Tag Archives: SOLO

How can we differentiate in a way that gives pupils ownership of their learning pathways?

I’m a big believer in pupil ownership of learning. After all, it’s not my brain that’s doing the work; it’s not my skills that are developing; and it’s not my exam result on a piece of paper at the end of the year. As teachers, I see our role as facilitators: enabling pupils to achieve their potential in a way that develops the skills to do it time and time again. For pupils to do this, they need to develop the independence and resilience that comes from making their own decisions about how they learn; what pace they learn at and how to approach success and failure.

I’ve been trying to achieve this with a group of Higher Biology students. These pupils are in a slightly unusual position of studying a two year Higher beginning in S4. Although this gives a lot of time for teaching the course and developing understanding, I find they often lack the independence and study skills that you might expect from older pupils taking a Higher course. To try and encourage them to make their own decisions about learning, I’ve been using SOLO taxonomy stations as a way of structuring- and differentiating- revision or flipped classroom lessons.

The idea is to use a simple quiz- usually multiple choice questions- alongside a SOLO taxonomy framework to help pupils self-assess their current levels of understanding. Once they decided which level they are working at, they set about on the task designed for that level, sometimes physically moving between tables designated for each station. The pictures below show the SOLO taxonomy framework and the recommended next steps. So for example, a pupil who is pre-structural or uni-structural may need to catch up on notes or work on keywords. At the multi-structural level, pupils are ready to try Knowledge and Understanding type questions that help them revise the facts; whilst those moving to relational are ready for more challenging questions that link the topic together, such as an essay. Finally, pupils who are working at the extended abstract level are challenged to apply and link up their knowledge, either to problem solving or new topics not yet studied.

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I’ve had a lot of success with these lessons. Firstly, it gives a quick and visual way to assess individual confidence and understanding of a topic around the room, by the level at which pupils choose to work. Although I generally encourage collaborative working, it’s good to see that pupils tend to work at the level they feel confident at, rather than just following their neighbour. Secondly, it gives me the chance to provide support to ALL pupils at appropriate level. Because everyone is working at their own pace, everyone is able to at least start the task independently- even if they may require help over small challenges- which means I’m not stuck trying to help one or two of the pupils who are struggling most. This means that all pupils, including the most able, get some of my time, and get the support and push they need. Thirdly, over the course of a lesson, pupils make progress that is obvious to me and them. The tasks are designed so that around two levels can be completed in a lesson (and sometimes I use timed targets to encourage some of the lazier pupils to achieve this!), so pupils can clearly see how they have improved by moving up the levels over the course of the lesson. And from there, they know what they need to do next to achieve a deep understanding of the topic. If they get the self-assessment stage wrong, and their understanding was better or worse than they thought, they quickly realise the task is too easy or too hard and adjust their working level appropriately.

I was observed a while back delivering this style of lesson to a Higher class. Whilst the feedback was very positive, the observer posed one key question: if this were a large class of challenging S2 pupils, instead of my eleven delightful Higher pupils, could this still work?

I was intrigued. Could it? Could my S2 class, who find self-assessment and working independently a real challenge, cope with making decisions about their learning in this way? Would they engage with the challenge, or would they simply use this as a way to avoid anything difficult? Inspired by a wonderful resource I found on the TES website, I used the idea of Nando’s takeaway menu as a lesson framework for a revision lesson on space and forces, with pupils selecting a starter, main course and dessert task:


Just like with the SOLO stations, pupils took a quiz prior to choosing their tasks, and used the result to inform their decisions about what to do next. Pupils choose their three tasks based on its heat level: from extra mild through to extra hot. There was a nice twist here, as I have been working with this class on higher order thinking skills, and as the heat increased, the thinking skills required became gradually HOTter… get it?!

So… was it a success? Well yes, hugely in my opinion- and that of the colleague observing my lesson. Pupil engagement was massively improved compared to other lessons with that class. Pupils had a clear understanding of what they needed to do and seemed to be genuinely enjoying undertaking the tasks set. Misconceptions were being quashed left right and centre, as I found I had more time to spend talking about the topic with individual pupils. Pupils were tackling tasks involving applying, evaluating and creating with confidence, and pupils were also clearly proud of what they were achieving at each stage. And best of all, pupils could explain clearly not only why they had chosen each task, but what thinking skills they were practicing by doing it- developing metacognition around their own learning that I’d just not realised they were capable of.

