Stop blaming your lack of experimentation, risk and innovation on your lack of time.

Hywel Roberts – Oops! Helping Children Learn Accidentally

It was pointed out to me recently that I can afford to expend my energies on such fripperies as the SOLO taxonomy and group work because I teach a subject which is rich in curriculum time. If, the logic goes, you only have 1 or 2 hours per week you need to spend it delivering content. Anything else is a waste of time.

Clearly there’s some truth in this: English does get more time than, say, French or RE. If you’re teaching history, there’s an awful lot of knowledge you’ve got to communicate if students are going to stand a chance of making sense of your subject. So, yes: time is precious and should not be wasted.

But consider this: what are the learning outcomes we’re hoping to see? What do we want our students to be able to do? Yes we want them to know stuff, but do we also want them to be able to see relationships between the stuff they’ve learned? Do we want them to be able to evaluate, generalise from and form hypotheses about what they’ve learnt? Respectfully, I’d hope the answer is yes to each of these questions. This being the case, don’t we have a duty to do more than just cover the content?

This is not an attack on ‘mere facts’. I’m thoroughly convinced that we all need to learn things. Google’s great and all – but there’s all sorts of evidence which demonstrates why we cannot just outsource our memory to a server. We need to have information in our working and long term memories to make sense of any new information we acquire. If we don’t, we simply won’t know enough to recognise what else we might need to know. Lack of knowledge is a huge barrier to students’ ability to read. If they can’t read well then they’re not going to be in a position to make much use of the vast quantities of knowledge available to us at the push of button. That means a percentage of the time we spend with students needs to be devoted to them learning facts. But how much? And what should learning facts look like?

Regular readers will know that I’ve devoted a fair amount of time to investigating how SOLO can be used to help students learn more efficiently. It’s worth remembering that SOLO stands for the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes or, to simplify, what students’ learning looks like. It’s abundantly clear to anyone who’s tried to use SOLO that there’s no avoiding the fact that the kids have gotta know stuff. Amassing knowledge (the multistructural level of understanding) is crucial to any attempt to deepen students’ understanding of a topic. If they don’t know enough about a subject they won’t make any progress. But how should they build up this knowledge?

Too often I hear that it’s inefficient to spend lesson time on anything other than direct instruction. It’s true that it’s much easier to teach from the front with worksheets and Power Points, leading students through carefully prepared lessons. But I just don’t buy that this is more efficient. And anyway, ploughing through information quickly avoids what Professor Bjork calls ‘desirable difficulties‘, and doesn’t seem like it will even result in shallow knowledge.

And just for the record, I’ve got nothing against direct instruction as a powerful part of teaching armoury; I use it often and there are some important advantages to using it:

– The teacher has control of the timing of the lesson
– It’s easier to see what students are up to
– The teacher controls what will be learned and who will learn
– The teacher can get through the curriculum (content)

All true, but what are the disadvantages?

– It assumes that we must learn simple tasks before complex ones, and that only measurable learning is worthwhile
– Students may not have a sense of the purpose or ‘big picture’ of what they’re learning as they focus on simple steps
– It’s harder for teachers to make allowances for the fact that students will have different prior knowledge and this may result in teachers being unaware of why particular students struggle
– Retention of how problems are solved can be low because students won’t have struggled with the problems by themselves. This disadvantage can be overcome by having students do lots of complex problems on their own but this means that one of the main advantages (efficiency) is lost
– Too often it’s a one size fits all model of teaching and learning which assumes everyone learns at the same pace

And as an aside, there is absolutely no reason why using SOLO to design learning outcomes shouldn’t complement a teacher’s use of direct instruction. It’s bizarre to think in terms of either or.

As for my time consuming methods, using SOLO stations to differentiate means that students can make decisions about where to access a lesson based on their prior knowledge and not waste their precious time on stuff they already know. They make progress at their own pace and will have a contextualised memory of what they’ve learned because they’ve had to work through it independently. Likewise, Jigsawing, described by Phil Beadle as ‘the ultimate teaching technique’ is by far the most efficient way I’ve encountered for getting students to process large quantities of information whilst also being a damn sight more fun than teaching from the front all day every day.

Let me repeat: my point is not that we don’t need to cover content. We do. But if that’s all we’re doing we might have a problem. I’m not on commission and have no axe to grind about any particular pedagogical technique. If what you do works, then stick with it. I’ve just found that SOLO is a darned efficient way to move students from just knowing things to having a deeper, more rounded understanding of how their knowledge can be used. I’m not saying the taxonomy must be taught to students or that it is the only way to guide them through the mapping of new and related concepts. It’s just one among many ways of ensuring that the content your delivering fits together to form a coherent whole. By all means don’t use it, but please don’t use lack of time as your excuse.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here‘s Professor Hattie’s research on the matter.

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