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Redesigning Classrooms: Spreading and Embedding the SOLO Taxonomy

In this set of posts about redesigning classrooms I want to look at some of the changes that teachers can incrementally make to their classrooms that may over time transform their practice.  The first post about the SOLO Taxonomy can be found here:

Redesigning Classrooms: Using SOLO to Increase Challenge

Produced by Pam Hook (@arti_choke) http://pamhook.com/wiki/The_Learning_Process

Produced by Pam Hook (@arti_choke) http://pamhook.com/wiki/The_Learning_Process

SOLO first appeared as part of our CPD programme a number of years ago and all staff are familiar with it, however, a number of staff have started taking the use of the SOLO Taxonomy to new levels, spreading and embedding its use as they go.  One of the interesting dimensions of the work is how staff are using the SOLO Taxonomy with students and explicitly developing their understanding of it and how to use it to increase the depth of the work they are doing.  This post is a series of short inputs from staff at St. Mary’s

Art, Design & Technology Department – Student Friendly Success Criteria (Anna Johnson – HoD)

In the Art, D&T Department we are developing student friendly success criteria based on SOLO Taxonomy that allow us to identify ascending cognitive complexity in individual and collective student performance for understanding when mastering new learning. This will allow us to easily and reliably assess students’ progress.

Food Tech - SOLO SoW

Example of success criteria for students in Food Technology

The next step is to incorporate the 5 R’s using SOLO Taxonomy. We are also incorporating GCSE exam questions into Key Stage 3 lessons to allow students to demonstrate relational and extended abstract understanding.

RE Department – Developing the Learner (Phil Allan – HoD)

We made a decision to teach SOLO taxonomy discreetly to students in order to demythologise the whole concept.  We used a card sort on topics familiar to the students (Blackpool FC and the X Factor) and they had to sort information into one of unistructural, multi structural etc.

Two different card sorts that were used to help students understand the different levels of complexity in the SOLO Taxonomy

Two different card sorts that were used to help students understand the different levels of complexity in the SOLO Taxonomy

The students grasped the idea immediately and were table to transfer these skills to recognise where a religious topic moved from multi-structural to relational or extended abstract levels. Our lesson planning was revolutionised by the success of this initial lesson as we then attempted to ensure that students learned some declarative knowledge (multi structural) early in the lesson and were then able to make the move to functional knowledge (relational/extended abstract).The level of challenge in lessons has increased markedly as each lesson requires students to think at a higher level at some point.

The lesson plan and a further exemplar can be found below:

SOLO – RE Lesson Plan

SOLO template – blind man and the elephant model

Embedding SOLO in the English Department (Helen Stuart – Innovation Fellow)

When first faced with SOLO as, what seemed like yet another initiative to ‘get in the way’ of any actual teaching and learning, a sense of déjà vu, tedium and (if I am to be entirely honest) slight annoyance set in.  However, it takes a brave teacher to admit when they’re wrong.  In fact, SOLO has proven itself in my classroom time and time again to be an invaluable tool which is an accessible catalyse for students to: easily understand how ideas within the subject connect by forming real meaning of their learning; partake in cognitive demanding activities to achieve deep learning and appreciate the necessary strategies which are needed in order to unpack their skills.

I have found that by integrating SOLO into my planning, through the learning objectives and success criteria, students are more able to co-construct the lesson, using SOLO terms, as they actually become eager to achieve an extended abstract level of understanding within the lesson.  The power of SOLO within their own learning instantly creates high challenge, due to a greater level of engagement, and students being able to, almost instinctively, identify their next step and maximise their conceptual understanding.

The “SOLO Taxonomy and Making Meaning Workbooks” (Hook & McNeill) are tangible resources within the learning environment which put SOLO into real practice (something I know myself and the department craved in order for an educational theory to become reality).  The SOLO maps and rubrics within these texts have now become a staple part of English lessons, allowing students to select them as learning tools in order to scaffold their understanding.  I also find an insightful activity for students, and me as their teacher, is to ask them to define the SOLO level of an activity and then challenge them to change the activity in order that it be classed as extended abstract, which they then complete.  This activity also works well with forming questions on a given text, for example when analysing the writer’s purpose.

SOLO is one of those rare teaching acronym initiatives that actually works, in terms of: in a real classroom, with real students, to see real improvements in their metacognitive skills.  Embedding SOLO within my own teaching has effortlessly led to more engaged, higher achieving, interdependent students who can lead their own learning…albeit to my surprise.

This is an example of the HookED SOLO Describe ++ Map that can be found in the "SOLO Taxonomy & Making Meaning Series.  The books contain a number of different SOLO Maps and examples.

This is an example of the HookED SOLO Describe ++ Map that can be found in the “SOLO Taxonomy & Making Meaning Series. The books contain a number of different SOLO Maps and examples.

Essential Resources: (there are Australia, New Zealand and Rest of the World websites for Essential Resources as well) publishes some fantastic resources – “SOLO Taxonomy & Making Meaning” are a set of three literacy based books, two books that introduce “SOLO Taxonomy: A Guide for Schools” are two books that give you a great introduction to SOLO and finally one titled “Using SOLO as a Framework for Teaching” are all worthwhile.

