Category Archives: Essay

Summary of SOLO Posts

As one of the searches that seems to bring people to my site is for SOLO taxonomy, here is a post which provides links to each of the posts I have written about SOLO. I am not saying that SOLO is a magic bullet or universal panacea, however, my research suggests that it may have a positive impact.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is: read about it, try it for yourself if you want to and make up your own mind whether it is useful for you and your students.

MA Research Project

All of these posts are based on my final MA dissertation, as a result they tend to be more theoretical.

Teaching with SOLO

These posts are about my own experiences using SOLO in lessons.

If you have any questions, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

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?

Further Experiments With HOT Maps

This year, I have decided to make it my mission to try to embed SOLO into my day-to-day lessons. I have written several times about using hexagons, and to be honest, they are an easy way into SOLO – if rather a pain to cut out! However, my intention this term is to use a wider range of strategies in a more coherent way.

Wilfred Owen

The unit I have chosen is (OCR A661) Wilfred Owen’s poetry. I have taught the unit twice before, so feel I have a good grip on the requirements of the specification as well as the areas the students tend to struggle with.

Starting point

I started by looking at the skills needed to complete the comparative essay, as well as the top end of the mark scheme (obviously where I would like all my students to be). This resulted in a grid of 6 key elements:

  • Poetry terminology
  • Use of quotation
  • Explaining language
  • Writing PEE paragraphs
  • Comparing poems
  • Planning and writing an essay

which were then mapped against the SOLO levels as a rubric grid.

I planned to focus on these elements, in turn, over the course of several lessons to build up the skill level and confidence of the students – the idea being that each marginal gain would build up to a bigger overall impact. Each pupil had a copy of the grid in their book. As the lessons progressed, we focused on different sections of the grid – and the students marked their progress on a simple chart.

Student Self-assessment

For example, explaining that before they could write an effective PEE paragraph they needed to know some terminology, use quotations and explain the effect of the language.

HOT Maps

I have used two HOT maps as part of the lesson series:

The Compare Contrast HOT Map – I have used this twice, firstly to gather some of the more straightforward links between the poems and then later to pull together the more detailed comparative points in preparation for making their notes.

Compare Contrast HOT Map

I like the fact that using this type of HOT map, rather than a  Venn diagram, encourages the students to think carefully about why things are similar or different, prompted by the ‘Because…’

The Part-Whole Analysis HOT Map – I trialled this one last year and was very impressed with the results, so I thought it would fit in very well here, especially when trying to move student explanation from relational to extended abstract.

As this map can be a little tricky to get to grips with at first, we used Harry Potter as an example:

Whole – Harry Potter is a series of books which focuses on good versus evil and the growth of its main character.

The Parts – Themes, Characters, Key Events, Setting etc. I then focused in on the character of Hermione.

What would be the impact if the part were missing? – This is the bit that the students find tricky at first. I asked the group what the books would be like without Hermione, their answers ranged from not appealing to girls, to not having the ‘brains’ to solve the problems.

Therefore what is the purpose of this element? – By this point, the purpose of the element is generally clear. For our example: to appeal to a wide audience, to provide a range of skills needed within the quest part of each novel, and to provide scope for further character development as the novels progressed.

Part Whole Analysis HOT Map

With this map it is not really the written work, although it does provide a useful format for note taking, it is the quality of the discussions it prompts. I love the look of concentration on the students’ faces when they are trying to consider the impact if the part was missing. We stretched the final question by repeatedly asking ‘So what…?’ or So why…?’ I hope that in future lessons we will be able to phase out the paper copy of the map and to use it as a speaking framework.

These activities really helped develop the students’ understanding of the poems and hopefully made them more confident in analysing the texts. My next step is for them to evaluate their progress against the whole rubric – and to identify areas for final development. Then they will be ready for the final stage, where they need to make notes and write the assessment – I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Fishy Revision

Revision. Argh! Love it or hate it this seems to be mostly what we end up doing at this time of year (in between filling in reams of exam paperwork). The challenge is to try to make it effective and interesting – a challenge if ever there was one. The internet has been invaluable for trawling for great ideas, but I have also been digging through my old resources to see if there are any gems.

