A pragmatic approach to SOLO

I first came across SOLO taxonomy at a TeachMeet run at the Teaching Leaders National Conference in the summer term.  The session that really caught my attention was by @Mr_D_Cheng who outlined how he had used SOLO taxonomy in his lessons and across his department. A colleague of mine happened to have been on another course earlier that term and had also come back keen to talk about SOLO and try it out in our school. There are plenty of websites and blogs around to get you up to speed on SOLO if you have not come across it before, but in essence it is a hierarchy describing the depth of understanding being shown on a topic. The thing that impressed my colleague and I most was the elegant symbols denoting each stage or level. If you want some background reading try these;

Embarrassingly, I then did nothing about it. I am not sure why I took a full term from hearing about a good idea to doing something about it myself, but that is how long it took. This may not actually be so unusual amongst teachers generally, but it is for me. I love finding new ideas, strategies and techniques and trying them out. Not is some glossy, new-must-be-better way, but more in a new-might-just-be-better way. Perhaps the time of year was not ideal – the end of the school year can be a great time to innovate and try things out as some of the pressure is off once exams have passed but with schemes of work to re-write, new assessment frameworks to develop and so on it just never happened. It may also have been that every time my mind wandered back to SOLO, I found more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog (http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/changed-mind-solo-taxonomy/) on how he changed his mind about SOLO certainly put the brakes on me trying it out. Firstly, I was impressed someone was bold enough to go back to what they had considered, tried, found to work and later on found to be less effective than they had originally found. This reflective and challenging approach was something I liked.

Still, in thesolo end SOLO kept popping up and I thought I had best try it myself and give it a go. With David’s note of caution strong in my mind, I questioned why I wanted to try SOLO at all. What was it that had caught my attention months ago? Was it the terminology to describe learning that could be applied across the curriculum? Not really. Was it the neat looking resources (such as the hexagons) that would allow students to show their depth of understanding? No – they always seemed a bit artificial anyway in that they encouraged students to justify links they were making between topics that were not really there. It was the symbols. No more, no less.

So, to dipping my toe for the first time. I was planning a GCSE revision lesson on the DNA, cell structure, GM and cloning. I started by getting students to answer a 6 mark question “Describe the function of DNA”. They all had a go at this. In our school they are used to peer assessment so they were ready when I handed out the green pens to do “2 stars and a wish” or something similar. It was here I described what the symbols meant as quickly and concisely as I could.solo lesson

I had students swap books and simply draw the symbol they thought best fitted the level of understanding shown by the writing. A quick scan of the room identified an example of each stage which we then checked as a class for consistency and I was staggered by how quickly students understood what this was about. Immediately conversations were happening about what they should draw if links were being made between ideas but the information being linked was somehow factually wrong. Seeing it as a hierarchy meant the important point that ‘knowledge and content are King’ was understood very well.

I then tried to scaffold an answer to the same 6 mark question on the board with the class’ input. Rather than producing a mini-essay plan or a conventional mind map as I would normally have done, I built up using the the SOLO symbols again. You can see what happened here.

 mm1   mm2


I then gave students the same amount of time as before to answer the original question. Engagement was incredible, the volume and quality of what was written in a short time far surpassing what would normally be expected from the group. The building up of knowledge in this way helped the students see what was most important and formed a structure for their writing. Paragraphs were being used (unprompted!) to split up different areas of content relevant to the question. The connectives that the English department have been working hard on developing were being used more appropriately than before. Overall, the students seemed to have a much better grasp of what was expected of them from their writing and feedback was that the liked the new symbols.

Repeating the process with other sets and other year groups produced very similar results. It is early days but I do feel that the use of the symbols is helpful for me in explaining what I am after from a task, and for students in describing where they are in their own understanding and seeing what they need to do to improve.

It is early days still and I want to keep trying this out with more groups and am encouraging others in the department to do likewise.Importantly, by using SOLO as a way of focussing peer feedback and an alternative to mind mapping a topic seems to me to have avoided the arguments that have risen against SOLO. No time wasted learning labels like relational or extended abstract, no credit for forced links between content by using hexagons – just more clarity in what they know, and what they need to do improve.

4 thoughts on “A pragmatic approach to SOLO

  1. Thanks for reflecting on how you are using SOLO as a model of learning with your students. The changes that you identify in student comprehension of the task and the spin off into written language outcomes – use of connectives – paragraphing etc are what we see in NZ schools where the classroom based use of John Bigg’s SOLO Taxonomy was developed by the Hooked on Thinking (now HookED consultancy) over 12 years ago.

