Shifting the Focus to Human Skills & Dispositions

What is the point of school? What should students be learning and what should we be teaching?

There is no one answer to these questions and many of my friends and colleagues argue over them. I’m not sure that there is only one answer either, but I have a perspective as an educator (upper primary at IB PYP schools) and a parent of very young children. I would like to outline some of my ideas here along with practical ways to implement them in the classroom.

Of course, we do not know what the future world will look like for young children today. We want to best prepare them for this unknown future, but how? Well, in my opinion, the best way is to focus on the transdisciplinary skills (in IB they are: Social, Thinking, Research, Communication, Self-Management). Instead of ‘soft’ skills, I like to refer to them as human skills. These skills are tools that if understood and mastered, will allow children to accomplish anything they will face in the future. Of course, these skills can’t be taught in isolation and must be taught through knowledge and concepts. In addition, it is also important to develop other dispositions to help children be successful in their own lives and caring members of society.

I know none of those ideas are revolutionary. Schools have been and are currently doing all of the things that I mentioned. The difference though is that our education system seems to be more focused on the knowledge part. Of course, knowledge is important, but I think we need to shift the focus from knowledge to skills and dispositions. As I mentioned before, skills need to be taught through knowledge, so I am not saying that we should not teach knowledge, but rather the spotlight should shift to focus more on skills so that both can be developed. We have a long history of ways to assess knowledge but need to develop new ways to teach and assess skills. In addition, I think we should be developing ways to talk about and discuss dispositions with students, but this is an area we should not be assessing.   

Often these ideas are discussed but rarely do I hear practical ways they are being implemented in the classroom. I know that teachers are doing it though and I have recently started discovering people who have already been doing this in the classroom and others who are on a similar journey now. I want to share in this blog some practical ideas that I have been developing and explain how I have been trying to shift the focus to skills and dispositions in class.

When creating a new unit, my first step is not just thinking about the knowledge or concepts that I want students to develop, but I also start with the skills. As I am an IB PYP teacher, I think of them in what I like to call ‘Skill Families.’ We have Social, Thinking, Research, Communication, and Self-Management Skills.

I have found over the years that a good way to develop these skills is to focus on one family during each unit as a split screen with the knowledge being taught. This is explicitly explained to students as well. They understand that the unit is not just about knowledge, but also focused on a particular set of skills. During the unit, we explicitly discuss, learn, and assess the skills in addition to the knowledge. We practice the skills through the knowledge we learn. At the end of the unit, we not only assess the knowledge/concepts but also assess the skills. Then, the next unit builds on/uses the skills from the previous unit, but it is not assessed.

Here is an example of how an order of units might look:

Unit 1:
Concepts/Knowledge: Humans migrate for many reasons
Skill Family Taught & Assessed: Communication Skills (Students did presentations of their work 2x during the unit)

Unit 2
Concepts/Knowledge: Human behavior contributes to a changing environment
Skill Family Taught & Assessed: Social skills (Students worked in groups together to present work and ideas)
*Communication skills were built on here (but not assessed) as they used their understanding of communication skills from the previous unit. 

Unit 3
Concepts/Knowledge: Body systems work to keep us healthy
Skill Family Taught & Assessed: Research skills (Students worked in groups to research a body system and present it)
*Social & Communication skills were built on here as students worked in groups and presented their work, but these were not explicitly assessed during this unit.

As you can see, only 1 specific skill family is explicitly focused on during each unit. As the units progress the previous skills are used and discussed, but they are not the focus and are not assessed. 

How might this look in action? Explicitly teaching and assessing skills is something that I have been working on and developing over time in collaboration with other wonderful educators. I am still refining and developing these ideas and welcome suggestions to improve them.

I will break down the unit I recently did on social skills (unit 2 above). It was a Sharing the Planet unit, and the knowledge/concepts were about human influences that impact our environment.

1. We started with a provocation (for both skills and knowledge). I asked students what would happen to the Earth if all humans suddenly disappeared? They worked in small groups to plan their thoughts and then presented their ideas in a short video. After working together and presenting their videos, we discussed the content of their ideas (and watched a movie about the exact topic). In addition, students also completed a reflection sheet about how they worked together in groups. These reflection sheets (which I created and can be downloaded here) were used multiple times throughout the unit (and even used in some specialist classes) as a way to focus discussion back on social skills.

2. We had workshops with interactive activities, discussions, and role-plays that were about the different ‘sub-skills’ that we focused on during this unit: respecting others, regulating your emotions, accepting responsibility, resolving conflict, and group decision-making. We learned about the 7 norms of collaboration, read a book about regulating emotions, discussed what makes a good group and good leader, learned about win-win, win-lose, lose-lose situations, and about different ways to make group decisions and resolve conflict.

3. We then did more group activities as challenges in small groups throughout the unit. Students were learning content knowledge about the unit and that was valued and was important, but a big focus was also on how the group worked. What went well? What didn’t go well? Why? After each group task, students completed the social skill reflection sheet about their experience. Students not only reflected as a group but also on their personal contribution to the group (or lack of contribution). They reflected after each group task and made small goals to improve or challenge themselves when working on the next group task.

4. At the end of the unit, students did a final group challenge that built on the knowledge they learned and the skills they have been developing and practicing. In order to assess their knowledge, they were marked on a rubric. I hate being the judge and jury though, so the final mark was not one mark that the teacher decided, but rather the assessment of at least 3 different perspectives. I try and include the student, peers, teacher, and parents when possible. In this instance, the student, peers, and teacher all marked the rubric based on their perspective.

