Category Archives: Education debates

SOLO, Learning and Teaching

For educators, there is a need to identify how they can best help students to achieve their potential. School makes up a significant part of students’ young lives, so it is unsurprising that:

Schools shape and change beliefs, both as purveyors of knowledge and as epistemological training grounds for developing students. (Schraw, 2001:406)

The challenge is to balance the imparting of knowledge with providing students with opportunities to develop positive epistemological beliefs. New initiatives often focus on the former, specifically teaching methods, possibly because this is an easier area to demonstrate impact. As Hattie (2012) notes, most of what we do as teachers will have some effect on the students we teach.

OfSTED’s (2012/13b:32) definition of an ‘Outstanding’ school highlights the importance of students ‘making and exceeding expected progress’, whatever their starting point. To achieve this, schools need to know what causes variance between students, both between schools and between students in the same school. Hattie (2003) identifies several elements which are responsible for potential variance in achievement. The most significant factor identified was the student themselves, being responsible for 50% of variance. Student engagement, beliefs and motivation is at the heart of the matter.

Levin (2010:89) explains that:

Schools with higher levels of engagement are more successful with students from all kinds of backgrounds.

This supports Hattie’s (2003) findings that home is less significant an influence than perhaps we might expect.

The second most significant influence was the teacher (30%):

It is what teachers know, do and care about which is very powerful in this learning equation. (Hattie, 2003:2)

However, Schraw (2001:406 summarises a key difficulty with addressing the issue:

The existing research invites the conclusion that schools should make the effort to change beliefs in positive ways, although it is less clear how those changes should occur.

Hattie’s work (2003, 2012) may give us an indication of how these changes should be approached; if both students and teachers are responsible for 80% of the variance between student outcomes, it is here that the focus needs to be. Ideally, a focus on techniques and strategies which encourage teachers to teach in the most effective manner, while encouraging students to learn and develop positive epistemological beliefs.

Students’ Learning

To understand how students learn effectively, it is useful to be aware of a number of key areas. Firstly, how do epistemological beliefs affect learning? And secondly, which specific traits does an effective learner have?

 Hofer & Pintrich (1997:88) define personal epistemology as:

How individuals come to know, the theories and beliefs they hold about knowing, and the manner in which such epistemological premises are a part of and an influence on the cognitive processes of thinking and reasoning.

Resent research into students’ beliefs about learning (Pintrich, 2002; Cano & Cardelle-Elawar, 2004; Dweck, 2006; Barnard et al., 2008; Afflerbach et al., 2013) have highlighted the link between how students view learning and their academic performance. Cano & Cardelle-Elawar (2004:182) suggesting that:

The evidence that secondary school students hold immature beliefs…might go some way to explaining the poor academic achievement of many students.

As teachers, we often see this manifested as a willingness to give up when challenged, reluctance to work hard for results and the belief that they are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at a particular subject. I know that, in the past, I have been guilty of this, especially with Maths – in reality, I’m not actually bad at Maths, I just find it harder.

However, Louca et al. (2004:58) assert, in their study of teaching science to 3rd grade students, that students are not aware of these ‘beliefs of theories’, but instead ‘have a range of cognitive resources for understanding knowledge’. With many schools implementing ‘learning to learn’ schemes, students are now more likely to have an awareness of how they learn. At the heart of this awareness, there needs to be the belief that learning is complex and requires effort.

An effective student needs to develop a wide range of skills and attributes:

Learning at school requires students to pay attention, to observe, to memorize, to understand, to set goals and to assume responsibility for their own learning. These cognitive activities are not possible without the active involvement and engagement of the learner. (Vosniadou, 2001:8)

The emphasis, for effective learning and progress to take place, is on the need for students to be self-regulated (Barnard et al., 2008; Nückles et al., 2009; Afflerbach et al., 2013) and for students to have some control over their learning (Skinner et al., 1998, cited in Yeh, 2010; Vosniadou, 2001; Zull, 2002).

What Makes a Teacher Effective?

Researchers and policymakers have often tried to define what makes an effective teacher; however arriving at a definition can be fraught with difficulties. Shulman (1987:6) notes that these definitions often ‘became items on tests or on classroom-observation scales’ which ultimately end up as a restrictive check-list. Levin (2010:90) points out that, proposals for improving teaching ‘have been made many times before’ and that merely listing suggestions is not enough – we need concrete examples of how this might be achieved.

Although our knowledge of how the brain works has developed over the past century, the topic can be a contentious one. Information processing, ‘the mental operations that come between a stimulus and response’ (Malim & Birch, 2005:25), is at the centre of discussion between cognitive psychologists, especially when related to student learning (Vygotsky, 1978 cited in Vosniadou, 2001; Kolb, 1984; Baddeley, 1999; Bischoff & Anderson, 2001; Tsai & Huang, 2001). Kirschner et al. (2006:77) highlight the importance of an understanding of the brain’s processes:

Any instructional theory that ignores the limits of working memory when dealing with novel information, or ignores the disappearance of those limits when dealing with familiar information, is unlikely to be effective.

