It is a truth universally acknowledged that our education system isn’t quite up to snuff. And at that point virtually all agreement ceases. There are those on which we might loosely term the ‘right’ of the divide who point to PISA scores, claim that we’re in the middle of a crisis and suggest that a return to traditional values is the way forward. Oh, and Free Schools are good too. Then there are the proponents of the ‘left’ who think that the current emphasis of schools does not fit us for a future in which compliance will no longer be rewarded.

Maybe at the heart of this debate is a fundamental disagreement about the curriculum and pedagogy. Should education be about getting students to know more facts or should it be about encouraging them to solve problems? Knowledge or skills? I first wrote about this a month or so back and have really been thinking about it al lot since.

I am, by instinct, a constructivist; that is, one who believes that students should construct their own meaning and discover new knowledge by doing. This slots in neatly with the PLTS agenda. The more traditional approach is termed ‘direct instruction’, often misrepresented as some sort of Gradgrindian, didactic, teacher led talking from the front, but is in fact the essence of the modern three (or four) part lesson where the teacher decides the objectives and success criteria; models how tasks should be completed; provides feedback and finally reviews the learning objective. Now the bad news for constructivists is that direct instruction is shown by researchers to be the most effective strategy for transmitting knowledge and has the biggest effect on students’ grades. So where does that leave discovery learning, problem solving and inquiry based teaching? Are they simply surplus to requirements?

Well, that’s what the ‘right’ would have us believe: students collaborating in teams is messy, time consuming and ineffective. And maybe that’s true. But it boils down to what you think the point of education is. Is it to ensure that students take exams that test how good they are at regurgitating knowledge, following instructions and passing exams? Or is it to produce learners who can solve problems; think creatively and compete in a world where white collar jobs can be cheaply outsourced elsewhere?

Because if you believe in what Ian Gilbert calls The Great Educational Lie (do well at school and you’ll get a good job) then passing exams is fine. But if you believe that “to succeed in business you need to break the rules” then we have a responsibility to teach content in a way that also teaches skills, dispositions and competencies needed to make our children indispensible in an uncertain future.

As usual the answer lies somewhere in the middle ground. Both sides have a point and the best approach lies in making sure we are teaching students knowledge and skills and that they leave school with a fistful of qualifications as well as being prepared for a brave new world in which following instructions won’t count for much.

No one, or at least no one I’d take seriously, advocates content free lessons or claims that knowledge is not worth having. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham says that students don’t like school because teachers are always trying to make them think and that the human brain just isn’t that good at thinking. In fact it’s wired to help us avoid having to think: almost everything we do is a product of stuff we hold in long-term memory, which allows to literally act without thinking. If you accept this then it’s entirely reasonable that in order to perform any kind of skill efficiently (driving, writing essays, solving quadratic equations etc.) we need to know how to do it deep down in our souls. As an English teacher I rock at writing essays because I write so many of the damn things and have an expert knowledge of how to do it well. Knowledge and skills are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other.

So how to square this circle? One idea is to use SOLO taxonomy to design learning experiences which focus on acquiring knowledge and the the skill of applying this knowledge in new and interesting ways.

As learning progresses it becomes more complex. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) is a way to classify learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess students’ work in terms of how interesting it is rather than whether it’s right or wrong. To begin with we will have a few unconnected pieces of knowledge which we can apply to a task, but as our understanding grows we become able to relate this knowledge to the whole and then to see how this information could be used to connect with other seemingly unrelated ideas.

It’s daft to simply ask students to tell us what we’ve already told them. Much better if they tell us how they could apply what they’ve learnt. They should be able to do this if we start with the outcomes we intend students to learn and make sure teaching and assessment match these outcomes. Outcome statements need to use verbs (apply, explain, evaluate etc.) which describe the activities that students need to undertake in order to meet the intended outcome. In this system learning is constructed by what the students do, not what us teachers do. The SOLO taxonomy helps to map levels of understanding that can be built into the intended learning outcomes and to create assessment criteria which are based not so much on what students know as on how skilled they are in applying that knowledge.

But hang on, is this SOLO stuff valid? Does it have any basis in research, or is it just another brand of snake oil? I’m determined to check my facts on this sort of stuff these days so was cheered to find this in Prof Hattie’s Education Bible, Visible Learning:

[There] are three types of understanding – surface, deep and constructed or conceptual understanding-[and they] are built on the Biggs and Collis SOLO model of teaching and learning and also in our understanding of assessment (Hattie & Purdie, 1998; Hattie and Brown, 2004)…It is the model used throughout this book

Confused? Here’s a handy introductory lesson, based on the work of the indefatigable Tait Coles, that can be successfully used with almost any group.