They're children, not zoological specimens

27th July 2012 at 01:00

About six years ago, I sat in on a primary class in the South of England as they were introduced to a whizzy new piece of educational technology. They spent a lesson tinkering with it on computers and figuring out how to manipulate the videos and images on their screens before I asked them if they found it useful.

One of the eight-year-olds thought for a moment, then announced that the system appealed to him because he was "a visual learner". For some teachers that statement would have been a delightful sign. And perhaps it was. After all, here was a young pupil who was reflecting on his approach to learning. But, to me, it felt a bit creepy.

Clearly pupils learn in a range of ways, and there are different benefits to learning in a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic manner. However, certain schools were going overboard with the idea and labelling children as fitting in to one of those categories. Pupils' experiences were being narrowed by their perceived preferred learning style.

SOLO Taxonomy is clearly not intended to be limiting in that way (see pages 4-7). Like Bloom's Taxonomy, it is a classification system for pupils' understanding, not for young people themselves.

And like many schemes to help pupils and teachers think about thinking or learn about learning (such as Building Learning Power), its chief benefit seems to be providing a shared language for concepts that might otherwise seem abstract.

Anything that will help encourage pupils to find deeper connections in their learning should be applauded, and there are plenty of teachers in the UK and New Zealand who swear SOLO works.

However, let us be careful the concept does not get twisted. It should be a gradient up which all pupils want to progress, not a system teachers use as if they were Victorian naturalists, poring over etchings of pupils to decide who fits into the "unistructural" subspecies and who the more advanced "extended abstract".

In short: yes, it's a taxonomy - but, please, do not let it become one in a zoological sense.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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