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Redesigning Classrooms

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.

I first read about the SOLO Taxonomy in John Hattie’s book Visible Learning but skimmed over it having been brought up with Bloom’s Taxonomy – or so I thought (did you know the taxonomy has four different cognitive dimensions including the procedural and metacognitive?  I didn’t till I found them when doing some research on the internet).  About three to four years ago I was in a breakfast seminar, at the SSAT National Conference, where the SOLO Taxonomy kept coming up.  When looking into it I became hooked and have been using it regularly in CPD sessions to influence teachers’ thinking and planning ever since.  It is now beginning to become part of the daily practice of staff.  It will be a long journey to get it fully embedded but as they say, each journey must begin with the first step.  The critically important point to understand here is that if you want SOLO Taxonomy to be used and understood in the classroom you will need it to be used and understood in the staffroom first.


SOLO stands for the Structure of Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) which is a model that describes the levels of increasing complexity in student’s understanding of subjects.  SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982), provides teachers with a common understanding of the learning process, through an overview of learning outcomes produced by students and can be used in any subject.

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

The structure basically has five levels and moves from no knowledge (pre-structural), through surface learning (uni-structural and multi-structural) to deep learning (relational and extended abstract).  The You Tube video that explains the SOLO Taxonomy using lego is a useful five minute watch and the basis of the slide below:

Armed with a basic understanding of SOLO you can begin to look at students’ responses in your classroom differently – do they have the basic knowledge and facts required (surface learning) upon which to look at them in relation to each other and recognise the interconnectedness of the facts/issues before beginning to recognise key concepts within the area of study (deep learning).

In attempting to explain it to staff in an INSET on Outstanding Teaching & Learning, I used a clothes analogy:

SOLO Clothes Analogy

SOLO Clothes Analogy Used as part of CPD

When a student leaves your class what level of understanding does s/he have:

  • A pile of facts?
  • Facts organised and related to each other?  Or
  • A conceptual framework of the topic covered with the information and facts organised accordingly?
  • How would you help a student to move from one stage to the next?

Imagine teaching particle theory or the causes of World War or the three different types of rainfall – what is the knowledge required?  How does this knowledge link together?  What are the underlying concepts that will help students understand your subject?

Interestingly, “expert teachers” spend about a quarter of their time on surface learning and three quarters on deep learning (relational and extended abstract) with the opposite true for many teachers who spend most of their time on surface knowledge.

SOLO Taxonomy as Part of Planning Lessons

Using SOLO in the classroom can help students to move from surface to deep learning but its value in planning is really seen when teachers use it in reverse.  The key is for teachers to have an explicit conceptual understanding of their own subject onto which they hang their subject knowledge.

One of the challenges at the beginning of the INSET mentioned earlier was for staff to tweet their subject – what is it fundamentally about?  Going back to my clothes analogy, “What are the rails on which you will hang the subject knowledge so it is coherently organised and linked in your mind?”

History is all about … Why the world is the way it is

Alternatively, you may see History as, “The people and events that have led to shifts in power and influence over time”.  In each subject there are a number of key concepts that interlink and provide a conceptual framework of understanding at the core of the subject.  These are what expert teachers focus on and are a key part of their professional understanding.  You may want to think about building a conceptual framework, to guide your curriculum and lesson planning, at a future INSET session.  Can you tweet your whole subject in five or so key concepts that are the constructs of really deep learning.

Here are a few more tweets staff came up with to help you along:

  • Physics is how matter & energy interact, at a length scale from atoms to planets, to understand how the universe is formed and evolving
  • English is all about communicating effectively and accurately through reading, writing, speaking & listening for specific audience & purpose
  • Biology is all about how organisms adapt to the environment for survival of a species
  • Art … the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments or experiences that can be shared with others
  • Maths is the study of patterns and connections from which generalisations may be made and applied to solve problems

Chemistry to me was all about “the relationship between particles and the factors affecting them”.  Hence when I taught dynamic equilibrium to my students I would get the students (reactants) to mill around before linking up a few boys and girls (the new product), only for them to break up (become reactants again) and new partnerships (products formed).  Students were familiar with the idea of relationships and what might affect them so it was a concrete example from which I could construct more conceptual understanding about reversible reactions, equilibrium and then its dynamic nature.  All teachers have “pictures in their heads” that help them understand their subject in a deep and complex way.  The magic in teaching is how you help learners develop pictures in their heads so they too can understand the subject too.

Armed with an understanding of the SOLO Taxonomy and the conceptual framework and related knowledge of your subject teachers can begin to use excellent planning tools like the Teacher Toolkit Five Minute Lesson Planner to produce lessons with high challenge full of deep learning.  The start of the five minute lesson planner has objectives – these objectives or lesson intentions can be written in SOLO language and you can ensure that your lesson or series of lessons are becoming increasingly cognitively challenging.  When combined with success criteria, for each learning intention it helps put in place one of the most powerful levers for raising attainment – Teacher Clarity (8th on Hattie’s list).  If you want students to be clear about their learning you need the teacher to be clear first.  Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) talks about the dangers of over planning and the need for agility. I bet he has a real deep understanding of his subject, both its concepts and common misconceptions, that from a very basic lesson plan he can work with his students and respond to their needs.  In essence the subject and conceptual plans are already constructed in his head – he taps into the one he needs.  This is true of the many expert teachers in our schools.  The SOLO Taxonomy can help us all on the journey to expertise.

If you would like to read some more posts on the SOLO Taxonomy:


26 thoughts on “Redesigning Classrooms: Using SOLO to Increase Challenge

  1. Very useful. Thank you.

    Posted by Kirsty Waldrum | April 14, 2013, 3:38 pm
  2. Fantastic read. Love the approach of introducing SOLO to the staff. Am thinking of either preparing a CPD on this for the school or bringing a specialist in. What do you think?

    Posted by Roque Segade Vieito | April 27, 2013, 4:03 pm
  3. A great read, thanks!

    Posted by Gareth | May 3, 2013, 7:24 am
  4. Very interesting, I’m currently redesigning a curriculum and really like the use of SOLO, this will make a meeting on Thursday very productive.

    Posted by Michael Reid | June 29, 2013, 4:05 pm


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