning and thinking in each subject. These are subject specific ATL skills that are embedded in the MYP subject criteria.

Perhaps it is somewhat challenging to think of these skills in a PYP context because of the nature of PYP assessment, which does not hinge upon specific criteria for ‘subjects.’

Last week in a conversation with a couple of PYP’ers in my school, we got excited because we realized one of the threads we might use for ATL articulation are presented to us by the command terms.

MYP and Diploma use the command terms, essentially verbs which direct complexity levels of thought for performances of understanding. Here are some of them classified under Bloom’s taxonomy.

Command terms classified with Bloom's taxonomy to show complexity of thought inherent in command terms

Command terms classified with Bloom’s taxonomy to show complexity of thought inherent in command terms

In the discussion with the PYP’ers, we realized that we could bridge the skills through the types of thinking that we asked students to do. As we develop the scope and sequence in the PYP and begin to connect these with the subject overviews in the MYP, our goal is to ensure that transdisciplinary /ATL skills spiral just as the concepts do.

But are skills really separate from concepts?

Lois Lanning who works with Lynn Erickson links skills to concepts in her book Designing a Concept-based Curriculum for Language Arts. Lanning explains that skills are organized conceptually, just like topics and facts are.

Let’s take a look at one example to see how this works.

Here is a diagram showing the relationship between a key concept, related concept, and thinking levels in a unit.

Key concept, related concept and thinking skills in a unit

Key concept, related concept and thinking skills in a unit

If we unpack the skills from the thinking levels (Bloom’s), it might look like this, below.

Concept linked to skills in a unit

Concept linked to skills in a unit

We learn some essential things from this exercise (which is the process we use when we plan units, giving us the sometimes unnoticed value of the unit planning process!)

The levels of thinking are embedded in the command terms, which are precise directions for complexity levels of thought for performances of understanding. These skills are organized conceptually. For instance, the concept of structure suggests many of the skills we rehearse in our classes to give students practice in organizing ideas and processes.

Concepts organize process and skills

Concepts organize process and skills

Perhaps the learning might seem different between PYP and MYP, but the principles remain very similar. The structure of understanding (Erickson, 2008) for both programmes is a conceptual framework, and within this conceptual framework are topics used to illuminate and illustrate concepts, but also skills, which provide direction and complexity in performances of conceptual understanding.

Thanks for provoking thought, Tania! Please come back and continue our conversation.

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