Monthly Archives: March 2012

SOLO and Theory of Effective Learning (Part 2)

The Role of Speaking in Improving Information Processing

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

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

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

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

  • Defining
  • Describing
  • Comparing
  • Conditional inferring
  • Explaining

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

Students With Poor Literacy Levels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Tsai, C-C. and Huang, C-M. (2001). Development of cognitive structures and information processing strategies of elementary school students learning about biological reproduction. Journal of Biological Education, 36 (1).

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

SOLO and Theory of Effective Learning Part 1

Information Processing and Learning

Research indicates that effective learning takes place when the individual actively processes the information taken in through the various senses:

The average learners for not perform according to expectation mainly due to inadequate processing of the sensory information through the memory process. Alutu (2006)

Therefore, if this is the case, teachers need to understand information processing and endeavour to provide opportunities to improve the quality of processing in order to promote higher attainment:

Constructivist-oriented instruction helped low achievers develop more extended  and connected cognitive structures than traditional teaching. Wu and Tsai (2005)

What Teachers Can Do

There are many factors which may influence depth of learning including environment, attitude and epistemological beliefs.Teachers can have an impact on some of these factors, through teaching methods  and dealing with those environmental factors within their control. Bischoff and Anderson (2001) highlighted the importance of providing students with tasks which actively involve them:

Neuronal networks are actively constructed as neuronal connections are made, or reorganised, to form new knowledge representations. These representations and larger organising frameworks…are activated when stimulated through learning experiences that promote active involvement by the learner.

However, setting tasks which involve the students is only part of what a teacher can do to enourage learning. How information is presented to the students can be key to whether the student is involved. In ‘The Art of Changing the Brain’, Zull (2002) warns about the use of explanation – a frequently used piece of teacher talk:

Explanation transfers the power from the learner to the teacher. But neuroscience tells us that the positive emotions in learning are generated in the parts of the brain that are used most heavily when students develop their own ideas.

From my experiments with SOLO taxonomy and, in particular, the use of hexagons (as well as the fantastic blogs of @Learningspy, @Totallywired77 and @lisajaneashes ), this is where SOLO has its strength. As the hexagons allow students to explore and create their own links, they are active in creating their own ideas and interpretations of the material.

Students’ understanding of learning is key to how they learn and the quality of that learning, and this is often an aspect of education which is overlooked by schools. If a student believes that learning is quick and easy, their learning is likely to be more shallow than a student who believes that learning is complex and takes time. Dweck’s (2006) ‘growth mindset’:

The belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts.

– therefore, is something that educators need to try to develop in their students, if they are to achieve their full potential.


Alutu, A. N. (2006). The Guidance Role of the Instructor in the Teaching and Learning Process. Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 44-49.

Bischoff, P.J. and 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.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Wu, Y-T. and Tsai, C-C. (2005). Effect of Constructivist Oriented Instruction on Elementary School Students’ Cognitive Structures. Journal of Biological Education, 39 (3), pp.113-119.

Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. USA: Stylus Publishing.


It has been hard to ignore the rise of the infographic on the web. The colourful and exciting presentation of information turns data into an art form. There are plenty of sites that you can search to find examples that would help in your teaching, for example

Many infographics are designed to be viewed on the web, but they can also make interesting posters to introduce or revise a topic.
How Easy is it to Make an Infographic?
While there are hundreds of fantastic examples available online, sometimes I can’t find exactly what I was looking for. So the obvious solution was to try to make one myself.
I decided to make a revision infographic for my Year 10 and 11 classes who are studying ‘Of Mice and Men’ for the OCR A663 exam. This was a bigger task than Word could cope with, so I chose to use Adobe Illustrator – the only problem, I had never used the program before. A little web-surfing turned up a helpful tutorial to use as a starting point. From there, it was a matter of trial and error. It has taken a few hours to get to this point, some of which is down to my lack of familiarity with Illustrator, but overall I am happy with what I have produced so far.

Partially Completed Infographic

I’ll upload the finished piece when I have completed it – I need to decide what to put in the final sections.

Using SideVibe in Class

In my last post I wrote about my experiment with SideVibe, as suggested by @coolcatteacher. I had decided to try it with two groups – a Year 9 class, during lesson time, and a Y12 class for revision homework.

I have now used SideVibe with my Y9 class, looking at some short stories – below is the verdict, mine and theirs!

The Lesson

I had selected two very short stories from Short Stories at East of the Web – the site allows you to search by genre, age range and length. I then prepared a series of relatively simple questions on each of the stories for the students to comment on. I used the ‘Written Response’, ‘Ranking’ and ‘Discussion’ task options. I also used the ‘Multiple choice’ option and a free text  to get feedback from the class.

Logging In

Getting the class onto the site was relatively painless. I had produced a Powerpoint showing them what to do and included the teacher reference. We did find that, when they went to the first ‘vibe’, the website did not show up. This was down to the school system not fully downloading the page and was easily sorted.


The class worked through the tasks at varying speeds as the tasks allowed them to work at their own pace. I could keep track on their work by circulating and also by checking the feedback option on the teacher site.


