Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy

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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:

  1. It helped develop a common understanding and shared language of learning.
  2. 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, increasing their exam results, make them better at the complex business of life, and is a wholly wonderful panacea. And now I have teachers fleering and scorning on Twitter if I demure.

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.”

 

53 Responses to Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy

  1. Abena Bailey says:

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, this post highlights the need for us to focus on evidence-based practice rather than jumping on the (albeit evaluated) bandwagon of others’ findings. Whether SOLO lives up to its promises or not, no single approach can be a panacea for all contexts at all times, so reflecting on our own practice to see what has a positive impact is really the only way to improve outcomes for our learners over time. It does take time and it does take trial and error – two factors that many ‘measuring sticks’ for teaching quality do not allow for (Ofsted, single – or worse, partial – lesson observations ahem). I’ve learned the hard way that the experience of others can point in a new direction, but whether that path is one worth taking, only time will tell…

    • David Didau says:

      Increasingly, I’m sceptical about how we think about ‘evidence based practice’. Robert Coe says this: “The only worthwhile kind of evidence about whether something works in a particular situation comes from trying it out.…[F]or practice to be based on evidence, that evidence must come from experiments in real contexts. “Evidence” from surveys or correlational research is not a basis for action.”

      I’m more interested in the predictions we can make when applying the empirically supported findings of cognitive science.

  2. […] 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.  […]

  3. frank says:

    I have never used SOLO so am not here to defend it. I am just wondering whether it is any use to somebody who does have a good solid base of knowledge? Would it work over a longer time frame than a single lesson? I like the quotes. Presumably you stumbled on it after you wrote the book 😉

  4. Ok. Have to give in and comment here. I came across SOLO via David’s TM talk. I ten read a bit, Pam Hook’s blog, and also Twitter – of course. It made sense to me but as I do not now teach children my opportunity to try it out was not available. I teach teachers and I have a brief introduction balanced against Bloom’s, which I gladly show is not a taxonomy. But SOLO does seem to me to have a sensible internal structure that relates to learning. Know one thing, know more things, link them together in different ways, and the extend. I am least clear about the EA stage. But I can’t create anything better.

    SOLO has value, for me, as a planning tool, as a focus that knowledge first matters and accumulating more knowledge matters. The next logical step is to relate the bits of knowledge.

    Seems simple.

    • David Didau says:

      “SOLO has value, for me, as a planning tool, as a focus that knowledge first matters and accumulating more knowledge matters. The next logical step is to relate the bits of knowledge.” Didn’t I say as much in the blog? I have problem with this – the issue comes when we invest time on getting students to identify that they have been relational or whatever. It’s superficial and pointless.

  5. Good post and one that cuts to the heart of “educational strategies” and “interventions” – both of which seem increasingly not evidence based, or at best the evidence is gleaned from a student satisfaction survey and the results are almost inevitably “students where more engaged after using (insert – iPad, iPod, MyMaths, Blogging, Internet, Skype, Kindle, Solo), especially (insert Boys, Girls, EAL, FSM, MAT, SEN).

    I offer as my comment a study we performed in school on 112 Year 7 Science learners, split into 4 classes, taught by two teachers. Class 1 & 2 by Teacher A and Class 3 & 4 by Teacher B.

    Class 1 and 3 received no interventions
    Class 2 and 4 where told that they were “subject to a new style of teaching” – but other than that received nothing different than the first group.

    No special treatments, no different SOW, nothing, zip.

    As this was controlled / taught by the head of science (me) and second in dept – I am reasonably confident that both groups where treated the same.

    The conclusion after two terms was that the “non intervention” intervention group had made an additional 1/2 sublevel of progress over the “non intervention” non intervention group.

    Telling the kids that we where doing something different and special improved their performance.

    We stopped this exercise after 2 terms and told all the leaners that they were now “all part of the experiment”.

    I call this a “pseudo-intervention” and I firmly believe that initiatives such as SOLO achieve the same – tell the kids it’s something special, the teacher is excited and it looks new and shiny — in the short term it looks like things have “improved” – but I have yet to see any evidence based research to suggest that most initiatives out there actually achieve anything in the long term – above and beyond high quality, personalised teaching and learning.

    As always though – your mileage may vary.

    Glen
    http://glengilchrist.co.uk

    • David Didau says:

      Ha! A classic example of the Hawthorne Effect! I’ve often wondered whether we could harness some sort of permanent Hawthorne Effect by constantly telling kids they were the subject of a new intervention – maybe this is the way to do it. How often did you remind the “intervention” groups that they were special?