 As a result of the complexities, and lack of a definitive explanation of how the brain works, there have been disagreements between academics as to the best mode of instruction, in particular between project based learning and direct instruction (Bishoff & Anderson, 2001; Wallace & Louden, 2003; Gauthier & Dembélé, 2004; Zull, 2002; Wu & Tsai, 2005; Kirschner et al., 2006; Hmelo-Silver et al., 2007; Granger et al., 2012; Hodges, 2012). These discussions can become polarised, while the most effective teaching is likely to judiciously use elements from both modes.

However, there also appear to be several areas of agreement; Hattie (2012:16) states that:

The act of teaching requires deliberate interventions to ensure that there is cognitive change in the student; thus the key ingredients are being aware of the learning intentions, knowing when a student is successful in attaining those intentions, having sufficient understanding of the student’s prior understanding as he or she comes to the task and knowing enough about the content to provide meaningful and challenging experiences so that there is some sort of progressive development.

This suggests that an in depth knowledge of the students is one of the hallmarks of an effective teacher. In addition, we can add: high expectations (Levin, 2010; OfSTED, 2012), formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 2006), differentiation (Hattie, 2003; Yeh, 2010; Hook & Mills, 2012; OfSTED, 2012) and feedback (Hattie, 2003, 2012; Black & Wiliam, 2006; OfSTED, 2012). The SOLO taxonomy can offer teachers a structure for implementing these skills in conjunction with the teacher’s existing strategies.

References:

Afflerbach, P., Cho, B-Y., Kim, J-Y., Crassas, M., & Doyle, B. (2013) ‘Reading: What else matters besides strategies and skills?’ The Reading Teacher, 66 (6), pp. 440–448. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/TRTR.1146 [Accessed March 2, 2013].

Baddeley, A. D. (1999) Essentials of Human Memory. Hove: Psychology Press

Barnard, L., Lan, W., Crooks, S., & Paton, V. (2008) ‘The relationship between epistemological beliefs and self-regulated learning skills in the online course environment’. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 4 (3) pp. 261-266

Bischoff, P.J. & Anderson, O.R. (2001) ‘Development of knowledge frameworks and higher order cognitive operations among secondary school students who studied a unit on ecology’. Journal of Biological Education 35 (2), pp. 81-88.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2009 ‘Developing the theory of formative assessment’ J. Gardiner, ed. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 1 (1), pp. 5–31. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1119/. [accessed 23 August 2012]

Cano, F. & Cardelle-Elawar, M. (2004) ‘An integrated analysis of secondary school student’s conceptions and beliefs about learning’. European Journal of Psychology of Education 19 (2) pp. 167-187.

Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Gauthier, C. & Dembélé, M. (2004) ‘Quality of teaching and quality of education: a review of research findings. UNESCO. Education for All Global Monitoring Report. 2005/ED/EFA/MRT/PI/18

Granger, E. M., Bevis, T. H., Saka, Y., Southerland, S. A., Sampson, V., & Tate, R. L. (2012) ‘The efficacy of student-centered instruction in supporting science learning’. Science (New York, N.Y.), 338 (6103), pp. 105–8. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23042893 [Accessed March 11, 2013].

Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R.G. & Chinn, C. A. (2007) ‘Scaffolding and Achievement in Problem-Based and Inquiry Learning: A Response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006)’. Educational Psychologist  42 (2) pp. 99–107. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00461520701263368.

Hodges, G. C., (2012) ‘Research and the teaching of English: Spaces where reading histories meet’. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11 (1), pp. 7–25.

Hofer, B., & Pintrich, P. (1997) ‘The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning’. Review of Educational Research 67 (1) pp. 88-140.

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2012) SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Book 2: Planning for differentiation. Laughton, UK: Essential Resources Educational Publishers

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R.E. (2006) ‘Work : An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching’. Learning  41 (2), pp. 75–86. Available at: http://www.informaworld.com/openurl?genre=article&doi=10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1&magic=crossref.

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall

Levin, B. (2010) ‘What did you do at school today?’ Kappan. 91 (5) pp. 89-90. http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/about/centres/uacel/docs/InCanadaWDYDIST1002lev.pdf [accessed 8 April 2012]

 Louca, L., Elby, A., Hammer, D., & Kagey, T. (2004) ‘Epistemological resources: Applying a new epistemological framework to science instruction’. Educational Psychologist 39 (1) pp. 57-68.

