Developing ATL skills in the IB

Natasha Hale is an MYP Coordinator & PHE teacher, and was previously a head of Physical Education/DP SEHS teacher. She is co-author of the bestselling Revise IB TestPrep Workbook Sports, Exercise and Health Science (SL and HL), which offers practice exam papers (and answers) along with revision hints and tips.

Anyone who has taught in an IB programme, even for a short time, will be familiar with the Approaches to Learning (ATL) Skills. They are such an integral part of all IB programmes, and one of my favourite aspects of the IB, because they develop vital skills that students (and teachers!) can apply across all subjects in school and even different areas of their life. Not only that, but the new MYP Personal Project guide and criteria have a heavy focus on ATL skills and on students’ ability to explain their own development. However, the amount of ATL skills and exactly how to teach them can seem a bit daunting. Here’s what I have learnt so far and what I have implemented as an MYP Coordinator and DP teacher.

Explicit versus Implicit

One common misunderstanding I see is the way that ATL skills are addressed in the written curriculum. The ATL skills should be planned and taught explicitly, especially when introducing a new skill, but also implicitly through the unit. What it should not be is a checklist, simply selecting numerous skills that are relevant to the unit. When it’s done best, ATL skills are not seen as an ‘add-on’ to the unit plan or an extra activity, but something which is integral to the learning and meaningfully linked with the summative assessment task.

Best practice is to identify one (or two) ATL skills and plan explicit learning experiences, independent of the unit content, to fully facilitate the skill development and prepare students for the assessment tasks. This skill can then be visited later in the unit implicitly, and even form part of the summative assessment task itself.

One way that I have supported teachers is to provide them with different ATL skill activity ideas. There are some great resources out there, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel! The best ones are not subject or topic specific, so they can be applied across the programme and even outside of subject classes.

ATL category, cluster and skill

Another common misunderstanding is the identification of ATL skills. Instead of stating the category of skill (for example, Self-management or Social), we should use the IB structure, which organises the skills into three levels: category > cluster > skill. For example, in the category of Communication skills, there is a cluster labelled ‘exchanging thoughts, messages and information effectively through interaction’ and within that cluster, one of the skills is ‘use intercultural understanding to interpret communication’. This is a specific ATL skill that would be taught explicitly to support student progress.


One valuable process I initiated was to conduct an ATL skill audit across the programme. I created a simple Google sheet and shared it with all teachers; there was a tab for each grade level and a row for each subject, split into the different terms. I could have found this information on our unit plans but a) that would have been a huge administrative task and b) I wanted the most up to date information. Once the audit was complete, I had a full overview of ATL skills being taught across the programme with a vertical and horizontal perspective. This audit can be used for different purposes and as a tool for collaborative reflection, for example:

  • Which ATL skills are most popular in each year group?
  • Which ATL categories are addressed the least?
  • Are the ATL skills taught progressively throughout the programme?
  • Are there any opportunities for a more interdisciplinary approach to teaching ATL skills?
  • How can we narrow down the list, to be more specific and relevant for our school?

Examples of explicit teaching activities


Category: communication

Cluster: exchanging thoughts, messages and information effectively through interaction

Skill: use intercultural understanding to interpret communication

As part of our Cultural Dance unit, the students were assigned to groups and given a country at random. They had a set time to conduct a web crawl and note down any information they could find about their country’s culture (customs, food, arts, traditions, etc.). We then did a Maker Activity in which they had to create a product that communicated the culture of that country. The students created a range of objects such as graffiti posters, earrings and model puppets to communicate their intercultural understanding. This skill was later transferred to our unit as the summative assessment task was to choreograph a dance that communicated their perspective of their own culture.


Category: research

Cluster: finding, interpreting, judging and creating information

Skill: evaluate and select information sources and digital tools based on their appropriateness to specific tasks

In Sports, Exercise and Health Science (and all scientific subjects) it is vital that students develop research skills, which includes evaluating sources. One explicit method I have used is the common CRAAP test. There are lots of resources you can find on the internet, which direct students to evaluate a source by checking the Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose. A great activity for introducing this is to give the students a CRAAP worksheet and the link to a fake website such as or Tree Octopus. Let the students work through the sheet and share their findings about these sites.

All IB Programmes

Category: self-management versus affective skills

Cluster: managing state of mind

Skill: practise strategies to reduce stress and anxiety

With my Year 11 cohort, I started a journal project to support them in being more mindful and manage their stress levels. I provided each student with a mini notebook and each week I would give journal prompts that they had to reflect on and write a response to in their journal (such as ‘Two things I am grateful for are …’ or ‘I am proud of myself this week because …’). The journals are only for the students and I did not read any of their reflections. This is a skill that is independent of any specific subject but was valuable for the students as they completed their ePortfolios and approached the on-screen exam session.

extend education revise ib testprep sport workbook cover

Natasha Hale is is co-author of the bestselling Revise IB TestPrep Workbook: Sports, Exercise and Health Science (SL and HL) With three full sets of exam-style practice papers for SL and HL students, this Revise IB book gives all the information students need for their IB Diploma Programme design technology SL and HL exams.

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