In order to assess the skills, I like to use an adapted version of the Gradual Increase of Independence developed by a friend and former colleague, Suzanne Kitto (@OrenjiButa).

I find this to be an amazingly simple yet powerful way to assess skills. I think that most parents would agree that the goal for their children is for them to do things independently. That is how this system works and the goal is for children to develop independence. The example I like to use is learning to tie your shoes:

Beginning – You don’t know how to tie your shoes, so your parents do it for you. You watch and learn. You are just beginning to understand how to use this skill.

Supported – After watching for a while, you start to try doing it on your own. It is still challenging and you need support and help from your parents. You can’t quite do it yourself yet, but are learning and developing with guidance. 

Independent – Yes! You can now tie your shoes on your own and your parents only need to watch from a distance.

Leading – Now you have become an expert in tying your shoes, maybe you teach your younger sibling or decide to learn or create a new fancy knot. 

This system is very simple for students to understand and assess themselves on for almost any skill. It works like a single-point rubric since all you need to do is develop a shared understanding of what independent looks like. This can be done by the teacher or better together with the students during the unit so the language is clear and in their own words. What independent looks like changes as children grow, since what they can do independently will develop over time. Creating a continuum for the school and a way for students to track their development over their learning is something that we have been thinking about at my school. If anyone has ideas about this or has created one, please let me know as I would love to learn from your ideas. 

For this particular unit, I did something a bit differently, which I will explain further down. I wanted to give an example of what I mean though, so I have put an example from a research unit, where the criteria for independent was developed with the students during the unit.    

Usually, I will try and triangulate the skills in order to assess them by asking for at least 3 different perspectives. In this case though, since it was social skills, I felt that having an honest reflection from the group about each member’s strengths and areas to improve, along with an honest self-reflection from each student would be the best way to assess these skills. I helped to mediate and added my opinion from my perspective as well in order to “triangulate” it, but for the most part, when everyone was honest (and young learners tend to be), all three parties agreed.

Here are some of the reflections:


In addition to skills, I have recently been exploring different ways to teach dispositions. There are many different types of lists of dispositions that will help children be successful in their lives. Things like curiosity, perseverance, etc… In the IB, we have the Learner Profile with things like Caring, Inquirer, Principled, etc… 

I don’t like the idea of assessing these dispositions against criteria, but have recently been exploring ways to discuss them and visually track them. 

One way I have just started is through individual student graphs – I asked students to choose from Stress, Anxiety, Nervousness, or Frustration & track it through Exhibition (a personal inquiry at the end of elementary in IB schools). In groups, they created criteria/ratings, & once a week they posted their feeling for the week. Then they met in groups to discuss feelings, strategies, & ways to manage their feelings. The conversations that came out when reflecting were amazing. Students shared strategies like changing mindsets, doing exercise, & working with different people or independently to help. They then set goals for the next week.

The second way I have been developing is through a graph crossing 2 different dispositions. The first one I did had “I persevered through difficult tasks” at the top and “Things were not very challenging” at the bottom. Across, on the left was “I worked by myself” and on the right was “I collaborated with others.” There is no negative quadrant, all are equally valued. Every day, students reflected and then placed a picture of themselves on the graph where they thought they were for the day (different colors for each day). Student thinking, reflections, trends, & conversations were what was important – not assessment. 

After each day, we looked at the overall class trends (developing analytical skills) and reflected on personal changes. We had some truly interesting discussions and noticed some interesting trends. We noticed after day 1 that students didn’t really challenge themselves the first day. Then after day 2, more students were persevering through some difficult tasks, but only when working individually. This trend continued pretty much through the week and we also started noticing that when working with others, students were not working through difficult challenges. None of this was wrong, just interesting. We thought about why it might be happening, having more conversations about the positives and negatives of working alone vs. collaboratively, and how that might affect perseverance. Students also noticed personal trends. All of this meant that students were thinking deeper about these dispositions, how they connected, and how it was happening in our class and in themselves. 

I am exploring some other ideas for criteria on the graph such as:

  1. I was focused & dedicated on one thing – I was balanced & worked on a variety of things crossed with I was a listener – I was a communicator
  2. I was caring to others – I was cared for by others crossed with I was dedicated to my plan & focused on my steps – I was able to work flexibly
  3. I was creatively developing new ideas – I was executing 1 idea in detail crossed over I asked a lot of questions – I researched answers to questions

I think it will be interesting to mix and match these criteria to discover different connections.  I also feel that this graph has been an interesting tool for students to deeply discuss and understand these dispositions in a real-world manner and reflect on their usage and behavior. 

As always, I am curious what others think about these ideas and am interested in other ways to explicitly teach and assess skills and develop dispositions. Please reach out – I look forward to hearing from you and sparking a conversation. 

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Grade 3 Research Skills Unit

I feel lucky to work in an amazing team of Grade 3 teachers and with support staff at ISHCMC that inspire me, challenge me and work with me respectfully & collaboratively! We have the same vision of where we feel education should be moving and while we deliver lessons in different ways, we respect each other and often learn and build on each other’s ideas.

This collaboration led to our most recent unit that was focused on research skills. As I mentioned in previous posts (Studio 3 / Studio 3 & Skillz Studio) our team has been working to shift the focus of learning from knowledge-based to skills based.

