Is SOLO a waste of time?

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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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Is it better to be told or to discover a fact?

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  1. @GeogJo June 5, 2012 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Geography is one of those subject that doesn’t have as much time in the curriculum as say, maths of English. However. I have started to integrate SOLO ideas into some elements of my teaching. I don’t use it all the time, but for certain things I have found that it has become a useful language for pupils to understand what I’m getting at.

    It doesn’t have to take over and it doesn’t take a great deal of time to introduce so I haven’t understood some people’s reluctance to try it. Two example from me below:

    I have found that pupils are, on the whole, pretty bad at self and peer assessment. Such comments as “neater handwriting” or “write more” come to mind. I tried several ways to get them to comment on the geography but this was still pretty poor. However, when I got them to think about the SOLO level a pupil was working at this was much easier for them and they could see the benefit (and difficulty)of moving from multi-structural to relational. This was with year 7s and 8s…

    I then used it with GCSE and A Level revision to think about about how to get those A-A* answers where in geography linking ideas and being explicit about cause and effect are key.


    • learningspy June 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jo – this is exactly my point. Using a system such as SOLO would be ridiculous if it were instead of delivering your curriculum content. It should be used as a method of delivery. And as such maybe it will give you more time to deliver content rather than less. Take what works, leave what doesn’t.

  2. oldandrew June 6, 2012 at 10:21 pm - Reply

    I have a real problem with your supposed disadvantages of direct instruction.

    The point about retention flies in the face of the evidence, and looks like wishful thinking on your part. Two of the other disadvantages appear to assume without argument or evidence that direct instruction is incompatible with formative assessment or differentiation. The remaining two disadvantages appear to rely on questionable assumptions about learning that you have not even begun to justify.

    • learningspy June 7, 2012 at 11:38 am - Reply

      You have problems with my list of disadvantages? Really?

      There are real and obvious advantages to direct instruction. I’ve acknowledged that here and elsewhere. You know I have.

      I use it regularly as part of my teaching and because of this I am aware that it has limitations. Particularly with retention. Because of this I get students to interact differently with information I want them to understand. If I teach answers students will know facts. if I teach them to ask questions to which they are willing to work to find their own answers a whole world of curiosity and inquiry is opened up. many many facts will be learned along the way.

      Let me assure you that I don’t in any way believe that DI is incompatible with differentiation or formative assessment. But, I do find it much harder to differentiate effectively with whole class teaching. Likewise formative assessment – it’s just easier(for me anyway) to do it differently. I’d be interested in hearing some workable solutions to this issues.

      You’re right, I haven’t even begun to justify my ‘questionable assumptions about learning’ in this post – I’ve done that before and we’ve jousted on various occasions about why you’re right and I’m wrong. I will never convince you and that’s fine. However, you know (I hope) that I’m convinced by the need for a knowledge based curriculum (and that I’ve read Hirsch, Willingham. and others) I just disagree with you on the best way to achieve this. You seem (and I may be wrong) to be guilty of contempt prior to investigation as far as SOLO goes. I’d love to hear your thoughts having experimented with it somewhat.

  3. The Learning Spy - Knowledge is power October 21, 2012 at 7:04 pm - Reply

    […] Is SOLO a waste of time? […]

  4. @perrynator18 May 9, 2013 at 11:14 pm - Reply

    The value of people pointing out their limiting beliefs is it challenges us to clarify our own thinking as you have done here and I found it really useful to read.

    My thoughts:
    If time is precious, reduce you curriculum. Easy to do in NZ as we have a standards based system that allows us to make up our curriculum. In recent years I have dropped a 24 credit Geography course to being 18 credits so the quality of the learning can improve (often via a SOLO framework). The emphasis shifts from students passing the course to students passing the course with excellent marks. Also, if there is a lot of content needing to be imparted, give it to the students (notes of what ever) and use the time for thinking with the content (again a SOLO framework makes this visible to the students).

    When I have been talking with staff who for some reason or other have had a knee jerk reaction to SOLO or haven’t thought about it. I ask how they scaffold their students to explain, analyse, discus, evaluate etc. What ever they reply it probably is aligned to a SOLO framework. the next question is how they make that visible to the students. As you pointed out, it is for the students; The Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes.

    Thanks for the blog

  5. @perrynator18 May 9, 2013 at 11:30 pm - Reply

    In reply to @Geogjo comment.

    When you say that you don’t use SOLO all the time, I bet you really do. A simple way of thinking about it is:

    If we are bringing in ideas=multistructural
    Are we making links during this learning activity = relational
    Are we using the information in a new way, showing insight (in Geography this is often making conceptional links ie. broader links to accessibility, perspectives, significance to the whole, transfering the concept to another setting, predicting) = Extended abstract.

    I am on leave at present but something I would like to try is make it a habit to ask student during a lesson, what the activity attends to. bringing in ideas, making links, insight.

    Dam it, I keep getting distracted from the housework


  6. Carmel January 5, 2016 at 1:11 am - Reply

    I have been working with a core group of teachers using SOLO to design quality assessment tasks. The teachers thought that SOLO was logical and a great framework for developing student thinking but found it difficult to put into practice when writing assessment tasks against the standard. I know with practice they will embed the framework but it takes time to shift teachers thinking.

    • David Didau January 5, 2016 at 9:30 am - Reply

      I’m sure teachers can get better at designing assessment tasks using SOLO with practice, but wouldn’t they be better off using something less generic?

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