Science – Use of Hinge Point Questions (One from me but not yet used in a real classroom)

SOLO Taxonomy can be used to produce increasingly complex hinge point questions.  The final slide is taken from a video in which @eric_mazur is explaining how the Flipped Classroom works.

Students armed with a white board and a pen select the answer they think is correct.  If a large majority of the students have the right response it’s probably best to quickly explain the answer to other students and then move on, don’t linger too long as most students won’t be learning anything.  If the number of students getting the correct response is somewhere between 30-70% (Eric Mazur’s figures) then resist giving students the answer and get them to discuss it with each other – this can lead to some really great debates.  If fewer then 30% of students have the answer you probably need to take a step back and revisit some earlier work as somewhere along the line their learning has a disconnect – can you prompt them forward to the next SOLO level without simply giving them the answer?

This series of slides is to help students learn about the expansion of solids when heated.  This first slide just requires students to describe a series of events linked to the age old ball & hoop experiment.  It would follow a demonstration of the experiment and is at a multi-structural level.

Hinge Point Q1 - Describe is at a multi-structural level

Hinge Point Q1 – Describe is at a multi-structural level

This second slide moves to a relational level in SOLO terms as students are required to explain what has happened.  The slide contains the correct answer and a common misconception amongst students to really test their thinking.

Hinge Point Q2 - Explain is at a Relational Level

Hinge Point Q2 – Explain is at a Relational Level

Finally it’s a move to the extended abstract with the students asked to hypothesise.  This is a really tough ask which has baffled more than one Science teacher I have used the slide with.

Hinge Point Q3 - Hypothesise is at an Extended Abstract Level

Hinge Point Q3 – Hypothesise is at an Extended Abstract Level

If you’re not sure think about the answer to slide 2 and the particles on the edge of the hole in the middle.  A “student model” is really useful here.

If you would like another way that SOLO Taxonomy is used at St. Mary’s to ensure we have rigorous and challenging Project Based Learning, please see the post below:

Redesigning Classrooms: PBL Not PBL Lite


Redesigning Classrooms: Using SOLO to Increase Challenge

If we are going to Redesign Schools then we are going to need to redesign classrooms.  Most of the changes to education over the past thirty years have been to do with the structure of education, in a country or state, and the curriculum offer.  However, many of these curriculum changes have influenced the subjects offered in schools rather than affecting the diet received in the classroom by students.  To change classroom practice requires teachers to have a deep understanding of pedagogy and their subject and a school where there are focussed multi-faceted CPD and high levels of support. Continue reading

Redesigning Classrooms: Is Your Summative Assessment Trustworthy?

Are we about to enter a national assessment black hole?  We may soon be facing an assessment system with a terminal exam at the end of Year 11 and Year 13.  A five year gap, from the beginning of secondary schools to GCSE, without any nationally recognised or externally accredited examinations to affirm for us how our students are performing. 

In contrast, when I started at St. Mary’s we had end of Key Stage 3 SATs, the option to buy in SATs papers for the end of Years 7 & 8, module assessments throughout Key Stage 4, coursework at GCSE and the new modular A-level with coursework modules available.  These have already or are about to disappear and to confound the matter further the safety blanket of levels may soon be ripped from around us as well.

We are going to need to get much better at assessment including the summative element by understanding key principles and developing some highly effective practice.  This blog post is built on the symposium led by Dylan Wiliam that I have previously written about titled, “Redesigning the School’s Curriculum: Find your Compass.”

Below is some actual summative data from three different students, in three different subjects produced in response to our assessment system.  It formed the starting point for a Thursday afternoon staff CPD session that started with the simple question, “So, what do you notice?”

Y8 Assessments

Staff not only notices things but began to explain them.  First up were the drastic differences in between some consecutive assessment cycle grades – students B went from a 6a to a 5c, nearly a two year regression in about half a term is some going.  Also staff picked up the often significant drop as students moved from Year 7 to 8, look at both students A & B.  The tendency to use one test/assessment piece to produce the summative grade, the narrow set of skills being assessed and the lack of transfer of assessment data from Year 7 to 8, even though it is all available in the SIMS, were raised as issues.

It presents the fundamental question, is our summative assessment system trustworthy?  Do students and parents have faith in the outcomes?  Is it actually telling us which of our students are more able mathematicians, linguists, scientist, historians, geographers etc?

Principle one: Is the school’s system to be trusted (do stakeholders have faith in the outcomes)?

The challenge was set to look at current practice in relation to the set of principles that would guide the building of a reliable summative assessment system.  Are assessments:

Principle Two: Distributed (so that evidence collection in not undertaken entirely at the end)

Principle Three: Synoptic (so that learning has to accumulate)

Principle Four: Extensive (so that all important aspects are covered)

Interestingly, we may find some help from an unlikely source as it is often the Cinderella subject in the school’s curriculum if it is there at all – Drama.  Drama has operated in the Key Stage 3 Curriculum black hole for an eternity.  The following was written by Cathy Lloyd, Head of Performing Arts, and it’s interesting to reflect on what lessons are transferable and applicable.


