The need for ‘Why To’ guides

I’m not a fan of telling people how to do things. OK, that may not strictly speaking be true, but I do believe that just explaining how to solve a problem is unlikely to result in much learning. The best way is to learn is to think about why a problem should be solved.

As teachers we often bemoan the fact that we’re not treated with respect as a profession. There are probably all sorts of reasons for this but one reason is the extent to which we’ve allowed ourselves to be told how we should teach.

Consider how we’re assessed as professionals. Once or twice a year someone will stroll into our classroom, write down some notes, tick off some points on their check list and give us a grading from 1 to 4. They will then tell us what we should and shouldn’t do in the future while we listen attentively and scribble down all their excellent ideas on how we can improve. Sound familiar? Hopefully this is starting to change and it would be lovely to think that their are some new members of the profession who never had to go through this sham, but let’s be realistic.

And think about the things we’re asked to do as teachers:

- Introduce lessons with learning objectives
- Comment based making which avoids grades
- Train students to use peer & self assessment
- Avoid asking for students to put their hands up to answer questions
- Plan three, four (or even five) part lessons
- Review learning every 20 minutes with mini plenaries

We all learn how to do these things, but do we know why?

So, how has this come to pass? How did we arrive at this sorry state? Well, maybe it’s because few teachers know enough about pedagogy. How many read academic research about teaching? How many have read the works of Hattie or Marzano who have collated such studies? How many have even read the slim volume Inside the Black Box which is the basis for the classroom industry known as assessment for learning? This isn’t an accusation, simply an observation. A few years ago the same charges could have been levelled at me. It’s only a happy accident that I decided to invest time in exploring my profession and I know from my conversations with colleagues that I’m in a minority.

I despair at the way AfL has been abused in classrooms. This is a classic case of teachers concentrating on how to do something without considering why they’re doing it. I’ve seen all sorts of skilfully executed AfL practice which doesn’t have the slightest impact on students’ progress. I’ve seen teachers brandishing lolly sticks to ensure everyone participates in questioning; students assiduously applying mark schemes to each other’s work; all manner of fancy methods for getting students to articulate what they’ve just learned and blooms of post-it notes appearing around rooms full of all sorts of evidence which confirms that students have met the lesson’s objectives. And none of it has made the slightest bit of difference to anyone. Why? Because all too often none of this potentially wonderful stuff makes it in to next lesson’s plan. Because the teacher (and therefore the students) have only the vaguest notion of why they are doing these things. Oh, they know that they’re supposed to do them because they’re mentioned on their observers’ checklists. But beyond that?

Of course the reason why we should doing these things is so that we (and therefore our students) have a clear understanding of what was known before the lesson, what was learned during the lesson and what needs to be learned next lesson. If we are not able to turn these classroom activities into information on which students can act in order to make progress then what’s the point?

I’m not blaming teachers for this – it’s an inevitable part of education’s obsession with quick fixes. If some boffin publishes research on a strategy that can potentially raise students’ attainment it’s a lot easier for someone to tell us what we should be doing rather than worrying us with why we should be doing it. Easier, but not better. Teacher training and INSET is all too often about training teachers how rather than encouraging us to ask why. Compliance is preferred.

Dylan Wiliam talks about getting teachers to stop doing ‘good things’ and focus instead on doing better things. Professional development should, he says, be predicated on a Weight Watchers model. We all know that eating less and taking regular exercise is the way to lose weight and we also have plenty of evidence that assessment for learning is one of the most effective ways to raise students’ attainment. If you’re going to spend your time thinking about doing anything else in the classroom you owe it to your students to have considered why it’s worth doing.

I’ve had lots of folks asking me to tell them how to ‘do SOLO’ recently. My heart sinks at this. I’m very happy to explain why I think it should be used but I’m really not interested in putting together a list of SOLO strategies for people to misunderstand and misuse. It took a lot of reading, discussing and thinking to decide that it might be worth trying to incorporate SOLO into my lesson planning. But once I’d made that decision, working out how to use was (relatively) straightforward because I understood the point. I shudder at the thought of loads of well meaning teachers telling their colleagues to ‘do SOLO’ and it having little or no impact on the students on whom it will be subjected.

Likewise, a lot of the objections I’ve been confronted with on why teachers might not want to use SOLO make it painfully clear that they have very little understanding of what it is.

So, here are my top 5 reasons for using SOLO:

1. It is a helpful way for teachers to plan learning outcomes which concentrate on complexity rather than difficulty as understanding moves from the superficial to the deep
2. Progress from one SOLO level to the next is implicit
3. It provides a common language for learning which helps teachers and students understand how progress can be made
4. It can help teachers to plan lessons which take account of prior knowledge to provide effective differentiation
5. Once the language has been understood it can be integrated effortlessly into schemes of learning and used effectively alongside any pedagogical technique

If you don’t think these things are worthwhile or think that I’m mistaken, then for pity’s sake don’t waste your time: read, discuss and THINK about what is important and find something which helps your students to learn better.

If you think this looks like an attractive list of reasons then go away and work how you can implement it. By all means share your thinking with others. But please don’t just ask how to do it. The process of getting it wrong and refining your ideas will make you a better teacher.