Today was revision for Of Mice and Men for OCR A663 next week. The group know the text well but planning is a bit of an issue, especially in the tight time frame (45 minutes). The exam requires the students to analyse language and techniques as well as making links to context. I wanted to create a task that developed planning but also encouraged the group to hit the assessment objectives in the exam.

I started off by borrowing the excellent Nominative Determination task from Miss Ryan’s GCSE English Blog . This was a really effective opening task as it got the group thinking the characters and analysing the language, and they really enjoyed it. As they thought through the significance of the names and their connotations I could hear mental lightbulbs going on around the room – love it!

In our mock exam, quite a few students failed to write about the context of the text or link it to the question. To combat this I came up with the mnemonic CRAFTI (using the helpful anagram solver on the Internet Anagram Server).

A Crafti Mnemonic

I tried to make this something memorable but that also covered each key point.

The next step was to think about planning, how could I make sure that the planning was quick and easy, but also encouraged relational thinking?

My collection of random USB pens came to the rescue. Every so often, since I started teaching, I have saved all the useful resources on my school user space onto a USB. Some of them stay there forever, but I have a peek every now and then to see if there is something worthwhile. Last night I found it.

As I have been experimenting with SOLO HOT maps, I wanted something visual and simple that could encourage deeper thinking. My solution was a fish-bone analysis, or at least my variation on one. I decided that the horizontal line should contain the Idea – i.e. the key point in the passage and key words from the question. This would encourage the group to focus on the question throughout their planning. Each pair of ‘bones’ would include brief points on Context, References, Audience, Feelings and Techniques. I used a series of powerpoint slides to show the process, using the example from the mock (Lennie and the ketchup in chapter 1).

Fish-Bone Planning

The final task, and one I have advised them to do for revision, was to choose a section of the text at randon, or to invent a non-extract based question, and to produce their own Fish-bone plan:

Fish-Bone Planning Task

The class really seemed to get to grips with this as a planning method, and I liked the fact that it could be loosely linked back to the text (‘flopping like a fish’). Overall, I was really pleased with this, having tried it with my Y10s during their lesson. It was also used by another teacher in an afterschool revision session, and it reportedly worked well. So the next step is to try it with one of my more challenging groups.

HOT Maps – A Real Eureka Moment

Having had several successful lessons using the SOLO structure and hexagons, I decided that it was time to branch out a bit and to try a wider range of SOLO techniques. Again, I decided to try these with a range of classes.

Compare/Contrast Map

The first HOT map I looked at was the Compare /Contrast  map. I used this initially with my Y12 Film Studies class to explore the similarities and differences between their comparative study films. They had been, generally, fairly good at identifying key features about the films separately, however, were struggling to make direct links between the films. I used Word It Out to create a word cloud based on a synopsis of each film from IMDB, I then showed the group some examples and got them to work in pairs. I linked this to group planning of an essay where I used Triptico to sort the class into groups – they produced bullet points for each paragraph. I sorted them again and they had to add or delete bullet points. I sorted them one last time to write the paragraph. This worked well for those students who had studied the films carefully, less well for those who had not revised carefully (this was perhaps a bit of a warning for them). It did help to highlight the links between the films but at a fairly simple level – the next step will be a part whole analysis to extend their understanding of the roles and development of the points they identified.

I used the same HOT map with my Y13 Film students to develop their ability to make and analyse specific textual references (AO2) to back up the more generalised comments made in their essays (AO1). For the students to achieve the highest grades both areas must be covered in detail.

This time, I adapted the Compare /Contrast map by including a series of screen shots for one of their films; we also focused on a specific exam question to fully explore the level of detail needed in each paragraph within their essay.

Compare Contrast Map

The focal point was Mise-en-scene and I had chosen four screen shots from ‘The Story of the Apartment’ in ‘City of God’. We discussed the significance of the shots and the students annotated the images. I then asked them which specific shots we could use to compare from ‘La Haine’ – the class identified the scene in Hubert’s boxing gym, the housing in the banlieue, the apartment or the art gallery in Paris and the view of the Eiffel Tower from the top of the tower block. I then asked the group to explore the similarities and the differences in the mise-en-scene and to start making links to why this was the case. This worked well, and as it was focused on developing a very specific skill, I felt it was successful in making the group fully aware of the interaction between the two assessment objectives as well as the two films.