Malim, T., & Birch, A. (2005) Introductory Psychology. Baisingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

OfSTED (2012/13a) The framework for school inspection. HMI 120100. London: OfSTED publications.  http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/framework-for-school-inspection [accessed 15 April 2013]

OfSTED (2012/13b) School Inspection Handbook. HMI 120101. London: OfSTED publications.  http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/school-inspection-handbook  [accessed 15 April 2013]

Pintrich, P. (2002) Future challenges and directions for theory and research on personal epistemology. In B. Hofer and P. Pintrich (Eds.), Personal epistemology: The psychology of beliefs about knowledge and knowing (pp.389-414). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schraw, G. (2001) ‘Current themes and future directions in epistemological research: A commentary.’ Educational Psychology Review. 13 (4) pp. 451-464.

Shulman, L.S., (1987) ‘Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform’. Harvard Educational Review, 57 (1), pp. 1–21.

Tsai, C-C. and Huang, C-M. (2001) ‘Development of cognitive structures and information processing strategies of elementary school students learning about biological reproduction’. Journal of Biological Education 36 (1) pp. 21-26.

Vosniadou, S. (2001) How Children Learn. UNESCO. Educational Practices Series 7. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/fileadmin/user_upload/archive/publications/EducationalPracticesSeriesPdf/prac07e.pdf [accessed 12 December 2012]

Wallace, J. & Louden, W. (2003) ‘What we don’t understand about teaching for understanding: questions from science education’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35, 5 pp. 545-566

Wu, Y-T. and Tsai, C-C. (2005) ‘Effect of Constructivist Oriented Instruction on Elementary School Students’ Cognitive Structures’. Journal of Biological Education 39 (3), pp. 113-119.

Yeh, S. (2010) ‘Understanding and addressing the achievement gap through individualized instruction and formative assessment.’ Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 17 (2) pp. 169-182

Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. USA: Stylus Publishing.

What is the SOLO Taxonomy?

Learning taxonomies and frameworks are researchers’ and theorists’ attempts to categorise and explain learning (Bloom, 1956; Anderson, et al., 2000; Moseley, et al., 2005). These frameworks help teachers gain an insight into how students think and learn, however, due to the complexities of the human brain, they can only be used as a guideline. As our knowledge of the human mind develops, so will the frameworks used to explain the structure of thinking and learning.

In education, Bloom’s (1956) taxonomy, in its original form and as updated by Anderson et al. (2000), is probably the most familiar, examination questions often follow the hierarchy. However, it is not without its problems. Sugrue (2002:1) points out that the original taxonomy ‘was developed before we understood the cognitive processes involved in learning and performance’, and criticises the ‘consistency’ with which it can be applied. Teachers can avoid these problems through an awareness of alternative taxonomies, for example the SOLO taxonomy (Hattie & Brown, 2004).

SOLO (the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy was first introduced by Biggs & Collis in their 1982 study. The SOLO taxonomy maps the complexity of a student’s work by linking it to one of five phases:  little or no understanding (Prestructural), through a simple and then more developed grasp of the topic (Unistructural and Multistructural), to the ability to link the ideas and elements of a task together (Relational) and finally (Extended Abstract) to understand the topic for themselves, possibly going beyond the initial scope of the task (Biggs & Collis, 1982; Hattie & Brown, 2004). In their later research into multimodal learning, Biggs & Collis noted that there was an ‘increase in the structural complexity of their [the students’] responses’ (1991:64).

It may be useful to view the SOLO taxonomy as an integrated strategy, to be used in lesson design, in task guidance and formative and summative assessment (Smith & Colby, 2007; Black & Wiliam, 2009; Hattie, 2009; Smith, 2011). The structure of the taxonomy encourages viewing learning as an on-going process, moving from simple recall of facts towards a deeper understanding; that learning is a series of interconnected webs that can be built upon and extended. Nückles et al., (2009:261) elaborates:

Cognitive strategies such as organization and elaboration are at the heart of meaningful learning because they enable the learner to organize learning into a coherent structure and integrate new information with existing knowledge, thereby enabling deep understanding and long-term retention.

This would help to develop Smith’s (2011:92) ‘self-regulating, self-evaluating learners who were well motivated by learning.’

 A range of SOLO based techniques exist to assist teachers and students. Use of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2009) encourages teachers to be more explicit when creating learning objectives, focusing on what the student should be able to do and at which level. This is essential for a student to make progress and allows for the creation of rubrics, for use in class (Black & Wiliam, 2009; Nückles et al., 2009; Huang, 2012), to make the process explicit to the student. Use of HOT (Higher Order Thinking) maps (Hook & Mills, 2011) can be used in English to scaffold in depth discussion, encouraging students to:

Develop interpretations, use research and critical thinking effectively to develop their own answers, and write essays that engage with the critical conversation of the field (Linkon, 2005:247, cited in Allen, 2011).

It may also be helpful in providing a range of techniques for differentiated learning (Anderson, 2007; Hook & Mills, 2012).

 The SOLO taxonomy has a number of proponents. Hook & Mills (2011:5) refer to it as ‘a model of learning outcomes that helps schools develop a common understanding’. Moseley et al. (2005:306) advocates its use as a ‘framework for developing the quality of assessment’ citing that it is ‘easily communicable to students’. Hattie (2012:54), in his wide ranging investigation into effective teaching and ‘visible learning’, outlines three levels of understanding: surface, deep and conceptual. He indicates that:

The most powerful model for understanding these three levels and integrating them into learning intentions and success criteria is the SOLO model.

