Category Archives: Learning

SOLO Taxonomy – a Learner’s Perspective

Some of my most read blog posts have been on the SOLO taxonomy – as a teacher I found it an interesting and useful tool. My small scale research suggested that SOLO was something worth investigating further. This post aims to look at SOLO from a slightly different perspective – that of the learner.

Since September, I have been embarking on a very different educational experience – that of a PhD student. This has been a very different, and at times rather unsettling, experience. As a teacher (I don’t say ‘former teacher’ as I hope to teach again at some time in the future), part of me has been evaluating the process, thinking about the structure of my learning.

One of the most difficult parts of my PhD (so far) is the realisation that there is so much I don’t know. As a student at this level, you like to think that you have some expertise in your subject, that you know ‘stuff’. My topic is 19th Century literature – I have read and taught many of my chosen texts and am pretty confident discussing and writing about them – however, the more I read, the more unsure I become. But, this is normal, it is a key part of the learning process, and this is where I have found the SOLO taxonomy useful.

In my post ‘What is the SOLO taxonomy?’ I highlighted the following:

 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.

The structure suggested by Campbell et al. is key for learners; learning is not finite, there isn’t a point at which you know ‘everything’. The key to the Extended Abstract level is that, as you look at the topic from different perspectives and consider ‘what if?’, you need to return to the Multistructural and Relational levels in order to make sense of new learning.

For example:

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It is easy, especially in your first year of a PhD to feel that you are somewhat lost, that there are so many things that you don’t know. But that is the point, you need to develop your understanding in a wide range of areas, and spend a large proportion of your time with your head in a book, or journal article.

Rather than being despondent about the amount I have yet to learn, I have tried to think about it using SOLO. In this case I am the observer of my own learning. I need to evaluate my existing position and identify areas for further development.

As with learners at any level, there are some things I have a more detailed knowledge of than others. My knowledge of my chosen literary texts is strong (generally Extended Abstract), my knowledge of R programming is still in its early stages (Multistructural/Relational), my understanding of statistical measures slightly lower again (Multistructural).

This way of viewing my learning has had two main effects: firstly, it has encouraged me to be far more open in my attitude to what I can learn (a growth mindset). Five or ten years ago I would never have believed that I would be taking Computer Science and Statistics modules at university level – nor that I would be enjoying them. I used to say that I was not very good at maths, something of an English teacher cliché, although I didn’t really have any evidence that this was actually the case; now I know that I can learn what I need to.

Secondly, I am far more comfortable with the seemingly disjointed nature of PhD research. It is only disjointed at the moment, as my understanding and knowledge develops links will gradually become apparent – this is a core part of the process, accepting and acknowledging this makes it far less stressful.

I believe that SOLO can be used with students of all levels to self-assess, as well as to enable their teachers to assess and provide feedback. In particular, I feel that it can address two very different problems, how to extend and challenge the most able, and how to encourage and support the weakest. Encouraging pupils to be responsible for their own learning, to be active learners and have a growth mindset can only be a positive step.

 

The Artificial Boundaries Between ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’

It has been a while since I have blogged (on this site at least), as I have been knee-deep in the first few months of my PhD. However, a mini-Twitter storm over these comments by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has prompted me to chip in my tuppence worth.

The timing of Ms Morgan’s comments are a little strange, long after A-level choices for the current Year 12 have been decided, and the points seem similar to the annual media frenzy over ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. The argument goes along the expected lines – future earnings, what ’employers want’ – and advocates for each side rush in to defend their chosen subject areas…But all of this is missing the point – it is artificial, and rather unhelpful, to polarise the Arts/Humanities and STEM.

Let me lay my cards on the table, although my GCSE subjects were relatively broad: languages, chemistry, maths, history etc., I studied arts and humanities subjects at A-level (I considered the embryonic Computer Science A-level, but at the time a GCSE in Physics was a pre-requisite) and at degree level – Ancient History and English. However, I am not about to jump into a rant about how Arts subjects are x and STEM subjects are y.

Realistically, the boundaries of subjects are blurred – increasingly so the further you go in education. Media Studies (a popular whipping boy) for example, can include the use of complex editing and image manipulation software – surely this is technology? An experimental physicist with brilliant ideas will not get very far if they cannot express themselves coherently in the written and spoken word.

With the school leaving age increasing to 17, and 18 from Summer 2015, personally I think that all students should take Maths or Statistics as well as a more English based subject (i.e. one with a strong literacy content) up to this age – not necessarily as A-levels. It would also be prudent for them to learn to code in at least one programming language.

