IB Continuum

“Why are we learning this?”

A TOK student brought this video in last week, enriching the class dialog about the value, purposes and limitations of school.

The video provoked some reflection on one principle that creates relevance, meaning and sustenance to the work of teaching and learning.

The video laments, among lots of other things, that “I wasn’t taught how to pay tax…” “… how to vote…” “I was not taught the laws for the country I live in.”

But the video ends with some statements one of which is

Screen capture of video (c)Boyinaband on Youtube.

Screen capture of video (c)Boyinaband on Youtube.

One of the threads that runs through the video is how worthless some of the topics seem to Boyinaband. Memorization on Mitochondria vs Learning about Health, for instance. Had Boyinaband and the legions of students who share his stance learned the conceptual connections between health and discrete cellular function, would the conceptual understanding that discrete cellular functions contribute to health of systems in organisms including the human being made the learning more relevant and meaningful, and useful? He might also learn that topics are useful, in illustrating and illuminating concepts, allowing for breadth and depth of understanding.

Taxes, voting and citizenship, and laws are micro-concepts of local, national, international and global issues. Had these been integrated in the study of social sciences, mathematics and other productive relationships between disciplines, would the student have found learning more relevant, meaningful and useful?

Creating contexts, which frame topics through concepts and authentic connections to the world and allow students to discover the significance of why we learn what we learn, is something that an IB education would have gifted Boyinaband and the learner he represents.

And what if Boyinaband had opportunities to transfer skills across and within disciplines, allowing him to learn that the ways of knowing in social sciences through the concepts of systems and change directly impacted the ways he understood systems and change in the natural sciences?

I wish we could have had someone like Boyinaband in a holistic, contextual, conceptual, integrated school framework (something like the MYP, which is research-based and follows a continuum of flexible education that is accepted globally and is known to prepare students well for problem-solving in a changing world).

Oh, wait. We do.

If I met Boyinaband as a student, I might say to him, “You are upset with school because what you learned through your schooling seems meaningless and useless to how you need to problem-solve in the world outside school.

“And what you want, is to believe that the school experience includes answers to the question, Why are we learning this?”

And if I met his parents in that faraway past when they are deciding about his education, I might take time to explore with them the following notions.

And I would say to the parents, here is an open secret. I know 4,267 schools worldwide that can answer these questions.



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.

What if learning isn’t linear?

When we develop curriculum in schools, we’re saying “scope and sequence,” to mean the progression of learning experiences we design for our students. The term “scope and sequence” suggests that learning is a linear progression from a beginning point, through a series of points, ending at a particular point.

This linear model might have evolved from the industrial model of education so well illustrated by Sir Ken Robinson’s TEDtalk, animated by RSA. Because students are processed in batches through schooling, it might have happened that educators developing programmes of learning sequenced learning in a linear manner associated with grade levels.

But what if learning were not linear? What if each student has different times of readiness for different skills regardless of when he or she was born, which Sir Ken Robinson calls their “date of manufacture”?

This was the problem with the previous misunderstanding that the Approaches to Learning document in schools had to follow the format of a complicated matrix, wherein skills were mapped out as introduced and various points of proficiency and mastery indicated throughout the chart. The question still remains, if approaches to learning skills are mapped out in a linear fashion much like many of our ATL SLE charts in the past did, how do we account for students’ different times of readiness for different skills? Do we build a three- or four-dimensional matrix?

Kath Murdoch, writing about the inquiry learning approach, suggests that when students learn through the recursive inquiry cycles, we take into account each student’s thinking and learning process as their pathways to understanding. Inquiry approaches allow each learner entry points to understanding, and the teacher is able to facilitate how each student can follow individual pathways to understanding and skill acquisition in the learning process. The inquiry approach allows us to orchestrate learning; everyone has their preferred instrument to play, and they all come in to the song at different times, but together they play towards a collaborative harmony.

The inquiry approach allows us to follow a recursive, rather than a linear model for learning. This pedagogical construct is an underpinning approach to teaching and learning in the IB.

If learning is constructed through recursive inquiries, how do we address this non-linear curriculum?