 However, the taxonomy is not without detractors; Chick (1998:20) believes that ‘there is potential to misjudge the level of functioning’ and Chan et al. (2002:512) criticises its ‘conceptual ambiguity’ stating that the ‘categorization’ is ‘unstable’. In these two studies, the SOLO taxonomy was used primarily for assessing completed work, so use throughout the teaching process may mitigate these issues.

 An additional criticism, in particular when the taxonomy is compared with that of Bloom (1956), is the SOLO taxonomy’s structure. Biggs & Collis (1991) refers to the structure as a hierarchy, as does Moseley et al. (2005); naturally, there are concerns when complex processes, such as human thought, are categorized in this manner. However, Campbell et al. (1992) explained the structure of the SOLO taxonomy as consisting as a series of cycles (especially between the Unistructural, Multistructural and Relational levels), which would allow for a development of breadth of knowledge as well as depth.

Allen, I. J., (2011) ‘Reprivileging reading: The negotiation of uncertainty’. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 12 (1) pp. 97–120. Available at: http://pedagogy.dukejournals.org/cgi/doi/10.1215/15314200-1416540 [Accessed March 26, 2013].

Anderson, K. M., (2007) ‘Differentiating instruction to include all students’. Preventing School Failure, 51 (3) pp. 49–54.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M. C. (2000) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my/DRJJ/MQAGGPAS-Apr2011/What-is-CA-biggs-tang.pdf [accessed 19 August 2012]

Biggs, J. B. and Collis, K. F. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York, Academic Press

Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K .F. (1991) ‘Multimodal learning and the quality of intelligent behaviour’. In: H. Rowe (Ed.) Intelligence: Reconceptualization and measurement.  Hillsdale, NJ.:  Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 57-75.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2009 ‘Developing the theory of formative assessment’ J. Gardiner, ed. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 1 (1), pp. 5–31. Available at: http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/1119/. [accessed 23 August 2012]

Bloom, B. S. (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Campbell, K. J., Watson, J. M., & Collis, K. F. (1992) ‘Volume measurement and intellectual development’. Journal of Structural Learning. 11  pp. 279-298.

Chan, C.C., Tsui, M.S. & Chan, M.Y.C., 2002 ‘Applying the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes ( SOLO ) taxonomy on student’s learning outcomes : an empirical study’. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27 (6) pp. 511-527

Chick, H. (1998) ‘Cognition in the Formal Modes: Research mathematics and the SOLO taxonomy’. Mathematics Education Research Journal. 10 (2) pp. 4-26

Hattie, J. (2003) Teachers make a difference: what is the research evidence? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible Learning. New York: Routledge

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Abingdon: Routledge

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. http://e-asttle.tki.org.nz/content/download/1499/6030/version/1/file/43.+The+SOLO+taxonomy+2004.pdf [accessed 6 March 2013]

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2011) SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools Book 1: A common language of learning. Laughton, UK: Essential Resources Educational Publishers

Huang, S.-C. (2012) ‘Like a bell responding to a striker: Instruction contingent on assessment’. English Teaching: Practice and Critique 11 (4), pp. 99–119.

Moseley, D., Baumfield, V., Elliott, J., Gregson, M., Higgins, S., Miller, J., & Newton, D. (2005) Frameworks for Thinking: A handbook for teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Nückles, M., Hübner, S. & Renkl, A. (2009) ‘Enhancing self-regulated learning by writing learning protocols’. Learning and Instruction, 19(3), pp.259–271. Available at: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0959475208000558 [Accessed March 26, 2013].

Smith, A. (2011) High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools. Camarthen: Crown House Publishing

Smith, T.W. & Colby, S.A. (2007) ‘Teaching for Deep Learning.’ The Clearing House.  80 (5) pp. 205–211.

Sugrue, B. (2002) ‘Problems with Bloom’s Taxonomy.’ http://eppicinc.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/sugrue_bloom_critique_perfxprs.pdf [accessed 2 May 2013]

Why Research SOLO Taxonomy?

This is the first in a series of blog posts based on my MA research into the use of the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy in English. I hope that  what I write proves useful and not just for English teachers.

A reasonably obvious starting point is: why did I choose to research the SOLO taxonomy?

A quick glance at the TES or Twitter will reveal that teachers are under pressure. The need to achieve year on year improvements in results, as well as a dearth of time available, means that it is not surprising that many teachers are looking for a ‘magic bullet’– something that is effective and involves little additional work. The danger is that schools and teachers are not appropriately critical when selecting and promoting techniques in the rush to achieve the desired results.