Next week I’m leading a learning conversation about this at the BOCSH conference, Talking About Learning 2015 at Inveralmond High School. I’d like to talk about the opportunities but also the challenges I’ve found using these strategies, and how others are achieving these aims. My questions will be:

1. How can we help pupils to identify current understanding, to inform their targets and next steps?

I’ve found SOLO taxonomy to be an excellent framework for helping pupils to identify the current level at which they are working. However, it is limited by how well pupils understand what is required at each level. Do they comprehend the increase in understanding required to progress? What other strategies do people use to help pupils self-assess?

2. How can we ensure pupils challenge themselves, but have the chance to succeed?

Even if pupils understand what is required at each level, are they making good decisions about what task is the most likely to help them progress? Interestingly, boys often select tasks from a level above where I would have put them; whilst girls often work below where I think they are capable. Is this due to confidence? Are they too scared to fail at the more difficult tasks? Pupils often state that they are ‘making sure they get it’ before they move. This seems like a good thing, but maybe it’s a barrier to their progression. I often encourage pupils to revise ‘outside of the comfort zone’: to revise the topics or skills that they really don’t want to- because they’re hard! How can we encourage pupils to work outside of their comfort zone, without them losing confidence in what they’ve already achieved?

3. Perhaps most importantly, how can we help pupils identify the progress they have made, and understand how they got there?

Through these lessons, pupils can see what progress they have made in their understanding, and I often ask pupils to reflect at the end of the lesson what progress they have made, and what kind of studying has helped them achieve that progress: be it revising content, applying knowledge or creating links. Is this valuable? Does it help pupils to see where they’ve come? And what strategies do others have to achieve this?

Using Hexagon Learning for categorisation, linkage and prioritisation

Hexagon Learning Case Study: The Rise of Stalin

The ability to select, prioritise, categorise and link evidence is a valuable skill that students learn in History. It is also highly transferable to other subjects.

Using hexagons is a particularly simple and effective way of developing these skills, as the following case study seeks to demonstrate.

Historical Context

How Stalin was able to emerge as leader of the USSR against apparently overwhelming odds is one of the most intriguing questions which we study at IB Level. In the years that following the Bolshevik Revolution, due to a series of blunders and miscalculations, Stalin had lost the support of the party leadership: so much so that on his deathbed, Lenin dictated a formal ‘Testament’ describing Stalin as a liability who needed to be removed from his post. He was also hated by Lenin’s closest ally, Leon Trotsky, who was widely expected to step into the leadership position after Lenin’s death. Yet just five years later Stalin was undisputed leader of the USSR and Trotsky was in exile.

The story of how Stalin transformed his fortunes so dramatically is a great story revolving around Stalin’s treachery, cunning and downright charm. But the danger of this is that the essays that are then written become mere narrative, storybook accounts which do little more than provide a step-by-step account of the main events between 1924-1929.

The Hexagon Approach

After a study of the events culminating in Stalin emerging as leader of the party, I made a list of factors which could be used to explain why Stalin became dictator of the USSR. I then put these into my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator to create two single-page documents containing a total of 40 hexagons.

Stage 1: Selection and Categorisation

The class was divided into pairs for the activity. Each pair of students was given a copy of the first sheet of hexagons, which they cut up and started to organise on their desks into categories of their choice. This process, involving the categorisation of 25 hexagons, took about 20 minutes. Students were encouraged to come up with no more than five categories overall. They could also choose to leave some of the hexagons to one side if they were considered less important than the others.

We then spent five minutes comparing the different categories that students had identified. Each pair of students took turns to suggest one idea for a category heading until all the ideas had been shared.

Following this, I gave each students a blank sheet of hexagons. The challenge was to identify other factors which could help to explain Stalin’s rise to power and write these directly into the hexagons. After five minutes, each pair of students took it in turns to suggest an idea. If this was a valid (and fresh) idea, then the other students copied it into their pair’s version of the sheet, and the students who shared the idea were each given a sweet (we had a bag of these left over as a result of our ‘Rise of Stalin through sweet-eating’ lesson which had preceded this lesson!). This process was repeated until the students had run out of ideas.

Each pair of students then cut up this new sheet of factors and used them to develop their existing diagrams. In some instances this involved merely adding fresh evidence into existing categories. Sometimes though it involved adding new categories, or amending earlier categories.

Finally, each pair of students was given the second sheet of hexagons and the process of categorisation continued.

Stage 2: Linkage and Prioritisation

By this stage, the students had decided upon the main factors to explain Stalin’s rise to power, organised into key categories. Each of these categories could form the basis of a paragraph in an essay. However, it was still necessary to decide two things.

