Written by Adrian von Wrede-Jervis, Bavarian International School

Why teach skills?

For a long time now education has been accused of pandering to the factory model by encouraging the transfer of knowledge but to do so in ways that encourage a compliancy that was arguably needed for the workplace of its time. Many of the arguments for teaching skills come from the fact that the workplace is changing and increasingly employers say that they are looking for a particular set of skills. Each year several lists are published as which skills are top of the most wanted lists.

top ten skills two top ten skills


BUT, are we building skills because they are functionally important and prepare students for the world of work? It would be ironic to suggest we only work on skills because the factory has changed.

OR are we building skills because they shape who we are and how we can contribute to a better society?

This leads us to ask ourselves, when thinking about implementing progression in the ATL skills, “why we are doing it?”. This is essential and best done as a faculty as it frames the nature of the venture. Are we teaching skills for improving a student’s functional competence or it the goal bigger than that? As Simon Sinek has said (though he may have been quoting Herb Kelleher):

blog quote

I might argue that teaching skills is a route to teaching attitude. In IB the attitude we are aiming for is International Mindedness (and all that comes with it) making a skill like dialectic thought (an identified PYP skill where we acknowledge the opinion of others) really rather important.

Further to this a skilled person tends to be more proactive. We need this right now. Greta Thurnberg needed her skill set to be the change maker she is.

Even futurist Gerd Leonhard argues that we need to teach the skills that make us human:

So then, we work on the skills to release students to being proactive changemakers whether in grand global ways like Greta or in more individual and personal ways through the change of a habit. Skills enable AGENCY and they lead to ACTION.

Generic skills and/or domain (subject) specific skills?

There are some (John Sweller and David Geary in particular) who suggest that we have evolved our generic skills but these are basic. They propose that these skills need not be taught because they are naturally learnt (through evolutionary pressure) and can be assumed to be present. Examples are: learning to communicate and work together as a team. In the same way they argue basic knowledge also naturally formed. They call these basic skills Biologically Primary skills and the knowledge formed Folk Knowledge.

Both, they argue, are very resistant to change and both are overcome by teaching explicit domain knowledge. For example, they argue that more sophisticated skills are reliant on taught content and are domain specific. This comes from the discovery that whilst grandmaster chess players brains are different to novices this change of brain structure only really helps them be better at chess and does not necessarily to make them overall better thinkers (they discovered that actually the brain growth area is in the region of memory, that decisions on best moves to take is informed by a huge memory bank of possible moves and chess piece layouts). They argue therefore to not focus on teaching skills but to teach knowledge, both to develop domain specific skills and also to overcome folk knowledge, by creating a large memory reservoir of facts.

Whilst I do not agree with their conclusion, we must take note of the evidence. I think that we must question the assumption that skills are only generic and transferrable, but I also believe that these generic skills can be taught beyond an innate competency. We can for example learn how to cooperate better or communicate with each other better. In fact, I interpret the evidence to show the necessity of teaching generic skills explicitly because if we don’t they will not change. I think the insight on some skills being domain specific is also helpful; critical thinking in Maths IS different to critical thinking in Science, History or Art.

What this means is that schools should take the time in their faculty to consider what skills are generic (and therefore taught for transference) and sought after by all subjects in a consistent manner, e.g. learning how to do a presentation. To aid transfer, these skills should be approached in a consistent manner and language.

In the same vein students should be given clarity on how to approach domain specific skills. A great strategy for identifying domain specific skills relevant to your course is to pull these skills from the subject specific assessment criteria. For each descriptor pull out the skills needed to evidence this criteria. As a quick mock-up example, from Individuals & Societies:

assessment quote

For both the generic and the domain specific skills consider what progression in that skill looks like and encourage students to reflect on their usage of that skill.

What are the MYP requirements?

From the Standards and Practices document:

  • The written curriculum includes an approaches to learning planning chart for all years of the programme. (C2.1b)
  • There is a system for the regular review of individual unit plans and of the planning of approaches to learning skills. (C2.1f)
  • Collaborative planning and reflection addresses vertical and horizontal articulation. (C1.3)

From Principles into Practice:

Leadership should

  • ensure that teachers understand ATL skills and their role in the programme
  • help to decide how ATL can be addressed by subject-specific content and special activities
  • develop a plan for the vertical articulation of ATL skills across all years of the programme
  • support teachers in developing teaching strategies for ATL skills.

