Reflections on Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Last Saturday I was honored to speak to a group of Heads and Coordinators during their workshop in Bangkok led by IBE Calum Stuart. 

Cal’s brief for me was to speak to Approaches to Learning (ATL) implementation from the vantage point of a coordinator or principal, and speak to the thinking that might go into planning and creating conditions for the implementation of the ATL framework in an IBMYP school.

Whether a school is investigating candidacy to become authorized to offer the Middle Years Program, or is an established IB school looking to deepen their learning culture within the MYP, there remain a few considerations that coordinators and heads might keep in mind in implementing the Approaches to Teaching and Learning (ATTL).

I deliberately focus here on ATTL instead of ATL, because I believe that a holistic view into implementing the Approaches to Learning framework is key to program success. When we think about the ATL skills, they are the same descriptions of skill for PYP, MYP and DP. Might they also be the same skills adults manifest in open-ended tasks? Might the continuum include adult expressions of these skills in the ATL framework?

In thinking about implementation of skills learning, it may be useful to look at the task from both a balcony view, a wide perspective, and a dance floor perspective, a closer look at the classroom implementation.

The Balcony View

The wide, school perspective to the ATTL framework rests upon a clear vision of its role toward three goals: the long-term guarantee a school wants to enact for its learners; how it will support that enactment; and the actions it takes toward implementation. We can find descriptions of the total enactment of a school’s approaches to teaching and learning through the current standards and practices for IB Schools (2014). (Note: This post will be updated for the new Standards and practices when they are published in 2020.)

Success Criteria for implementation

A Standards describe the beliefs that underpin practices in IB schools. These practices describe the Why of an IB school. 

B Standards describe how the school will support its beliefs about teaching and learning through leadership and resources. These practices constitute the How of a school’s implementation.

C Standards describe what the school does to act upon its beliefs using leadership and resources. This layer of implementation is the What and consists of collaboration and reflection, the written curriculum, the taught curriculum, and the assessed curriculum.

The Standards and practices function as success criteria for an IB school: its descriptors of a desired state, an aspiration of the kind of school it wants to be.

A human endeavor

Cal mentioned that Stephen Taylor who was also a guest in the workshop, spoke about the human side of implementation, and I echo Stephen’s point of view. Underneath the implementation of things runs the current of energy that infuses process work or the What, How and Why of school. In co-creating a learning culture, intentional attention to the people work is inextricably woven into the endeavor.

Underneath the implementation of things runs the current of energy in a learning culture. Education is a human endeavor. #whatisschool- Aloha Lavina Click To Tweet

Teams create the system, and they also practice its ways of being. There’s a quote from John Schaar that captures how learning culture is created:

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

John Schaar

This quote is a powerful description of how a school might design its approaches to teaching and learning. This statement suggests that:

  • We create the vision of a desired state (the future destination).
  • We discover the pathways to that desired state.
  • The endeavor not only changes our state of being, but it also transforms us.

If our desired state is described through concepts such as the Learner Profile traits, which are the IB ethos in action, what might be some hunches about what schools do to get from a current state to the desired state?

A way of thinking about how we approach teaching and learning toward a desired state of being might be expressed through the metaphor of a fractal.

A fractal is a pattern composed of small designs that add and multiply toward a whole. A school culture of teaching and learning, then, might be composed of things we add and which we multiply day after day and experience after experience, one learning engagement and one interaction at a time.

An organization is a fractal.

Let’s take the example of our standard on collaboration and reflection. A school which collaborates and reflects on teaching and learning would express it in many situations: among students in an investigation activity; among students and teachers in developing service as action; among teachers in developing an IDU, and in a leadership team in designing time allocations for service learning, IDU development, planning together. Two teachers collaborating on interdisciplinary links or unit of inquiry, a tiny team practicing collaborative and reflective approaches to teaching and learning, is a fractal which adds to the whole.

No interaction is too small, no learning too insignificant that it does not scale outward into becoming a pattern repeating in the design of the whole school and how it manifests collaboration and reflection.

This suggests to us that through our interactions day after day, experience after experience, we are making happen the physical manifestation of what we want to be as a school. These interactions add up and create the patterns that make the whole, the organizational habits of our school.

This also suggests that when we implement the What (how we collaborate and reflect, how we plan, how we teach, how we assess), we are actively creating the design of our school’s learning culture. 

When we create the pathways to our desired state as a learning culture, the ATTL become the competencies that take us through the journey. Like our students, who choose and use ATL skills to create solutions, we adult learners also choose and use ATTL to clarify our goals, create ways to achieve those, and assess so we can adjust and refine what we do to get to our destination.

Useful questions that help us get there might be:

  • How do we learn?
  • How do we learn how to learn?
  • How do we show what we know, understand and can do?
  • What might we do when students are not learning?
  • What might we do when students already learned it? 


These questions are some in the repeating pattern of problem-solving that we do in our teams, and each of them requires us to choose and use learning skills (also known as ATL) to create the ATTL that will deliver those learning opportunities for our students and colleagues.

On the Dance Floor

The questions shared above also transfer to individual practice. We can use these same questions to frame our thinking whether we are thinking of a team of teachers or a class. For examples, in focusing on approaches to learning in our teaching, we might consider:

  • Where and when do learners learn [ATL skill]?
  • How do they learn how to learn [a skill]?
  • How do they show what they know, understand and can do?
  • What might I do systemically when a learner is not learning?
  • What might I do systemically when a learner has already learned it?

ATTL Implementation investment

As a coordinator or team leader, implementing ATTL means being attentive to transitions from current state to desired state. It also means being intentional about the patterns of learning that support and convey a valued colleague to the desired state.

Traveling from the current state to a desired state is like traversing an ecotone, the space between where someone is and where they want to be. That is like the implementation dip for a school, and there are ways that schools can support those who are traveling through the dip

The implementation dip is like being in an ecotone.

The implementation dip is a great cognitive space for learning in a school. During that dip rests an opportunity for the school to create holding environments for teachers, safe spaces to learn and apply and reflect in cyclical ways. It is also an opportunity for a school to use support functions like collaboration and coaching, to help teachers navigate the complex problem-solving that is a part of professional learning that impacts student learning, gain collective efficacy, and reach shared understanding.

In the conversation with Cal’s group yesterday, we touched on the investments that make happen a sound implementation of ATTL and other elements of the IB programs. These are the resources of time, permission to experiment, and a cyclical learning system for teachers. Embedding collaborative time into teaching timetables means that the time to gather and collaborate is a tight feature of the school’s organizational habits. Vocalizing that a school gives itself permission to experiment means that it does not stigmatize trying and failing and trying something else, which is the process of innovation. Creating a system for cyclical learning gives teachers learning and growth pathways out of the implementation dip into the desired state, practices which approach teaching and learning in the IB framework.

We also discussed support functions and how to address professional learning when there is the usual turnover of teachers, a normal occurrence in the international school setting. This will be the topic of the next blog post.

I appreciate the hour with Cal Stuart (@calstuart76 on Twitter) and the HOS/MYPCo workshop participants helped me to share some of the passion I have toward the valuable framework we call the ATTL in the IB. Thank you to Cal and the workshop participants for making me part of your learning. I hope ours was the beginning of many conversations that I might have the privilege to attend in the shared journey toward learning agility in our communities.

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://learnertoolbox.com.

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