Firstly, students would need to decide in which order to deal with the points in each paragraph. It would not be enough to simply introduce the category title, then randomly write about each piece of evidence from the hexagons in that group. This is where the hexagons are particularly useful. The six sides mean that factors can be placed alongside each other in various combinations to highlight connections between batches of factors within categories. After students rearranged their factors in this way, they stuck them down onto sugar paper with a glue stick. They could then write the title of each category over each batch of hexagons, and annotate around each group of hexagons to explain why they were arranged in that particulary way.

Secondly, students had to decide how to connect their main categories together to create an overall thread of argument. They did this by drawing arrows between the factors and explaining their connections over them. For example:

“Economic problems in the country > created > Divisions in the party > exploited by > Stalin’s Cunning”

Stage 3: Essay preparation

The final part of the process was to use the completed diagrams as an essay plan. I photographed each of the diagrams and shared them with the students. Their task was to use the diagrams as the basis of their essay on “Why did Stalin become leader of the USSR?”. Each paragraph was to focus on separate categories of hexagons, and the points made in each paragraph should have some logical order and ‘flow’. Moreover, the order of the paragraphs should be dictated by the arrows linking the categories, with the opening sentence of each paragraph after the first one being based on the explanation over each arrow.

Reflections and Conclusions

The ‘Hexagon Approach’ worked very well. It steered students away from a narrative approach and into an analytical frame of mind. It helped them frame categories of analyis, build up their command of the material step-by-step. It provided them with the opporunity to easily change their initial assumptions, connect factors together both within and between categories, and give them a very effective basis of an accomplished written piece.

It is also a very simple approach that can be transferred to other topics and other curriculum subjects. All that is needed is an initial list of factors – contributed either by the teacher or the students – which can then be written into a blank hexagons template or turned into hexagons automatically using my Classtools.net Hexagons Generator. Thereafter, all that is needed is a pair of scissors, some sugar paper and a glue stick. And, ideally, a bag of sweets!


SOLO taxonomy resources

The SOLO learning grid works in the similar way to my previous learning grids in that you roll a dice to generate a question. Each box within the grid has one of the SOLO symbols and a corresponding question. The boxes are differentiated from less complex uni-structural identify questions to more deeper extended abstract questions such as apply or compare. Pupils take it in turns to roll the dice to generate their own question or questions for their partner. This can be used as a revision tool at the end of a unit or topic. Questions can then be peer marked and extension feedback questions added using the questions in the grid. The grid could be linked to the roll a plenary or starter grids.


The SOLO dice involves using a number of blank squares (can be purchased from amazon), some of which have a key word on and the other half have the SOLO labels on them. Roll two dice to get a key word and a solo level. Pupils can then generate their own questions with the results or create questions for others to answer.


The solo chatterbox is another way to create questions. On the outside of the template are four SOLO levels with a command word e.g. multi-structural and describe. Pupils spell out the command word by moving the chatterbox with their fingers which will then land on a question related to that level. This provides good differentiation as pupils can choose which question to answer. This could be used as a starter or plenary activity.


Acronym Attack: AfL and ZPD through SOLO #PedagooGlasgow

I’ll let you into a little secret…come closer…promise not to tell anyone…before last week, I’d never actually done a workshop at a Pedagoo event! Having come up with the whole idea and organised the first ever one, that’s quite a shocking revelation to many – but there you have it. So, I was actually quite nervous on Saturday morning when I realised that I was actually going to practice what I’ve been preaching all these years!

And as if that wasn’t enough pressure, the night before this workshop on how we’ve been trying SOLO Taxonomy…there was a massive stooshie on twitter about this very subject! The main objection from those who are ‘against’ SOLO [since when did we become so either/or and argumentative on twitter 🙁 ] seems to be that there is no ‘evidence’ to support it. I have two problems with this view of the world…

  1. This assumes at all ‘evidence’ has to come from large-scale randomised controlled trials that results in an increase in attainment. I don’t particularly buy into this positivist view of educational research. At our school we have been engaging with SOLO Taxonomy as enquiring practitioners and evidencing impact (or otherwise) in our own context based on the outcomes we are interested in achieving and whilst our evidence is also surely flawed, I’m actually a lot happier about its validity than many of the ‘respected’ sources of evidence.
  2. And secondly. This view also assumes that SOLO is a ‘thing’ in its own right. Perhaps others see it that way, but we don’t. We’ve been using SOLO as a way of supporting metacognition and formative feedback. So if you’re really wanting to base everything you do on metaanalyses, then this would be my response. SOLO is just a language, it’s not the actual pedagogy.

