Category Archives: Reflection

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.

 

What did my first job teach me?

As any teacher will tell you, your PGCE (or other training route) is only the start of you learning to be a teacher. Most trainee teachers heave a huge sigh of relief at finishing their course and securing their first job – and rightly so, but the way ahead is steep and difficult. I would be lying if I didn’t say that your first teaching job makes your PGCE seem, relatively, easy.

I attended three interviews before I secured my first job. It was in an 11-16 school in my home county of Somerset, a rural school, totally different from the inner city I trained in. I was so pleased to be offered the job I almost cried – most unlike me. Then it was back to finish the course and graduate.

September 2001 arrived and I started my first term as an English teacher and form tutor. Luckily, I had a Year 7 tutor group who were as nervous and wide eyed as I was, which meant that, for the first day I didn’t really have time to worry. My timetable was a mixture of groups including Year 10 and Year 11 GCSE groups, some ‘nice’ and some ‘challenging’. Having this mix is important. Sometimes, new teachers are kept away from exam groups and difficult classes – this isn’t helpful as they have to learn to teach these groups at some point. All it does is put more pressure on those who end up with large numbers of exam/difficult groups and creates a situation where these groups are taught by a select few due to the fear of a dip in results.

The department was small, a head of department who started at the same time as me, three part timers and two NQTs. There were filing cabinets full of ‘resources’, many of them printed on Banda machines (one to Google if you have never heard of it) and newspaper articles from the early 80s. Schemes of work were almost non-existent. This was a blessing and a curse as it forced me to produce my own resources and schemes – tough work but I believe it set me up for my teaching career. My planning and lesson delivery improved (to see the gaping chasm between these two read @tstarkey1212‘s blog post on planning).

Being part of a small department, and a small school meant that I got the opportunity to take on extra responsibility. This included being the first in the department to get an interactive whiteboard in my second year. A classroom was built from a section of corridor and part of a toilet block (I kid you not) and the board was installed. As is often the case, it didn’t occur to anyone that I might actually need a traditional board as well – especially with a relatively new, untried piece of equipment (this was eventually sorted out). I had to teach myself how to use the board and its software, as well as having back up lessons for when it broke down. I learnt to wing it, when necessary, and rely on my subject knowledge and my teaching ability.

I eventually moved to another school, for promotion, after three years and was genuinely sad to leave.

So, what did my first job teach me?