Now, as a PhD student studying 19th Century literature and Digital Humanities, this blurring is even more apparent. Many of the articles I read include complex statistics, I am learning to code using R in order to carry out my analysis – is this Literature, or Statistics, or Technology? Or perhaps all three? Digital preservation and presentation of artefacts, GIS, and the ability to manipulate data are becoming increasingly evident in many fields. Perhaps it is about time that we stop trying to divide the subjects,  stop propagating the myth that you are only good at Arts OR STEM, Maths OR English, that boys are good at x and girls are good at y?

The best interests of our students will be served by them taking a broad range of subjects, rather than focusing entirely on one small area, and this means that school timetables need to make this varied choice of subjects a possibility, which may mean increased government funding.  This would more effectively prepare them for further education and employment than a current system which seeks to narrow the choices to Arts or STEM. We are not helping our students to propagate the myth that ‘Arts’ and ‘STEM’ live in separate boxes, experience in industry and higher education will soon show how artificial these boundaries really are.

What did teacher training teach me?

Reflection is a key tool in any teacher’s arsenal, so with that in mind, I am going to write a series of posts reflecting on the lessons I have learnt from different parts of my teaching career. There seems no better place to start than the start of my teaching career.

I came to teaching slightly later than many do, I had left university 7 years previously and worked in a variety of jobs including finance, journalism and the military. However, in 2000 I decided to stop resisting the career that everyone I knew told me I should follow.

I applied and was accepted on a PGCE course through a SCITT in Birmingham. SCITT stands for School Centred Initial Teacher Training – this was a PGCE course validated by the Open University but based in a consortium of schools rather than a university. The course appealed to me as I would be based in schools for the bulk of my training, with one day a week of lectures and twilight sessions.

In some ways, this was a real trial by fire. We were a small group of trainees, which inevitably got smaller as the course progressed, based in some of the toughest schools in Handsworth. We would spend our time in two different schools – my two were a mixed comprehensive and a non-selective girls’ school. We were encouraged to teach before our ‘official’ placement, and expected to continue teaching afterwards, each lesson having a 2 page A4 triplicate lesson plan – to be completed several days in advance.

I had two mentors. One was bubbly, disorganised and totally supportive. She encouraged me to teach Chaucer to Year 10 and experiment with my teaching. I remember attending a parents’ evening with her. No appointments, a large proportion of non-English speakers and few of the pupils attending – it was chaos, I had no idea who anyone was and I suspect she didn’t either! My other mentor was almost the polar opposite. He was a stickler for detail, not particularly supportive and used to lock away every item of stationery – even the board pen and eraser. However, I learnt a lot from both of them.

I planned and taught lessons at all Key Stages, some went well, others were disastrous. I wrote essays, lesson plans and created schemes of work. I attended staff meetings and parents’ evenings. It was a hard slog, weekends and holidays were spent working, I barely saw my partner but eventually, finally, I passed.

So, what did my training teach me? Beyond the basics…

  • The first time a pupil swears at you is a big shock. In my first placement I had a very difficult Y9 class (why do they always seem to be Y9?). They were tough and reluctant to complete any tasks I set – I had to grit my teeth to build up the courage to come out from behind the desk. Then one of the little lovelies decided to swear at me. It was like a punch to the gut – not because the words offended me, or my feelings were hurt, but because I wasn’t sure what to do. Your normal reaction may be to swear back, leave the room, thump them – none of which you are allowed to do! I stood there like a goldfish opening and closing my mouth. However, the next time it happened the spell was broken, I knew what to do and was (relatively) calm.
  • Always check your resources. Towards the end of my third placement, with a sense of demob excitement in the air and a plan to show a video, I failed to check my resources carefully enough. For part of a scheme on satire, I planned to show an episode of The Simpsons. I had watched it before so all should be fine – but it wasn’t. I had chosen what is now etched into my mind as the ‘bastard’ episode – where Homer meets his illegitimate brother and Bart says ‘bastard’ about a million times. I had to brazen it out or it would have been all too obvious that I had cocked up. I still shudder.
  • Good behaviour needs good managers. Beyond the classroom level, pupils behaviour needs a strong and active SLT. I was based in two very different schools, both challenging but one SLT were in the corridors, they taught and the pupils knew where the line was drawn. The other school had two locked doors between SLT and the rest of the school and they were rarely seen – unsurprisingly, behaviour was much worse.
  • Take time to wind down. This is something that easily gets forgotten, but it is essential for your mental health. Every Friday we would meet up for a drink to discuss the triumphs and disasters of the week. Once a month we met up in a Chinese restaurant and ate and drank ourselves silly – it really helped.
  • Some training is rubbish. Not every ‘expert’ gives useful advice. I had to sit through ICT ‘training’ which started with how to switch on a computer. I also remember a session on behaviour where it was obvious that the teacher had not been in the classroom for years, and when he had been, it was in a selective grammar – totally unlike the schools most of us had been placed in. Take it with a pinch of salt and move on.

Teaching is a tough job and teacher training needs to be tough to prepare you. But it is worth it!