This was a Where We Are in Place and Time unit (PYP) and we decided that the focus would be on research skills. Students would inquire into people from history during the unit (or into any topic during the provocation and Skillz Studio). They would and learn a lot of knowledge, but the focus of teaching, reflecting and reporting would be on the research skills. Students would explicitly learn how to formulate questions, collect information, record information and present their research findings.

Instead of starting the unit by breaking down the central idea and lines of inquiry, we decided not to put them up at all. Instead, we just put the word “Research” on the wall. We started by asking: “What is research?” and “What are the rules for research?” We had a bit of discussion and then students each reflected on sticky notes to record their understanding before starting the unit.

Then we gave them a provocation – a real provocation. We told them that they would do some research. They would work individually, for 1 week, for 1-2 periods a day, on 1 topic, and have something to share on Friday.

> “Mr. Billy, what should I research?”
> “What do YOU want to research? What are YOU interested in?”

> “Mr. Billy, where should I find the information?”
> “Where do YOU think you should find the information?”

> “Mr. Billy, Are these notes OK?”
> “Do YOU think these notes are Ok?”

> “Mr. Billy, how should I share my research?”
> “How do YOU think you should share your research?”

How often do we truly let students explore on their own without meddling? I’m not going to lie and tell you that I was hand-off the whole time, but I tried my best. After a few days, we started to see the specific needs this cohort of students had in terms of their research skills. Some areas were better than we thought, while others needed more help. Overall, a big theme we noticed was that they found research easy… because they weren’t researching a specific question, they were reading for information. Instead of letting their questions lead their research, they just let the book tell them information. This actually had us re-evaluate our central idea and lines of inquiry to fit the needs of the students. It also had us re-evaluate the way we were planning on teaching and we thought about new ways to address the specific skills these students needed.

After we reflected, our central idea and lines of inquiry were:

Central Idea:

By researching, we can understand about individuals through history.

Our lines of inquiry:

An inquiry into why we research (function, causation)

An inquiry into the research cycle  (function)

After the provocation was the “meat and potatoes” of the unit. This was the part where we explicitly taught the skills of research. This was a more structured part, where students were still given agency, but where we explicitly taught and practiced the skills needed to research. As a class, we developed the specific parts of the research cycle and through the unit explored each one. During the unit, students inquired into different people as a way to structure and scaffold their learning.


As I mentioned earlier, through our provocation we discovered that students were not using questions to lead their research, but rather reading for information. While this might seem like semantics, it isn’t. When you research, YOU lead by searching for the answers to your questions. When you read for information THE BOOK leads and you are passively letting the book tell you information.

> “Research is hard!”

This would be a common thing I would hear – and it’s true. When students did find the information they were looking for though, it led to a very satisfying feeling and they were excited to share it with others.

As a way to teach/model questioning, we decided to use a question formulation technique. As a class we generated questions and used them for research we did together in class about sharks. As a class we:

  1.          Asked as many questions as we could.
  2.          Did not stop to judge, discuss, or answer any questions.
  3.          Wrote down every question as stated.
  4.          Changed any statements into questions.

Initially, we thought we would focus on thin and thick or open and closed questions. As we got into it though, we realized that it wasn’t specifically about the questions, but about the researcher. If the researcher is inquisitive and wants to “dive deeper” then even closed questions could provide a lot of opportunities. For example, How long are shark’s teeth can be seen as a thin question, but the researcher can go deeper by asking if different types of sharks have different lengths? Does that affect the type of food they eat? Instead of snorkeling at the top of the water, we encouraged students to grab their scuba pack and dive deeper down.

After working on questioning together, students generated their own questions to lead their research into the people they chose to inquire into. We didn’t focus on the types of questions, but on the researcher and how deep or shallow they went with their inquiry.  

Collecting Information:

How would students choose the person they will inquire into? Students needed to be exposed to a variety of people to choose from, but we didn’t want to curate a list ourselves. Instead, we had the idea of asking our parent community. We asked each parent for 3 ideas of important people from history who they thought students should inquire into. This not only sparked conversations at home but also introduced us to interesting people from around the world!

After collecting all the names, students alphabetized and posted on the wall all the suggestions parents had about who they should research. Students then choose people from the wall and completed a sheet identifying the physical and digital sources they could find about that person.


We discussed reliable vs. unreliable sources and curated some places where students might find information using QR codes. We discussed possibilities of interviewing people, if that made sense, and took books out of the library to create our own Grade 3 library (also learning how to search for books remotely). We discussed safe search engines like Kiddle and Kidrex and explored how results came up when searching. We learned about ads in the results and to look at the link to see if it is a reliable source.

We talked about skimming & scanning when looking for information and students were encouraged to find information from multiple sources and compare it. Some even found conflicting dates for the birth and death of ancient people and this sparked some interesting discussions. We also discussed legal ways we can use images and how to cite them. Kiddle’s encyclopedia is a great resource for this!

Recording information:

Often we expect students to just take notes, but do we explicitly teach them how to do it? Using a shared text and research into sharks, we explored different ways to take notes. We looked into boxes & bullets, mind-mapping, two-column notes, graphs & charts, and sketch-noting. I modeled each one with our joint text and then students explored and experimented on their own.



We discussed which ways worked for them and which they didn’t like using. We did gallery walks to learn from each other and shared tips and strategies.