  • There is no substitute for doing it yourself. Although there was support and guidance, most of the schemes I taught were created by me. This made me a much better teacher and improved my subject knowledge. I am all for sharing resources, but I think there is a danger of going too far, with whole schemes produced on powerpoint, lesson by lesson. Teachers need to make the lesson their own and the danger with this is that they don’t. I have observed a lesson power point, which I had produced and shared, being taught by someone who thought all they had to do was show the slides to their class – they hadn’t even read the text fully – needless to say, the lesson was a disaster. Yes it takes longer to create new resources or tweak existing ones, but that is what a good teacher does.
  • ‘Bad’ groups have sometimes been short changed. My first GCSE group was one which was a terrifying prospect. Year 11, lots of SEN, challenging behaviour – you know the type. I was given them, I suspect, because if I didn’t manage to get results out of them it wasn’t the end of the world. The class had had three teachers in Year 10, one of whom had walked out mid-lesson never to return. When I looked at their ‘coursework’ I was horrified – none of it was acceptable and mostly there were just a series of posters made after watching films. The group had been failed – by their teachers and by the previous head of department. Over the course of a year we worked hard to complete the missing work and prepare for the exam. It was not plain sailing. I had to convince the group that I was going to stay and that they were capable of GCSE work. There were tantrums and upturned tables (a pupil, not me), but eventually it was done – all but one achieved a pass, and two got a C grade. Those C grades mean the world to me as I know just how hard the pupils worked for them. From that point on, I was careful not to judge a class by their data and reputation and knew the importance of high expectations.
  • Sometimes you have to go with your instincts. The more observant of you will have noticed that my first teaching position coincided with a tragic time in world history, 9/11. My new Year 8 class were doing a scheme of work on the media. We had covered the difference between a tabloid and a broadsheet, looked at the layout of a front page and the questions an article aims to answer. Homework was to bring in a tabloid or a broadsheet newspaper for analysis in the next lesson. I went home that night to see the news full of the horrible events in New York. The next day, I met my Year 8 class again – almost every child had brought in a newspaper, some had brought in two. At the start of the lesson I had had a vague plan of getting the group to write a newspaper article on a completely unrelated topic, or to pull out the textbooks. However, the group wanted to explore the front pages, naturally they were shocked and frightened by what had happened but also curious. Nervously, I decided to go ahead with the planned lesson. We looked at the front pages and the way the headlines were written, the choice of images and the difference between the tabloid and broadsheet coverage. The class were brilliant – fantastic, probing questions; thoughtful comments and a solid understanding of how newspapers cover a major international event. When I spoke to other members of the department about the lesson some were shocked and suggested that parents would complain – not a single one did. It was a tough lesson emotionally for all of us, but I’m glad I went with my instinct.
  • Life sometimes gets in the way. The danger with teaching is that it can be all encompassing. However, sometimes you need to prioritise ‘real’ life: your family and friends. During my first teaching position, this was reinforced by three events – my father having a (thankfully non-fatal) heart attack, my grandmother dying while I was on an overnight school trip and a friend being shot and killed in the local pub. What I learnt from these three incidents was that you need to let someone in school know (however private a person you are), and that ‘good enough’ teaching, whether it be use of worksheets, textbooks or whatever, is good enough until you are in a position to get back to your normal standard of teaching. No one, will criticise or blame you (and if they do then, frankly it is not a school you want to work in) if your lessons are less than brilliant and the books not marked for a while. Concentrate on what is important and let HoDs and SLT deal with the rest, after all, that is what they are paid extra for.
  • School politics can be bizarre. Schools can be a hotbed for all sorts of odd behaviour – you probably have all kinds of stories (real and exaggerated) from your own school days. My first job reinforced that: the ‘reserved’ seats in the staffroom, mugs and the all too common rivalry between the Maths, Science and English departments. However, I also experienced the minefield that can be departmental politics. My new HoD was in the unenviable position of having to work with his predecessor, a lady nearing retirement who had given up the head of department job to teach part time (not entirely voluntarily, I suspect). They did not see eye to eye. She wanted to hoard the old resources (Banda sheets and all, many of which hadn’t been touched for years) and was reluctant to make any changes to ‘the way things have always been done’, even when a change was desperately needed. Pupils had been set in Year 7 and then remained in the same class throughout their school career, she never saw the problems this caused in the lower groups as she only taught the top ones. In departmental meetings, she was vocally against any suggestions that were not her own – it was clear that she had become totally disillusioned with teaching and did not enjoy what she did. Eventually she made the decision to resign (to the relief of the rest of the department, who were sick of the tension) and left after giving a speech to the whole staff about the awful state of education and that children should not have to attend school after 14 years of age. My advice, if you find yourself caught in a similarly bizarre situation, observe, listen but keep your own counsel (in public at least).

Your first teaching job, good or bad, is something that helps shape you as a teacher. It will be hard (realistically it should be) and it may convince some that teaching is not for them, but for those who stay in the job it is unforgettable.

SOLO Research: Conclusions

What have I learnt from my research into the SOLO taxonomy?

Researching and Note Taking

At a personal level, this research has been very useful. I have found out that I really enjoy research and reading academic articles and texts. In particular, writing the literature review was an interesting, challenging and enjoyable part – far more than I had expected it to be. It was like a giant jigsaw which needed to be put together before it would make sense.

notesI tried out a variety of note taking methods for the review, the most effective one turned out to be writing key quotations onto post its which I then sorted into linked areas on large pieces of paper with lines and comments added to show the relationship. This helped organise each part of the review into paragraphs and made the links clearer to see. It was while I was doing this that I realised that this was also a SOLO task – I was moving my knowledge of the literature from the multistructural to the relational level and beyond. Thinking about the process in this way was quite useful as it mitigated some of the frustration I felt at having to go off on tangents in order to understand the bigger picture – it was simply that I didn’t have the knowledge at the multistructural level.