So, the MYP requires that schools produce a planning chart that shows skill development vertically through the Programme (it does not require school to evidence horizontal alignment but it does acknowledge this as best practice).

It requires as a minimum that the skills are mapped but again it states that “over time, the chart may become more detailed and comprehensive (and) … reflect the school’s current emphasis and work plans in terms of ATL skills development.” Whenever we want to show development, a mapping tool is not sufficient, we need to add to it an articulation of progression.

mapping image for blog

Progression of what?

The MYP has several levels to the ATLs. It has:

  • 5 skill categories
  • 10 skill clusters
  • 140 named skills

It does not require you to use any or all of these categorisations in the ATL planning chart. Pragmatically though it is too onerous and difficult to articulate progression in 140 skills, and not granular enough to do it in 10 clusters. So the first piece of advice is:

 Design your own sub clusters that you think are possible to articulate progression in.

How to articulate progress

  1. Competency expressed in terms of CONSISTENCY.

“Student can sometimes/usually/always use skill X.”

  1. Competency expressed in terms of INDEPENDENCE.

“Student can with guidance/with reminders/alone/teach others use skill X.”

  1. Competency expressed in terms of GENERIC COMPLEXITY.

“Student can use skill X in a simple/multi step/complex task”

  1. Competency expressed in terms of SPECIFIC COMPLEXITY.

“Student can, in written communication, write in full sentences/ in paragraphs with clear focus / evaluate perspectives”

These each have their benefits but my personal favourite idea is:

light bulb image

Monitoring Growth

Monitoring can be simply identifying the presence and use of ATL skills, or it can monitor the growth of the skills in an individual. If you can unify the monitoring of the skill to the articulation of progression this will be best. The best solutions here are, in my mind, digital as it allows easy communication amongst the key stakeholders in a learners growth – the school, the student and the home.

I know of four useful possible strategies

  1. Through garnering student reflections – see the work of Tracker Apps
  2. Through working through a skills training programme – see the work of Callido
  3. Badging accomplishments stored in a digital portfolio – see the work of the Badge Alliance
  4. Competency tagging – see the functionality of ManageBac

And finally planning, assessing and reporting on ATLs

For me, ManageBac, given that it is highly customisable, remains one of the most effective systems for identifying the skills you wish to teach, selecting the skill you wish to assess and even reporting on that skill with a qualitative comment.

ManageBac has a built-in way of creating ATL skills clusters in each MYP unit that can be used to link MYP Curriculum Objectives and their strands to specific ATL skills. This is done in the Connections tab of MYP Unit Plans.

ATL skills chart

Furthermore, teachers can plan for how they want to address specific ATL skills in their Units through Learning Experiences linked to the skills clusters.

If wanted, you would also be able to assess the overall ATL skills for end of term grades per class in ManageBac. Please feel free to visit the ManageBac Help Centre for further information on assessment of ATL skills in the MYP.


  • the IB does not require you to assess or report on ATLs
  • it has further stated that it opposes reporting ATL skills as grades

To conclude

Skills are valuable assets in any learning experience, give therefore considered thought as how you might articulate for students what growth in these skills looks like.

Watch Adrian’s webinar, ATL Skills Progression: How to Plan for it and Track Progress here


Adrian von Wrede Jervis1


Adrian von Wrede-Jervis has been teaching for over 25 years. He cut his teeth as a science teacher and Head of Faculty in UK state schools until he moved to Germany ten years ago where he has worked at the Bavarian International School as Assistant Principal and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Coordinator; Director of Studies and TOK Coordinator; and Director of Continuum Learning. In these roles he has developed a thorough working knowledge of school management systems, data analysis (Diploma results analysis and pupil monitoring), and a deep understanding of each of the four IB Programmes and how they can be more closely aligned to one another towards a coherent Continuum of IB education.

Share This