Anyway. Thought I ought to get that out of the way first. So, SOLO then. How have we been using it? I’m not going to start by boring you with what SOLO is. If you don’t already know that there’s loads out there already which will do this much better than I can. Instead, I’m going to start by telling you what led us to try using SOLO. The diagram below summarises the learning and teaching model at our school, the important bit here being that we’re trying to introduce a six-part lesson cycle approach to planning most of our lessons – with thanks as always to Cramlington Learning Village.


One of the hardest issues presented by this approach is trying to properly reflect on learning, as well as reviewing it. Both students and teachers find this difficult, and part of the reason would appear to be a lack of a common language to discuss the learning process. It is for this reason that we first attempted to use SOLO in our Biology lessons. We added SOLO outcomes to our National 5 lesson cycles at the review and reflect stage of the cycle. Although this improved things a little, it wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped. In particular, I felt as though we are constantly ending lessons leaving students feeling as failures as they had inevitably not yet reached the top of the scale and we were having to move on with the course due to time pressures.

So, I had a brainwave. If the SOLO outcomes were introduced at the discuss learning outcomes stage of the cycle, this could support students to identify where they currently are in their learning of the topic and what their target would be. This I felt was in some way akin to setting a zone of proximal development for the lesson. We also began to try and write the SOLO scales in a consistent format, with unistructural being the expected prior knowledge, multisctructural being the ‘C’ level content, relational being a ‘B’ level understanding of the topic  and extended abstract being equivalent of an ‘A’ grade candidate’s ability to apply their understanding of the topic.

In addition, we also made a much greater effort to plan demonstrate tasks which would allow us and the students to assess their progress in the cycle against the SOLO outcomes [such as using the hexagons from Pam Hook’s fab website]. The hope was that this would more effectively support learning in our lessons, and also improve the level of reflection occurring throughout and at the end of cycles. Having observed each other’s lessons and interviewed the students we did indeed find this to be the case. We also found that the students were more able to articulate their progress and their next steps, and more likely to act independently to progress these next steps. They weren’t all positive though. They want printed versions of the SOLO grids and they want each one to last for longer than one cycle, both of which we’re going to take on board for next session.

So, that’s what we’ve been trying. We’re by no means experts in SOLO at all. We’ve just been giving it a go and are willing to share. Perhaps you’ve used SOLO too? Why not tell us how, why and what you found out as a comment below.

All the handouts we gave out on the day can be downloaded here.

SOLO Stations, Havisham and the Talking Cure


Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.

Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this

to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till suddenly bite awake. Love’s

hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.

Carol Ann Duffy

Before I begin, I need to make it absolutely clear that I am not holding this sequence of lessons up as an example of ‘outstanding’ practice. Having said that, it certainly represents progress in terms of my own engagement with SOLO and I feel confident that not only did the pupils enjoy the lessons, they also learnt a good deal about the poem and, in some cases at least, overcame their fear of tackiling ‘difficult’ poetry independently.

I have been experimenting with SOLO taxonomy since September and my pupils have responded well. I have seen the positive impact of the approach reflected in the development of a shared pedagogical language; greater engagement and, above all, deeper learning. The following lesson was my third or fourth attempt at SOLO stations, an approach I picked up from Oops! Helping Children to Learn Accidentally’, I remain very much under the influence of the book’s author, Hywel Roberts. In Oops, Hywel talks about the importance of building anticipation and creating imaginary contexts for learning and I decided that this approach would help me engage my disaffected Y10s.

Lesson 1

In the first lesson I introduced the ‘Big Question’ which we would keep returning to during our preparation for the CA, namely ‘Is love a mental illness?’ This generated a good deal of very interesting discussion. Next, we talked about the role of psychoanalysts in treating mental illness by interpreting the dreams, behaviour and language of their patients. I called one of the pupils out to the front of the class. I had prepared him earlier and he related a dream in which he was in his home town and speaking in his mother tongue, but no one could understand a word he said – not even his family. We then discussed possible interpretations of his ‘dream’. Finally, I explained that in the following lesson they would be working with footage and a transcript of a patient and attempting to reach a diagnosis. The result was a satisfying sense of anticipation amongst the members of the class.