Students really enjoyed sketch-notes and that was probably because we have a resident expert right in Grade 3 with my co-worker Libby McDaniel (‪@wecanbeawesome ). She creates her own personal sketch-noting journals, which are incredible, and inspired many students! In addition, I was inspired by her to try and record the progression of the unit on the class whiteboards and keep the learning visual through the unit.

Presenting Information:

Before diving into “flashy” ways to present our research, we focused on writing an information report. As a class, we jointly wrote one based on the shark research we had done together and then students wrote their own. We gave them a loose structure to follow with an introduction, main body, conclusion, and citations. Not only was this important for students to learn, but it also kept them honest about the amount and detail of their research.

After students wrote an information report, we wanted to spark ideas about other ways they could present their information in more engaging ways. We had a wonderful discussion talking about “traditional” ways to present information and “out-of-the-box” ways. We came up with a wide range of ideas, many of which we as teachers had not thought of previously.  

Students chose a variety of ways to present information in engaging ways, such as becoming the person in a hot seat, creating games, making movies with green screens, interviewing the person (playing both roles), writing books, creating interactive posters, delivering Keynote/Slides presentations, etc… We met together in small groups with similar ways of presenting and jointly created expectations. This way, students knew what the expectations were and how to challenge and improve themselves. One of my students even changed her whole project after working together in the small groups as she wanted to level-up her presentation!

Skillz Studio:

Finally, after students had presented their information about the person they inquired into, we moved on to the “dessert” of the unit (with a cherry on top). Now that the students had time to specifically learn their research skills and practice with guidance, they were ready to go it alone. They had 2-weeks to manage their own time, with some must-dos, but mostly working on their individual research projects.

During Skillz Studio, students chose a specific research skill to develop and also a specific self-management skill. Since they had already done two different research projects, they were able to identify areas of strength and growth. They independently worked through the research cycle with a presentation at the end to their peers, teachers and their parents in our community.

There were some teacher workshops, but also a lot of student workshops. Again, since students had the chance to go through the cycle two times already, many felt confident enough to teach their peers. Not only did they focus on research skills, but also on self-management skills (as this wasn’t their first Skillz Studio either).  


The most difficult parts of helping 21+ students work on individual projects during Skillz Studio are keeping track of all their work & goals, knowing which stage each student is on, figuring out who needs help and with what and helping students manage their time. It is a lot to keep track of and we have been constantly experimenting with different ways and ideas to do so.

To manage work, we tried a new idea. We used a shared Google doc with a graph on it that we shared with students. As students completed a section of the research cycle, they would upload evidence on Seesaw and then change the color on the chart (Green for done, Yellow for in progress, Red for I need help). I would then look at the evidence and add a tick mark. If there was a question, I would change the box to orange and talk with them about my concern. It is not perfect but worked quite well as a way to manage the organized chaos and keep track of everything happening. This is something we are still working on, developing and improving as we go. Any new ideas are quite welcome.

As a way to help manage goals, I met students in small groups based on their research goals to share strategies and ideas. I would also check in with students based on the graph. In addition, students also met in small groups with people who had the same self-management goals. Students were either working on their organization, time-management or informed choices.

As a group, students worked together to come up with some ways that they could be successful during the 2 weeks. Those focused on organization skills made daily checklists and reflected at the end of the day. Those focused on time management skills used timers in short intervals to keep them on task. Those working on informed choices drew icons on their arm to remind them to make good choices about where they sat, to focus on their work and to talk less. Through daily reflections, students decided if these strategies were working for them or if they needed to make some changes for the next day.


Managing time on devices can be challenging, even for adults. Brain breaks are encouraged, but when the breaks end up longer than the time spent on the project it isn’t a break anymore, is it? So, as a way to keep track of the time spent on each app when using their iPads, students posted a screenshot of their usage for the day using the screen time app. This was really eye-opening for many students who didn’t realize that they were spending that amount of time doing things that were not helping them along with their project. Others used the app to set daily limits on apps, including productivity apps like Google Docs. They wanted to make sure that they were focused when working and this time limit helped them.


We also focused on the learning environment. I used to work in a real studio back in my design/advertising days. In a real studio, there is a lot of shared space, but everyone also has their own space where they can work. Some students started to develop their own spaces on their own, and so we decided to encourage this and asked students to re-arrange the room so they could create little areas for themselves to work. They were able to choose an appropriate place to work and focus and were able to leave things they created and made.

In the end, we had a Share Fair where students presented their research to the community, in engaging ways. They had all their notes and materials to share as well if anyone wanted to learn about their process. The visitors filled in reflection sheets and shared critical feedback about their presentations and the work they had done. Having a requirement that students share the work they have done is an important part of making the work authentic and allowing the community to decide if the learning was worthwhile and if the students were a success.


As in the past, students helped to mark and write their assessment for this unit. We also like to try and have at least one other perspective to balance it (parent, peer or teacher). For this unit, we decided to have the teacher write a part too. Students reflected on their growth and understanding of research through the unit, their strengths and learning targets. As their teacher, I also wrote a reflection, from my perspective. I then met with each student to share my thoughts and observations and we discussed them together, using evidence to support each of our sides. Finally, we negotiated the final marks for each of the research and self-management skills, using evidence. It is not a simple process, but I think it is worth it. I hate being the judge and jury and enjoy working with students to really dig deep and get to the truth. It is going to take some new and different ways to do assessments if we are going to focus on skills. So far, this has been working quite well, but I am absolutely open to suggestions!        

