Learning How to Learn- Creating 21st Century Learners

The following article is written by BIBS MYP coordinator Mr. Terry Linton. The Chinese version was published on April, 14’s Beijing Youth Daily A15 (please find it at the bottom).


“When the MYP (Middle Years Programme) was first conceived in 1980, the driving force at the heart of all thinking was the development of learning for the sake of learning skills. This later became known as ATL (Approaches to Learning). Over 30 years later, we know that developing a good ATL programme in schools is possibly the most important feature in preparing students to become lifelong learners, regardless of their educational pathways.”

—-Malcolm Nicolson, Head of MYP Development

There are a number of sayings in Chinese that nicely summarize my feelings on Education. “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.” – Chinese proverb ( “师傅领进门,修行靠个人”——中国谚语)“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” — Chinese proverb (“告诉我,我会忘记;给我看,我可能会记住;让我参与,我会理解的。”——中国谚语); “Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.” – Confucius (“学而不思则罔,思而不学则殆”——孔子《论语》)

Reflecting on the aforementioned quote from Malcolm Nicolson, which ponders the need for students to become lifelong learners, and at the same time thinking about these Chinese axioms, it makes me realize why I decided to become a teacher in the first place.

I have always loved learning; as well, reading is more than just a passion for me, it is a daily part of my life. I am never very far away from a book and thanks to technology and ebooks, it is now more convenient than ever to read. Whether we realize it or not, we are always reading: surfing the net, picking up a magazine, newspaper, checking our bank account, etc. These are fundamental skills and we develop them from a young age.

It is a common perception that children are excellent natural learners who are sponges that pick up things like languages very quickly. This is not entirely true as an adult life long learner I am able to learn much faster and more efficiently than your average child. Now my learning skills are honed and developed as a teacher and learner. But what if we explicitly teach these skills starting from a young age instead of just leaving it up to chance?

What makes the MYP different from traditional schooling is that it acknowledges that these skills need to be taught in a coordinated concentrated way, thus MYP works to give us the skills we need to cope in modern life.

This is a good starting point for us to discuss what the Approaches to Learning skills are and how we incorporate them into our everyday lives here at BIBS. School is not just a place to acquire knowledge and facts. Anyone can learn facts by surfing the Internet. Moreover, learning how to acquire new skills is not just a simple task of reading, and that is where schools have an important place in society.

The ATL skills categories are placed into 10 clusters. Schools can choose how they implement these into their own planning, as there are many local circumstances and requirements that are unique to any geography and culture.

What is not different though, is the belief that concept driven curriculum, in coordination with the ATL skills, helps all students to become independent and self-guided learners.

Here is a list of the ATL skill clusters: communication, collaboration, organization, affective (states of mind), reflection, information literacy, media literacy, critical thinking, creative thinking and transfer.

Some of these skills require additional elaboration. However, think about your own life, and you can immediately see the benefits of having a curriculum that addresses these ten skill groups, and how much better you would be as a student.

Even as an adult and a teacher, I am still working on developing my skills. Communication is a critical element, whether we are in an interview, selling a product, or writing an article. Every job ad I have ever seen includes the concept of communication. In our failed interpersonal relationships, most of them could have been saved had there been more effective communication.

Collaboration is another essential piece that some people seem to have a knack for and others don’t. However, if given practical training during critical development periods, even socially awkward teenagers can improve working effectively with others. What makes collaboration successful? Listening and caring about what other people in the group have to say (even if you don’t agree), pulling your own weight, teamwork, fairness and building consensus are all key elements. We need these traits in our organizations and service projects. Thus, it is through group work and team building that our students are able to practice these skills daily.

Organization is another key success skill and through modeling and practicing, we can teach our students how to plan and organize: how to set goals, how to achieve their milestones by using weekly planners, etc.. Our programme called “Personal Project” is an excellent example, where students use a management plan to start a project from scratch, make a product, reflect on their achievement and then find ways to build up on their success.

Affective skills are likely the most esoteric among students and often lead to just as much uncomfortable giggling, as the science unit on animal reproduction. Affective skills are where we encourage students to explore their states of mind and help them develop strategies to manage their own mindsets. Please keep in mind this is not thought control! After all, if someone commands you to not think of a pink elephant, it is very difficult to not do so. However, if someone says, “Think about a pink elephant for 5 seconds, then let it go and think about something else”, that is easily done. So, we work on skills like focus and concentration, using games and activities. We encourage students to share their perseverance stories. We also talk about self-control, delayed gratification, positive self-talk and positive thinking. The most important piece though, which is one of the biggest factors to success in the world today, is “resilience”. This virtue is being able to bounce back and triumph from adversity. If you read any stories of celebrated people, be it Richard Branson, Maya Angelou or Abraham Lincoln, they all have stories of when they faced adversity and how overcoming it propelled them to greatness.

Another important skill is reflection. This is closely linked to the affective skills but is focused on the process of learning. What did I learn about today? What can I do to explore this topic further? What do I need to do to become a more effective learner? We look at role modeling and keeping a journal as a way to assess our own learning strategies. Reflecting is something we do naturally. But it is quite different that stewing over a past wrong, as reflection is done in the present tense and looks to developing yourself for future engagements.

The next two skills can be combined as we treat them similarly. First is Information literacy skills and the second is media literacy skills. We teach students how to reference, how to assess and evaluate resources. But we also encourage them to make informed choices about their personal viewing experiences. Seeking primary and secondary resources and finding a range or perspectives from multiple and varied sources is important to a critical analysis of the topic at hand.

This leads us to the next skill which is critical thinking. Today, there is much debate about whether this can be taught or not. I am of the opinion that it can be and even if someone is not successful at becoming a critical assessor of ideas, it allows them to have the awareness that there are other concepts besides their own. I love to have students debate and in every unit we have a debatable question that we discuss in class. Recently, teaching probability, we discussed the question: “Is luck real?” The students were divided into two camps randomly so it didn’t matter if they believed in luck at all. But, they had to come up with hard facts or at least evidence to win their argument. Ultimately, we as a group came to the conclusion that hard work trumps luck, but also some things are too coincidental to be explained. However, all perspectives were fully explored and this was a rewarding series of classes that went beyond mathematics, by looking into the human soul. Heady stuff for Grade 8 Mathematics.

Next, we take a look at creative thinking, which many believe is the most important 21st century learning skill. Again, we can look at the debate of whether or not it can be taught: is this a skill that someone with no creativity can acquire? Our design programme and our personal and community projects give students the opportunity to directly develop their creativity muscle, and to develop novel solutions to complex problems – these are the kind of solutions that can make a difference in the world today.

Lastly is the set of skills involved in transfer. This is the idea of linking different subjects and tasks together to develop one product. This kind of holistic learning is characteristic of the MYP Programme. To develop this transfer successfully, we provide units of work which require multiple subjects together. A good example of this is a Grade 8 unit, the “Business Project”. It requires entrepreneurial spirit, mathematics, design, marketing and writing skills in order to document their project. The students need to practice their critical and creative thinking, collaboration, communication, organization and so on. It is a culmination of all their approaches to learning skills and it allows us, as a learning community, to assess and evaluate their progress. Most importantly though, it gives the students some public exposure, by showcasing their “learning to learn” skills. Thus, this is where programmes like ours are successful in creating effective students.

Here is the bottom line: by the time our students graduate, the world has changed so much, that preparing them for traditional occupations is outmoded and impractical. We don’t know what the future holds. But we do know that preparing students to become effective learners is something that will help them be prepared for the challenges that face them in the 21st century.

Terry Linton BYD Article-s