Over the past few years a range of different ideas (e.g. Brain Gym, VAK, de Bono’s Thinking Hats) have been promoted in schools, often supported by ‘a thriving commercial industry’ (Coffield et al., 2004:118). While some of these offer useful techniques which can easily be incorporated into the teachers’ everyday lesson, others can become overly burdensome without empirical evidence that the technique actually works (Harrison et al., 2003; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006). Key here is the fact that, while scientific research may indicate a result as suggestive, all too often the results are distorted or overstated (Swaffield, 2009).

How many of us have sat through a CPD session run by an expensive expert, or an enthusiastic member of SLT, and questioned whether it is actually worthwhile? How many have spoken up to challenge ideas that we know are not proven, or (often more likely) sat squirming and wishing that we had the nerve to speak up? In budget conscious and results-driven schools, staff buying into ineffective techniques and strategies (physically and metaphorically) can drain money from where it is most needed.

It is, however, important that teachers are proactive in trialling and using techniques which they believe may be of benefit. Levin (2010:90) explains:

If data from students could be linked to changes known to be effective – for example, improved assessment practices or greater student choice in assignments – we might start to see some lasting and worthwhile changes in the way students experience our high schools.

It was with this in mind that I became cautiously interested when discussions  on Twitter mentioned something called the SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) Taxonomy. Initially, it was mentioned by a small number of UK based teachers who provided more detailed examples on their blogs (Tait Coles, David Didau, Lisa Ashes).

While willing to try new teaching ideas, the key question for me is: what evidence is there that this works? A brief search of academic journals (via the wonderful Google Scholar) identified a number of articles, mostly focusing on the use of the SOLO taxonomy in geography, science or at university level (Munowenyu, 2007; Biggs & Tang, 2009; Brabrand & Dahl, 2009; Prakash et al., 2010).

I was also aware that the use of the SOLO taxonomy was widespread in New Zealand (Hattie & Brown, 2004), being linked to assessment and curriculum models, and through a number of New Zealand Tweachers’ contributions to Twitter discussions. However, it became clear that there was very little research on its use in the UK education system, and little available on its use in teaching English literature beyond blog posts and anecdotes. I therefore decided to try a relatively simple technique – the use of hexagons to link ideas. The results from this initial foray were genuinely surprising, however, could easily have been a fortuitous coincidence. Therefore, I decided to base my study on the effectiveness of the SOLO taxonomy in GCSE English Literature. I hoped to be able to demonstrate whether or not the SOLO taxonomy was effective in improving student results and clarify whether this technique was worth adopting at departmental level and beyond.

References:

Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2009) ‘Applying constructive alignment to outcomes-based teaching and learning.’ Training Material. “Quality Teaching for Learning in Higher Education” Workshop for Master Trainers.  Ministry of Higher Education. Kuala Lumpur. 2010. http://drjj.uitm.edu.my/DRJJ/MQAGGPAS-Apr2011/What-is-CA-biggs-tang.pdf [accessed 19 August 2012]

Brabrand, C. & Dahl, B., (2009) ‘Using the SOLO taxonomy to analyze competence progression of university science curricula.’ Higher Education, 58 (4) pp. 531–549.

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004) ‘Learning  styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.’ Learning and Skills Research Centre. Report No. 041543.

Harrison, G., Andrews, J., & Saklofske, D. (2003) ‘Current perspectives on cognitive learning styles.’ Education Canada. 43 (2) pp. 44-47

Hattie, J. & Brown, G. (2004) ‘Cognitive processes in asTTle: The SOLO taxonomy.’ University of Auckland/Ministry of Education. asTTle Technical Report 43. http://e-asttle.tki.org.nz/content/download/1499/6030/version/1/file/43.+The+SOLO+taxonomy+2004.pdf [accessed 6 March 2013]

Krätzig, G. & Arbuthnott, K. (2006) ‘Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: a test of the hypothesis.’  Journal of Educational Psychology. 98 (1) pp. 238-246.

Levin, B. (2010) ‘What did you do at school today?’ Kappan. 91 (5) pp. 89-90. http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/about/centres/uacel/docs/InCanadaWDYDIST1002lev.pdf [accessed 8 April 2012]

Munowenyu, E. (2007) ‘Assessing the Quality of Essays Using the SOLO Taxonomy: Effects of Field and Classroom-based Experiences by “A” Level Geography Students.’ International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education. 16 (1) pp. 21–43.

Prakash, E. S., Narayan, K. A., & Sethuraman, K. R. (2010) ‘Student perceptions regarding the usefulness of explicit discussion of “Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome” taxonomy.’ Advances in physiology education. 34 (3) pp.145–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20826769 [accessed 6 March 2013]

Swaffield, S. (2009) ‘The misrepresentation of Assessment for Learning – and the woeful waste of a wonderful opportunity.’ Work in progress paper. AAIA National Conference. Bournemouth. 16-18 September. http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/lfl/current/papers/swaffield_aaia09.pdf [accessed 30 March 2013]

Performance Related Pay – Divide and Conquer?

