A repeated complaint about the education system is that it only gives pupils superficial levels of understanding. Under pressure to get pupils through key stage tests, then GCSEs, then A levels, teachers can find themselves taking their classes through the required material bit by bit.
This spoon-feeding can help to guarantee high scores in the short term, but young people's ability to make deeper connections can easily be lost. The education secretary hopes to remedy this by introducing more challenging tests, but whether that will help pupils to think more analytically remains to be seen. Increasing numbers of teachers are instead exploring ways in which they can encourage young people to be conscious of the depth of their understanding.
One popular answer is SOLO Taxonomy. The term has been much discussed in recent months on educational blogs and in teacher debates on Twitter. But the approach itself - SOLO stands for "structure of the observed learning outcome" - dates back to the early 1980s.
Simply put, it is a tool for classifying the extent of pupils' understanding, similar to Bloom's Taxonomy from the 1950s, which is familiar to many teachers from their training. With SOLO, children first identify the stage they are working at and then work upwards through the levels as they build their knowledge. The aim is to help them connect the facts they absorb. What they have achieved can then be described using specific labels rather than simply a mark or grade.
The theory was first developed for use in universities. Academics in New Zealand and Australia then started adapting it for schools.
John Biggs, the academic and writer who together with Kevin Collis came up with the concept of SOLO Taxonomy, describes it as "a means of classifying learning outcomes in terms of their complexity, enabling us to assess pupils' work in terms of its quality, not of how many bits of this and of that they got right".
SOLO Taxonomy divides understanding into five levels:
1. At the "prestructural", or first, level the pupil misses the point and needs help to start the task.
Pupils at the next two levels have surface understanding.
2. At the "unistructural" stage they pick up on a few aspects of the tasks.
3. At the "multistructural" stage they know several aspects, but these are unrelated.
4. By the time the pupil has reached the "relational stage" they can integrate facts.
5. And at the final stage, "extended abstract", they have broad knowledge, look at the facts in a new way and can use them to predict and generalise. Not all children get to the fifth stage.
Biggs, now honorary professor of psychology at the University of Hong Kong and honorary associate at the University of Tasmania, says that SOLO Taxonomy provides a "simple, reliable and robust" model for different levels of understanding - for example, being able to describe, to explain, to interrelate different ideas and to form hypotheses.
It might seem to many teachers that you could get a roughly similar idea of pupils' levels of understanding by using marking schemes or national curriculum levels. Not so, according to advocates, who claim that using SOLO is much more effective.
"It is a way of children knowing their level of understanding, not their level of attainment," says Tait Coles, assistant principal at Temple Moor High School Science College in Leeds, who began using the approach 18 months ago.
Teachers like Coles say that SOLO helps them to use differentiation to cater for pupils of all abilities. They also claim it helps them to give and receive feedback and establish a common language for learning with pupils.
During a recent Year 7 lesson on forces taught by Coles, pupils had to answer a multiple-choice question to judge their own understanding using SOLO Taxonomy. They then had to put themselves at different learning stations based on their answer. Each station was named after what they could achieve, for example "I can ..." or "Because I have ...".
The prestructural table had textbooks and laptops so pupils could better understand forces. Pupils on the unistructural table had to annotate diagrams of rockets, naming the forces involved. Those on the multistructural table had to annotate more complex diagrams, to show balanced and unbalanced forces, speed, path and movement. Those on the relational table had to make paper aeroplanes and fly them to demonstrate the forces acting on them, as well as completing a worksheet designed to check that they could connect everything they had learned previously. Finally, those working at the most advanced level, extended abstract, had to solve a terminal velocity puzzle.
"As soon as my pupils eagerly scuttled off I was fascinated to see which station they would start at. To be perfectly honest, there were two pupils who ran straight for the making-paper-plane challenge first," Coles says. "I didn't challenge their decision and was happily surprised when after a few minutes of checking the success criteria they went back a stage or two.
"Many pupils started at the prestructural station, as they wanted to go around the stations in order. Interestingly, these were the pupils who completed the extended abstract challenge with flying colours.
"It was also great to see the pupils not staying with their friendship groups and moving around independently, moving only when they were ready."
David Didau, director of literacy at Clevedon School in North Somerset, says that SOLO Taxonomy "gives us a common plan for learning that is easy for teachers and pupils".
"Not only do you get feedback on the level the pupil is working at, but you can also give them feedback on the next steps they need to take," he says.
In a recent Year 8 lesson on Shakespeare, Didau set up work stations with different tasks for children to complete. One was set up with textbooks for pupils who did not know anything about the Bard. Another had a box containing information on life in the 16th century so that pupils could compare this with 21st-century life. At another station, children had to compare modern texts with Shakespearean plays - for example, contrasting Romeo and Juliet with Twilight. Pupils working at the highest level had to write about how Shakespeare had influenced all modern writers.
"All pupils could sit where they wanted. Some changed their minds and went back a stage. Two girls chose the top level," Didau says. "They produced a really good piece of writing. I then asked them to make judgements about other work stations. If I hadn't organised the lesson in that way they might have been bored, not learning or discovering anything. It also allowed everyone to have the support they needed - everyone did work of some worth."
In another lesson Didau used SOLO to help pupils improve their creative writing. They started with a simple piece of work and as they moved up the levels they were able to add devices such as extended metaphors.
Didau uses SOLO because he is convinced it gives children a way of seeing how they are progressing and what they need to do. But for the theory to work, he says, pupils must have a clear understanding of each level.
"Children now talk to me about how they are moving from multistructural to relational. They'll say 'I've got to relational, Sir, and now I want to have a crack at the extended abstract.' It's really wonderful. This helps them understand what we are trying to do and gives them confidence about how they will move on."
