Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy
I’ve been meaning to write this for quite a while. Increasingly, I’ve become rather embarrassed about my erstwhile advocacy for Biggs & Collis’s generic taxonomy, the Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes. I used to have a separate page of SOLO resources on my blog which I have now removed, but even so my SOLO posts still get a surprising number of hits, and this presentation has been downloaded over 50,000 times.
If you’ve got 8 minutes of your life you want to waste, there’s also this video of me extolling the efficacy of SOLO at a teachmeet in 2012:
I was really really really excited!
And I really was. The vocabulary of SOLO felt like a revelation. Exciting possibilities about how I might design lessons to encourage pupils to respond in new and surprising ways were opening up before me. And there is no one more zealous than a convert; I wanted to spread the word.
Of the many benefits of using SOLO, the two I was most excited about were these:
- It could help develop a common understanding and shared language of learning.
- It made students’ progress from ‘just knowing’ facts to seeing connections very visible.
There was always the annoying niggle that there isn’t really any evidence that using SOLO levels in lessons achieves any of the claims made for it, but what the hell; it worked for me and my students.
But as time went by, I started noticing problems.
Consider this question: What makes you clever?
- Is it being able to generate revolutionary new thinking?
- Is it seeing links and connections between different concepts and ideas?
- Or is it the quality and quantity of what you know?
The first two are beguiling. These applications of ‘cleverness’ seem self-evidently and obviously true: of course we want these things. But aren’t they utterly dependent on the depth and breadth of what you know? What happens if you make a relational construct which is wrong? The answer, of course, is to go back to our store of knowledge and correct the misapprehension.
This observation led to the realisation that the usefulness of SOLO was entirely dependent on the quality of the knowledge pupils possessed. I noticed that pupils are asked to make relational connections and abstract constructions at every Key Stage and beyond. The only difference is the quality and quantity of what they know. Finally, the penny dropped; teaching pupils how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless. They need to have something to analyse. And if this sounds blindingly obvious to you, I can only hang my head in shame.
From there I started to consider whether I might have made other erroneous assumptions.
First to go was the idea it possible to see progress in lessons. Once I’d been introduced to the idea that we should disassociate ‘performance’ from ‘learning’ the whole idea of making progress in individual lessons collapsed. Much of the time I had invested into teaching the taxonomy was based on the flawed belief that it would help students demonstrate progress. And make no mistake, it is great for getting students to ‘demonstrate progress’; but of what? If I accept that learning takes time and needs to build on a firm foundation of knowledge, then there really isn’t any value in prompting students to show they’re able to move from multi-structural to extended abstract in a single lesson. All this might demonstrate is the progress they’ve made in their ability to perform a particular task at a particular time. True extended abstract thinking can only develop over time.
But what about the importance of the shared understanding and common language of learning? If teaching children to use SOLO to identify their leaps from one stage on the ladder to another was artificial and superficial, did this at least provide a saving grace? Much to my chagrin, I decided it did not.
Teaching children a new cross curricular language of learning assumes that the terms we use mean the same things at different times and in different places. What if this common language was actually creating an illusion of shared understanding? What if we were using the same words to describe fundamentally different things? What if the time spent teaching pupils to understand what ‘extended abstract’ might mean in English, history, maths, PE and art could be spent developing domain specific language that might be tailored to separated subject disciplines? I started to feel that SOLO was swamping the disciplinary ‘what’ with the pedagogic ‘how’ and that this resulted at best in wasting time and at worst in confusion. (I began exploring this idea here, but James Theobald has written far more eloquently on the matter here.)
Now I am often reminded of the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but what if SOLO is the bathwater? SOLO might very well be useful for teachers to effectively plan learning outcomes – indeed, for sometime after I stopped referring to it in lessons I continued to find it useful to refer to SOLO levels to help me think about progression – but I have concluded that the tricks and gimmicks involved in explicitly teaching students about the taxonomy should be bypassed so we can concentrate on expanding domain specific knowledge. I’m not saying it’s rubbish, just that it’s unnecessary.
Suffice it to say that I quietly took down my SOLO displays, put away hexagons and went back to teaching pupils how to get better at reading and writing without the need for ever mentioning terms like ‘multi-structural’. And no student ever said they missed it.
That would be that, except in the intervening years quite a cult of has grown up. People are claiming that SOLO can make pupils independent, increase their exam results, make them better at the complex business of life, and that it is a wholly wonderful panacea. And now I have teachers fleering and scorning on Twitter when I demur.
Let me make myself perfectly clear: if you’ve thought about all this and can conclude that this is the best way to teach your students, far be it from me, or anyone else, to tell you you’re wrong. What do I know? But if you want to suggest that other teachers should also be using SOLO, the burden of proof lies with you. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims, require extraordinary evidence.”