In the end, I feel that this was a really successful unit and was a good model for how to focus units on skills as opposed to knowledge. It allowed students to learn the skills explicitly and gave them multiple opportunities to practice them. There was incredible motivation, student choice, and variety of topics explored and ways presented. I’m not going to lie and say it was easy or that everyone achieved their goals. While some flourished others struggled, but that is the point. It is always a difficult balance of teaching and support in order to allow students to learn from their mistakes. In the end, it was a really great learning experience for everyone. Not only was there a lot of knowledge learned, but also a lot of skills learned too.

Next steps:

We are always tweaking and talking about how to improve for next time. For example, this year we curated websites for the students and touched on search engines. We thought about focusing more on how to use search engines to find information next time.

This is a work in progress and as always I am open to suggestions to help improve the learning experience.



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Studio 3 & Skillz Studio

I am fortunate to be working at a school that understands education needs to change in order for students to be prepared for their very different future that lies ahead of them. ISHCMC encourages us to experiment with new ideas in the classroom and push traditional boundaries.

The whole school has been moving towards something I strongly believe in and have been pushing for since I arrived; shifting the focus from knowledge-based curriculums to skills-based teaching and learning.

Last year, my colleagues and I in Grade 3 started experimenting with ways to change our units to be more skills focused and allow students more agency. I wrote about our experience last year. We keep moving forward, learning from our mistakes, and trying out new ideas.

This year we decided to do something a little different, and so far it has been working quite successfully.

We are an IB school and instead of doing 6 consecutive Units of Inquiry, we decided to make 2 of them yearlong. We did a yearlong focus on Who We Are (where students explored all the skill families) and How We Organize Ourselves (focused on digital tools and self-management skills). This took some organization ourselves, as we needed to make sure we planned in advance for students to check back into these units, reflect on their learning, and record their reflections for reporting.

We decided to focus all of our units around “skill families.” We started with Who We Are, which exposed students to all the skill families and they reflected on their areas of strength and growth. We then planned to explicitly teach and assess skills through each the units. In addition, we ordered and structured units so that the skills built on each other. Skills that were explicitly taught during one unit were then used in the following unit, but not explicitly focused on.

  • Who We Are – All skill families
  • How We Organize Ourselves – Self-Management Skills
  • How the World Works – Social Skills
  • How We Express Ourselves – Communication Skills
  • Where We Are in Place and Time – Research Skills
  • Sharing the Planet – Thinking Skills (although this skill overlaps with others)

Finally, we also added what we call “Skillz Studio” to the end of each unit. These are 1 to 2 week slots where students take over their schedule, have significant agency and focus further on the on the particular set of skills they just learned in addition to using and reflecting on their self-management skills.

We just completed our second Skillz Studio after our How We Express Ourselves unit. This unit focused on communication skills and students inquired into the central idea: “Skills and Techniques influence how performers tell a story.” Through the unit, students developed their speaking, non-verbal and presentation skills through reader’s theater performances. At the end of the unit, during Skillz Studio, students had the opportunity to use the communication skills they developed by creating their own presentations. Some chose to work independently, while others chose to work collaboratively. They chose stories to tell, either writing their own or adapting stories already written. They then spent almost 2 weeks managing their own time (self-management skills) to prepare and present their story in their choice and style (communication skills).

There were a wonderful variety of stories and presentation methods, such as stop animation, puppet shows, live movies, dances, mini-musicals, podcasts, etc…

How do you assess this type of learning? Each student chose 3 specific sub-skills, or techniques, that they wanted to develop over studio time. For example, a student who wanted to develop speaking skills might choose to specifically focus on “speaking loudly and clearly” or “using expression, emotion, and exaggeration when performing.” Of course, all of the different techniques were developed with the students. We kept a record of their skills on the wall too, so that we could see who else was working on the same techniques and check back in and make sure they were focused on their goals. We also had daily reflections on Seesaw and on the board to make sure they were on track to complete their projects.

In the end, students presented their work to the community in an exhibition. They received feedback from their parents, other parents, teachers, and their peers. Students talked about the skills they learned and used to create their presentations and the growth they made over the studio time.

Most were incredibly successful in their projects, but others struggled, especially with their self-management skills, needing support to complete their projects. This is all part of the learning though, as often failure and struggle is the best form of learning.

For their final report, students, parents, and teachers created it jointly.

Before Skillz Studio, students reflected on what they were going to do, which skills they were going to focus on and why. After studio time, their parents reflected on the skills their child improved the most in, need to continue developing, and how they have grown. Then, students reflected again after their parents about the skill they improved the most in, the skill they are the best at, and the skill they still need to develop. They also reflected on how they have grown and changed as a performer.

This narrative constituted the written portion of their report. There were also tick boxes for each of the communication and self-management skills. As their teacher, I marked where I thought each student was, based on the Gradual Increase of Independence (developed by @OrenjiButa). I then had meetings with each student to discuss where they thought they were in each skill. Using evidence that I had, and evidence from the students, we negotiated their final marks together.

I absolutely love this style of assessment as it gets to the truth. Instead of just having the teacher be the judge and jury, the assessment comes from students, parents, peers, and teachers.

So far, this style of teaching and assessing skills has been quite successful. The units give students a chance to learn about the specific skills and develop them. Then the studio time at the end gives them a chance to really use the skills and be independent. Our next unit is focused on research skills, and I’m looking forward to it!

