Sceptical SOLOing

I’ve had mixed emotions towards “Learning Intentions” since I was introduced to them. Of course they can help focus the mind on what is to be achieved in a lesson, but they’ve always seemed a bit functional to me: “Here’s the boxes you need to tick by the end of the lesson.” This is perhaps felt more acutely in science where much emphasis is placed on inquiry and discovery. Outlining beforehand what you’re going to discover doesn’t quite seem to fit. In fact, it’s anti-science in a lot of ways.

My own experiences of learning intentions so far have not been particularly positive. Trainee teachers are encouraged to display them at the beginning of a lesson then again at the end. Do you spend 5 minutes at the start of every lesson asking students to copy them down? Do you give them learning intentions for a whole topic? Do you just stick them up on Powerpoint and run through them briefly? I tended to favour the latter as have most teachers I’ve observed. How about at the end of the lesson? Invariably I found that when you habitually displayed them again at the end students, who should be carefully reflecting on their learning, appeared to have undergone a kind of Pavlovian conditioning; the reappearance of “State that… Describe….” meant that it was nearly bell time, get the jacket on.

What to do? From a teaching point of view, I build my lessons after making learning intentions in the style of SOLO (see below). There’s been much said about SOLO elsewhere (check out Tait Coles & David Didau), so I’m not going to dwell on the ins and outs. I simplified the language a little bit and did an exercise with each of my classes at the start of term to familiarise them with the terms. I wanted to instil the idea that they should be striving to move from shallow (UNI) to deep learning (REL & EX AB) in all lessons.

The next issue was if and how to display the learning intentions to the students. As said previously, cursorily displaying them at the start and end of lessons seemed ineffective to me. If they were going to work then the students need to be referring to them throughout the lesson. A powerpoint slide? Could you display if for the whole lesson? Copying down wastes time.  A print out of the learning intentions for the whole topic? Would surely stymie the teacher’s flexibility if the learning intentions are set out many lessons in advance? To me it seems the ideal situation would be to have an additional (maybe small) whiteboard alongside your main smartboard/whiteboard. The SOLO learning intentions could be written on the smaller board, be on display permanently and not interfere with anything else.  At the moment I have them on a section of my whiteboard, and try and have them on display for as much of the lesson as possible.

I will persist with that throughout the year and see how the classes progress. My learning intentions?

“Predict whether or not learning intentions are effective.”

“Explain how learning intentions are effective.”

This is where it gets awkward for me. In a process of discovery should I be intending to learn something specifically or just see where the journey takes me? How do I judge what success is? Going through a workbook for the Enzyme section of the Int-2 Biology I’ve found that I need to teach the activities backwards as the students are informed what is going to happen in the experiments that follow. How dull is that? That’s the issue for me. There’s always the danger that you turn an interesting process into a functional one.

12 thoughts on “Sceptical SOLOing

  1. glasgowtweacher

    You sound like the type of teacher whose learners are in no doubt about the journey they are on; whose learners when in an open-ended lesson will be clear they are discovering meaning for themselves and will be expected to articulate the learning and success criteria themselves. You are the thoughtful teacher who challenges them self to make learning as much in the hands of the learner as possible.

    Learning intentions work; learners being expected to guess what they are learning on the worksheets and textbook pages and when copying sums quietly off the chalkboard; doing lower order, get the task done, box ticked lessons is not good enough – Wiliam and Black have proven it. I am so thankful Dylan Wiliam and Shirley Clarke got the message about making learning clear out there.

    Ensuring learners develop their understanding of concepts, learning and ultimately the world and how others see and feel it, is fundamental to what teachers do.

    Sounds like you are doing a great job and developing more complex ways of making meaning with your learners – keep it up – it is teachers like you that we all aspire to be.

  2. Callum


    “Learning intentions work.” I have to be honest and say that I’ve seen this assertion made many more times than I’ve seen evidence supporting it. We certainly know that they’re not (as some might have you believe – God help you if you’re a student teacher who doesn’t display them during a crit) a prerequisite to learning.

    People learn to walk, talk, read, write, the rules of rugby, how to drive a car, get a first class degree, etc, etc without it having to be made explicit beforehand what they’re going to learn and with little or no reflection on the learning process. It comes naturally to all of us.

    I just wonder if continually breaking down something organic into “What you’re going to learn today is A, B, C, D…..” might end up being reductive. If you tell someone everyday what they’re going to learn then what does it do to their attitude to learning? Does it close down their imagination? When they leave school how do they continue to learn when they’ve been told exactly what to do learn for the past 14 years?