Whole/Part Analysis Map

My next experiment was to try the whole/part analysis HOT map. I decided that I would do this with two very different classes to assess the impact – a top set Year 10 and a bottom set Year 11. Both groups are in the process of final revision for English Literature GCSE exams.

The Year 11 group were working on ‘An Inspector Calls’ for OCR A662 and the focus was to develop their understanding of the text so they could answer in more detail and move towards the C grade. I used a whole/part analysis map with 3 parts.

Whole/Part Analysis

They filled in the ‘whole’ segment with their overview of the play with little prompting and often suggested relevant bits of detail to each other. As a class we explored the role that Setting/Context played and then the group used the second box to explore character – and used copies of the text to look up relevant details and quotations. This brought us to the end of the first lesson. I was pleased with the progress made by the group and the fact that they had recalled some very useful points, however, I was not quite sure about how ‘considering the impact of a part being missing’ would work, nor of its impact.

The Year 10 first lesson was similar to the Y11, this time the focus was ‘Of Mice and Men‘ for  A663 and, as they are a top set I extended the parts to 5 which we discussed and labeled as a group. They then completed the key elements for each part.

Multistructural Stage

The second lesson provided the ‘Eureka’ moment. I introduced the question – ‘What would be the impact if this part were missing?. We went through an example as a group, using the character of Slim as an example. They came up with lots of ideas about what would happen if Slim were not in the novel, from fairly straightforward points about there being no one to stop Lennie and George being fired in section 3, to more complex ones about George having no one to confide in or to present the arguments for killing Lennie.

Relational and Extended Abstract

They were already starting to  move onto the next question – ‘Therefore, can you evaluate the role of this part?’ – and continued to do so when they were working in pairs. This will be something that I will scaffold a little more with the lower group. The level of discussion amongst the group was amazing, they moved from these points onto detailed consideration of why Steinbeck had used the character or the setting and linking to his purpose. There were some real cognitive leaps, like the group who discussed the theme of religion saying that: the natural setting at the beginning and end could represent God in nature; that Slim’s empathy and understanding, combined with the religious connotations of his description, made him almost like a religious leader and that the men are not presented as religious as church goers are part of a community and the men are outsiders. Totally A* personal analysis and interpretation. I was blown away. This is when I ‘got’ the missing part question. Try it!

Experiments With Hexagons

Twitter is an intriguing place. For all the general chat and points of view that most people associate with the format, there are also some real gems.

The Inspiration

A #pedagoofriday post from @LearningSpy about using hexagons for work for ‘An Inspector Calls’ piqued my interest and, via a quick tweet, led me to his blog post on Hexagonal Learning as well as a range of references to follow up on SOLO taxonomy from @Totallywired77 amongst others.

This seemed just what I needed to bridge the gap with my lower Y11 group between knowing things aboutAnimal Farm and being able to make the type of links they needed to achieve higher grades. So I thought I would give it a go.

The lesson

I decided to focus on the character of Boxer and used the SMART board (shapes and infinite cloning)  to give them a brief demonstration. At the start of the lesson I had given the group a sheet with the SOLO levels on it and discussed them briefly. The class were allowed to choose their own groups and were given a selection of pre-cut out hexagons. We started by identifying a range of points and quotations about Boxer (multistructural) and then I asked what they needed to do to move up a level – make links. This is a class, who can be challenging, with grades ranging from F to D.  They all worked brilliantly discussing the points and making links (relational) with only a minimum amount of input from me.

Hexagon Lesson Exploring the Question ‘Is Boxer a Hero?’

Part way through the lesson, a member of SMT popped in – they left and returned with another member of staff to show them what I was doing! Now that has never happened before.

Result

That was just the start. The use of hexagons and SOLO have spread throughout the English department in a matter of weeks, and were commented on positively during a mock OfSted inspection. This has definitely become part of my teaching repertoire; I have rarely found anything that works with pupils of all abilities and levels like this.

More Examples

Further Reading

Tait Coles’ Blog

Learning Spy’s Blog

Lisa Ashes’s Blog