Portrait of a self-directed learner

As we develop Approaches to Learning skills in our students, we are essentially presenting them with this question (rephrased from Costa & Kallick, 2014) to ask themselves:

When the solution to this unfamiliar problem is not readily apparent, what do I do to learn?

For MYP Year 5, we ask the question of our students through the Personal Project. Students respond ideally through deliberate use of ATL skills to construct a process by which they inquire, plan, take action and evaluate a self-conceptualized idea.

How do we take them there? This question is answered by how we scaffold the process by which students experience and repeatedly co-construct processes through which they learn, rehearse, and actualize the deliberate choice and use of ATL skills. As students progress through the MYP, explicit instruction in the choice and use of ATL skills facilitates internalization of these skills.

Costa and Kallick’s Dispositions: Reframing Teaching and Learning (2014) presents a model for the planning, teaching and assessment of ATL skills, termed dispositions in the book.

Costa and Kallick’s model (2014) transposed to the MYP gives us layers of ATL skills development.

Figure 1. Layers of ATL skills use
Figure 1. Layers of ATL skills use

The value of this model to MYP practitioners is the direct correspondence of the layers to our own process of planning learning. The MYP framework holds conceptual understanding as the core of planning; our key concepts and related concepts give us an interdisciplinary (key concepts) and disciplinary framework (related concepts) upon which to design learning experiences for students.

Through the conceptual framework, students construct understanding through subject specific cognitive processes, represented by the command terms in subject objectives and criteria. Implicit in these cognitive processes are discrete patterns of thinking demanded by subject disciplines, culminating in transfer, a cognitive skill students must necessarily engage when thinking in interdisciplinary contexts.

These skills manifest in the summative assessments, designed for students to deliberately choose and use ATL skills in increasing complexity as they progress through the MYP.

Finally, the outer layer of Costa and Kallick’s framework (2014) call upon the communication, affective and social skills, which students intentionally draw upon in performances of understanding.

How does this framework of ATL use relate to the ATL self-assessment model?

The Dreyfus Model of skill acquisition presents self-directedness as the ultimate achievement of skills. Self-assessment means that students internalize the ATL skills. Internalization of skills is indicated by eight dimensions (Costa & Kallick, 2014).

These dimensions are named using Costa and Kallick’s terms, and described below.

  1. Meaning – Students understand the skill, what it looks like/sounds like/feels like. They are able to explain examples of the skill as well as non-examples. Students might use similar categories or descriptions when describing the skill and how it might apply to different situations.
  2. Capacity – Students are able to deliberately perform the skill confidently. Students have a repertoire of strategies, tools and techniques to perform a skill cluster.
  3. Situational awareness – Students are able to draw upon different skill clusters in a variety of situations. Students recognize situational parameters, which indicate which skills to draw out in familiar and unfamiliar contexts.
  4. Spontaneity – Students do not need someone else to prompt them to use the skill. They are motivated internally to choose and use skills to take action or perform understanding.
  5. Benefits – Students recognize the value of a skill. They are able to predict outcomes of use or non-use of specific skills.
  6. Reflection – Students are aware of their own thinking, choices, and performances of skills. They might also convince others to use the skill in situations demanding this persuasion.
  7. Intentionality – Students do not perform skills without thought, but deliberately call upon skills when these best-fit a situation or problem.
  8. Action – Students manifest internal drive and self-direction in the performance of a skill. They might also advise others to act upon a task using a skill and are able to articulate why it suits a context.
Figure 2. Portrait of a self-directed learner
Figure 2. Portrait of a self-directed learner

Figure 2.  A synthesis of the indicators for internalization and the Dreyfus model.

You can access a PDF version of this portrait of a self-directed learner here.

What can we do to collaborate on our ATL skills development?

Costa and Kallick (2014) suggest some ways ATL skills development might achieve coherence in our MYP.

Use a common language for the ATL skills. This language is available to us and to our students through the documents guiding MYP implementation. How might we use command terms consistently? What words might we use to help our students conceptualize skills? Assess skills?

Repeat frequently. How might our students repeatedly hear about and focus on skills as they progress through the MYP?

Draw attention to skills in different contexts. How might we guide students to find the ATL skills in various problem settings? How might we help students to make connections between the problems they are learning to solve, and the language with which they can express understanding of their learning?

Discuss the meaning and relevance of skills. How might we help students to make connections between Learner Profile attributes and the ATL skills? How might we allow students to form concepts of what the skill looks like/sounds like/feels like?

Pose questions to engage cognition on skills choice and use. How might we ask students to think of performances of understanding through concrete processes embedded in the ATL skills clusters?

Reflect on the choice and use of skills. Might we ask our students, What is going on in your mind when you transfer a skill from a disciplinary context to an interdisciplinary problem?

Establish clear expectations. Expectations can be given prior to performance tasks, and they can also be implicit in the types of feedback we give to our students. Descriptive feedback, a type of feedback, which articulates a cognitive process, seems to nurture a growth mindset. When a student succeeds, and the feedback consists of a description of the skills chosen and used to create a successful outcome, the student learns the expectation inherent in the skill being described. This drives future choice and use of the skill in connection with context.

As we co-construct our MYP: Current Chapter, we see that there are many possible ways by which we can evolve a coherent framework of ATL skills development for our students.

What might be ways you can develop integration of skills choice and use by students and adults in your school? What might be some challenges? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Join our community on Twitter! We hold #MYPChat, an informal gathering of MYP educators on Twitter held fortnightly. Our next MYPChat is on October 30, when we will be dialoging on Standard C1 Collaboration and reflection, in action!

MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action
MYPChat on Oct 30: Standard C1 in action

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

10 thoughts

  1. Hmm…lots to think about, and I would like to take more time to read and explore in depth.
    My first thoughts from a PYP perspective were = that we use the Trans. Skills (ATLs) to help develop the conceptual understanding in our young learners. So our ATLs woudl be embedded within conceptual understanding.

    Is this model different because the Ss are older and already have some base of developed skills? or is the understanding / methodology different?

    Look forward to learning more. Thanks for sharing

    1. Hi Tania, Thanks for your comment. The skills are pretty much embedded in the conceptual learning, as skills themselves derive from concepts. I’d like to explore this in a future post, and thank you for inspiring thinking about this relationship!

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