ATL skill progression - how to plan for it?

How can we support progression in the Approaches to Learning skills (ATL)?

The IB approaches to learning (ATL) are an essential element of ALL IB programmes. Each programme has the same five categories of ATL skills: social | communication | self-management | research | thinking.

Students are expected to progress in their confidence in them in a developmental way throughout the programmes. In the PYP students become AWARE of the learning skills. In the MYP students ACQUIRE the learning skills through the implicit and explicit teaching of specific strategies and techniques. In the DP students AMALGAMATE the learning skills in the completion of each task.

“Through approaches to learning in IB programmes, students develop skills that have relevance across the curriculum that help them “learn how to learn”.  Approaches to learning skills can be learned and taught, improved with practice and developed incrementally.  They provide a solid foundation for learning independently and with others. They provide a common language that students and teachers can use to reflect on and articulate on the process of learning.  Approaches to learning are most powerful when teachers plan and students engage with them in connection with significant and relevant content knowledge in order to develop transferable understanding.” (IB, ATL across the IB continuum)

What does the IB say?

Mapping and Planning: IB Standards and Practices indicate a different approach for the different programmes.

  • In the MYP the ATL Skills Framework lists all the ATL skills under the 5 ATL skill categories and the 10 ATL Skill Clusters.  Within each Skills Cluster are many examples of ATL Skills practices – over 150 learning skill practices are listed (see PDF below). The ATL skills need to be mapped on a learning planning chart for all years of the programme, and there has to be a system for the regular review of unit plans and of the planning of ATL skills. Such vertical mapping informs you of the coverage of how the ATL skills are being implicitly and explicitly taught. Managebac can be used to map these skills. The planning chart provides evidence for the vertical articulation of ATL skills across the years of the MYP programme. Unit analytics pages allows teachers to link specific MYP curriculum objective strands to ATL skill clusters in their MYP unit plans.
  • In the DP the ATL skills do not need to be mapped in the same way but they need to be integrated into the completion of many tasks. For example, self-management skills are at the heart of the Diploma students' ability to manage the programme, study and revision skills, organisation of CAS, university applications, structuring the extended essay etc. Thinking skills are at the heart of TOK, critical thinking, problem solving, reflection and making connections between subjects.

Collaborative Planning: In ALL programmes collaborative planning and reflection needs to address vertical and horizontal articulation. This articulation informs you where students are progressing in their awareness, acquisition and amalgamation of the skills.

Planning for progress: The IB does not dictate one specific way of mapping the ATL skills and planning for their progression. However, they say that planning should allow for the deliberate integration of ATL skills into the units of study. Learning environments (the physical enviornment) should also foster ATL skills development (see  Creating the optimal conditions for learning). Consider the difference between:

  • Explicit teaching of an ATL skill outside the subject-based lessons within a unit of study such as a lesson on Time Management, Note Making, Concentration etc. where the effort is focused on strategies, practices, techniques, not on the content of the unit.
  • Implicit teaching is about embedding development and practice of an ATL skill within the subject-based lesson through a series of learning engagements that use the content of the subject to build that identified skill.

This page will consider a number of ways in which you could plan for progression in the ATL skills across a students' school career.

"We all teach students those skills implicitly, as those are necessary competencies for inquiry based learning. but without teaching the skills explicitly, students are not conscious of the skills and not actively engaged in developing them." (Maayke de Vries is a History teacher, MYP3A Mentor and ATL Coordinator at the International School of Almere in the Netherlands)


The IB provides the following possible approaches to developing an ATL planning chart. I have slightly changed the wording but it is essentially from the IB documentation:

  • Audit subject-group overviews (for both subject-specific and generic ATL skills). Look for overlap and identify those skills which will be required for which students may be under-prepared.
  • Identify specific skills within your context that need development. Plan learning engagements and assessment tasks that scaffold student performance and demonstrate a progression of learning for ATL skill categories or clusters.
  • The (MYP) ATL skills framework can work in harmony with initiatives like the American Association of School Librarians Standards for the 21st Century Learner, US Common Core State Standards, and the Framework for 21st Century Learning. 
  • Identify specific needs of your students and plan advisory/advocacy programmes that deal with expected personal and academic challenges faced by early and mid-adolescents (including transitions between schools, programmes and year levels). This kind of planning is especially relevant for social and self-management skills (working with others, managing time, and tasks and managing states of mind).
  • Create structured and coordinated, year-by-year approaches to common academic and personal skills that promote success at school and the world beyond (for example, how to deal with homework, manage time, exercise responsible digital citizenship, make good choices).
  • Reflect on how you are developing “soft skills” (competencies in areas such as making decisions, showing commitment, being flexible, leading and following, working as a team, accepting responsibility, dealing with stress, learning from mistakes, winning and losing gracefully).
  • Plan special events to practice new skills.
  • Plan backwards: conduct a task analysis of complex, subject specific or interdisciplinary MYP year 5 assessments and expected DP assessments, and then put a planned programme in place to address these specific skill needs.
  • Coordinate meeting time for teachers to reflect on ATL development.

(IB, Further guidance for developing ATL in the MYP)

Which ATL skills in PYP | MYP | DP?

The ATL skills throughout all programmes provide a common vocabulary. These skills can be learned and taught; improved with practice and developed incrementally. Although they are not formally assessed they contribute to students’ achievement in all subject groups. These skills provide a common language that fosters collaborative planning and facilitates meaningful conversations about teaching and learning between colleagues from PYP | MYP | DP and between teachers and students.

In order to develop ATL skills that facilitate effective and efficient learning, students need:

  • models
  • clear expectations
  • developmental benchmarks (or targets)
  • multiple opportunities to practice.

PYP: From Principles into Practice, The Learner (2018) contains a very clear description of how teachers support and students develop skills in the early years of education. I highly recommend these few pages.

"(In the MYP,) ATL encompasses both general and discipline-specific skills. Many ATL skills are applicable to all MYP subject groups; these general ‘tools for learning’ can be tailored to meet the specific needs of students and schools. In order to develop ATL skills that facilitate effective and efficient learning, students need models, clear expectations, developmental benchmarks (or targets), and multiple opportunities to practice. While ATL are not formally assessed in the MYP, they contribute to students’ achievement in all subject groups. Teachers should provide students with regular, specific feedback on the development of ATL skills through learning engagements and that provide formative assessment. Every MYP unit identifies approaches to learning skills that students will develop through their inquiry and demonstrate in the unit’s summative assessment. " (IB, ATL in the MYP)

Explicit and implicit teaching of skills

What does it mean to explicitly teach a skill and to implicitly teach a skill? When are both appropriate?

I am grateful to Natasha Boukaram (who gives credit to Lance King) for the following example.

Scenario: I am a language teacher in a grade 6 class and as part of the unit of inquiry students are expected to conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry where appropriate. (There are at least 3 ATL skills mentioned in that one outcome so it will be overwhelming to learn all at once as well so it’s crucial to break things down.)

I realize from the student self-reflection sheets where they rate themselves on the skills needed to accomplish this that such as the below,

  • I can focus my research around a central question that I have determined worthy of research.
  • I can choose several sources and gather information to answer my research question.
  • I can analyze the information found in my sources to determine if it provides enough support to answer my question.
  • I can refocus my research when needed and adjust my question when necessary.

that most students feel uncertain about creating strong research questions and if I don’t address this the work they produce will either be poor or frustrating or a combination of both and then I will have to retrack and instructional time would have been wasted.  

I take a step back from my curriculum to focus on explicitly teaching the skill “asking good research questions”:

1. As a class we discuss what are the qualities of a good question: (student friendly language with ideas like the below)

  • Makes you think
  • Doesn’t have an immediate answer
  • Requires some thinking, connection to previous knowledge
  • Demands more that a “yes” or “no” answer
  • Interrogates information to find understanding

2. We work together on creating good questions using sentence stems (first as a class, then as a group, then individually) and in pairs give feedback using the checklist we created as a class to evaluate good questions.

