Category Archives: Hexagons

Using SOLO for Intervention (part 1)

One of the biggest challenges facing Year 11 teachers at this time of year is intervention. Whether we like it or not, we are judged on how our classes do in exams, the school is judged in it’s effectiveness and if you are a Maths or English teacher the pressure can be huge. From the students perspective, despite the inevitable nagging from teachers, parents and even the media, for some, the realisation that these GCSEs are important comes pretty late in the day and we as teachers are there to pick up the pieces.

Although the introduction of controlled assessment in English has meant that we are rarely chasing missing coursework, the large amount of class time, and the need for supervision, means that if a student does badly in an assessment the only option is to pick up the pieces later. In my earlier blog post, I wrote about the ideal being to pick this up in Year 10, or to work on creating a situation where the students are working so well that all pieces are great (fantasy land I know). However, the reality, this year at least, is that we have a group of students who have underachieved by several grades in the Spoken Language Study. There are numerous reasons why these pieces are lower: it is a new task for teachers, some of the students were ill or absent during the initial teaching and failed to catch up, the student didn’t really try…but the bottom line is that, in the short term, this is not important, producing a strong piece is.

So I find myself with a motley crew of about 23 students of varying abilities who have one day to complete a new piece of controlled assessment. Luckily, I have been granted a day off timetable (with agreement from the other staff members) to complete this – the aim: for all 23 to produce a piece of controlled assessment that hits at least a C grade, no mean task.

I have decided to approach this a little differently than we would traditionally. The group has several members who have the potential to be challenging, so there will be a zero tolerance for misbehaviour, but that also means that I have to make the work as engaging as possible, as well as catering for a broad range of abilities.

Following the success of using SOLO taxonomy with several of my classes, I decided that this would be an excellent opportunity for me to use this and for the students to benefit from the deep learning SOLO can lead to. I have also decided to try a few others things to make this as positive a learning experience as possible – for example an accelerated learning cycle and to make the lesson a little more like a training session. I want the group to be active and have some fun, to value their opportunity, and ultimately to produce a strong piece of controlled assessment. We have 5 hours, split into 5 lessons, two 2 hour sessions and a final 1 hour session. The last 2 hours (split by the lunch break) is going to be used for producing the assessed piece. That leaves 3 hours to complete the necessary learning – no pressure then!

The task I have chosen is exploring a speech by Obama. I have chosen this for a number of reasons, firstly it is a relatively short and accessible speech, secondly, it is available on YouTube, which makes things easier for the group. Finally, the speech is a political one, as the groups have been studying Animal Farm for their exam and completing speaking and listening tasks focusing on giving a formal speech, they will have an initial level of expertise which I will be able to tap into during the Connect phase.

The initial task will be to identify features of a political speech and to match up some technical terms, hopefully some easy gains to build confidence and to get us off to a flying start. These technical terms will be written down.The students will then look at an extract of the speech, in pairs, highlighting some of the features.

I have decided to experiment with the hexagons from my initial SOLO trials – this time using triangles my thinking is that a single idea can be written onto each triangle and then six can be linked into a group allowing a technique, quotation or effect to be fully explored, not sure if this will work . I have provided 3 different colours of triangle, one for techniques, one for quotations and one for effects. What I want the groups to do is to explore the speech with the final essay in mind from the start. To move to the C grade or above, the students will need to think in at least a relational way, and hopefully, some will go beyond this.

Can SOLO and hexagons help students improve their grades?

I have been using SOLO with my top set Year 11 classes for about a month so far, obviously not in every lesson. We have experimented working in groups and individually, using the hexagons to explore specific exam questions in preparation for OCR A664 section A on ‘Animal Farm‘.  The question is, has using SOLO and hexagons helped the students improve their grades?

Targeting A/A*

I have had some success in the past moving students towards the A* grade, but at times this has felt a little hit or miss, one of the difficulties is often explaining the difference between the top grades and, more importantly, how to achieve this.

In my recent series of lessons, I used the SOLO grid (thanks to Tait Coles @Totallywired77) to explain that, while a strong relational answer may well hit the top of a B, or even an A grade, to hit the A* there needs to be more evidence of independent understanding and interpretation – an extended abstract response. I also tried to encourage students to experiment with their interpretations, using the hexagons  independently, explaining their choices to their partner. The aim was to foster independent understanding and enquiry, but also to encourage the thinking skills needed to express their ideas in writing.