Mr Gove‘s plan to introduce performance related pay has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. @oldandrewuk‘s excellent blog post gives some well explained reasons why the plan is not a good idea. These are my thoughts on the subject.

The Truth About Teachers’ Pay Scales

Whenever the topic of teachers’ pay is written about in the press, annual pay progression is mentioned. Yes, in the early part of their career, teachers generally receive a pay increase each year – up to point 6. Then, providing they pass threshold, they move onto the upper pay scale spending two years on each of upper 1 and 2 before reaching upper 3. So, assuming a start on point 1 of the main scale, that is 10 years of pay progression and then nothing unless you move into management. Potentially, if you start teaching at 25, that could be 30 years without a pay rise – hardly the year-on-year increase we keep reading about.

Does Mr Gove’s new plan for pay intend to change this? If so, schools’ already overstretched budgets are going to have a real problem – and some difficult choices to make. If not, is the assumption that all longer serving teachers will move into management or leave?

How will performance be measured?

This is the big question. Who will measure your performance as a teacher? What criteria will be used? What right to reply will you have? Imagine the following, fictional, situations:

  • It is your annual pay/performance review, you are told you won’t be moving up the pay scale as you don’t teach any exam classes and therefore there is no effective way to determine whether you made sufficient progress.
  • At your review you are awarded a pay rise – what your manager doesn’t realize is that your KS3 results are a work of fiction – you boosted every student by a level knowing that the department head was so busy with GCSE that they would not have time to check.
  • You and your head of department don’t exactly see eye to eye. At the start of the new year you find yourself with a timetable filled with every difficult class available. When you don’t receive a pay rise you decide to take the school to a tribunal for unfairly damaging your chances.
  • Due to timetabling issues you find yourself sharing several classes with a weaker teacher – their  poor teaching means that you won’t get a pay rise.
  • The head holds a whole school meeting. They explain that, as the school budget is less than expected, due to falling intake at 6th form, no one will be receiving a pay rise – the only other option would be redundancies.
  • You are an experienced teacher with a good reputation. You spend a lot of time creating excellent class resources, which you share with your department. Another teacher in your department has less challenging classes, they use your resources, rarely create any of their own and never share them if they do. They receive a pay rise and you don’t – you decide that you will no longer share any resources and will work only for the benefit of your own classes.
  • You have worked yourself into the ground with a challenging group. You planned excellent lessons, offered after school extra tuition, did everything in your power to help the class . Your head is apologetic, although you have had excellent lesson observations you won’t be receiving a pay rise. It turns out that the class did not achieve their 3 levels progress – Student A refused to write anything on their exam paper; Student B slept through the exam as they had been playing their X-box until 3 in the morning; Student C didn’t turn up for the exam – their mum explained over the phone that she couldn’t get them out of bed; Student D tried their best but, due to a range of learning difficulties, they were unable to make 3 levels progress; Student E was a school refuser who had not been in school since January, but they are still on the school roll so count towards your figures…and so on.

Obviously, these scenarios are fictional, but chances are that some of them sound familiar. Issues similar to these may be the reality in schools at the moment but, as frustrating as they may be, at the moment they are unlikely to affect your pay.

Students Are Not Products

The increasing tendency to apply business models to schools seem to forget the key point – students are not products. Even if you are a brilliant teacher, if the student does not want to work there is little that you can do. Contacting home, setting detentions, referring to senior managers may work, but equally may not.

In business there are a number of things you can do to promote sales, for example: offer incentives, reduce costs, lower prices. It is hard to translate these into teaching – should we offer students financial rewards for working in class? From our own pocket? Make the exams easier so they pass? Only make them take subjects they like? It is not so clear cut.

Why is Mr Gove Doing This?

In part, I think that Mr Gove is trying to make a name for himself – in a party that supports privatization, it would be a coup to manage this with schools.

Secondly, by taking away many of the terms and conditions, teaching becomes less attractive to qualified staff and therefore it will be possible to hire unqualified, cheaper staff. This would make the education ‘business’ more likely to make a profit and therefore more attractive to investors. Unqualified staff may also be less likely to challenge the Secretary of State.

Finally, performance related pay creates competition and therefore divisiveness – in education the ideal is that we all do our best to help our students do their best. By setting staff against each other for pay, perhaps Mr Gove hopes that teachers will not work together, that unions will lose members and that he can divide and conquer?

Pay Is Not The Real Issue

Although this is a post about performance related pay, pay is not the real issue. Most teachers will say that they are not in the job for the money; there are other motivations at work. However, why is it wrong to want to be paid a reasonable amount for a tough job that (currently) demands a degree and a postgraduate qualification? I don’t see lawyers, architects and doctors being criticized in this way.