    1. Gillian Duthie

      I’m with you on this one…what’s the point of enticing them with a ‘fascinator’, if you’re then going to give the game away with the next breath / slide? Learning should be a voyage of discovery, with all it’s fascinating diversions and cul-de-sacs; true (whether deep or shallow) learning can only take place when pupils are able to explore what interests or intrigues them. Sure, many teachers would not allow the imposition of ‘traditional’ learning intentions to divert them from this, but then this itself beggars the question of why have such learning intentions in the first place? Your SOLO suggestion looks really interesting; I certainly think it has possibilities in my subject (History).

  3. Glasgowtweacher

    Learners can be crystal clear about the intended learning, and be fascinated and engrossed. Sometimes discovery learning is not appropriate or ‘keeping them guessing’. Sometimes you want learners to explore the various complexities of the intended learning, as it has been made explicit at the start of the lesson. Sometimes you give the learning as a statement which they then have to prove or disprove based on evidence. Sharing the learning does not have to be boring – it can be a challenge to thinking.

    I agree that the pendulum of formative assessment should now be swinging back into the hands of teachers; where we as professionals decide on the best mode of learning for each concept/skill and so on; where we can discuss valuable pedagogy; where having LI in jotters or on the board is not used as a vehicle for monitoring teaching standards…as we know only too well, just because you allegedly taught it, doesn’t mean pupils learned it. And I agree LI are not a prerequisite for excellence in teaching, although I am no expert.

    Someone who is, Dylan Wiliam, explores these issues in his latest book ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’. I recommend it for an exploration in more detail. I know teachers who are on the other side of the teaching fence, who want to go back to the packs, workbooks and textbooks of 5-14; who also doubt the possibilities of sharing learning intentions as a transformative power, seeing them as a burdeonsome waste of time.

    That is why I believe as enlightened educators we must tread carefully around discussions of learning intentions. They are only part of the bigger picture of formative assessment: putting the learner at the centre, as the owner of their own learning. The real issue for me, is teachers being able to make decisions about how their learners are engaged, rather than this being dictated unreasonably and with negative consequences.

    1. Mark Priestley

      Some interesting discussion here which reflects my own mixed feelings about learning intentions. I have been using something like them for about 20 years – however, I get uneasy when:

      1. I see the same formulaic approach being used every lesson (i.e. copy these into your book).
      2.Student teachers and teachers are told they are teaching incorrectly when they fail to follow the formula rigidly.

      The problem lies in the age old educational issue of good things being demonstrated by research, then changed into dogmas. This is a form of reductionism – a reduction of good principles into narrow dogmatic practices. Black and Wiliam quite rightly identified the importance of good communication in classes. Their Black Box work developed various techniques for achieving this – and sharing learning intentions was one such method. So the notion of clear communication about learning is a good principle that may be achieved by various techniques, and as a technique, writing up learning intentions is not inherently bad. However, if used all the time it is less satisfactory, as is clearly shown by the quote from Schulman used by Fearghal on this page. Research in education tends to get used to prescribe practices – a hard medical model which says that if research says something is good, then we should all do it all of the time. However., most educational researchers acknowledge that this is problematic – research is contextual, and what works in one context may be less useful in another. Research findings are thus better used as a set of cognitive resources by thinking professionals who make decisions based upon their expert knowledge, suitable for each context and informed by research.

      The point here is thus that teachers should act from consideration of principles and purposes, and develop strategies that are fit for purpose. Simply adopting techniques in an unreflective way makes for inappropriate teaching. So sharing learning intentions may be appropriate sometimes, but at other times it may be inappropriate (for example when undertaking enquiry).

      I for one, am delighted to see new teachers like Callum and Jordan-Leigh approaching their work in this open and deeply thoughtful manner – it bodes well for the future of Scottish education.

      It is worth noting here that the original Black Box work was a literature review that pulled together a lot of very much older ideas and techniques- Schulman was writing in the 80s – and that the later work post-2000 was about teachers developing aproaches that thoughtful developed through consideration of these principles, drawing of course on what had gone before.

      1. Glasgowtweacher

        “This is a form of reductionism – a reduction of good principles into narrow dogmatic practices”. I wonder if rather than being used as part of a constructivist teaching approach, learning intentions and success criteria are being viewed as a method of securing the transmission of learning, within a wider schooling culture still hooked on measurability?

        ‘I am the teacher holding the knowledge which I will make clear to you and you will learn it by following these learning intentions and success criteria with no deviations. My management team will be happy when they walk by because they see that I am supposedly teaching stuff’

        This is certainly not how they are best used which is to support learning and teaching. Learning intentions are not rigid and formulaic, but adapted day by day to meet the needs of learners based on where they are. To be anecdotal for a minute, I remember hating maths because we were spoken at for 5 minutes and spent the other 45 with our heads in textbooks ‘doing a page’. I wish I knew what I was learning and why. I might have enjoyed maths a wee bit more. Even better if I was given the chance to explore, then at some point the learning was made sense of. This is formative assessment, as other posts have suggested in its more interesting, wider and constructivist sense. Your role then as the teacher is to listen carefully to learners and decide the learning necessary to move them on in their thinking. How you share that with learners is your decision as a professional.