Consider our curriculum framework for the continuum. The continuum framework involves a spiraling through concepts, from large macro-concepts in the PYP, into more specific concepts in the MYP, involving both interdisciplinary key concepts and disciplinary related concepts. As students spiral through the conceptual curriculum, they gain depth through the threads of macro-concepts, and they gain breadth by exploring relationships between the interdisciplinary key concepts through the disciplinary related concepts. See the example in the illustration below.

The conceptual spiral in the IB continuum

The conceptual spiral in the IB continuum

Similarly, there is a recursive spiral of approaches to learning skills in the continuum. If we take just one skill: analyse, we are able to see the spiral of this skill in the continuum’s programme of inquiry.

Skills spiral in the continuum.

Skills spiral in the continuum.

The curriculum might not be linear after all. Learning in the continuum follows this recursive inquiry cycle.

IB learning cycle in MPYPH (2008) and FPIP (2014).

IB learning cycle in MPYPH (2008) and FPIP (2014).

The suggestion here is that there are mini-curriculum cycles in the units we teach, and we use the inquiry cycles to spiral through conceptual understanding and skill acquisition and rehearsal in the unit.

As we move into the subject overview, we might find that the units spiral learning through the conceptual and skills framework in tandem, through the use of a learning cycle in the subject.

If we connect all the subject overviews and tease out the conceptual threads and skills development threads out of these, we may find ourselves creating a spiraling curriculum, delivered through inquiry and constructivist approaches, inclusive of and providing multiple pathways to understanding and mastery for all learners.


Join our community on Twitter! We hold #MYPChat, an informal gathering of MYP educators on Twitter held fortnightly. Our next MYPChat is on October 30, when we will be dialoging on Standard C1 Collaboration and reflection, in action!

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action

ATL articulation through the Core and Policies, Part 2

Part 2, ATL Articulation through the Core and Policies

Criterion B in all MYP subjects including the Projects and Interdisciplinary Units (IDU)  explicitly unpack within its strands a learning cycle or process. Year 1s spent some time thinking about learning cycles, and below is an example of their understanding.

Cycles Are by a MYP Year 1 Student

Cycles Are by a MYP Year 1 Student

The thinking visible in the sample above teaches us a few things.

First, this student came to the MYP through the PYP. Within a 30-minute engagement, this student was able to easily make connections between all subjects through his thinking about the learning cycles present in MYP.

This teaches us the value of allowing students to transfer learning how to learn from the transdisciplinary framework of PYP into the interdisciplinary framework of the MYP. In the PYP, the thought boundaries between the disciplines are blended within an inquiry. When students move into the MYP, the disciplines become more pronounced within their thought boundaries, but there are numerous connections within and through the MYP subjects, which allow students to transfer learning across and through different disciplines. (One way to visualize the difference between transdisciplinary to interdisciplinary is through Clint Hamada’s visualization of these.) A way by which students might transport learning from one discipline to another in MYP is through the cycles of learning.

The student’s understanding in the above example also teaches us that ATL skills are implicit in how we learn throughout the IB continuum. From the thinking engagement about learning cycles, these are what the Year 1 students generalized, below.

Concept formation : cycles 1

Concept attainment : cycles from Year 1

Self talk from Year 1

Self talk from Year 1

Self-talk from Year 1

Self-talk from Year 1

Generalization about learning in MYP from Year 1 student

Generalization about learning in MYP from Year 1 student

We may also learn something about the students’ learning from their thinking visible in what they wrote. For instance:

  • there is clear concept attainment illustrated above, for the concept of learning as a cycle
  • students in Year 1 have some proficiency in self-talk, a social-emotional learning skill, which helps them be mindful and resilient
  • students are able to synthesize their learning about learning cycles
  • students are able to transfer learning from their transdisciplinary experience in PYP to their interdisciplinary experiences in MYP

We learn from the students’ responses to the learning about learning cycles engagement, that students have the dispositions allowing their thinking to be provoked into deliberate use of ATL skills. This deliberate activation of prior learning is explicit in our unit planning process. Used skillfully, inquiry-based approaches to learning in the MYP become journeys to understanding which students traverse, using ATL skills of critical thinking, social-emotional skills and other skills to deliberately seek improvement and achievement –in other words, to approximate and then become independent inquirers.