  6. dbarlex says:

    I’ve never seen the SOLO instrument as something for pupils. More an approach to give teachers a way of looking at the complexity of answers that pupils might provide. Asking pupils to design but NOT make a product (and associated services) for the future is a reasonably common task within design & technology classes at KS3. In some cases the pupils are asked to justify their design ideas from four perspectives: technical feasibility, meeting peoples needs and wants, acceptability in society and marketability. Using the SOLO categories gives the teacher a way of looking at and interpreting pupil responses and it is this interpretation that then informs the AfL conversation that the teacher has with the pupil. No need to be explicit with the pupils about SOLO as such and of course the extent to which they meet the criteria will depend on how much they know and understand in relation to the particular design without make task. This can feature in the conversation, which would include discussing with the pupil their knowledge base and perhaps that might reveal that he or she needed to know more in which case there was extra knowledge to acquire or that in fact he or she knew more than it appeared from the design justification in which case the lesson would be about making better use of what you know.

  7. Dylan Wiliam says:

    Alice Onion, Margaret Brown and I spent a couple of years exploring the use of the SOLO taxonomy as a basis for graded assessment in the mid-1980s. The usage we were considering was, of course, entirely summative. We wanted to anchor the levels of our graded assessment systems (in mathematics, science, CDT, and English) in something intrinsic to the work, and for a while, the SOLO taxonomy looked very promising. Over time, however, we accumulated a number of examples of student work for which the SOLO level seemed deeply inconsistent with the quality of the work (“horizontal décalages” in Piagetian terms), and we realized that the SOLO taxonomy was only looking at one aspect of the work—what might be called the “marks for style”—and a specific take on what aspects of style were valued at that. To get a handle on the quality of the work, we realized one would also have to take into account the “degree of difficulty” of the task to which the students were responding.

    Combining “degree of difficulty” with “marks for style” provides a reasonable model for gauging the quality of student work for entirely summative purposes, but ideally, in educational settings, we don’t want students to struggle unduly with tasks that are just too hard from them. For that reason, I think in educational settings, there is value in what Ahmed and Pollitt call the “support model”. Students are provided with however much support they need to complete the task to a high standard, and the evaluation is based on the amount of support needed, as well as the degree of difficulty, and the marks for style.

    So I think that the SOLO taxonomy has value as one aspect of what gets better when someone gets better at something, but it’s a small part, and its use needs to be tempered by the teacher’s professional judgment.

  8. BexKent says:

    In MFL teaching, the temptation is often to stay at word level for long periods of time. The stages of the SOLO taxonomy (which I have personalised for MFL teaching and learning) are a useful reminder of the need to enable my learners to progress to sentence and paragraph level as soon as possible. I now plan each series of lessons with this in mind and learner outcomes have noticeably improved. I no longer ask students to use the symbols, they naturally now aim to extend their ideas without the reminders. I am happy to exemplify this improvement if it would be considered to be of any value.

    • David Didau says:

      That sounds a sane and balanced process and rationalisation. Thanks

    • Hi,
      I would be interested in seeing what you have done for MFL and SOLO if you wouldn’t mind. I am Lead Teacher for Talented Able and Gifted education at my school and also teacher of German and French, about to embark on delivering some CPD, of which 1 hour will be looking at SOLO. As a languages teacher, it is often difficult to adapt these things for our subject, so I am keen to see how you have done it. I will, of course, be taking on board what has been said in this blog post before delivering the CPD!

  9. A really enjoyable synopsis. I too have experimented but found the solo terminology unhelpful for students. However the reason for me, was to try to get my students to latch onto the idea of relating what I was trying to teach them to something they already knew. Another much twittered concept on cognitive development and memory etc. So in summary SOLO has been more useful for develop

  10. Di says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful post. I only came across SOLO recently and used it to break down possible progress in analytical geographical writing, which I found quite helpful (the using it as a teacher you mention). I then went on to break down other aspects of the subject into likely stages of progress, not using SOLO, but motivated by my initial effort. This was also helpful, and the kind of back-to-basics thinking-through learning I haven’t really done since I first became a teacher. What was bugging me (as I was being asked to) was how to share it with the pupils. It seemed unwieldy and unhelpful – my thought process, not a ‘how to’ guide. Reading this makes me realise I don’t need to share it. It’s ok to not tell the pupils everything! Oversharing can be bad! Kids don’t want to know everything about how they were made, they don’t need to know everything about how their lessons were made.