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16 Responses to The need for ‘Why To’ guides

  1. A Smart says:

    I totally agree. We can get so sucked up into the various teaching strategies that happen to be ‘in fashion’ at a particular time that we can sometimes feel forced to want to try them with little thinking for why they might be appropriate to US and, more importantly, our students.

  2. daibarnes says:

    This is a fair point David. In my superficial research about SOLO I have been looking for someone to tell me how exactly I do this for my planning. But really what I need is a push – something to tip me into action – to work out how use this approach in my classroom.

    I think I am intimidated by the resources that must be created for a *successful* application of SOLO. Hexagons and explanatory sheets are a happy obstacle. But really it is more the thinking behind it all.

    My thinking so far is pushing me toward A Level lessons because I see pupils more times per week and I am more concerned about the collective grasp of (desire for) learning beyond achieving a qualification. The resources I create would span a two week cycle that would hopefully allow pupils to select and pursue learning structured by SOLO stations. SOLO appeals to me because it provides a language structure to assist pupils in identifying their progress in learning which we can all discuss.

    Your little rant here might be just the nudge I need.

    • learningspy says:

      It was a bit of a rant wasn’t it. It’s very odd how SOLO has gone from being something that only a small group had heard about last summer to being on the brink of the mainstream now. I really worry about some people’s lack of critical appraisal. Resources are really not important: hexagons etc. are besides the point. Creative teachers make amazing resources regardless of their pedagogical approach. Good luck

  3. Dr.P says:

    Thoroughly agree about the lack of engagement with research in teaching. I started a research group at my school to discuss and carry out research.

    An awful lot of what I see being called AfL is really assessment AS learning, where the process of teacher or pupil based assessment is a learning experience in its own right. Such metacognitive exercises are valuable but for different reasons than the constructivist AfL. I very rarely, if ever, see the feedback loop of genuine AfL in action. AfL is something teachers do, not pupils; it is all about assessing the learning demand and planning ones next steps accordingly.

    I like SOLO; I think that it is an excellent way to approach encouraging deep, intrinsically motivated, learning.

  4. gregtheseal says:

    What was puzzling, was why this particular post was irritating, when I supported a lot of its sentiment and ideas. I think you lost me in the first paragraph:
    “I’m not a fan of telling people how to do things. OK, that may not strictly speaking be true, but I’m convinced that just telling people how to solve a problem is not the best way to get them to learn. The best way is to get people to think about why a problem should be solved.”
    Is at odds with your book being advertised next to it, even with the caveat of the second sentence.
    The post comes across as elitist and that the majority of people are blindly jumping through hoops and balancing balls on our noses and not putting in the hours of reading and discussion necessary to use an idea.
    “So, how has this come to pass? How did we arrive at this sorry state? Well, now many teachers know enough about what they do? How many read academic research about teaching? How many have read the works of Hattie or Marzano who have collated such studies? How many have even read the slim volume Inside the Black Box which is the basis for the classroom industry known as assessment for learning?”
    Surely someone asking you ‘how’ to do SOLO is better than not being asked at all. People have different starting points and needs, and giving them the opportunity and confidence to experiment is a good for their own learning journey?

    • learningspy says:

      Oh dear Greg. I think I got the tone wrong. I was in rant mode when I wrote this and that’s never a good idea. I can certainly see how it might come across as elitist although that wasn’t my intention. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so that’s no excuse. I would like to point out that there really isn’t anything at odds with advertising my book and these sentiments: my book is (I hope) predicated on explaining why the strategies I recommend are worth using.

      However, don’t you think it’s true that many teachers are “blindly jumping through hoops and balancing balls”? The problem, as I see it, is that this position is encouraged in the way CPD works and teachers are trained. You’re right though. It is better that someone ask how to do something rather than not asking at all. I feel thoroughly chastised.

  5. gregtheseal says:

    David nothing wrong with a bit of a rant now and then, at least it gets people thinking. A cheap shot about the book having yet to read it and I am glad you addressed the why. It’s the idea of differentiation for OFSTED that is wrong and as Phil Beadle put it ‘ just be brilliant and if OFSTED don’t like it, so what.’

    I agree with you about the hoops and balls and that probably comes down to OFSTED again rather that what makes a good learning experience. A plea to all then, stay curious, don’t give up and reflect on what your doing.

  6. JamesTheo says:

    Thank you for this David – it’s come at just the right time for me. I’ve had a real break from everything (including Twitter) this week because my heart has also begun to sink at some of the questions being asked about SOLO.

    Before half term, my school asked me to run a School Improvement Group next year on SOLO. The email from SLT did exactly what you say here: it failed to grasp why we do it. It made me feel really down because, as much as I’d love to encourage the use of SOLO in the classroom across the school, it just seems that it is being done for the wrong reasons.

    And to me, that is such a shame. I’ve spent this week really evaluating how to approach this and make sure that it isn’t just taken on as just the next ‘fad’ in teaching, which, sadly, it will be for many.

  7. Ellie Russell says:

    This post is spot on!
    I look back over my teaching career and shudder at the number of things I’ve tried blindingly without question. Now, a bit older and wiser, I’m enjoying trialling what might work more seriously and sharing my experiences with colleagues at school. It ffeels like I’ve finally grown up!

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