Damian Clark, assistant head and head of humanities at Cramlington Learning Village in Northumberland, believes that SOLO allows pupils to "access different levels of complexity" and enables them to see how they learn, how well they are doing and how to take the next step.
"I started using it to plan my lessons, so I could plan different tasks for different pupils. After many months I shared the levels with pupils. I thought they needed to see them because it would be useful to help them move up to the next level."
For all its advocates, like any educational craze SOLO also has its critics. Old Andrew, a teacher who writes the anonymous Scenes from the Battleground blog, thinks it is "pointless".
"It's almost a sorting exercise," he says. "If you feel your subject already has a structure then it's completely unnecessary.
"I can't see what the categories tell you that teachers won't already know. I don't think these categories correspond to actual levels of knowledge, which are about fluency. That's what matters."
Clark agrees there are other ways for teachers to find out that information, but says that SOLO remains a powerful tool.
"It's not that you couldn't do this with a mark scheme, but when you are planning a specific task it can help develop it," he says. "It's more of a tool to improve learning than just using the national curriculum levels - there is more purpose to it. You can see the next steps rather than just the end product."
But even supporters of SOLO acknowledge that introducing the taxonomy is not easy. Coles, who now has a SOLO lead teacher, or "champion", in every department at Temple Moor, says that it will only be successful if the teacher understands what the taxonomy is supposed to do, and the outcome they want to achieve.
Professor Steve Higgins, director of research at Durham University's School of Education, says that introducing SOLO Taxonomy "can be quite hard work at first".
"I've witnessed that at the start pupils don't quite get it. It's different from what they have been doing; they now have to look at the quality of connections," he says. "You have to emphasise that progression is about the quality of connections, otherwise pupils will start making spurious connections."
A new mindset
In New Zealand, SOLO Taxonomy is not seen as a fad, but is used as the basis for a national online assessment tool.
Pam Hook, an education consultant in New Zealand, has designed her own approach to SOLO Taxonomy, with support from her colleague Julie Mills. Called HookED, it aims to help teachers use the theory as part of their curriculum.
Hook sees SOLO as a "powerful mental model" for pupils. "Because SOLO clarifies learning outcomes, it can be used to look at just about everything that goes on in classrooms," she says. "In New Zealand we continue to see shifts in student engagement and student learning outcome when teachers use SOLO learning verbs, mapping and self-assessment rubrics in their planning, teaching and assessment.
"What I like best, though, is the way it replaces a mental model that says, 'My learning outcome is due to luck or fixed ability', with a mental model that says, 'Learning takes effort, and effective strategies will help move me from one learning goal to another.'
"It is robust and so simple in its framing, and can be so easily shared through symbols - including hand signs as well as text - that it is not disruptive of existing classroom approaches. It says that everyone will find themselves needing help to start at some time and that this is a normal part of learning. It helps students find their next steps."
Back in the UK, Coles agrees that the approach encourages pupils to become more engaged in their learning.
"We spend a lot of time in lessons making sure children get shallow learning. This helps children understand what they need to do to achieve deep learning," he says. "SOLO Taxonomy can be used to do a progress check. But it's much more than that."
Prestructural - Very limited knowledge.
Unistructural - The pupil can define, identify and undertake simple procedures. They make one relevant point. Teacher feedback should ask them for more detail.
Multistructural - The pupil can define, describe, list and combine. They make two relevant points. Teacher feedback should encourage more detail.
Relational - The pupil can comparecontrast, explain causes, sequence, classify, analyse, apply and formulate questions. Teacher feedback should encourage more detailed connections.
Extended abstract - The pupil can evaluate, theorise, generalise, predict, create, imagine, hypothesise and reflect. They give reasons and alternatives. Teacher feedback should encourage more detailed, subject-specific connections.
TIPS FOR INTRODUCING SOLO TAXONOMY
- Understand why you are introducing SOLO and why it is pertinent to the children you teach.
- Pilot it through activities with staff.
- The theory does not have to underpin every lesson, but it must be used regularly if it is to make a difference. Teachers will need to find relevant lesson content to deliver the ideas.
- Make sure pupils are clear on the different levels of understanding. Make them think carefully about which level they should start at, and explain to them that the aim is to develop deeper understanding, not a race to see who can finish first. Do not worry if this takes time - spend as long as necessary going through the taxonomy with pupils.
- Pupils have to "buy in" to the theory, too. Make it clear what is in it for them - it will not interest them that SOLO Taxonomy is a buzzword on Twitter. It may not even interest them enough to discover that it could help their learning. Be more specific - it could help them find a better job, for example. They must have an intrinsic motivation.
- Use SOLO Taxonomy to design different learning outcomes, making sure pupils will move from superficial to deeper understanding.
- Explain to them that they should move on to the next level when they feel confident enough, and that they can always go backwards if they need to.
- Set up "reflection tables" where pupils can go during the lesson to share ideas.
- Children may want to get to the top and miss out the easy stages. Having a good relationship with pupils will solve this problem. Talk to them and ask why. And get them to reflect on their experiences if it does not go well.
- Have a board in the classroom with symbols and definitions of SOLO Taxonomy. The symbols can then be placed around the room if the teacher is using the "SOLO stations" method of teaching.
Useful diagrams of the SOLO Taxonomy levels:
Biggs, J. and Tang, C. Teaching for Quality Learning at University, (4th ed., 2011). Open University Press.
Biggs, J.B. and Collis, K.F. Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO Taxonomy (1982). Academic Press
Moseley, D. et al. Frameworks for Thinking: a handbook for teaching and learning (2005). Cambridge University Press.