Reflecting on Content vs. Skills, Attitudes and Concepts

This is merely a reflection post. No fancy tools or strategies. A simple look at how we teach.

Recently, I’ve attended several workshops, which got me thinking about how we teach. One workshop I attended recently was a good example of how not to teach.

It had been a while since I had participated in such a workshop. The workshop was partially teacher-driven, in a direct instructional method. When one of the facilitators asked for questions, he would then immediately answer them. He often remarked on his surprise when we weren’t thinking like he was thinking. I hesitated to ask questions because I didn’t want a pat answer. I wanted to discuss. I didn’t want to be told what to do. I didn’t want content just forced down my throat.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 11.02.24 AM

from the IBPYP model:

Since entering the PYP system, I’ve become more and more driven by inquiry and have enjoyed learning in workshops or professional development through inquiry. I understand the workshop content, about the Exhibition or language for example, through the bigger concepts, attitudes and skills. I’m the type of learner who thrives on this, and really, aren’t we all?

Yet, I still come from a background of direct instruction and traditional school and so without knowing it, I’m still often driving at content, which is only one part of the PYP. It’s the subject area, not the approaches to learning. In another recent workshop, or really planning sessions we had with Kath Murdoch, a profound and respected inquiry-based educator, I realized I’m still too focused on the content.

I planned a great provocation four our next unit, How the World Works. Students got a chance to tune in to different stations about different forces that shape our earth. I appealed to different types of learners, from rock handling and observation to watching videos and playing with Google Earth. However, in reflection, it was all about content. What do they already know about how the earth changes? What are the initial assumptions?

Knowing where students start with their understanding of a subject is important. However, it is just as important to focus on how students approach their learning. So, we need to pre-assess where they are with their skills for the unit. Kath pointed out to us that our unit seemed to be about scientific communication, and we agreed. How well then, she asked, do we know where kids are with their scientific explanatory skills?

Hmm. A simple question but it really made us think. I don’t know. Even in the last unit, I was focused on making sure they understood the central idea: How organisms rely on each other. I wasn’t focused on the skills, attitudes and concepts as much. I was aware, but thinking back, was it really driving me and my students?

So, we’re on the right track again with this unit, thanks to some helpful advice from Kath. We’re planning a pre-assessment to see how well they can communicate their understanding about anything they know that has some scientific basis: how day becomes night, the purpose of eyelashes, what fruits and vegetables do for our bodies. We’ll brainstorm with the kids about some ideas they might be able to express and then we’ll see how well they express them at the beginning of the unit.

We’ll analyze and reflect on their scientific explanations and then continue to study examples of professionals and older students expressing their scientific understanding. We’ll focus on communication in writing, reading and in math throughout the unit. Students will zoom in on a branch of earth science related to how the earth is changing. But, they’ll keep the focus on how they communicate their understanding. How do they do it well?

It makes sense, but sometimes it takes a little nudge from someone who looks in from the outside. Our habits, our background is rooted deep within us, and we need to keep reaching out to teaching through inquiry. Teaching skills, concepts and attitudes that are so important in life: the IB approaches to learning.

How do you teach? How do you reflect on your teaching?

About kdceci

I am a grade 5 teacher in a PYP school in Chicago, Illinois, USA. From the US originally, I worked in Asia the last 13 years. I am passionate about inquiry-driven education, collaboration, and ensuring kids get to continue to be kids that play, create and think as long as they can. Outside of school, l love to write, read, hike, run, meditate and travel.
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9 Responses to Reflecting on Content vs. Skills, Attitudes and Concepts

  1. Pre-assessing Skills as well as conceptual understanding. Seems so simple, but a profound thought.

    Question; do you chose the skills from the outset of the unit, or as they emerge through the inquiry?


    • kdceci says:

      First time really thinking about this. We chose skills based on our outcome for the unit (from previous years). Communication seemed to come up…communicating scientific understanding. It was an interesting discussion.


    • kathmurdoch says:

      Hi Craig! I suggest that BOTH approaches apply. We can usually see some very obvious skills to focus on as we begin to plan an inquiry AND we can respond to skills-based needs as they arise.


  2. malsnider says:

    How do I get in touch with you privately?
    Marilyn Snider


  3. Thank you, this interesting post came at a good time. We are planning our annual IB Dunia networks teachers’ conference in Jakarta next month on the theme of approaches to learning and I’m leading a session on the transdisciplinary skills within units of inquiry. I think it’s important not only to realise that students are often unconsciously using these skills but also to help students realise when, how and how well they are using them. So this focus on metacognition and on assessing students’ skills right at the beginning of a unit makes total sense.


  4. kathmurdoch says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response to our time together Kristen!…. I am about to go and co-teach this session right now! So I am looking forward to our reflection afterwards – I wonder what we will learn? 🙂 It has certainly got me thinking about the nature of a quality, scientific explanation. The disparity between the time we give to thinking about the big ideas, the concepts and the content compared with the time with spend really thinking about the nature of the skills we hope children will strengthen in a unit has always intrigued me. They can be taken for granted – when in fact they often require the most explicit, thoughtful inquiry. Off I go to teach and learn with grade 4!


  5. NainiS says:

    Hi Kristen,
    I also would like to point out the transdisciplinary nature of our curriculum where we look at what language skills students need to express their learning. So hand in hand with inquiry, we would be teaching them scientific language so that language fits in seamlessly with the unit of I.


  6. Glenn says:

    Hi Kristen, it is a while since we chatted. We continue to explore the balance of concepts, skills and knowledge here @ISTAfrica. Your reflection provoked my thinking, so I shared the post with our team here. Several teachers have begun using #ObserveMe (check it out on Twitter) to share practice and give each other feedback on quality experience that lead to student learning. Your train of thought here may be able to take us further.

    I also like your final questions:
    – How do you teach?
    – How do you reflect on your teaching?



  7. Pingback: Induction as a Programme of Inquiry – Choose Act Reflect

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