Analysing the Outcome

I have selected 2 pupils, in this very unscientific study, and looked at their work before using hexagons:

Student 1 – extract from C grade essay

Student 2 – extract from B grade essay

and after a specific higher grade, A/A* focused lesson:

Student 1 – second essay extract – a high B grade

Student 2 – second essay – a high A

Now, I am not saying that this is a scientific exploration. The sample I am looking at is not statistically significant, nor can I exclude the possibility that the pupils would have made these improvements without using SOLO. However, both students managed to improve their work by at least a grade. The second essays showed more thorough understanding of the text and a better grasp of characterisation and Orwell’s purpose. This is the case across the group and throughout the ability range. Certainly interesting results!

Next Steps

Having experimented with the use of hexagons and SOLO taxonomy with my Year 11 classes, I have decided to try it with my Year 10 class as part of their preparation for their controlled assessment on ‘Of Mice and Men‘ – for previous pieces, they have been anxious about planning their work under exam conditions. I’m hoping that this will improve their confidence. I am also planning a SOLO intervention session with Y11s who need to redo a piece of controlled assessment.

SOLO and Theory of Effective Learning (Part 2)

The Role of Speaking in Improving Information Processing

Since Vygotsky, it has been generally agreed that language stimulates thought. The nature of speech makes it very useful as a teaching method:

Strategies such as peer-pairing and small-group and whole-group discussion…important for the social aspect of learning. Wallace and Louden (2003)

Students are often hesitant to volunteer answers to questions directed to them by the teacher, however, if given time to explore ideas verbally with their peers they can reformulate their ideas until they have a response they are comfortable with. Using SOLO taxonomy gives students a framework to structure talk, allowing them to extend their discussion beyond the superficial. Using tools like hexagons gives an additional focus for those discussions as well as providing a means to record the ideas. This is a method which can give students the opportunity to explore alternative ideas, it is also less threatening as more than one person is responsible for the reply and embryonic ideas are not up for public scrutiny.

There has been considerable research into the types of task which promote effective information processing. Tsai and Huang (2001) identify 5 levels of  information processing (which show similarities to Bloom’s taxonomy):

  • Defining
  • Describing
  • Comparing
  • Conditional inferring
  • Explaining

These are all activities that can work effectively through speech. Speech also has the benefit that it is much more fluid; mistakes are not recorded and canhelp students construct their personal meanings” (Wallace and Louden, 2003).

Students With Poor Literacy Levels

While it is important to remember that speech-based activities are not a panacea:

Increased participation in classroom discussion has positive effects on course grades. Voelkl in Burchfield and Sappington (1999).

Speech opens up activities to those whose levels of written literacy are poor. However, this is an area of differentiation which is not fully exploited by many teachers. This was highlighted when, as part of a whole school project on oracy skills, I observed the experiences of two Year 10 students over the course of two days. Student A was in lower sets, Student B was in higher sets.

Student A’s lessons provided very few specific opportunities for students to have spoken involvement. Many of the questions directed to Student A and their class mates were simple closed questions, which did not allow for students to develop or show their understanding beyond simple recall of facts. Student A was rarely asked to expand on their answers.

Student B’s lessons provided much greater opportunity to use work-related talk. The fluency of talk, and the fact the students led the discussion, suggested that this was a common occurrance.

Comparing the experiences of the two students identified a key point – that higher ability students are often given more opportunities to demonstrate HOT skills and were therefore more confident in using them. This links to Cano and Cardelle-Elawar’s (2004) point that how we teach students has an effect on their epistemological beliefs. The student response reflects the way in which they are taught; therefore this is something that all teachers need to consider. If we want students to achieve, we need to encourage them to process information deeply by providing appropriate opportunities and tools like SOLO.

This prompted me to trial SOLO and the use of hexagons with my bottom set Year 11 group, rather than taking the safer option of a top set. As a group with poor literacy levels, some of whom were very reluctant to put pen to paper, and who could present challenging behaviour, this was a nerve-wracking prospect. However, the results, outlined in my earlier post, pleasantly surprised me and made me realise that effectively designed and supported speaking tasks could lead to excellent progress with this group.


Burchfield, C. and Sappington, J. (1999). Participation in classroom discussion. Teaching of Psychology, Autumn 1999, Vol.26 Issue 4.

Cano, F. and Cardelle-Elawar, M. (2004). An integrated analysis of secondary school student’s conceptions and beliefs about learning. European Journal of Psychology of Education, Vol.XIX, No. 2.

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).

Wallace and Louden (2003). ‘What we don’t understand about teaching for understanding: questions from science education’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35, 5

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.


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