Of course, this is still a work in progress and we are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills and prepare students for Studio 5 and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts are much appreciated!

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What is learning?

Recently we were asked to think about what learning is and write our thoughts. Below are each of our ideas and thinking:   

What is learning?
By Billy Applebaum

I feel that learning is the knowledge and skills a person acquires through their lifetime from their experiences. Learning is not just academic subjects and is more than just “schooling.” Learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom, but is always happening, in all aspects of life. As an educator though, the important questions that come out of that are:

  1. What should we be teaching in school?
  2. How should we be teaching in school?

I don’t think there is one correct answer to either of these questions. What I can say though is that the world is changing. The knowledge and skills people needed in the past will not be the same in the future. As a matter of fact, with the rise of the Internet, knowledge has become ubiquitous. In the past, memorization of knowledge was valued, but in this new world humans cannot compete with computers. Artificial Intelligence is not something that is far off in the distant future either. It is here, it is now, and it is named Siri, Alexa and Watson.

In order to truly answer the two questions above, we must try and imagine what experiences students should have today in order to prepare them for the future world they will be living in. While no one knows the future, I believe that there are some things that are timeless and will be useful for students, no matter what the future holds.

I believe that we should shift the focus of what we teach in school from a content centered approach to a skills centered approach (#SkillsFirst). This is not a revolutionary idea, but rather a re-centering of what is important. Teaching knowledge and concepts should be layered around the core of the skills being taught in a unit. These skills also need to be taught and assessed explicitly. In most schools, skills are an afterthought. Rarely taught directly and even more rarely assessed directly. These include: thinking, social, self-management, research, communication, number and literacy skills. 

In addition to the skills, we should also be teaching students how to be good people. We should teach them the attitudes and attributes of internationally minded people (including humility, which I believe is missing from the I.B.’s learner profile). I think students should leave primary school knowing how to think critically, socialize in small and large groups, manage themselves, research and organize data, communicate effectively and be literate in language and mathematics. All while being globally minded thoughtful people. Not exactly a simple task, but if the focus is on the skills, instead of the content, I think it is more attainable and useful for the student’s future.

Now that I have made my arguments for what I think should be taught in school, the question remains, how should we teach it?   

“Tell me and I will forget.
Show me and I will remember.
Involve me and I will understand.
Step back and I will act.” 
– Chinese Proverb

Adults instinctively want to explain their experiences to children so that they can learn from them. The truth is though; we need to have our own experiences to truly learn. This is why I believe that the best approach to teaching; while honestly difficult at times, is by letting students discover through their own inquiry. Sure, some things still need to be rote learned, like Chinese characters and multiplication tables, but most things can be framed to allow students to inquire, discover and have their own experiences. Teachers should be more like coaches, helping each student find their potential, rather than dispensing information. In addition, student agency is incredibly important and students should be in charge of their own learning and allowed to make choices about how, what and even when they learn. 

Creativity also needs to be instilled, not suppressed in the classroom. This isn’t just for the Arts either (although that is incredibly important) this is the ability to think differently. Students should be allowed to question the world around them and should be exposed to philosophical questions (P4C) to make them think.

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful.

How do you explicitly teach and assess skills? This is something I have been working on with my colleagues and developing over time. Teaching and assessing knowledge is easy; we have been doing it for over 100 years. How though do you explicitly teach and assess social skills like group decision-making or accepting responsibility?

We have been “flipping” units to a #SkillsFirst approach by designing them based on the skills. Of course, these skills can’t be taught in isolation, and so knowledge and concepts are used to teach these skills through.  

One example was a science unit based on simple machines. Instead of focusing on the knowledge, we shifted the focus to two social skills (accepting responsibility & group decision making) and two self-management skills (time management & organization). Through the unit, students tackled group challenges where they needed scientific knowledge. While half the students were in small groups trying to solve a problem, the other half were taking notes and videoing those students doing the challenge. They were investigating how the group worked together. They analyzed the good and not so good things happening in the groups; reflecting and discussing ways we could all improve our skills and setting goals for the next group task. Mini lessons and workshops were not about pulleys or levers, but rather on what makes a good or bad leader or how to use time effectively.

As an assessment tool, we used something developed by a colleague called the “Gradual Increase of Independence.” (@OrenjiButa) This is a simple “one-size-fits-all” model for assessing skills. It is also really simple and easy for students. There are four stages: Shared (adults do, I watch), Guided (I do, adults help), Independence (I do, adults watch) and Leading (I do, others learn). Students keep track of their self-assessed progress on a living, breathing rubric in the classroom and peers, parents and teachers are invited to share their input as well. This has proved to be quite successful in assessing skills thus far, but we are still experimenting with other ways.

As the world changes, so should the content of what we teach and the ways we teach it. Having one teacher in a box dispensing knowledge to twenty something students is not going to give them the experiences they need for their future. I believe students need to have more experiences outside the classroom so they can learn by doing. I believe that teachers should collaborate and team-teach so they can better “coach” students and learn from each other. I believe that students should be allowed to inquire into the things they are truly passionate about, so they will naturally be engaged in their learning. I believe that students should be empowered to take control of their own learning.

