Conceptualizing the approaches to learning

by Angela Johnson

Using the Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction model to support skills development in the IB MYP

The approach to learning (ATL) is a core element of all IB programs, but it can be challenging to fully integrate the ATL skills into the conceptual framework of a unit. All too often, ATL skills are treated like a box-ticking exercise. We may list them in our unit planners and even cover them in lessons, but are we taking the time to develop students’ understandings of those skills?
MYP: From principles to practice (2021) states, “The most effective way to develop ATL is through ongoing, process-focused disciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Teachers can use a wide range of content developed through MYP key and related concepts and global contexts as a vehicle for teaching effective learning strategies. Likewise, ATL skills can be powerful tools for exploring significant content. This dual focus (content and process, knowledge and skills) promotes student engagement, deep understanding, transfer of skills, and academic success” (MYP: From Principles into Practice, 2021).
That last sentence echoes the basic principles of Dr. Lynn Erickson’s and Dr. Lois Lanning’s three-dimensional Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction model, in which conceptual understandings are drawn from the Structures of Knowledge and Process. In a Concept-Based unit, knowledge and skills complement each other and are used as vehicles for developing higher order thinking and transferable understandings. According to Erickson, Lanning, and French, “(W)hen teachers implement the curriculum through authentic experiences that mirror the types of knowledge and processes students will most likely continue to use in their futures, understanding is advanced” (Erickson et al., 2017).
But while From principles to practice makes it clear why we should be developing the approaches to learning, it falls short of giving teachers a clear framework for how. This is where Dr. Erickson’s and Dr. Lanning’s Concept-Based model can enhance the MYP unit framework. By developing generalizations that draw from Lanning’s Structure of Process, which complement an overarching statement of inquiry (many of which are drawn from the Structure of Knowledge), we can ensure that we move beyond the two-dimensional teaching of skills.

Beyond ‘skill and drill’: understanding why we do what we do.

In Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer, Lanning and co-author Tiffanee Brown assert that “…teaching students the strategies and skills within processes is not the end goal. Moving students beyond practicing strategies and skills to deeper conceptual understandings develops disciplinary expertise and enables students to transfer complex skills to new situations” (Lanning & Brown, 2019). When we develop generalizations from the Structure of Process, we move students beyond just doing to understanding why we do what we do.
If we apply this principle to the approaches to learning, we can use the CBCI model to move beyond the superficial treatment of skills by generalizing. Rather than seeing the ATL skills as an additional layer to a unit — something on top of the content we deliver — we can embed them more authentically within the curriculum narrative. If we aren’t making those understandings of process explicit, we aren’t harnessing the full potential of a concept-based curriculum.

An example: using the reading process to develop collaboration skills

The process of conceptualizing the ATLs makes sense when it comes to discipline-specific academic processes, like writing or research or the scientific method. What about the softer skills, like collaboration? Often, we use collaboration as a classroom management strategy rather than a deliberate pedagogical practice. How often do we take the time to develop students’ understandings of why we collaborate? It is easy to treat collaboration as an activity rather than a meaningful learning engagement actively used to build students’ collective efficacy.
A recent audit of our English Language & Literature curriculum revealed that most of our statements of inquiry are knowledge-based. Despite being a skills-based course, our conceptual focuses tend to be thematic and connected to the content of the unit’s core texts rather than the processes, strategies, or skills needed to understand and interpret those texts. So we started to renovate our curriculum, beginning with Grade 9 (MYP 4). When my Grade 9 teaching partner and I initially decided to upgrade our unit on gothic literature, we added reading circles to our learning experiences. Originally, the purpose of the reading circles was to supplement the gothic extracts we studied in class; in other words, the reading circles were essentially used to cover more content.
As we continued to refine the unit the following year, we built the reading circles around the ATL of Collaboration skills, specifically, exercising leadership, taking on various roles within groups, and listening actively to other perspectives and ideas. This collaboration was a powerful means of developing a shared understanding of gothic conventions, which students then applied to their own creative gothic stories at the end of the unit. The reading circles also doubled as a writing workshop; students leveraged the knowledge and understanding they gained through analyzing shared texts to offer peer feedback on each other’s stories.
Using the ATL as our lens and drawing from Dr. Lanning’s Structure of Process, we developed a generalization from the reading process (or the responding to and critiquing text strands of the CBCI unit framework for English Language Arts):

Effective collaboration depends on the skills and expertise of each participant to improve individual and collective efficacy. 








To nudge students towards that understanding, we used the following guiding questions:

GQ1. What roles and responsibilities did members of  your group take on to support  effective collaboration? (F)

GQ2. Did your group experience any challenges collaborating? Why might this be? How could you resolve these challenges? 

GQ3. What is the difference between cooperation and collaboration? (Z)

GQ4. What conditions support an effective collaboration? (C)

GQ5. How can individuals contribute to a positive group dynamic? (C)

GQ6. Can a group be successful without the contributions of each individual? (D)

Those questions are deliberately transdisciplinary, focusing on the transferability of the skill. Any subject could use those questions to understand the importance of collaboration. However, we could design factual questions more directly linked to the unit content, such as What roles would help your reading circle be more effective? We might also zoom in further and develop generalizations drawn from the specific skills rather than the skill cluster. For example, Listening actively to other perspectives and ideas could be transformed into: Through active listening of other perspectives and ideas, we can enhance our personal interpretations of texts.


Conclusion: using the CBCI model to develop cohesion

The IB curriculum framework can sometimes feel like several disparate parts (concepts, global contexts, approaches to teaching and learning, the learner profile). But the CBCI model can provide a cohesive thread to all those elements. The approaches to learning are, for many teachers, the most intimidating part of the IB curriculum framework. With roughly 140 individual skills, it can feel overwhelming to address each in a meaningful way, especially without a clear scheme to guide teachers. Of course, the key is prioritizing which skills are most important within an individual school’s, discipline, or grade level’s context. But unless we treat the approaches to learning as part of a unit’s conceptual framework, we risk skills coverage rather than skills development.


Would you like to learn more about Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction? Learn more about the Erickson and Lanning CBCI Institute HERE. Applications close July 29, 2022.



Erickson, H., Lanning, L., & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2nd ed.). Corwin.

International Baccalaureate Organization (UK) Ltd (2021). MYP: From Principles into Practice.

Lanning, L., & Brown, T. (2019). Concept-Based Literacy Lessons: Designing Learning to Ignite Understanding and Transfer. Corwin.


About the author:

Angela Johnson (BA, M.A., M.Ed.) is MYP Coordinator and English Language & Literature teacher at Southbank International School in London. She is an Independent Erickson and Lanning Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Certified Trainer and holds the ECIS International Teacher Certificate and the IB Certificate in Teaching and Learning (MYP). Angela has published several textbooks with Hodder Education to support students and teachers in the MYP and DP. She has held various examining and authoring roles within the IB Educator Network.


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