Then we dive back into the curriculum and implicitly teach the ATL skill through application in context and each student generates possible questions to ask through the lines of inquiry and areas of exploration they have identified as the focus of their research. A graphic organizer could be provided to further support their use of the skill such as: Create a question using the following words as sentence starters:





That said it doesn’t have to be this way; perhaps another teacher explicitly taught the skill in her class; then I could implicitly teach the ATL in my class/content area which:

  1. Reinforces the idea that skills are transferrable across contexts (students don’t realize this until you intentionally help them notice)
  2. Reinforces the idea that teachers are working together to create a cohesive learning experience and don’t overwhelm the students with too many different ways of doing things as they won’t have time to perfect any particular skill if they are too spread out.
  3. Gives me more instructional time since I don’t have to explicitly teach all the skills myself!

Activity: Cognitive | Meta-Cognitive | Affective Skills

ATL skills can be divided into cognitive | meta-cognitive | affective skills.Affective skills are often developed through subject group-wide, year-wide and/or school-wide themes for specific lengths of time.  For example, there are five affective skill areas defined by the MYP: Self-motivation, Perseverance, Mindfulness, Emotional Management and Resilience.

  • Defend your corner: Which ONE makes the most difference in helping a student achieve success in the MYP?
  • What would it take to go about securing the cooperation of all teachers across your IB programme to consistently reinforce the important ATL skills, both cognitive and affective, that we’ve discussed?

    Consider which skills

    It is not necessary to plan for teaching, assessing and reporting in all five IB skill categories. However, these skill categories provide a useful organizing tool for vertical and horizontal articulation of ATL skills, especially for schools offering more than one IB programme.

    The following are usrful reflective questions to ask - not least when preparing a self-study.

    • What are the most important ATL skills for our students to develop and see progression in during the coming year?
    • How will I support the development of these skills - both explicitly and implicitly? Consider which ATL skills will be practiced in order to successfully achieve the objective of the unit and access the learning.
    • How do administrators create and protect sufficient time and resource to support ATL development in its vertical and horizontal articulation?
    • How do year leaders horizontally plan learning experiences around ATL skills? Do they meet regularly with their year teams to do this?
    • How are you aligning learning objectives in your unit plans to ATL skills?
    • How do we ensure consistency in the development of these skills during the coming year?
    • How do subject leaders vertically plan learning experiences around ATL skills? What opportunities do teachers have to meet in subject groups to discuss the vertical progression of ATL skills?
    • What is evidence of development in these skills when it happens? To what extent will you formatively or summatively assess progression in these skills?
    • Do core generic ATL skills lend themselves more to explicit or implicit teaching? Why and how?

    • Do subject specific ATL skills lend themselves more to explicit or implicit teaching? Why and how?

    How do we define progression in the ATL skills?

    How do we define a students' progression in the ATL skills through the year | through an IB programme | through their school life across a number of IB programmes?

    The IB do not suggest any one specific way. It is for the school to identify how they are going to define progression in the ATL skills. Below are a number of ways:digital badging |  the Dreyfus model | student self-assessment models (e.g. use of tracker apps, or guided courses).

    As you consider these different approaches reflect on:

    • the opportunities you give to students to self-reflect on their progression in the ATL skills - do you help them to develop reflective skills?
    • forms of self-assessment you use? Portfolio | self-selection of skills they wish to work on across subjects?
    • opportunities that the Personal Project (MYP), Extended Essay (DP) provide to work on speciifc ATL skills. How do you use these opportunities to explicitly and implicitly teach and evaluate skill progression?
    • the role of school counsellors (e.g. self-management) | librarians (e.g. research, information litreracy and media skills) and other pedagogical leaders in helping students progress in the skills.
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