In this country, rightly or wrongly, pay often confers status and respect. If you don’t believe that, look at how many times calls to curb the enormous bonuses of bankers are met with the claim that we can’t because they will leave the country. They are somehow immune to any cuts, even when they business they work for is making a massive loss. By repeatedly attacking teachers’ pay and conditions, Mr Gove appears to be sending out the message that the profession is not valued in our society. That education, and a qualified and motivated teaching profession, is not key to the success of the country. Sadly, this attitude will cause damage which will affect generations to come.

Knowledge vs Skills

Something strange seems to be happening in the world of education. Over the past few months, it seems that, for many commentators, issues in education have become either black or white. You are either for Gove’s ideas or against; for PBL or against; want more challenging exams or feel accusations of dumbing down are completely wrong.

To be honest, this does not make sense – when dealing with the complexities of education surely there are more shades of grey?

One of the more recent arguments on Twitter is between proponents of teaching ‘knowledge’ or teaching ‘skills’, which has led to some rather heated debates. This got me thinking…why are knowledge and skills being presented as a dichotomy? Is there a ‘right’ answer?

When I was at school and university, I studied a number of essay based subjects; as a result, I am pretty good at writing essays. As seemed to be the style of  teaching in the 1980s, we were not specifically ‘taught’ how to write an essay. There were no essay plans or scaffolding provided, no PEE paragraph structures and no exemplars of high-grade essays. Generally, we studied a text, were given a topic and a title and off we went. This doesn’t seem to have damaged my ability to write an essay, although a little guidance here and there may have helped and avoided me relying entirely on trial and error.

I specifically remember two essays I wrote: the ‘best essay ever’ and the ‘most disastrous essay’. They were written in the same year, my first year at university and,  I am still somewhat scarred by the latter.

The ‘most disastrous essay’ was written during an exam, the topic was the Fenian Cycle of Irish prose and poetry. My essay had paragraphs, it was structured in a logical manner but (and this is a big but) I had only given the material a cursory glance. In reality, I had no idea what I was writing about and resorted to hashing together half remembered bits and pieces and making up the rest. Not surprisingly, I got a, totally deserved, rubbish mark. (As an aside, that also seems to be a change in education – it never seems to be the student’s fault if they fail).

The ‘best essay ever’ did not have a particularly auspicious start. It was a module assignment on Old English poetry, due the next day at 10am. The English department had a policy of reducing your grade by a percentage if it was late, increasing the later the essay was handed in. Typically for me, I had left it to the last minute – I ended up writing it between midnight and 5am. However, I had read and annotated the texts involved, I had detailed lecture notes and I had read widely about the topic and had a good range of relevant quotations. The essay took time to write, but it was handed in on time and I got the best mark of my university career.

So, what was the difference? Clearly, I had the skills of essay writing – I knew how to use quotations and expand upon them, I could structure an essay, spell, use punctuation correctly. The difference was in my knowledge. The key was having both the skills to write an essay (the functional knowledge, if you will) and the detailed knowledge and understanding of the topic (the declarative knowledge).

As a teacher, I have seen this tension over and over again.  Several examples spring to mind: the top set Y11 student who ‘suddenly’ realized (after only a year of me telling him) that it was easier to write an essay if he had actually read the book. The A-level student who attempted to write an essay on ‘The Glass Menagerie‘ without reading the final act (in her version they all lived happily ever after!). The bottom set students who know the text in detail but struggle with the literacy skills needed to express those ideas in writing.

I feel that the constant focus on improving exam results does not help. The fear of any student failing (even though some thoroughly deserve to, due to their total lack of work or effort) can lead to over scaffolding. If every essay written in Year 10 and 11 is supported by too much guidance, we create students who have learned to be helpless – how can they then complete an exam essay when the guidance is gone? Students need to learn the topic, but they also need to learn how to use and present the information effectively.

This is why I am confused by the vitriol the knowledge v. skills debate seems to engender, because surely you need both types of knowledge to demonstrate your learning?

Teachers – The Essential Ingredient

One of the difficulties of dealing with data at a whole school level is the sheer volume of students involved and the wide range of departments involved. As so much of what we do in the higher years is reported at a national level it is easy, and obvious to focus on the Y11 classes, making sure they have achieved what they need to.

When we look at these patterns in most schools we see fairly detailed analysis and focus at ks4, with slightly less focus at Y10. At ks3, the tracking in the main, focuses on progress in individual subjects, again, the quality of this type of tracking varies from subject to subject, and often, from teacher to teacher.

However, if we are to create a real culture of improvement and focus, as is often seen in the most successful schools, we need to be looking at the bigger picture and each subject needs to see its part within it. The challenge is to stop the insular thinking that is traditionally the way schools work. Maths, Science and English often struggling against each other for kudos and higher grades and more time, foundation subjects feeling sidelined or pushing for their needs to the detriment of other subjects. The time has come that we see ourselves as truly part of the same organisation, with the same purpose.

One of the biggest challenges in moving a school from good to great is dealing with within-school variation. This is where students have very different experiences in different subjects across the school, or where the difference between pupils with similar abilities on paper is vast because of the teacher they have. Obviously, there will be differences between subjects, not everyone can or will have the ability to do well across the school. However, should there be such a difference? Students who achieve an A or a B in English achieving an E or F in other subjects. What causes this type of gap? What can we do to change this?