    I am interested in your comments regarding time wasted on using the correct terms for the levels. I am certain you would not be so dismissive or make a similar argument for the use of correct names when teaching about DNA or RNA replication. The symbols are great at communicating the different levels of cognitive complexity – and I note both the black and the blue symbol examples used in this blog post come from my NZ work. Using hand signs to communicate levels across crowded settings (much like brokers do in the Stock exchange) is also helpful. However, using the correct terms for the taxonomy respects the work of John Biggs and the terms are in common use across NZ schools – they are introduced without any great fanfare or alarm – and used without any great effort by students from new entrant and junior school classrooms to senior secondary. In our experience the barrier if there is one is often one of the teacher’s making – students are very open to learning new descriptors and vocabulary and quickly become fluent in using the correct terms during self and peer assessment. They do not see “extended abstract” as any different from “Tyrannosaurus rex”

    Like you I see SOLO Hexagons as simply one of many different strategies that help students bring in ideas – connect ideas and then extend ideas in new ways. Like any strategy there are more effective and less effective ways of using the hexagons. The quality and relevance of the ideas matters. Using them as a strategy to determine prior knowledge (like a more elaborate brainstorming activity) will achieve different outcomes from using them for exam revision, or to extend students thinking about different texts etc. The ability to negotiate and collaborate over the placement of the hexagons develops oral language and we have noted in NZ that their use encourages participation from students who often do not take an active part in class discussion. The ability to variously pre-load the hexagons with teacher identified content (text images symbols formula – student research – student prior knowledge etc etc means they are a “sandpit” pedagogical strategy. The connections students make or don’t make are very revealing – misconceptions are revealed and can be addressed. As it happens I have some student examples of hexagons used for DNA RNA replication revision in a senior biology class in a NZ school – if you email me I am happy to share them with you. They do not in any way match your descriptions of “credit for forced links”. I am also seeing them used to great effect for draft thinking planning before essay or paragraph writing. Hexagons thinking comes from the work of AM Hodgson. (1992). Hexagons for systems thinking. European Journal of Systems Dynamics 59 (1): 220-30. As a pragmatist I am certain you will find much evidence that hexagons can be and are being used to good effect in schools and outside schools when groups collaborate to make connections between ideas.

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to read and also comment on this blog. Your comments have given me much to ponder!
      As I said in the article, I am at the very early stages of using SOLO in my teaching. I am working in a school and with students who have not come across the concept before, and so am starting from scratch with each class. This is why I have focussed on the concept and getting students to identify their current level of understanding accurately rather than focus on the terminology associated with it. As students become more familiar, I expect I will start to use the ‘correct’ terminology more and more. This is the same as I would do when teaching a new scientific concept such as DNA and RNA – get them familiar with the concept and then increase the use of specific terminology used to describe it. I do think I can respect the work and research underpinning SOLO without using the labels as such, but perhaps I was too quick to write them off as irrelevant from reading about others’ experience before trying it out myself.
      The same is probably true for the hexagons and so on (that is, it is quite likely I was too dismissive of them too soon). Before the past couple of weeks, I had no knowledge or experience of SOLO other than a brief TeachMeet presentation and reading several blogs. I have not had a lesson where using the hexagons or other resources have been appropriate but I will keep them in mind for future lessons when they may be so.

      I would say that using a new pedagogical technique like this from scratch will always be a time for personal development and finding how it best fits into the individual context of my own classroom, with my own classes. I will reflect again on the wider use of SOLO and associated resources and where appropriate look to build them into my own practice also. In the meantime, I will enjoy the increased quality of writing and oral discussion taking place through the use of SOLO.

      Thanks again for your comment – it gave me much to reflect on.

  2. It is my pleasure to read and comment on the work of teachers who reflect on how they are sharing SOLO Taxonomy as a simple and robust model of learning with their students.

    There are many teachers using SOLO to good effect with their students – and I think it important to note that many of them (In NZ is most of them) do not use social media – blogging or Twitter to describe their experiences.

    You have to be cautious about the unrepresentative sample fallacy – in terms of exploring the classroom based use of SOLO. A pragmatist would appreciate that the reality of what is going on in schools in NZ, Australia, the UK and elsewhere – cannot be reliably determined from the subset of teachers who blog or throw ideas around in the Twitter stream – is not smart – the claims are highly polarised – both extremes – with neither reliable or valid claims made on either side

    I suspect the conversations online often exclude the measured middle because of the very nature of the teachers who are attracted to using social media to talk about teaching and learning. (I have been an edu_blogger since 2004 – not so much time to relax into a post nowadays – but I know how to write a post that pulls in the crowds 😉 Check out Arti’ at http://www.artichoke.typepad.com/

    I am fortunate to spend my days working with teachers who blog and Tweet AND teachers who don’t – I work in primary, intermediate and secondary schools across NZ helping them use SOLO with their students – and I am reassured each day by the student outcomes showing the classroom based approach is being used to good effect and is making learning visible in ways that matter to students of all ages

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