This article was originally published in 2014, but has been updated to ensure links and images are correct.
I first came across SOLO taxonomy at a TeachMeet run at the Teaching Leaders National Conference in the summer term. The session that really caught my attention was by @Mr_D_Cheng who outlined how he had used SOLO taxonomy in his lessons and across his department. A colleague of mine happened to have been on another course earlier that term and had also come back keen to talk about SOLO and try it out in our school. There are plenty of websites and blogs around to get you up to speed on SOLO if you have not come across it before, but in essence, it is a hierarchy describing the depth of understanding being shown on a topic. The thing that impressed my colleague and I most was the elegant symbols denoting each stage or level.
Embarrassingly, I then did nothing about it. I am not sure why I took a full term from hearing about a good idea to doing something about it myself, but that is how long it took. This may not actually be so unusual amongst teachers generally, but it is for me. I love finding new ideas, strategies and techniques and trying them out. Not in some glossy, new-must-be-better way, but more in a new-might-just-be-better way.
Perhaps the time of year was not ideal – the end of the school year can be a great time to innovate and try things out as some of the pressure is off once exams have passed but with schemes of work to re-write, new assessment frameworks to develop and so on it just never happened. It may also have been that every time my mind wandered back to SOLO.
I found more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog (https://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/changed-mind-solo-taxonomy/) on how he changed his mind about SOLO certainly put the brakes on me trying it out.
Firstly, I was impressed someone was bold enough to go back to what they had considered, tried, found to work and later on found to be less effective than they had originally found. This reflective and challenging approach was something I liked.
Still, in the end, SOLO kept popping up and I thought I had best try it myself and give it a go. With David’s note of caution strong in my mind, I questioned why I wanted to try SOLO at all. What was it that had caught my attention months ago? Was it the terminology to describe learning that could be applied across the curriculum? Not really. Was it the neat looking resources (such as the hexagons) that would allow students to show their depth of understanding? No – they always seemed a bit artificial anyway in that they encouraged students to justify links they were making between topics that were not really there. It was the symbols. No more, no less.
So, to dipping my toe for the first time. I was planning a GCSE revision lesson on the DNA, cell structure, GM and cloning. I started by getting students to answer a 6 mark question “Describe the function of DNA”. They all had a go at this. In our school, they are used to peer assessment so they were ready when I handed out the green pens to do “2 stars and a wish” or something similar. It was here I described what the symbols meant as quickly and concisely as I could.
I had students swap books and simply draw the symbol they thought best fitted the level of understanding shown by the writing. A quick scan of the room identified an example of each stage which we then checked as a class for consistency and I was staggered by how quickly students understood what this was about. Immediately conversations were happening about what they should draw if links were being made between ideas but the information being linked was somehow factually wrong. Seeing it as a hierarchy meant the important point that ‘knowledge and content are King’ was understood very well.
I then tried to scaffold an answer to the same 6 mark question on the board with the class’ input. Rather than producing a mini-essay plan or a conventional mind map as I would normally have done, I built up using the SOLO symbols again. You can see what happened here.
I then gave students the same amount of time as before to answer the original question. The engagement was incredible, the volume and quality of what was written in a short time far surpassing what would normally be expected from the group. The building up of knowledge in this way helped the students see what was most important and formed a structure for their writing. Paragraphs were being used (unprompted!) to split up different areas of content relevant to the question. The connectives that the English department have been working hard on developing were being used more appropriately than before. Overall, the students seemed to have a much better grasp of what was expected of them from their writing and feedback was that the liked the new symbols.
Repeating the process with other sets and other year groups produced very similar results. It is early days but I do feel that the use of the symbols is helpful for me in explaining what I am after from a task, and for students in describing where they are in their own understanding and seeing what they need to do to improve.
It is early days still and I want to keep trying this out with more groups and am encouraging others in the department to do likewise. Importantly, by using SOLO as a way of focussing peer feedback and an alternative to mind mapping a topic seems to me to have avoided the arguments that have risen against SOLO. No time wasted learning labels like relational or extended abstract, no credit for forced links between content by using hexagons – just more clarity in what they know, and what they need to do improve.