Sunday, 25 November 2012

Looking beyond a lesson in SOLO

Now I have been using SOLO in my GCSE PE classes since April 2012.  I have to say that for me, as a non classroom specialist, it was an excellent way to ensure I had structure in my lesson.  It was much simpler than my previous 'Blooms and Accelerated Learning Cycle' mash up I was using and actually did the same things more effectively and efficiently.  It helped me plan a journey that consistently took my students from shallow to deep learning.  Now I am more versed in it and have 'seemed' to got a very good grip on it, I started to wonder if I needed to be so rigid in my use of it.  Do I simply have to use SOLO taxonomy as a way to structure a lesson and develop levels of learning?  Did it have to be the format for just my lesson planning or could I go beyond this and use it in a more powerful way?  So over the last term I have been looking at how I could develop my use of SOLO taxonomy and use its ideals as a means for things that have a bit more impact.

Non linear
When I first started using SOLO, to get a grip of it I methodically planned learning and any activities to go from Pre/Uni-structural to Extended Abstract.  I simply used it as a ladder to get from A to B and ensure that all of my class experienced shallow to deep learning.  For a PE teacher this really worked as the many individual pieces of information where learnt, assembled with other pieces, linked together and then stretched at the end.  Learning flowed and progression was very obvious and apparent.  It made so much sense.  After reading a post from Martin Said (@saidthemac) though which is found here, I did start thinking that getting to the deep learning element didn't have to be so regimented.  You don't always have to start at Pre/Uni-structural and move to Extended Abstract.  Instead, why not start with the challenge of an EA level of thinking and then work back through the taxonomy to answer it.  Why not have a driving question to begin with?  I liked this idea so tried a few lessons where I shared a big objective or outcome which was designed at the EA level of a particular topic.  I sold this as the 'bigger picture' or as a challenge for the class.  In order for learners to be able to achieve this objective/outcome, they had to go back through the taxonomy and gather information, relate it, analyse and evaluate.....all in the aim of completing the larger goal (the EA task).  It really worked and allowed students to contextualise the learning and see the goal they were working towards.

Well thought out, effective and directed questioning is a integral tool for us as teachers.  Amongst its uses, it is a great way to check understanding, a way to check progress and a way to challenge students to think about a topic in more detail/in an alternative way.  Part of the work on SOLO involved creating a clear SOLO verb list which I use in many ways such as creating learning objectives, and now to structure my questioning.  The verbs  provide a great scaffold in planning out your questions before lessons.  It also allows you to think about the complexity of what you will be asking and who you will be targeting questions towards (asking those that need extending in your lessons the more challenging questions).

Using Pam Hook's verb list to plan out questions (very basic examples).

By using the verb list during your lesson planning, you can tie in relevant questions to the various SOLO stages.  The list also acts as a prompt in creating questions to check students have learnt the all important content knowledge (using verbs such as define, describe, combine, explain, apply, analyse......).  It can then be used to extend the thinking of a topic further and challenge students (by asking them to predict, hypothesise, evaluate.....all of which can only be done if the content knowledge is there).  These can also be used when designing tasks or written work.

Learning objectives
As a result of playing around with SOLO, my learning objectives/outcomes/thingymajigs changed.  I got some inspiration with a @learningspy post that looked at a Jackie Beere idea of 'Learning continuums' (found here).  The idea is instead of having a list of bullet pointed objectives, you could have objectives placed along a continuum that show the learning journey that will take place in that lesson.  To me, this seemed to link perfectly with the process of SOLO which is to move from shallow to deep learning and up the taxonomy.  Objectives that ranged from Multistructural to Extended Abstract could be placed on this continuum and shared with students.  This allows students to see the full picture of the lesson and see the criteria that must be met in order to achieve mastery in that particular topic.  It also makes progress very obvious and apparent.  The use of Pam Hook's SOLO verbs could also help structure the terminology used in the objectives in order to develop levels of thinking/learning.

Feedback - feedforward (Using the stages of SOLO with students for feedback and feedforward)
Such a simple change in terminology has such powerful impact.  At our school, in Key Stage 3 we use 'two stars and a wish' as the process of giving feedback on things like homework, classwork etc.  I myself am not a big fan of the 'wish' element as I wish I had £1million pounds but it's probably never going to happen.  The wish for me just seems out of reach and could be worded better (like Geoff Petty's Medal & Mission feedback is for example).  Whether or not the use of words is suitable or not, the idea is to get our students to get reflective comments on their work as well as a piece of advice on how to move forward.  When we get to Key Stage 4, the terminology of the two stars system seems a little out of date.  This is where SOLO comes into its element.  I follow @dkmead (and highly recommend you do as well!) who to me is the guru of all things learning.  It was through a few tweets of his that I came across the term feedforward, as well as the obvious term feedback.  This new term linked to Pam Hooks three key questions "What am I learning?  How am I doing?" and most importantly "What do I need to do to develop a deeper understanding".  Feedback is concerned with reflecting on the learning and providing comments about how well this process has taken place.  Feedforward on the other hand is the provision of comments to move the learning forward.  It's the comments or conversation we have that helps learners move to the next level or stage in the learning process.  Because SOLO has clear and distinguished levels of learning, it is so easy for a teacher to give feedback and then explain how to move to the next level of the taxonomy using this feedforward ("You're currently at multi-structural because you.........and what you need to move forward and get to relational level is.....").  Once this terminology is the norm in your classroom, it is then very easy for students to do this at any point when working through SOLO.  Chris Harte gives a more detailed and much better explanation of feedforward here.  So this has now become common in my lessons.  It has also helped me provide more structured comments on learners work and helped them see where they are at and how to develop their knowledge of a topic. 