I don’t have all the answers, but by being open to new ideas and working collaboratively with others, I believe that answers can be found. In order for us to help students learn and prepare for their unknown future, I believe we need to shift our focus in the classroom to mastering skills. We need to allow students the freedom to inquire into what interests them, think about the world around them, and reflect on what it means to be a good person. I believe that if they can do this, they will be able to handle anything the future will throw at them!


What is learning?
By Chizuko Matsui

I have heard many people saying that learning is a lifelong process and it never ends. I agree with this statement. It is not because that is a fact, but also from what I have been experiencing. Since I am an educator, I interact with children with different cultures and learning styles. Every school year, I learn different approaches through them and other teachers. I try new approaches to fit every one of my students. However, I also disagree with this statement in a sense of what learning means. If learning is about obtaining new academic knowledge, it is difficult to say that it is a lifelong process to every one of us because usually once we are not longer in an academic environment; we stop learning academically unless we keep our interests.  Some of us keep our interests in learning particular subjects, such as language, cooking, and sports. Yet, I always wonder if that is what we call learning, or just having a hobby.  Could a hobby be learning? We also learn social skills through having different relationships through our life. We usually learn through difficulties. That is an inner growth. Can we call inner growth learning too? 

At the bottom of line, we can call anything learning. If that is the meaning of learning, then learning is a lifelong process because we learn something everyday even though sometimes or most times we do not notice. We, as a human, learn and build different learning based on it. Then, we inter-cross different learning and build more complicated learning.  I believe that makes us human.

The importance of learning, to me, is to build our basis of learning, which often occurs at the early stages of our life and is not a lifelong process. We obtain the basis of learning, then we learn new and different things based on our basis, which is a yearlong process. The latter can occur anytime in our life and can become our hobby, such as learning a new language or new skills. Depending on what our basis is, learning changes. For example, if we don’t learn how to be curious about how things during our early years, we probably won’t have any interest in engineering or the meaning of organisation later in our life. Even if we grow our interests, it may be harder and take more time to learn than people who already had interests and basis of it.  If we are not exposed to different ideas and cultures, it may take more time for us to be open-minded towards different ideas and cultures. 

In a way, learning is experiencing to me. Based on experiences we open different doors to other experiences.  The fewer doors we open, the less experience we have. This starts happening once we are born. During the early years, our environment of curiosity is the major key to open doors, such as learning through play, then our curiosity leads us to different doors and more doors.

Learning to me has two stages, lifelong and basis.  Basis of learning connects to our lifelong learning. Therefore, I believe basis of learning is more important and it usually only happens at the early stage of life. As an educator, I believe that any educational environment should give anyone a good basis of a learning environment, meaning enhancing curiosity that leads to different learning in the future. 



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Studio 3

In order for students to be successful in an environment where they are empowered with their own learning choices, they need to have the skills to be successful. I believe that explicitly teaching and assessing these skills should be the focus of what we do in school.  

I teach grade 3 at ISHCMC and just as our colleagues in Studio 5 have been experimenting with different ways to give students agency in their learning, we have been doing the same thing. How do we prepare students for the Studio 5 model? How do we teach them the skills they need in order for them to be successful?

We have been experimenting with focusing a unit on a particular set of skills, explicitly teaching and assessing them. Then for the final part of the unit, opening it up for the students to put their new skills to the test. An example of this was our WWAITAP unit where we explicitly taught research skills through the content of explorers and then students used their research skills to find out about various topics that interested them. Always coming back to the skills, not the content.

Most recently, students practiced their self-management skills by planning and organizing their week. We had a list of “must-dos” that students needed to accomplish. How they organized their time, where they worked, and how they decided to complete their tasks were up to them. No matter how they decided to work, everyone agreed that by Friday afternoon, all the tasks would be completed.

Students reflected every morning about the specific things they wanted to complete for the day and if they were on track for getting everything done for Friday. Then every afternoon, they reflected on their accomplishments, frustrations, and changes, if any, they would make the next day.

This sparked some amazing discussions about how people work in different ways. Some liked to get everything done in the beginning and have free time at the end of the week. Others liked to mix in playing with work and still, others preferred to play earlier in the week, needing the pressure of the deadline to work at the end.

We had many discussions about the fact that there is no correct way to work. What is important is discovering which way works for you and knowing yourself as a learner. In the end, I asked them to reflect on their experience and here are some of their reflections:



I thought it was a really successful week and most students found the time quite motivating and fun. Interestingly, some actually preferred the more standard approach. Those students tended to be the ones who do not have as much self-control and need to develop their self-management skills, as opposed to being told what to do. It is those students who would benefit the most from this approach.

Of course, this is still a work in progress. We are still experimenting and exploring how to specifically teach and assess these soft skills, prepare students for Studio 5, and for their futures. Any ideas or thoughts would be appreciated!

Originally posted on Educator Voices blog 


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Should we teach manners?

I sometimes have a friendly argument with a colleague who teaches penmanship to her students. I question her if it is necessary in today’s world… or rather the future world that these young 8 year-olds we teach will be living in when they grow up. Possibly touch typing would be better to teach? On second thought, will they even need that skill? Won’t they just use their thumbs to type or more likely ask Siri or Alexa?

Some things should remain the same for these kids in the future though. My argument and focus recently has been on skills that I believe they will need no matter how the world changes. This #SkillsFirst approach focuses on areas like communication skills, thinking skills, research skills, self-management skills, and social skills.

What about manners though?

While that is not exactly a skill, I do feel that it is something important for students to learn. The question is, are manners something that will change as these children grow up or is it worth teaching?