Transfer through the Core: Projects, Service as Action and Interdisciplinary Learning

Transfer, the ATL skill learners must draw upon to make connections between themselves and their learning, concepts and contexts across subjects, and to the world, is a skill set manifested through the Core of the MYP.

When we plan learning for IDU, we draw upon the relationships of concept(s)-to-concept(s), concept-to-content, concept-to-context, between disciplines, across a subject, learner to world, learner to others, between the learner to all things. These relationships are cognitive spaces wherein the learner can explore connections, describe, design, create…name a command term and a learner is able to apply it by deliberate use of ATL skills, to transform learning.

The MYP core–IDU, Service as action, Projects–allow learners multiple opportunities for transfer. Interdisciplinary connections, principled action, and Projects are ways by which learners manifest ATL skills to do something with what they know and understand with and without of the MYP subjects. The MYP requirements for SA and IDU are opportunities for educators to design thoughtful attention to how students might use thinking, research, social skills, self-management, and communication skills to integrate areas of knowing and ways of knowing into new understanding through IDU and the Personal Project, and to take principled action through Service as action and the Community Project.

In the continuum, the core of the IB culminates in CAS, TOK and the EE. In the Diploma core, we envision learners to be self-directed as they deliberately use the approaches to learning skills in taking action, using transfer in an unceasing basis in TOK (Hedrick, personal conversation), and demonstrating a masterful array of ATL skills and IB ethos as they create the Extended Essay.

ATL through MYP Partnerships and our Policies

The ATL skills categories (communication, social, self-management, research, thinking) suggest partnerships within the MYP, which we can use as collaborative spaces for integrated implementation.

What are some interdisciplinary partnerships we can use? Alignment of criteria in our current MYP allows us to use a deliberate language for understanding and communicating about learning.

Alignment of Criteria in MYP (IBO, 2014). Based on Subject Guides in MYP (2014).

Alignment of Criteria in MYP (IBO, 2014). Based on Subject Guides in MYP (2014).

Through the chart above we learn that:

  • Criterion A draws upon the disciplinary knowledge and understanding. A look at the criterion A strands gives us the range of ways by which students access areas of knowing through ways of knowing.
  • Criterion B uses disciplinary method or process to engage students through an iterative learning cycle, inquiry-based approaches to learning
  • Criterion C calls upon specific thinking skills, both critical and creative, by which students might express outcomes of process used in Criterion B cycles
  • Criterion D calls upon higher order thinking skills such as synthesis and evaluation (Bloom’s taxonomy) to reflect upon authentic connections between learner and understanding, learner and subject/discipline, learner and the world

But even when the specific criterion calls for content and conceptual understanding, strands unpacking the criterion explicitly describe what students must do with what they know and understand. Take a look at the criterion strands: we will see skills performance within them. Our MYP learning framework gives us a dynamic and complex interaction of concept, context, content, attitudes and skills described by the criterion strands.

These opportunities for skills teaching and performance give us authentic links for partnerships within the framework of our subjects. We can link the Library with each subject through Criteria A and B, for one example. Students must practice mindfulness and the attitudes of Academic Honesty as they inquire, produce, process, evaluate, plan. Social and emotional learning is present as students persevere through many of the learning experiences described in our subject objectives, giving our Counseling department strong links to our curriculum. For examples students must necessarily practice ATL skills of mindfulness and resilience as they investigate, analyse, design.

The possibilities by which we expand these partnerships in our MYP are formally described in our policies. If we were to embark on an inquiry into coherence and articulation of ATL skills in our policies, what might we find?

Here are some sample questions that we have asked in our corner of the IB world:

How do students use ATL skills other than in the Communication cluster in language learning?
How do students use processes to approach language learning and learning through language?
How do students acquire a range of strategies for learning from collaborative engagements?
How might students develop their own approach given their individual dispositions, learning preferences and styles?
What opportunities might we provide students to demonstrate learning through these individual approaches? How might we expand their learning repertoire?

As a MYP educator, what is your inquiry into ATL articulation in your schools? Share your questions and thoughts with us in the comments.


Consider joining our informal dialog on Twitter through #MYPChat! Join our Twitter community on October 30 as we dialog on the significance of collaborative planning and reflection in MYP implementation.

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action