I had only spent a short amount of time producing the ‘vibes’ and some of the tasks were a little repetitive, however the group as a whole seemed to like what they were doing. They particularly enjoyed the ‘Discussion’ task as it brings up the responses of their classmates and allows them to respond. This would need to be used carefully and with clear rules, with some groups, to avoid rude comments, but each comment is logged to an individual student and therefore any misuse provides clear evidence! As it was, only a couple of the group made silly comments and they were daft rather than malicious.

The ‘Feedback’ option allows teachers to feedback to individual students – this is something I will explore with the Y12 homework task.

Via the ‘Feedback’ option, it was also possible to create reports of the student responses for all tasks or for each individual task – this could allow you to stick the work into their books. It also means that you could evaluate responses from a whole class pretty quickly, so if the tasks were designed to test particular skills you could use it as a snapshot diagnostic tool.

About 75% of the class said they enjoyed the tasks – although, I would certainly work on improving the tasks when doing this again. I also gave the group the chance to tell me what they thought could be  improved – here are a selection of their comments:

Comments From Y9


Definitely worth using. The tasks are easy to set up and allow students to work at their own pace.

Teaching 2.0 – Prezi and SideVibe

It is often said that one of the only constants in education is change. Sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes anything but. Technology is rapidly developing and becoming a core part of many classrooms.

When I started teaching (a mere 11 years ago), the height of technology – at my school – was an OHP, a bookable computer suite and a photocopier. Go back a few more years, when I was at school myself, we had a typing room and ‘the’ school computer.

The danger is that technology is often used without any thought of whether it is useful or practical. Hours of my time have been spent on resource creation for VLEs, and other forms of technology, that have then been discarded almost before the resources have been used, so I always like to run a few trials before committing myself to a new piece of teaching kit. I will try a new piece of tech, or a new teaching idea, with a class or two and ask the following:

  1. Does it engage the learners?
  2. Does it help them make progress?
  3. Is it easy to use?
  4. Does it take longer to produce a lesson or resource than the students will take to complete it?

I am going to explore some of the technologies available to classroom teachers.


I have been toying with Prezi on and off for the past couple of years. Prezi offers teachers and students a free educational licence at . It certainly impresses the students and allows a smoother transition from text to YouTube clips than Powerpoint does. Although easy to use, it can be time consuming to create. Used in a lesson, it really just does what Powerpoint does, in a rather more attractive way. However, for me, where Prezi really comes into its own is through the use of the ‘path’ tool that allows you you direct the viewer. This is great for tasks where a series of clips are being explored – for example for analysis in Media Studies – or for revision materials to be viewed outside school. It is also very useful for students to create interesting presentations.

This is an example of a revision Prezi I created for WJEC Film Studies FM4 Urban Stories.


This is another idea I picked up from Twitter, this time from @coolcatteacher. SideVibe is a free tool that allows you to create online worksheets that ‘float’ over webpages. Teachers can sign up for an account at and students can get a free account.

Screen Shot of SideVibe Sign Up Page

When you sign up you download a toolbar that allows you to select any website you brouse. This ‘companion’ will let you select sites and create mini worksheets that allow you to ask students to respond to the material.

It can be used with a whiteboard, but my initial trials will be restricted to a series of homework revision tasks for my Y12 Film Studies class and a lesson on short stories for Year 9. I created 6 revision ‘vibes’ pretty quickly; the ‘vibes’ for Y9 took longer, mainly as I had to come up with a series of questions the group could do in class. As a back up, I have decided that we will look at the stories on the whiteboard if there are problems with students logging in. I have also decided to be brave and ask for feedback both on SideVibe and what would make the lesson better – a bit nervous about that, but nothing ventured…

I will feed back once my classes have had a chance to use them.

Experiments With Hexagons

Twitter is an intriguing place. For all the general chat and points of view that most people associate with the format, there are also some real gems.

The Inspiration

A #pedagoofriday post from @LearningSpy about using hexagons for work for ‘An Inspector Calls’ piqued my interest and, via a quick tweet, led me to his blog post on Hexagonal Learning as well as a range of references to follow up on SOLO taxonomy from @Totallywired77 amongst others.

This seemed just what I needed to bridge the gap with my lower Y11 group between knowing things aboutAnimal Farm and being able to make the type of links they needed to achieve higher grades. So I thought I would give it a go.

The lesson

I decided to focus on the character of Boxer and used the SMART board (shapes and infinite cloning)  to give them a brief demonstration. At the start of the lesson I had given the group a sheet with the SOLO levels on it and discussed them briefly. The class were allowed to choose their own groups and were given a selection of pre-cut out hexagons. We started by identifying a range of points and quotations about Boxer (multistructural) and then I asked what they needed to do to move up a level – make links. This is a class, who can be challenging, with grades ranging from F to D.  They all worked brilliantly discussing the points and making links (relational) with only a minimum amount of input from me.

Hexagon Lesson Exploring the Question ‘Is Boxer a Hero?’

Part way through the lesson, a member of SMT popped in – they left and returned with another member of staff to show them what I was doing! Now that has never happened before.


That was just the start. The use of hexagons and SOLO have spread throughout the English department in a matter of weeks, and were commented on positively during a mock OfSted inspection. This has definitely become part of my teaching repertoire; I have rarely found anything that works with pupils of all abilities and levels like this.

More Examples

Further Reading

Tait Coles’ Blog

Learning Spy’s Blog

Lisa Ashes’s Blog