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.
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