Before we consider the complex world of data, we need to look at one of the most influential and essential elements in a student’s school career- the teacher. Now we are not just talking about the quality of the teacher. Yes, there are teachers who are less confident, less motivated and even less capable than others. There are teachers who have real difficulties getting the necessary level of behaviour for excellent progress. There are, and I’m sure I’ll be shouted down over this, but we all know it is true, some teachers who really shouldn’t be teachers: the teachers who don’t care about the classes they teach, who don’t plan or teach lessons properly, who don’t mark the student work and some, who frankly don’t seem to like children. When we are looking at this final category, the new government plans to remove the informal part of teacher monitoring and to make it easier to get rid of poor teachers is a good thing. Most teachers have had to pick up the pieces of the group who has had one of these teachers. The group who have made little progress since primary school, those who have not covered the content of the course, and those who fail to mark or even set the necessary work for GCSE. I won’t pull any punches here, if this is the case, and these teachers do not improve their working practices, they should leave, and it should be possible to ensure they leave before they damage the education of even more children. For the teacher, yes it may be a career, but you can’t tell me that a teacher who really tries hard (as the vast majority do) would be in this position or wouldn’t improve with help. The hard core of others need to be removed, and we all know who they are.

However, one of the biggest impacts is down to the expectation of the teacher. This starts at primary school, letting the weaker students do less, expecting less. In some cases, it is down to the set number, deciding, based on an arbitrary number, the ability of a group and the students within it. Those little comments made by the previous teacher which are rarely focused on the achievement and progress of the students. This attitude needs to be stamped out from the very start. In Y11 it is almost impossible to turn this attitude around, and this is a key area that we need to address as teachers. As one of the teachers said in Alistair Smith’s High Performers, what is the point of setting a target below a C, the whole point of a target is that it should be aspirational, it shouldn’t be a given, but we should ensure that we are teaching all students the skills and content they need to achieve this. They may not all get there, but at least we can make sure we have done everything we can to achieve this, whatever the set.

SOLO and Theory of Effective Learning Part 1

Information Processing and Learning

Research indicates that effective learning takes place when the individual actively processes the information taken in through the various senses:

The average learners for not perform according to expectation mainly due to inadequate processing of the sensory information through the memory process. Alutu (2006)

Therefore, if this is the case, teachers need to understand information processing and endeavour to provide opportunities to improve the quality of processing in order to promote higher attainment:

Constructivist-oriented instruction helped low achievers develop more extended  and connected cognitive structures than traditional teaching. Wu and Tsai (2005)

What Teachers Can Do

There are many factors which may influence depth of learning including environment, attitude and epistemological beliefs.Teachers can have an impact on some of these factors, through teaching methods  and dealing with those environmental factors within their control. Bischoff and Anderson (2001) highlighted the importance of providing students with tasks which actively involve them:

Neuronal networks are actively constructed as neuronal connections are made, or reorganised, to form new knowledge representations. These representations and larger organising frameworks…are activated when stimulated through learning experiences that promote active involvement by the learner.

However, setting tasks which involve the students is only part of what a teacher can do to enourage learning. How information is presented to the students can be key to whether the student is involved. In ‘The Art of Changing the Brain’, Zull (2002) warns about the use of explanation – a frequently used piece of teacher talk:

Explanation transfers the power from the learner to the teacher. But neuroscience tells us that the positive emotions in learning are generated in the parts of the brain that are used most heavily when students develop their own ideas.

From my experiments with SOLO taxonomy and, in particular, the use of hexagons (as well as the fantastic blogs of @Learningspy, @Totallywired77 and @lisajaneashes ), this is where SOLO has its strength. As the hexagons allow students to explore and create their own links, they are active in creating their own ideas and interpretations of the material.

Students’ understanding of learning is key to how they learn and the quality of that learning, and this is often an aspect of education which is overlooked by schools. If a student believes that learning is quick and easy, their learning is likely to be more shallow than a student who believes that learning is complex and takes time. Dweck’s (2006) ‘growth mindset’:

The belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts.

– therefore, is something that educators need to try to develop in their students, if they are to achieve their full potential.

References:

Alutu, A. N. (2006). The Guidance Role of the Instructor in the Teaching and Learning Process. Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 44-49.

Bischoff, P.J. and Anderson, O.R. (2001). Development of Knowledge Frameworks and Higher Order Cognitive Operations Among Secondary School Students Who Studied a Unit on Ecology. Journal of Biological Education, 35 (2), pp.81-88.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Wu, Y-T. and Tsai, C-C. (2005). Effect of Constructivist Oriented Instruction on Elementary School Students’ Cognitive Structures. Journal of Biological Education, 39 (3), pp.113-119.

Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. USA: Stylus Publishing.