Tag Archives: Learning

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 OFSTED teach me?

When I started teaching, back in 2000, OFSTED was rarely mentioned. As a trainee teacher, I was aware of teacher standards and observation grades as it was part of my assessment. We had essays on the SEN code of practice and were regularly assessed on our subject knowledge, but nothing specific on OFSTED.

In my first teaching job, as an NQT, I was observed a few times for the forms for my induction. Training was generally focused around new technology or, in department, on exam specifications and developing schemes of work. OFSTED was in the background (They might visit), but were barely mentioned.

About 7 or 8 years ago that started to change. There were occasional INSET sessions about preparing for OFSTED, a particular lesson structure was suggested as something that OFSTED wanted. But still, most of the time, they were barely mentioned.

The most dramatic change happened in the past 5 years or so. Suddenly OFSTED was mentioned regularly – in lesson observations, in INSET, in staff meetings. We became bombarded with information regarding OFSTED and what they wanted. There was a, not so subtle, shift from teaching to the best of your ability, challenging and stretching the pupils to being a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ teacher. Everything shifted. Suddenly it was not about what the pupils needed, or what you as a teacher needed, it was all about what OFSTED wanted.

OFSTED became a big stick, which in many schools has stilted the focus on teaching and learning. You must all have x, y and z in your lesson, your lesson plan should look like this, hour after hour of INSET on lesson grading. Observations being about judging teachers and giving them a number, rather than being a discussion about their teaching and what each party could learn. (One teacher told me that, after being observed by SMT and given a ‘Good’, she asked which member of SMT she could observe teaching an ‘Outstanding’ lesson – the response? No one!).

The school year for many has become a round of learning walks, graded observations, book checks, mocksteds. Boxes being ticked, reams of paperwork being completed. This can lead to fear: fear of innovation in case it fails, fear of teaching the way you know works because OFSTED might not like it, fear of allowing staff to use their judgement. The end result is often all teachers being treated as though they were incompetent or lazy, rather than the occasional teacher who actually is. If Michael Wilshaw wants to know why so many teachers leave it is this (and schools with poor SMT who don’t support staff with behaviour).

After years of dodging the OFSTED bullet, I was visited a few years ago. It was brief, I got little feedback and the process had no impact on improving my future teaching. I suspect that, for most teachers and most schools, improvement is despite OFSTED rather than because of them. It makes me sad, because, alongside this bloody minded focus on OFSTED, there has been a real change in teaching – the joy is being sucked out of it. Teaching is becoming more and more about targets, data, results and paperwork rather than the joy and excitement of learning. If you want excellent teachers, let them teach, trust them as educated professionals. And if OFSTED visit they will see what they should have been looking for all along – hardworking teachers teaching well and pupils learning.

So, what did OFSTED teach me?

  • Fearing OFSTED is an unhealthy waste of time. 12 years, 195 days a year, I worked as a teacher, that is 2340 days. One OFSTED inspection in all that time which lasted 2 days – that is 0.085% of my teaching career to date. Now obviously, OFSTED did not spend those two days with me, they actually spent 30 minutes. So, 5 possible teaching hours a day for 2340 days is 11700 hours – a massive total of 0.004% of my teaching time. To get worked up over something which takes up so minimal amount of your actual teaching time is pointless, akin to worrying and attending training to deal with a wasp in your classroom.
  • SMTs interpretation of OFSTED guidance is not always accurate. OFSTED is about schools rather than individual teachers, and as such, there is a lot of pressure on SMT and particularly the Head. It is hardly surprising that this pressure can turn into an almost obsessive focus, skewing what should be the core focus of the school and teaching. Heads worry, so they often pass this down to their staff, and in their panic they interpret and misinterpret what the OFSTED documents ask for. This is never more true than when they are applying gradings to lessons. Comments on twitter like this:
    TeacherToolkit (@TeacherToolkit)
    I received an email last night from a teacher; informing me that their line-manger expected to see progress within 10 mins in a Food lesson!

    Teachers being told that a single mistake will lead to an inadequate grading and capability. The problem here is not OFSTED, but SMT’s misinterpretation and using it as a big stick.

  • Beware consultants selling fear. I have always had an issue with consultants, especially those who work for OFSTED, don’t teach and have a side line as a consultant. Realistically, it is not in their interest to say to a school ‘Just do what you’re doing, there is nothing specific OFSTED is looking for’, they would do themselves out of a lucrative job (unless they are doing this free out of the goodness of their heart). If you pay for someone to deliver INSET, you expect them to deliver something, a checklist or key messages – it doesn’t follow that, just because you pay them, they are any good. I have been told about a recent INSET with an ‘OFSTED consultant’ telling staff that they would be fools not to have a lesson plan (despite this line from the School Inspection Handbook ‘Inspectors will not expect teachers to prepare lesson plans for the inspection.’), that they must show progress in the lesson observation and differentiation for each pupil, that they need an ‘OFSTED file’ containing student data and seating plans. My particular favourite was that if a single child is late to your lesson it is a) your fault for not engaging them (how can you engage them if they are not there?) b) lateness is the teacher’s issue (not SMT, whole school or the pupil themselves?) and c) if that happens your lesson is inadequate.
  • Luck has a lot to do with it. Any observation, and OFSTED in particular, is a snapshot – one tiny moment in time (0.05% of a school year, if you are observed for about 30 minutes). That observation is subject to a range of influences: is it last thing on a windy Wednesday with 11v27 after their half day at college? Has a giant wasp invaded your class room? Is the start or end of term or the school year? Have you been up all night with a sick relative? You do your best, but sometimes in teaching things don’t go the way you want. One observation does not define you as a person or your teaching – we all know those who are excellent but crumble under the pressure of being observed. Equally, I’m sure we all know those who are half-arsed teachers the bulk of the time but can pull a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ to of the bag when being observed. The time I was observed by OFSTED, with a Y10 English group, in the first 3 weeks of a new school year, I was lucky. My lesson was pretty much what I would have normally done, the luck was: that I had taught most of the class for the previous year, and in some cases two years (pity those teachers seeing groups for the first or second time), and that two of the boys decided to have a detailed discussion about the character of Mr Darcy in response to my prompt. I was told the lesson was ‘Outstanding’ but I know that it just happened to be one of those days when all my ducks were in a row, I could have been faced with stony silence and a swift shift to a written task.

OFSTED has become an all encompassing focus in many schools, the danger is that it, and the way that schools interpret its advice, will continue to have a negative effect on teaching. Schools and teachers need to choose whether to allow this to happen.

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.

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!

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.

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.


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]

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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.


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