    Using something like SOLO, or level descriptors of any kind with pupils makes me uneasy. As you say, the knowledge part of what is required is often unstated and whilst *we* might know what we mean by ‘complex connections’ or ‘a variety of well justified points’ (made up off the top of my head but I think fairly close to the kind of stuff that ends up on descriptor sheets) pupils often don’t. So their judgement of whether they have achieved what is required is compromised.

  11. Juanka says:

    The study should generally be well structured, so everyone wins.
    http://careers-schools.com/

  12. […] has been contributed by a reader who has asked to remain anonymous who got in touch after reading my blog explaining why I’d abandoned the SOLO taxonomy. Whilst this post isn’t directly related to SOLO, it does address the need to provide […]

  13. […] has been contributed by a reader who has asked to remain anonymous who got in touch after reading my blog explaining why I’d abandoned the SOLO taxonomy. Whilst this post isn’t directly related to SOLO, it does address the need to provide compelling […]

  14. I like this post a lot, because I think it’s really helpful to examine and reflect upon what we’ve ditched along the way. I half wrote a post like this a while ago about a similar trajectory (essentially in adopting Willingham’s ideas and ditching some of the more seductive myths I’d based my early teaching around) but couldn’t quite make it work. Like the medical trials which don’t get published, the things we used to be enthusiastic about and then gave up are easy to leave in the shadows – and are therefore all the more worthy of publication!

  15. […] Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy […]

  16. Christian Moore @elprofeconritmo says:

    It’s always healthy to read and consider opposing views. I jumped onto SOLO 1.5 years ago as an NQT (I also taught EFL in state schools of South America prior to this so was not so green). Moving from MFL to science required adjustment and SOLO came to me as an excellent planning tool. Suddenly it was much easier for me to plan for progression and to really understand the complexity of some of the activities I was asking of the students. And so forth I went delving deeper and moving on to introduce SOLO as a tool into my lessons. I’m now known for it in the school. As a poorly achieving school I found most of our students were happy to learn knowledge by rote and I used SOLO to push them to link their ideas more in science. For the higher grades at GCSE most of the questions take fundamental knowledge found in the specification and put into completely unpredictable contexts. I’ve found that SOLO has helped my students recognise that it is necessary to link their ideas and move them in EA.

    I did however find problems. It is impossible to differenciate their level of thinking from the quantity of their knowledge. To put this into an obvious example: One student may write two sentences that show good relational though but another student writes a whole page of multistructural knowledge. I quickly abandoned it as a tool for any type of assessment.

    Acquisition of knowledge is important and this is an area that SOLO cannot enter. For me SOLO is the encouragement to continue thinking after attaining knowledge. And so I still find it very useful for planning, discussing the level of thinking of verbal answers, and for either labelling or discussing the level of thinking required to answer questions that I provide in science lessons.

    Last summer I spent some time in a rural state school in Ecuador and found that they had no reliable or standardised system of assessment. What’s worse is that the government had just imposed a system of “everyone must get a C”, just over there it is a “7”. Most teachers assessed work differently but none had considered the complexity of thought that they asked of their students. They found SOLO to be very interesting and I know that most started to consider their lesson plans differently as a result.

    • Mere Vadei says:

      Hi. Thanks for your interesting and encouraging post. Just wondering whether you used the SOLO taxonomy for assessment and then found it too difficult to handle? If so, what were the difficulties? For example, why was it difficult to award multistructural value to the multistructural response and relational value to relational response, despite the differences in lengths of responses?
      Am a teacher trainer and interested in your experience.

  17. Hi David, hope you are well.

    Interestingly people are still quoting your blog as somewhere to look re: SOLO. Just the other day at a PiXl conference in London someone suggested it!
    Interestingly, I think it’s great that we all look at different structures and theories, try them out with proper enthusiasm and then question them. That’s the whole point of critical thinking/creativity.
    Be interesting to see what we all come up with for the new curriculum.

  18. Oh I can’t edit and I wrote interestingly twice. End of term brain!

  19. […] Why I changed my mind about the SOLO taxonomy. I’ve been meaning to write this for quite a while. […]

  20. Rayya says:

    Forgive for stumbling in to this conversation, but as Higher Education academic developer I’m really stunned to see this conversation about using SOLO in schools. It would seem to me to be self-evident that the higher levels are dependent on what you know and understand and this would suggest to me that SOLO is being misused in schools. It works very well in Higher Education especially when combined with Meyer & Land’s work on Threshold concepts and of course it shouldn’t really be separated, I don’t think, from constructive alignment.

