What’s still good about SOLO

I recently read this blog by Toby French, in which he shares the tale of his adventures with SOLO in the classroom and how he came to decide, at the end of it, that it was all castles in the air and, actually, nothing is a good substitute for knowledge.

Long-time readers might recall that I have form on SOLO. I heard Didau enthuse about its virtues at TMClevedon. I attended an excellent mastery learning session with John Stanier at SHP, which set out how to ensure students build layers of knowledge through a GCSE course. This was the final push to investigate and I spent a lot of time reading about and working with it over the following year; this culminated in the workshop Lesley Anne McDermott and I ran at SHP the following year. Since then I have had a lot of questions and comments, mostly through this blog, about implementing SOLO in the classroom. Most recently somebody approached me at SHP last weekend for advice.

Unfortunately, I have none to give, since I don’t share the SOLO specifics with my students. In that respect French and I may agree. However, it was then, and continues to be, an extremely useful planning tool that helps me build knowledge across my lessons and schemes of work, and better differentiate my activities. Thus, I write in defence of SOLO: remember it’s a taxomony, not magic.

This year’s CIEA course has prompted a new respect for it, as we considered stuctures of learning and how students acquire knowledge. The lecturers went through SOLO in a comparison with Bloom’s (the updated A&K version); as you might expect from taxonomies of learning, I found there to be similarities across the ideas and I was reminded of how much I liked the simplicity of SOLO compared to the bulkiness of Bloom’s (personal choice).

Using it as a long-term planning tool has been extremely useful as I have rewritten the KS3 PoS in preparation for the new GCSE: I have considered the knowledge that students will acquire in a multi-structural way and how it should all start to fit together on a relational level as they move through years 7, 8 and 9, providing a solid foundation on which to build their GCSE studies and sending them into KS4 already prepared with enough baseline knowledge to start having a crack at the extended abstract. Having just completed my 15th exam series as an examiner, I am reminded of how powerful that extended abstract can be when deployed with carefully selected knowledge to answer a question. There is a clear case here for making sure students hone this skill from day 1 of the GCSE course, so considering how they will build up the necessary knowledge before year 10 is really important.

It has also been useful as a shorter-term planning tool when putting together schemes of work, particularly because it has forced me to consider opportunities for wider reading and learning, and to seek out cross-overs elsewhere in the curriculum. It has helped to smooth the inclusion of RE in our History lessons next year, for example, as I consider the relational links between the SACR-suggested content and our own.

Aspects of it have also been really helpful when producing revision resources. I use hexagons for revision without talking too much about the rubric, because the students love fitting them together way more than rectangular cards, which means I don’t have to fight to get them to interact. I’ve heard some very meaningful conversations going on around those little tessellations.

The other way that SOLO has been invaluable to me is as a tool for planning questioning in the classroom. What started as a method of displaying good differentiation has become something I work on like some kind of demented artist seeking the masterpiece, because I’ve seen well-planned questioning, with different questions aimed at different students, have a measurable impact on their understanding. This type of verbal rehearsal reminds them of facts they might have forgotten or not written down and helps them to make links between them; I often have a couple of students minuting the questioning who make generalisations about the comments at the end, leading them towards the extended abstract.

So, I continue to favour SOLO. It isn’t all hexagons and fancy rubric. When you get down to brass tacks it is a structure to help us track and measure learning; so suggesting it is at odds with a love of knowledge is slightly bizarre: a scale is only useful when you’ve got something to put on it. Like a markscheme, I don’t think it was ever intended to be used by students in its raw form. But for teachers, who should be in the business of working out how students acquire knowledge and seek understanding of it, I think it can be an incredibly powerful tool. It is no more a fad than any other taxonomy of learning; I don’t believe that students acquire historical knowledge in a different way to, say, mathematical or scientific knowledge, so attempting to have a separate taxonomy for each subject seems to be to be over-complicating things.

As with everything, though, this works for me, in my context: it might work in yours, too. It might not, in which case you’ll have your Bloom’s or your newly-invented wheel to track acquisition of knowledge among your students. I don’t think it would work for me to share the rubric and scaffolding with my students, because I don’t think that is what it is for; but if it works for you and your students then keep doing it. Pam Hook’s website is a great place to look for advice on doing this.

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