Twitter, the Internet and The Khan Academy

As someone who completed their undergraduate degree in the early 1990s, studying at Masters level was a very different beast. Beyond the level of complexity that obviously exists in the step up, the key difference I noticed was the availability of resources. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love an academic library – the smell of the books, the chance finds in the stacks, the quiet you only get in the obscure corner of the Old English section on floor 10 – but, as a distance learner, the internet has been invaluable to me.

Twitter has been a fantastic source of ideas, suggestions for academic reports and texts as well as a source of data. Without this community of educators, I think my study would have been a sad shadow, and I would have been a very lonely researcher.

One of the challenges I faced was gaining an understanding of descriptive and comparative statistics. As far as I can remember (and it was a very long time ago, so I may be wrong), this was not covered in much detail in my GCSE Maths course. Although I have used maths on a day to day basis in work and as a teacher, this was something I needed to brush up on – that is where The Khan Academy came in. One weekend watching their statistics videos and trying out a few problems, and I had a good understanding of what I needed.

Is the SOLO Taxonomy Effective?

Based on my limited research, it does appear that the SOLO taxonomy can be a useful tool in a teacher’s arsenal. The use of rubrics to identify the knowledge (both declarative and functioning) and stages of learning were particularly useful for making this explicit both for me and the students. The emphasis on looping back through the multistructural-relational-extended abstract levels in order to develop a more detailed and sophisticated understanding helped scaffold the most able and encouraged them to view learning as open-ended.

Knowledge is vital – without relevant knowledge, students cannot progress through the SOLO levels. Direct instruction, whether it is through teacher talk, rubrics or any other direct method, help to provide the  knowledge needed by the student. The rubric can keep this instruction at the forefront while students complete independent tasks – the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

A key benefit of the SOLO taxonomy is creating a common language for discussion of knowledge and feedback – used by the teacher and in self and peer assessment it can help to ensure the quality and focus of feedback.

Of the SOLO techniques I trialled with my classes, I felt that the use of rubrics, hexagons and SOLO stations were the most useful. The weaker students found the hexagons helpful to pull together their knowledge of a text and bridge the gap between knowing the text and being able to write a clear paragraph about it. SOLO Stations allowed for differentiation, student choice and teacher guidance while giving me the time to work individually with students. The HOT maps were rather hit or miss depending on which type was used – the Part/Whole Analysis was a useful structure for discussing and revising a text in detail.

Given the recent reports from Sir Michael Wilshaw, regarding the brightest students in schools failing to achieve the highest grades, it is certainly interesting that in this small scale study Level 5 students and males taught using SOLO methods did considerably better than their non-SOLO counterparts. Ev ex 2Although it is impossible to know whether SOLO was the key factor in this difference, it suggests that this may be a possibility and would warrant further investigation.Ev ex 4

 

Taken as a whole, based on my personal observations, surveys of teachers and students, a lesson observation and exam data analysis, it appears that the SOLO taxonomy may be effective. As with any teaching technique, it is not a panacea – however, it is certainly worth trying.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 2

Exam Data

In addition to the other data collection methods, I chose to analyse the modular examination results for a group of Year 10 students, one group (n=29) taught using SOLO methods, and a larger group (n=82) who were not.

To try to ensure that, as much as possible, the groups were comparable, I chose students who had started school with either a level 4 or 5 from their Key Stage 2 English tests. The students were all from one of the two parallel top sets. Students who did not have a Key Stage 2 level were excluded from the analysis.

All students in the groups selected took GCSE English Literature exam module A663 (Prose from Different Cultures) in the summer of Year 10 and studied the same text – Of Mice and Men. The results were analysed using descriptive statistics to gain an overview and identify areas where the data warranted a closer look. In areas which appeared to show a difference, a chi-square test was applied to test significance; a significance threshold level of p<0.5 was set to ensure that any significance was meaningful.