“Currently there is no National Curriculum for Drama. Because of this, it was decided to create a syllabus based around the skills of an actor, namely technical ability, interpretation of a character and knowledge (of both the theatrical setting and Drama terminology such as hot seating, improvisation, teacher in role). The information for this was developed from the syllabus of one of the top Drama schools and its external examinations (LAMDA).

In each year group, we have structured Schemes of work that focus on one of these skills at a particular level (although the latter is flexible). Therefore, throughout the course of a year, students will develop their skills in each of the three key elements. It was felt that the current assessment schemes are extensive (they covered our key areas of learning) and distributed (we took multiple snapshots during the year) but that there is not a synoptic element. 

With this in mind, we intend to change the final Schemes in each of the three year groups from Assessment cycle 4 to Assessment cycle 6 (wht will be the new assessment cycles 3 to 4) and to create mini projects that would culminate in a finished production.  This final production could be showcased to parents/other students. This production could be either a Devised or Scripted play and is excellent preparation for a GCSE in the subject. It would also allow students to focus on ALL of the skills as they would each have a character and be equally responsible for the staging and production of the piece which would develop both skills and knowledge. This would ensure that at the end of the year the grade for the student would include a synoptic reflection of their overall ability and be an excellent indication of general ability for the new teacher/student and indeed parent. It would also be useful information for those students intending to study the subject at GCSE level.”

What interests me in this approach is that Drama has been able to use the opportunity afforded by not having a national curriculum to devise a coherent and integrated curriculum and assessment model.

The curriculum has content (knowledge and understanding), a procedural dimensions (how actors go about their business and the habits of mind that need to be developed) and whilst not apparent from the above it also has the development of the learner (metacognitive) as part of the overall package.

The assessment programme, used for summative purposes and grades reported, is distributed, extensive and now synoptic.  The department intend to “roll over” the synoptic element from Year 7 to 8 and 8 to 9 to use in the mid-year summative grades that are reported to prevent the beginning of Year 8 drop seen in the examples above.

The approach leads to a really well though through programme that will keep the wolves away from the door and would be good enough for my children – key touchstones when making decisions.

Other departments all had various ideas for strengthening their assessment processes and making the outcomes we report and use to target interventions more valid and hence trustworthy:

  • Religious Studies have already developed an assessment system that is both distributed and synoptic. It consists of a series of end of module tests which are “cumulative”, that is they include in each module test questions from the previous module(s). However, they intend to focus on skills based assessment at Key Stage 3 as they considered the results would be far more consistent  than knowledge based assessment. Since fifty percent of the Religious Studies GCSE marks are for questions that assess reflection and reasoning skills, i.e. evaluation, these skills should be developed and the focus for assessment in lower school RS. Their assessment programme will now be more extensive.
  • English were concerned that they were using individual assessment pieces as the basis of reporting and intend to move to a more distributed model where they use a number of pieces to determine grades for reporting purposes.  This matches well with the portfolio approach that they already have that builds up a student’s English profile.  As a spin off of the more distributed approach they can move away from a written assessment, prior to an attainment grade being entered for a student, and increase the amount of speaking and listening which further secures the extensive nature of their assessment programme.

And now the final principle:

Principle Five: Manageable (so that costs are proportionate to benefits)

We currently have six assessment cycles per year.  This was madness before we introduced the Marking Policy this year and attempted to integrate the two.  Staff at St. Mary’s are big hearted and always up for a challenge but this particular “spinning wheel” challenge is getting them down and not yielding enough benefits for the students.   The teachers are honest, we needed to improve the quality and quantity of our marking as a school, but as a leader I also need to be honest and accept the system is unmanageable.  The proposal for September is that we move to four assessment cycles for subjects with ten percent or more curriculum time and two for subjects with less than ten percent.

Assessment Cycle Proposals

Our draft proposals for Assessment, Recording & Reporting at St. Mary’s next year

This is a fine tuning of the system as are many of the proposals out of yesterday afternoon’s CPD but such is the Redesigning Schools programme.  It is about developing best and next practice not throwing out baby and bath water and starting again.  Much of what we do is already good, we need to have the mindset and determination to just keep doing things a bit better each day, week, month and year.

Talking of doing things a bit better, it’s worth spending a moment reflecting on current plans for GCSE and A-levels and whether they meet the key principles associated with high quality, effective summative assessment.  My own thoughts are that the arrangements will be far more manageable and clearly may contain a synoptic element.  However, the absence of distributed and extensive elements is a matter of concern and will bring the trustworthy element into question.  The new examination system may restrict what we do but it must never define us.  It will change and hopefully evolve to something that is far more fit for purpose.  There was a reason why we moved away from the O-level and A-level end of course examination system of my youth.  Maybe that lesson should be included in the new History Curriculum.

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