Skills lie in the eyes of the beholder and in the hands of the doer

Discussing the skills students require to be successful in this century is like eating tortillas for Mexicans, quite common (and please note that I am Mexican). Yet, as Tracy Immel states, it would be worth thinking about the skills that educators of the present need to deal with students who have an incredible amount of resources that allow them to easily showcase these skills. For this post, though, I am driven by a question: how to avoid becoming (or creating) students that heard a lot about highly valuable skills to develop and all the related jargon, but never got the opportunity to experience what it felt like to work in an environment that promotes them?
One of my teachers once told me that when one is a student one is basically a mechanic who is always looking for the best tools to fix things; and for this reason, not only did we need to be interested in finding and collecting new tools, but also to learn which tool to employ in each situation, as well as the reasons why. Hence, taking advantage of an idea a student mentioned, sometimes I like to present learning experiences as if they were video game stages with different levels of difficulty where students need to make choices, plan strategies, and understand why they make the decisions they make, considering the tools they have at hand.

Witnessing the development of their work and hearing why they opt to do it the way they decided to, as well as the reason why they preferred a particular strategy or process, helps to provide students with more accurate feedback and even help them further their inquiries. Thus, observation and dialogue on what has been observed, has been my tool as a teacher-mechanic: observing how students do things, so that I can collaborate with each one in their own way; so that they can develop skills that amplify their talents; and so that they pursue the enrichment of their personalized toolkit.

In the IB programs we have continuum documents that allow us, teachers, to plan, strategize and scaffold the skills students need to develop in each subject group. Yet, I wonder if we often wonder to what extent students are aware of that (scope and) sequence and to what extent they know what is expected of them. As teachers, the skills students are to develop might be very clear, but what if students do not know what these skills and competencies look, feel or are like because they have not become aware of the tools they can employ? What if they are not able to properly label the ‘tool’ so that they can reuse it whenever they want again? Ultimately, that is the goal of transfer: to use what they have learned in a different scenario.

At the beginning of the year, I presented my plan to students alongside the Approaches to Learning categories and skills. We had a brief conversation on what a task would look like when the teacher asked them to use their thinking skills, and how they will know that they are successfully and purposefully demonstrating those skills. Undoubtedly, this helped them become more sensitized on the learning processes they would undergo in the classroom.

Motivated by the quality of engagements I am having with my students as a result of discussing how they perceive what is expected of them and how they will know they are demonstrating such skills, I conducted a survey of students in grade 10, 11 and 12. I took some of the essential components of the MYP and DP for students to tell me how they would knew they’d be demonstrating ATL skills (thinking, social, communication, self-management and research skills) in Service & Action, Personal Project, CAS, TOK Essay and Extended Essay. (S&A, and PP were mentioned in the survey for MYP, while CAS, TOK and EE were mentioned in the survey for DP).

After looking at the answers students produced, here is how they know they will know they will be demonstrating those skills. Evidently, this information should help us, teachers, devise learning scenarios where such experiences can happen.

As a reflection for the ideas stated at the beginning of this post, I feel that teachers will discover what skills they need to develop to collaborate with students of the present by observing how students work, and how they interact with information, and how they make their choices on the strategies they choose to work, and by generating dialogue when asking them why they decide to do it that way. A learning attitude where skill expectations are clear, and where participants witness that they are demonstrate them will empower teachers and students gather a wide variety of ‘tools’, and will allow them to generate an environment where a variety of skills will be at hand for them to choose when solving a problem, when collaborating or when creating new understandings.

Possibly the easiest way to say it is that everyone in the classroom should be a student-mechanic, and that we should exchange our tools in order to see how possibilities can be limitless if we know what each one of us brings into the classroom.

I would like to cordially invite you to join us on November 13, 2014 in an informal chat in the #MYPChat about Communication Skills in our many MYP relationships.


The consolidated ATL Skills document shown above (in 3 parts) can be downloaded (1 single document) here.


About Rafael Angel

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instructor Independent Trainer. Concept-Based Foreign Language Curriculum and Instruction specialist. Teaching and Learning Director; lives for traveling, reading, learning and tasting new flavours; culture and art lover; passionate about cinema and music. IB MYP, DP Workshop Leader. Mexican YouTuber and Soundclouder.
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