    There is, I think, a fair amount of evidence of the usefulness of these concepts in HE but there, the students already have a reasonable grasp of how to remember and understand – or to know where to find out. I think that privileging the ‘higher’ levels of SOLO over the lower ones completely misses the point!

    But hey, I know very little about schools …

  21. epteacher says:

    I agree with the points that it’s not always possible to ‘see’ learning, especially in single lessons, and ‘extended’ learning often only really takes place after a secure/rich body of knowledge has been built up over time. But on my interpretation SOLO is:

    a) a tool which actually emphasizes the importance of building up knowledge to a level that is rich enough to make meaningful connections/abstactions. SOLO isn’t about “prompting students to show they’re able to move from multi-structural to extended abstract in a single lesson”- several lessons might be spent on deepening/broadening the multistructural stage. I agree that “teaching pupils how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless”, but isn’t that exactly what the SOLO model can help us avoid?

    b) a tool to help students themselves become better at self-regulating their learning, not something to be used prove to observers that they are making visible progress (although I accept it is being sold as this a lot of the time) . Are you saying time spent focusing explicitly on metacognitive strategies/tools to help students monitor and regulate their learning would be better spent building subject knowledge? Even if it’s uncecessary/impossible to show observers where they are at and what they need to do to improve, is SOLO still superficial as a mental model for students (and teachers) themselves?

    Just trying to clarify my ideas so any thoughts on this would be welcome!

    • David Didau says:

      I’m saying that time spent focusing explicitly on metacognitive strategies/tools that are not subject specific is largely a waste of time. But if you find it useful to teach pupils about SOLO, then please ignore me 🙂

  22. […] more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog (http://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 […]

  23. […] more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog (http://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 […]

  24. […] plus some magic dust and a following wind (as described in this early post on my blog – see, David Didau doesn’t have the monopoly on changing his mind!). When I launched our growth mindset ethos, one of the first responses I had was our Head of […]

  25. […] at every Key Stage and beyond. The only difference is the quality of what they know. Finally, the penny dropped; teaching students how to analyse in isolation is pretty pointless. They need to have some thing to analyse. And if this sounds blindingly obvious to you, consider the […]

  26. […] more blogs or articles online questioning it. For example, David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) blog (http://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 […]

  27. […] taxonomy  here though David Didau has some advice on using it more for planning than the students here ) What value if any do the other student ideas have ? Could my initial beliefs be wrong? (surely not […]

  28. kal hodgson says:

    I use it to set lesson objectives. It works quite well for maths – not all topics but then I don’t use it for all topics – but it does allow me to demonstrate to pupils the way they can progress and deepen understanding. Here’s an example for a Y12 class, from pre-structural to extended abstract:

    I can find a pattern for a sequence
    I can find the nth term of a linear sequence
    I can find the nth term of a linear sequence and the sum of a linear series
    … and I know the formulae for nth terms and sums, as well as how to use sigma notation…
    … I can comfortably explain or derive these formulae from first principles.

    The general aim of a lesson is the relational – that’s what a typical A/B grade student needs to be able to do. I think of the extended abstract as what I can do, ie describing my deep understanding of the topic. It at least allows students to have an idea of ‘where they are’ and the next step, but only if I actually give them tasks that allow them to meet these objectives.

  29. […] The SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy is just as bad. I’ve written about my struggles with it here. […]

  30. […] I no longer think SOLO taxonomy is worth spending any time on. Here is […]

  31. […] because I’m now able to rationalise my objections. I know that David Didau went through a similar journey with SOLO and like him I also have quietly taken down my displays, hopefully so another young […]

  32. […] because I’m now able to rationalise my objections. I know that David Didau went through a similar journey with SOLO and like him I also have quietly taken down my displays, hopefully so another young […]

  33. […] UK, this taxonomy is well known. Although it has received criticism, most notably from David Didau in this post, I believe it has a lot of positive aspects. SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) […]

  34. […] UK, this taxonomy is well known. Although it has received criticism, most notably from David Didau in this post, I believe it has a lot of positive aspects. Like many things in education, the more practical, the […]

    • Naini Singh says:

      I just see it as a a natural progression of how we learn…and the solo just adds symbols to these stages. The students are then able to recognize what stage they are in and where they need to go. Nothing novel about it. Just those symbols someone (with ample time on their hands) designed!

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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