Although every attempt was made to make the analysis as unbiased as possible, for example choosing to focus on a module which was externally marked, it is important to remember that looking:

At results before and after a new intervention is rolled out…can be very misleading, as other factors may have changed at the same time. (Goldacre, 2013:9)

 

In addition, as the group selection was not randomized, or carried out over a longer period of time, the results may not be replicable, although I feel that they may provide some indications for areas which would be worth investigating further.

Analysis

The non-SOLO group shows normal distribution with a modal grade of a B. The SOLO group also shows a relatively normal distribution, which is less steep than the non-SOLO group. Ev ex 1 The tail at the higher end of the SOLO group does not drop off to the extreme of the non-SOLO group. The modal grade for the SOLO group is one grade higher, an A grade.

Comparing the results of the combined level 4 and 5 students between the SOLO and Non-SOLO groups, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 4%; a significant result. These results suggest that, based on this limited study, SOLO may have a positive impact on exam achievement.

To identify whether this impact can be pinpointed, the data was explored in subsets according to level and gender.

Exploring the subset data, it is apparent that, in this sample, the SOLO group females did not achieve significantly different grades to the non-SOLO group. 

When comparing the difference between the level 4 students, the difference is significant. Ev ex 3

However, it is when comparing the achievement of students starting school on a level 5  and male groups that a very highly significant difference is evident.

Ev ex 2

Comparing the results of the students entering school with a level 5, using a chi-square test, suggests that the probability of this distribution happening by chance is 0%; a very highly significant result.Ev ex 4

As suggested by the graph there is a significant difference between the achievements of the two male groups. Looking at this distribution, using a chi-square test suggests that this distribution (p=0.0000) is very highly significant.

Although there are limitations to this particular aspect of the study, the results suggest that SOLO techniques may have a measurable impact on student exam results. Therefore, it would certainly be worth further, structured research.

SOLO Research Project – Findings Part 1

Overview of the Project

As the project was to investigate an aspect of my teaching practice, I chose to use an action research approach. Alongside this, and the literature review, I also carried out a small scale survey of students involved and a slightly larger scale survey of teachers. The final part of the project was an analysis of exam results (I will go through the findings of the exam analysis in another post).

Throughout the action research I completed a series of blog posts outlining my experiments with three separate SOLO techniques: use of hexagons, use of HOT maps and the use of rubrics and SOLO stations. Within each entry I tried to outline the techniques used and comment on my perception of their effectiveness. Newbury (2001:3) describes the ‘research diary’ as:

A form through which the interaction of subjective and objective aspects of doing research can be openly acknowledged and brought into a productive relationship.

I felt that, as one of the criticisms of the action research model was that results were often restricted to the teacher carrying out the research, it would be helpful if I shared my experiences with other teachers via a blog. As Weston (2012) states in his blog post:

Researchers need to develop a culture where findings are not simply broadcast to schools, but where they engage with increasing numbers of schools to find out how to successfully adapt the approach in different contexts, how to overcome different challenges, and how to successfully combine the idea with other priorities in the classroom.

My observations focused mostly on Year 10 classes, although I also trialled SOLO based activities with Year 11 and Year 12. Classes were chosen using convenience sampling.

Any personal commentary, especially reflecting on one’s own teaching, is subject to bias, as Gavron (1996:159, cited in Biggam, 2011) notes:

It is difficult to see how this can be avoided completely, but awareness of the problem plus constant self-control can help.

 I have endeavoured to keep this in mind through my analysis, and chosen to use data from a range of different sources to mitigate any unconscious bias. In addition, although convenience sampling is not ideal, as the sample size is relatively small and the groups were not chosen at random, this is acceptable for action research.

My Observations

The blog posts on each of the techniques can be found here:
Hexagons – 1, 2, 3, 4
HOT Maps – 1, 2,

SOLO Stations – 1, 2, 3,4

Overall, I felt that the techniques had been useful in conjunction with existing teaching methods. The use of the rubric to specify key elements of the knowledge being taught was particularly helpful for structuring feedback with clear next steps. I will expand on this in my final post (Conclusions).