I’d like to explain with an example that just happened in my class.

We are doing a unit focused on research skills and are layering the content of “exploration” around it. I have a student who was researching into a young explorer from Australia. As she is still alive, in her twenties now. I suggested that she email her some questions. I asked her to craft an email (something we learned about in an earlier unit) and show it to me before sending. When she showed me the email, it was very direct and lacking the politeness that one should include when requesting information from someone they do not know. I took this opportunity to show her how to embellish the email and add some politeness to the language.

We were very happy when we received a quick reply from this young explorer with the answers to her questions. It was very nice of her to take the time to respond and my student was overjoyed by getting an actual response from her.

Of course, after getting this message, I thought this would be another opportunity to teach manners to my student. One must reply to such a considerate email with a thank you email. I asked her again to craft one herself.

When we looked at her email, it basically just said “thanks” and she wanted to include emojis. I explained that was not the right manners when sending a thank you message. Also, emojis are best left for personal text messages, not emails. I explained that she should tell her she really appreciates the time she took to write and even go a step further by saying something that she learned or found interesting from her email. She agreed and re-wrote it including the extra polite verbiage.

Then it happened… shortly after sending her revised thank you, she received a reply from this young explorer. The reply simply read:



Sent from my iPhone


This isn’t just a younger generation thing either.

During our digital citizenship unit, we spent a lot of time teaching students polite ways to comment on other people’s work. Then, when their parents made comments, they often didn’t follow any of the manners we taught to their kids.

So my question is this… are the politeness and manners of things like thank you notes still going to be relevant when these 8 year-olds enter the work force? Is it something worth teaching or is it something that is changing?

I’d love to hear your comments.

When you do though, please use proper manners 😉

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There are many people that will tell you what is wrong with education these days. As a matter of fact, there are many people making a living giving speeches or who have wrote books all about the problems. It seems to me that not as many people are providing answers though. It is always easier to tear down something that to figure out how to fix it. 

After I did my first PYP Exhibition, I started to come up with an idea for a change. It was not a revolutionary idea, but rather a shift in focus. The IB has transdisciplinary skills (or ATL skills in secondary) that is part of the curriculum, but most of the time is is an afterthought. Quite often we don’t explicitly teach or explicitly assess these skills. I thought of the idea of using them as the center of everything and structuring units around them. Thinking skills, Social Skills, Self-Management Skills, Research Skills, and Communication Skills. 

I am lucky to be working at a school (ISHCMC) that truly encourages innovation and change. After sharing my ideas with others at the Learning2 conference, I was encouraged and supported by my grade leader, principal and head of school to experiment with how this might work. We changed a science unit to see how it might look using a #SkillsFirst approach. There were others at the school who were also exploring how it might look in their grade as well. It was quite successful and sparked some interesting ideas from it.

I asked Suzanne Kitto, a grade 5 teacher who was doing her own exploration into this #SkillsFirst approach to teaching to join me in giving an inspire talk and in running a workshop at ISHCMC’s 3E conference. I have attached the video from it below.

We are still experimenting and figuring out how this works in the classroom and hope that you might join us. Are there more skills, such as digital literacy skills that should be included into the mix? How do you explicitly teach or assess something like cooperation? Can we create a POI for the skills across the grades? These are questions we are still thinking about and would like other input. We honestly feel that this is a very good approach to teaching students for the uncertain future. Skills are timeless and will be useful no matter what the future holds.  

I hope to be adding more on this topic in the future…

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Teaching Grit or Effort

I recently came across (for the second time) a TED talk from Angela Lee Duckworth about Grit and the power of passion and perseverance. It really hit home for me and made a lot of sense. I have put the video below if you have not seen it.

In the TED talk, she discusses that through her research she has found that one trait has a correlation to success, grit. She defines grit as passion and perseverance. While other factors might make a difference, grit was the single unifying characteristic to determine if people were successful. 

This resonates with me. Though my experience in life I have found this to be true as well. 

The question is how do you teach it? Of course she doesn’t have an answer, but points to Carol Dweck’s idea of growth mindset. I have an idea that  another way to express this to kids is talking about effort.  

In my first career in advertising, I started out at an agency that was about 300 people. After quickly losing 2 major accounts, employee numbers had to be slashed. We dropped down to a company of about only 30 people. Luckily, I was one of the employees kept on. Why though? I was one of the youngest employees and had a very low salary. While the more senior employees could work at 2 or 3 times my speed and with, in my opinion, more creativity, they also demanded a much higher salary. Of course this bothered me as they had families to support and I did not, but this is the nature of advertising. The next question is why was I kept on when comparing myself to others in my salary bracket? Well, there were a few colleagues who I felt had more raw talent, knew more computer programs, and had more experience than myself, but honestly I put in more effort than them. I arrived early and stayed late. I did my time sheets and was organized (this can be difficult for a creative). I also never missed a day of work and was reliable. I learned from this experience that effort can trump talent, skills, and even experience.  

When possible, I try and tell this story to my students. I explain to them that others might be more naturally gifted in intelligence, creativity, physical ability, etc… but by putting in more effort, those things can be overcome. Putting in effort is a choice. Nobody is more talented in effort. It is not an innate ability. We decide how much effort we put into tasks we do. I challenge my students to always put in the best effort they can and try to beat their personal best to grow.

We should be explicitly teaching students to put in their best effort and I think that will help teach them grit!


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