Get them ready for take-off

3rd August 2012 at 01:00
With SOLO Taxonomy, teachers can categorise the extent of pupils' comprehension and help them reach the next level. Kerra Maddern reports

A repeated complaint about the education system is that it gives pupils superficial understanding. Under pressure to get them through exams, teachers can find themselves taking classes through the required material bit by bit.

This spoon-feeding can bring high scores in the short term, but youngsters' ability to make deeper connections can be lost, so some teachers are exploring ways to encourage them to be conscious of the depth of their understanding.

One answer is SOLO Taxonomy. The term has been much discussed of late on social networking sites, but the approach - SOLO stands for "structure of the observed learning outcome" - dates back to the 1980s.

It is a tool for classifying the extent of pupils' understanding, similar to Bloom's Taxonomy from the 1950s. With SOLO, children identify the stage they are working at, 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 adapted it for schools. John Biggs, the academic and writer who devised concept with Kevin Collis, calls it "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".

It divides understanding into five levels:

1. At the first, "prestructural" 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. At the final stage, "extended abstract", pupils 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.

Professor Biggs, now honorary professor of psychology at the University of Hong Kong and honorary associate at the University of Tasmania, says 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 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 Mr Coles say SOLO helps them to use differentiation to cater for pupils of all abilities, amd that it helps them to give and receive feedback and establish a common language for learning with pupils.

In practice

During a recent Year 7 (P7) lesson on forces taught by Mr Coles, pupils had to answer a multiple-choice question to judge their own understanding. 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 show 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 . 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.

Stage direction

In a recent Year 8 (S1) lesson on Shakespeare, Mr Didau set up work stations with different tasks for children. One was set up with textbooks for those who knew nothing 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, 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, pupils improved 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.

Mr 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 understand each level.

"Children now talk to me about how they are moving from multistructural to relational," he says. "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."

The debate

But for all its advocates, SOLO also has its critics. Old Andrew, a teacher who writes the Scenes from the Battleground blog, says it is "pointless". "It's almost a sorting exercise," he says. "If you feel your subject already has a structure, 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."

Mr Clark agrees that there are other ways for teachers to find out that information, but says SOLO is still 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."

But even supporters of SOLO concede that introducing the taxonomy is not easy. Mr Coles, who now has a SOLO lead teacher 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 introducing SOLO "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."

A new mindset

In New Zealand, SOLO 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.

Ms 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.

"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 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, Mr 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 Limited knowledge.

- Unistructural Pupil can define, identify and undertake simple procedures. They make one relevant point. Feedback should ask them for more detail.

- Multistructural

Pupil can define, describe, list and combine. They make two relevant points. Feedback should encourage more detail.

- Relational

Pupil can comparecontrast, explain causes, sequence, classify, analyse, apply and formulate questions.

- 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.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today