My interest in the idea of sharing pedagogical purposes comes directly with the contact I have had with the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning at Monash University in Australia. Now each of these teachers were very active in establishing learning agendas with their classes. The impact they were having was inspiring. Each classroom tool can have a purpose beyond delivering content, and this needs to be shared.
I suppose the purpose of this website is collate, crystalise and open dialogues about how to increase this within classrooms. As the quote from Carl Bereiter illustrates this classroom methodology can empower our students.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

SOLO lesson outcomes and formative assessmnet

On Twitter, I recently received sort of valid point about the ability of SOLO taxonomy to provide useful "feed forward".

I sort of agree with this, a bit. And, only if you don't plan out the content that is to be learned.

One of the inherently beautiful things about SOLO Taxonomy is the incorporation of content knowledge. Unlike the pillars of baroque villas, the columns that give SOLO its recognisable facade have structural integrity. The taxonomy is not a bolt accessory to learning, it structures it in a clear and purposeful way.

However, the linear route learning takes appears to be considered axiomatic. Learning is messy, and therefore sometimes takes a linear path, some time not. Hoorah!. That said planning learning and being able to see ( or measure) learning in a linear way certainly helps teachers.  This is why SOLO taxonomy is such a useful tool in the design of lessons. I hope this simple example will allow me to illustrate this.

Take these examples from the new year 8 Science module currently being planned.

  1. define an element
  2. define a compound
  3. define a mixture
Each one appears to be unistructural until each definition is dissected. 

  1. An element is  made from one type of atom
can and should be considered unistructural but 

2. A compound is made from two types of atoms that are joined together.

is clearly multistructural, and now has a clear progression for students to follow. The feedback is already in place for those that give only one part to this answer. 

The final one is probably best considered multistructual too, but again their is scope for the development of knowledge here this time to a relational level. 

3. A mixture is made from two or more elements or compounds that are easily separated.

Since, you need to know what the previous two outcomes, the linear nature of this content becomes apparent. Although, the response above is clearly multistructural their is potential for relational. The situation bellows for the use of a hinge question, to explore the relational links at hand.

Something along the lines of "How are the atoms arranged in a mixture? " , could give the ideas that

"mixtures have atoms that may be on their own in elements while in compounds they are joined. The atoms in the compounds of a mixture are separate to each other."

This response gives a contrast and a chance to apply previous learning and is potentially relational.. Most importantly it gives a knowledge base on which to decide the order of introducing these concepts. Mixtures are on some levels the easiest to get your head around, but to have a real understanding of them requires knowledge of elements and compounds and their atoms first. 

SOLO taxonomy reveals that to truly to understand these outcomes, relational thinking is necessary. The linear nature of a taxonomy and the centrality of content knowledge in SOLO allows the hidden concepts in what is to be taught. The analysis of these outcomes has already improved these as yet unwritten lessons, with clearer more reasonable outcomes. Simply by  aiming for

Distinguish between compounds and mixtures

will lead the learner to consider the nature of atoms in both.

It appears that we have reached the end of the linear progression through SOLO without reaching Extended Abstract.  I'm sure some content will end here quite contentedly, although, there is more to this particular content.

To get to extend abstract, on this occasion will allow students to deepen their understanding of not only these outcomes but also in future study.It is therefore worthwhile doing. To get there a parallel bit of content knowledge is required, again reinforcing the usefulness of the SOLO visuals. At first the new knowledge appears excessive and bolted on. It being

4. define a molecule. 

On the surface, this is benign but this is the start of what Victorian Essential Learnings (VELS) website  called Critical Teaching Ideas. The concepts that allow a deeper understanding to be developed.

Again, an unistructural  response could be " two or more atoms joined together." Although this is a difficult concept to grasp , as it hinges on the importance of an omission. It does not say two types of atoms as used in defining compounds, but simply two atoms.a vital distinction. It is now relational, as it requires distinctions to be made. Again, this leads to a hinge question.

"Which of the following form one kind of molecule: elements, compounds or mixtures?"

Since molecules can be made from two (or more) atoms joined together, they may be the same type and therefore an element, they may also  be made from two (or more) different atoms joined together and therefore a compound. However a mixture may have different  molecules (as either elements and/or compounds) but the different ones remain separate,

The underline parts are generalisations and therefore Extended Abstract. The parallel content has now converged to lead to a greater understanding. The VELS website also has some excellent concept maps showing the messiness of these concepts and also some logical routes through it for teacher planning.

Finally this is where I see the point originally made , that the jumps made in this final jump appear large, albeit they are now visible, and planned for. Firstly by changing the outcome to

4. Distinguish between the molecules in  elements, compounds and  mixtures

and secondly by now planning the lesson that will allow the development of these concepts, letting the content determine the task.  

The structure of SOLO taxonomy allows for meaningful and coordinated  lesson outcomes, with planned formative assessment points. Some of the leaps may be big, but are clear and the critical teaching ideas made distinct. Imagine trying to do this with SOLO taxonomy.

Now to plan the lessons.....


  1. A great example. I was recently talking to a Y10 about mixtures, and knew he hadn't got it. I was under the misapprehension that mixtures were the easy idea. Thanks for a clear explanation, and the exposition of the usefulness of SOLO to aid thinking about planning

  2. Thanks Linda. We are lucky as Science teachers as there is a load of research upon Childrens misconceptions. http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Research_into_children_s_ideas.html?id=Gllasb1JfIYC&redir_esc=y Rosalind Driver has lots to offer in this field. I also agree that SOLO taxonomy is a useful analytical tool for us to make sens eof what we want (have) to teach.

  3. It wasn't until I read Pam Hook's book that I truly understood how to make any task, whether it is a describe or analysis lesson, open to all levels of the Solo taxonomy. You do a great job here of explaining why this approach has so much power. The beauty for me is that students can track the quality of their thinking from piece to piece. The hierarchy is logical and achievable for all students.

  4. Thanks Darren for the very useful post. I've used SOLO in the primary classroom quite successfully and love the way Science lends itself to it. The students definitely can own their own learning and, with having the content planned, see the progression they need to make.

  5. Thanks Darren,
    I would like to use SOLO as formative assessment. I would like to be able to track the progress in a written format. Once the pupils understand the criteria and a short sequence of objectives are established how would I monitor pupil progress from one level to the next, across 9 classes at KS3? What is the layout of your monitoring sheet?

  6. Does anyone know if anyone has applied the SOLO taxonomy to nursing education?
    Bostyon MA