Student and Teacher Surveys

Unfortunately, the number of students who took part in the survey was small (partly as my time ended up being rather cut short due to my relocation). However, on the whole, the students found the SOLO lessons useful and felt that they had helped them develop their knowledge of the text and how to present their responses more clearly.

In March, I asked for volunteers to complete a short questionnaire about using the SOLO taxonomy in lessons as part of my MA. I was overwhelmed that so many readers took the time to complete the survey – 60 of you in total! Thank you so much for your help.

Evidence 1aThe majority of teachers who responded felt that SOLO techniques were effective and based this belief on a range of indicators, not simply personal observation.

Evidence 1The most popular techniques were, perhaps unsurprisingly, those which have had the most coverage in blogs and are the most straightforward to implement.

Evidence 2My final questions asked which subject the teachers taught and how long they had been teaching. Teachers from a wide range of subjects took part, from science to history, from PE to English – suggesting that SOLO techniques have the potential to be used effectively across the curriculum.

Evidence 3 The findings of this survey certainly suggest that teachers with 6 or more years teaching experience are using social networking and experimenting with new techniques. Now I am not saying that those who have been teaching longer are ‘better’ than those just entering the profession. This is more to do with – the difference between ‘experienced’ and ‘expert’ teachers. Effective, expert teachers are prepared to experiment, and adapt their teaching, not because Ofsted or SMT want it, but because they have decided that it would be beneficial to their students.

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

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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]

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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.

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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]

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?

SOLO Stations Task Details

Since I posted about my experiments with SOLO Stations, I have had several requests about the activities I used for each level. These are my take on SOLO type activities, based on my understanding of the taxonomy, enjoy!

My starting point for these lessons was to consider what knowledge and expertise the students needed to move towards demonstrating mastery of the topic and text – i.e. what they needed to do to hit the A*/A grade or beyond. As I mentioned in my earlier posts, here, here and here, I used the SOLO levels, the mark scheme and my own experience of what mastery of the subject area would look like at GCSE level. I also had a look at the type of activities teachers had used in other subjects, in science and PE.

As we had spent several lessons exploring the text, we were focusing on demonstrating the top 3 levels – Multistructural, Relational and Extended Abstract. I tried to come up with a range of activities across the abilities as well as to encourage more independence and effort on their part to understand the text and to create a personal interpetation.

So, here are some of the activities I used:

Multistructrual

  1. Thought Stems – taken from @LearningSpy’s (David Didau) really useful book ‘The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson’. This was good for helping those who needed more support when structuring their paragraphs.
  2. Improving Your Knowledge – focusing on language and analysis, I provided a list of websites for the students to revise and make notes on areas they felt they needed to develop.
  3. Depending on the text, I used some of the more guided activities from textbooks or, carefully selected, from Teachit for a third activity. I don’t believe in unnecessarily reinventing the wheel.

Relational

  1. Hexagonal Learning – using leftover hexagons from previous lessons (including some that had been written on) to focus on linking ideas and quotations. They needed to use these to write a PEE paragraph.
  2. Colourful Expressions – using colour to annotate a section of the text, identifying links between the characters and throughout the text.
  3. Iceberg Analysis – using a pyramid to analyse a key word or phrase, from the word to its literal meaning then its connotations/deeper meaning. The aim being to encourage detailed analysis of the text, rather than more general comments.
  4. Unpicking an Essay – the students are given a high grade exemplar essay and have to create a plan from the essay, to see how a strong essay is structured and the ideas linked.

Extended Abstract

  1.  Extended Abstract Hexagons – similar to the relational hexagon task,  however, where the relational task focused on the straight links between the hexgons, this task looks at the meeting point of 3 hexagons.
  2. Adding to Multistructural Knowledge – I included (and the next task) this to emphasise that, at the higher levels, you are constantly adding to your knowledge and re-evaluating your understanding as a result. I included a range of more complex websites, some of them geared towards A-Level and University level students.
  3. Wider Reading – a range of relevant books, from the library and my own collection, again including more complex analysis and commentary.

I hope this post is helpful, especially for those of you wanting to try SOLO Stations for yourself.