  4. Fearghal

    Interesting post Callum,

    I too have long been uncomfortable with some of the expectations placed on me on using learning objectives in lessons. This was especially the case in England where I often found a very set format required as to how they were to be written, where they should be displayed and how they should be communicated. I too was particularly uncomfortable with the disconnect of teaching science as an enquiry process, but switching off the enquiry process by stating the new information up front. The work around I came up with, and have tended to use ever since, is to frame my learning objectives as questions…

    I’m also currently reading a paper, which happens to have a quote I thought you might like concerning learning objectives:
    “When policymakers have sought “research-based” definitions of good teaching to serve as the basis for teacher tests or systems of classroom observation, the lists of teacher behaviors that had been identified as effective in the empirical research were translated into the desirable competencies for classroom teachers. They became items on tests or on classroom-observation scales. They were accorded legitimacy because they had been “confirmed by research”. While the researchers understood the findings to be simplified and incomplete, the policy community accepted them as sufficient for the definitions of standards.

    For example, some research had indicated that students achieved more when teachers explicitly informed them of the lesson’s objective. This seems like a perfectly reasonable finding. When translated into policy, however, classroom-observation competency-ratings asked whether the teacher had written the objective on the blackboard and/or directly told the student the objectives at the beginning of the class. If the teacher had not, he or she was marked off for failing to demonstrate the required competency. No effort was made to discover whether the withholding of an objective might have been consistent with the form of lesson being organized or delivered.”
    Shulman, L.S. (1987) Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57 (1) pp.1-22

  5. Callum Mitchell Post author

    Thanks Fearghal. Interesting quote. You wonder if 50 years ago, teachers met the “required competency” by seating their students at individual desks with the only voice during the lesson being that of the teacher. I think there is a possibility that “Learning Intentions” will ultimately be looked back on as a bit of fad. As I said before, a student teacher could feasibly get an “unsatisfactory” because they didn’t display LIs. That would be the antithesis of what I understand CfE to be: “Oh yeah you have autonomy but you need to get those LIs up there.” There’s almost a belief that kids can’t learn without them.

    If you take a step back from the classroom and think about what learning is then it’s clear we do it in a multitude of ways in a multitude of environments. We innately learn yet there seems to be an attitude that children become “learners” once you apply certain techniques such as displaying LIs. What also makes me feel uncomfortable is if LIs are so effective then why do they appear to be limited to 4-18 year olds? Why haven’t universities taken them on? Once you leave school have you achieved “learner” status and don’t require them any more? Why don’t we get them at the beginning and end of all CPD?

    1. Colin Maxwell

      I really do wonder if inspectors visit with a series of checkboxes such as “LI’s displayed at start of class”. However, I got a commendation for my last class inspection and didn’t think I ticked many boxes at all. I guess it’s a mark of a good inspector that can see good learning or teaching without a checklist. The use of learning intentions has been mooted at my college recently, perhaps as a result of them being used in schools, but I agree that they don’t make much sense for some subjects. It’s a bit like a movie spoiler, or knowing the punchline of a joke before it’s told – it ruins the experience.

      1. Callum Mitchell Post author

        You would hope that common sense would prevail. Certainly though when I’ve had observed lessons this year (probation) the generic feedback form from the observer has a box to be ticked for “LIs displayed”. As a result I make a point of going through them in every observed lesson I have….

  6. Jordan-Leigh Cunningham

    I feel the same way about learning intentions and again I think it stems from the whole thing about scientific discovery. I want kids to look at experiments and then feedback the learning intentions to me, not give the game away before any discovery has taken place. Do we think that Einstein sat there with the learning intention “I can explain the theory of relativity?”; and yet he learned so much… Too much emphasis is placed on the way learning intentions are shared. My problem with learning intentions is also you see too much based on K.U. and recall — I can explain / I know.

    I think giving the pupils a clear direction of what they will be doing in a day/lesson is a great thing and it can encourage them to think about what they are learning and reflect upon whether they have learned it but do they always need to go up on the board? I don’t think so. Do they always need to give the game away? I don’t think so.

    What I am trying to say is that I think the SOLO learning intention style is great as it forces pupils to think about taking an idea from Uni to Ext-ab and how they can do this and that learning intentions can be a great and powerful tool — when they are implemented correctly.

    Please forgive my inarticulate response.

  7. Pingback: A SOLO Experiment. |

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