IB Approaches to Learning

Education systems worldwide are wrestling with changes in curriculum and pedagogy, moving away from solely teaching content to a skill-based learning approach. The question being asked is: “Should the goal of education be having students know facts, or should it be about students developing critical thinking and other learning skills?” Many suggest it’s unreasonable to simply ask students to repeat back to us what we’ve previously told them. Rather, it is better if they tell us how they could apply what they’ve learned, and, better still, to demonstrate what they have learned through what they say, and the questions they ask. As we move toward skill-based learning, teachers and leaders also need to understand the importance of students developing learning skills, what some refer to as competencies.


One of the core components of the International Baccalaureate (IB) is its Approaches To Learning (ATL) system. Foundational to IB pedagogical philosophy is the belief that “learning how to learn” is foundational to cultivating lifelong learners in and out of a school context. Student performance is enabled by the mastery of a diverse set of practical, applied learning skills. Integrated throughout the curriculum, ATLs provide a common language for teachers and students to use when reflecting and building on the process of learning.

IB ATLs are grouped broadly into five central skill categories:

  1. Thinking Skills: Abilities enabling creativity and critical analysis, application, evaluation, synthesis, conceptualization, contextualization, reasoning, and problem-solving.

  2. Communication Skills: Abilities enabling the effective sharing of ideas in different media.

  3. Social Skills: Abilities enabling participation and collaboration with others while showing awareness and respect for other cultures, varying points of view, and individual differences.

  4. Research Skills: Abilities enabling efficient, proficient, and ethical use of information sources, including determination of the extent needed, location and access, organization and evaluation, and appropriate use, sharing, and citation.

  5. Self-management Skills: Abilities enabling goal setting, time and task management, emotional regulation, self-motivation, resilience, and mindfulness.

The teaching and learning of ATL skills are implicitly, explicitly, and intentionally embedded into day-to-day learning experiences, so that students have opportunities to practice and incrementally develop these abilities.


Lance King is a recognized authority on the topics of ATL Skills for the IB Middle Years (MYP) and IB Diploma (DP) Programmes. His Student Workbook is an excellent resource for all classroom teachers, which includes ideas and projects for specific learning skills. For example, considering the important communication skill learning how to give feedback, King writes:

Feedback means messages you receive from other people about how they perceive you. Sometimes those messages are positive, sometimes they are completely neutral and sometimes they are about things they think you could change. The purpose of giving and receiving feedback is improving performance.

Students who have mastered learning skills are more likely to find success in future classes, post-secondary, and beyond. ATL performance metrics are a reliable indicator of student success in all curricula. However, incorporating numerous, measurable skills across a diverse program may seem daunting. For this reason, the designing of an efficient, unified approach for teachers to equip our students with these skills is critical. White Rock Christian Academy has embarked on this ATL structure, in a program called SHAPE.

SHAPE is an acronym for:

  1. Self-Regulation

  2. Habits

  3. Attitude

  4. Preparation

  5. Engagement

Each of these categories encompasses approximately 3-4 ATL descriptors. For example, Self-Regulation includes:

  1. Problem-solving

  2. Staying focused on a task

  3. Managing transitions

  4. Practicing resilience with adversity, mistakes, and failures

ATLs are a primary focus of the MYP, and continued development of these skills is expected to continue through the DP, post-secondary education, and beyond. As such, students and teachers in grades 6–12 classes will be adopting this strategy. Rubrics have been developed for each of these descriptors such that students will be able to self-assess and create goals as part of the report card process. Through a unified, consistent approach, we can equip our students to excel at curriculum content of any kind and to nurture the habits, attitudes, and abilities necessary for them to become exceptional lifelong learners. Our role in facilitating the development of these skills is essential for our graduates to succeed within our program, within whatever further education or employment they pursue, and in engaging in whatever calling to which God may lead them.

At the heart of the ATL approach is a desire to describe the qualities we hope to develop in each student. Is our purpose to foster students who score well in Math or Science? Or do we want students that are broadly skilled at problem-solving, empathy, prioritization, and managing feedback? School missions don’t talk about subject area achievement. They have bigger and loftier goals. The Core Purpose of White Rock Christian Academy is to inspire and cultivate citizens of Godly character who transform their world for Christ. Students with a clear understanding of how to learn are more prepared to discover who they are, who God is, who He is calling them to be, and how to engage in whatever challenges He has prepared for them. These are the students who will transform their world for Christ.