Students work with Feedback in blue and Feedforward in green.

Using SOLO to differentiate
SOLO is a great tool for differentiating learning with your students.  The nature of the taxonomy allows students to have what they do focused specifically on their needs (existing knowledge, targets, ability).  There should be no reason to pull the whole class along with the same task at the same pace.  When using SOLO in your lessons, it is possible to differentiate in the following ways:

Different starting points:  By having students self assess themselves at the start of the lesson against a rubrics, students may naturally know more about this particular topic then you had realised.  By students having different starting points, you can differentiate tasks out easily so students aren't completing activities that don't actually stretch them or build upon their knowledge.  You may decide to have students choose tasks from a set list based on their starting point, or have them select a task from SOLO trays at the front of the class, or even group students based on their starting point (all the students starting a multi-structural come to these tables....).  

Tasks themselves become progressively harder (very basic differentiation):  Very obvious but designing the learning that takes place at each SOLO level naturally makes the work become progressively harder.  Some students may move onto the more difficult tasks quicker than others and SOLO has helped you plan ways to stretch these individuals.

Different students/tables/groups can have different tasks:  As stated earlier, linked to some uses at local primary schools I have visited, students work on different tables for different SOLO tasks or different SOLO starting points.

Some higher level tasks are ‘open’ and allow differentiated outcomes:  Some of the more extend or abstract tasks (EA levels) naturally allow for an open ended outcome. By allowing this element of interpretation and the chance for students to create something unique, the level of the outcome may vary.

SOLO projects (one topic is actually a multi-structural part of another topic)
We teach units in our GCSE PE course.  In these units we have carefully grouped similar topics together which have a common theme or overlap. Since April, for each of these topics I have taught them using SOLO and taken a journey from Pre-structural/Uni-structural to Extended Abstract.  At times these topics seem very separate rather than parts of a whole.  What I don't think is always apparent to learners is how these topics link to a bigger picture.  And that's where I have decided to teach things a little differently.

So during the summer of 2012, whilst watching the Olympics, I started to think if there was a way that I could teach a theory unit with SOLO as its structure.  Now I have completed a project based on this thinking and have blogged about it here.  What I did was think of an Extended Abstract outcome for the unit based on 'How can we persuade the media to give more weight to cycling in the press?' (Thanks @saidthemac for the help!).  I then looked at topics that I had left to teach that year and linked these within the project.  Each of the topics that could help answer the question (role models, media in sport, technology in sport, sponsorship......) were covered and taught.  Students learnt about each individually and went through the SOLO process to become Relational or Extended Abstract in each.  But each of these topics are actually a Multi-structural strand of the bigger unit.  Using the project as the driving force, the students were able to link these topics together (which they do, but sometimes students don't see that).  Now each of these topics became relational within the unit.  All that was left was to use this knowledge to answer the unit driving question and learners have moved onto Extended Abstract.

Planning schemes
Finally, we have been discussing schemes of work in our department for KS3 and are looking to rewrite them.  We don't currently use SOLO with these year groups.  But I was thinking that even if not shared explicitly with students, could we use SOLO as a planning tool for schemes.  If we mapped out the individual elements that we needed to teach (Multi-structural components) and then designed a scheme that would develop these with learners, connect them together (Relational) and then have a big outcome (Extended Abstract) as the form of an assessment, then maybe this can ensure all of our schemes are methodically designed to get from shallow to deep learning.  This is only an idea and has had very little thought, but is one I aim to sit down and visit in the near future.


  1. I met Pam Hook and learnt about SOLO only last week, so am excited about using it. Great to see you being abstract about SOLO too.

  2. Re:Planning schemes. In NZ, we have been going thourgh a "standards alignment process" where all of our Snr courses have been tweaked (we have a standards based assessment system that chunks a course - for example, within Geography we have a standard called "Analyse a Geographic issue at a Global scale"). i have been fortunate that this process (in the third and final year now)has coincided with our school having significant input from Pam Hook. Using a SOLO framework has allowed me to look at a new standard or topic,and as a starting point, think holisically - given this standard, what needs to be defined, what can be compared, what needs to be sequenced and so on. While doing this, I am also being mindful of the wording of the standard. Our standards are based on a not achieved, achieved, achieved with merit and achieved with excellence scale - this pretty much follows SOLO (and I think we can thank Pam for her influence in NZ. Anyway What I am looking for in this process is the important verbs (as these are essentially the SOLO indicators). So if I am confronted with the word Analyse, i know that I need to use some effective stategies that will allow my students to connect with what is is to analyse (parts whole, SOLO hexagons -which i only just discovoured or my favourite, the Describe ++ thiking map - see HookED). Anyway, a bit of a ramble - I am very new to the world of blogs and twitter.

  3. Excellent read.
    Interested to discuss with you your reasons for not sharing wholly with KS3, and whether you have furthered your experiences and to what success with the younger age groups.
    I have been using with year 9 pract with relative success and feel that it could be imbedded at ks3 but wonder if it will have the desired outcomes. Think ks3 students would really benefit with from understanding how they progress and this will encourage all students whether they be higher or lower ability to keep wanting to learn throughout the lesson

    Would appreciate any feedback on your further experiences. @pestarks