Lesson 2

At the beginning of the next lesson, I reminded the class of the ‘Big Question’ before screening a clip from David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations and, having asked the pupils to underline vocabulary that they were unsure of, I read the poem. Pupils fed back and I clarified terms like ‘spinster’ and ‘slewed.’ Next, I explained that they were to take on the role of psychoanalysts. They would work through a series of station/ tasks designed to help them focus with gradually increasing depth on the language and behaviour of ‘the patient’ as presented in the transcript/ poem. Once they had identified, listed, analysed and explained aspects of Mrs Havisham’s behaviour and language, the final outcome would be a ‘report’ on the patient. I briefly reminded them of our agreed protocols for SOLO stations and told them that, while they could begin at any station, the point was not to ‘progress’ as fast as they could through the levels, but to develop as deep an understanding of the patient’s plight as possible – this might necessitate returning to the unistructural and multistructural stations to gather more ‘knowledge’.

Pupils carried a psychoanalyst’s ‘notebook’ with them in order to record their ideas and assess their progress against SOLO self assessment rubrics which were tailored to each station. They then decided where they wanted to start based on their assessment of their current understanding. All of the stations were clearly identified, so that pupils could navigate the room with ease and as had been the case in previous attempts, those pupils who had been a little ambitious in their self assessment adjusted their starting points quickly.

There were two prestructural tables, which were strewn with confetti and images of Mrs Havisham from various adaptations and illustrations. There were also copies of the extract from Great Expectations and paper tissue boxes complete with strips of paper containing additional information regarding Mrs. Havisham (an idea I nicked from David Didau’s excellent blog) .There were also multistructural and relational tables. At one multistructural station, pupils worked with the text highlighting examples of oxymorons, similes, metaphors and onomatopoeia and exploring what they told us about Mrs Havisham’s state of mind. At one of the relational stations pupils worked with the blacked-out shape of the poem, exploring how that might connect with Mrs Havisham’s behaviour and use of language in the poem as a whole. Most importantly of all, each ‘station’ had an objective and an outcome and its own SOLO self assessment rubric. This meant that even if the task was geared towards gathering multistructural information, pupils could potentially achieve at an extended abstract level of thinking. For instance, in the case of a task that required pupils to ‘identify’ (unistructural) and ‘list’ (multistructural) the things that Mrs Havisham ‘did’, they could still develop an understanding of how her relative lack of activity – she sits and ‘stinks’; ‘caws’ at the walls and opens a wardrobe – could be connected with the powerlessness of women in a patriarchal, Victorian society (extended abstract). Unfortunately, not one of the little critters came up with that! Pupils understood that they were to take time out between stations to self assess, reflect and develop their ideas. You will perhaps have noticed that I have not referred to any extended abstract stations. That’s because there weren’t any. In attempt to slow things down, I had decided to save this final level for the third lesson in the sequence.

Lesson 3

In the third and final lesson, pupils worked in small groups with their notebooks, discussing and developing their ideas. I then supplied differentiated writing frames for the report and relational connectives for the main body of the text and extended abstract connectives for the diagnostic conclusion. Pupils had to refer to their notes in order to write about the background to Mrs Havisham’s breakdown, her behaviour and her language. In the conclusion, pupils drew on all of the information to develop a hypothesis or a diagnosis, using extended abstract connectives.

The Verdict

This was an improvement on my previous experiments with SOLO stations lessons. There was time for reflection and each station was differntiated using the SOLO self assessment rubric. As a result pupils were engaged and produced good work. However, the psychoanalytical ‘frame’ for the lesson meant that the final product did not read like literary criticism and could be seen as an unnecessary distraction. This may have been a flaw in my planning: after all, this was preparation towards Controlled Assessment. However, they enjoyed adopting the role of psychotherapists: the pace of work was productive and there was understanding; there was analysis and pupils were mostly able to pull it all together into something approaching a hypothesis or diagnosis, which explained the elements of the poem and the connectives seemed to work well.

If I’m honest, I think that the sequence was a little ‘busy’ – it certainly took a lot of preparation – and in future I will adopt a more pared down approach. I would also avoid using the psychoanalytical frame as an over-arching approach to analysis of thge poem. Although the pupils enjoyed it and the idea of reaching a diagnosis leant purpose to their reading, it was in the final analysis a distraction.


Talking pedagogy globally

February 2013, after #ukedchat on Twitter a group of us who use and are interested in the use of Solo taxonomy have a chat about its use. We are all UK based and the chat is interesting and very useful. The next morning, another educator I have chatted with about Solo enquiries if the chat she had found on Twitter was a regular solo chat. Alice is based in Melbourne, Australia. I tell Alice that no it’s not a regular chat but go on to tell her about an experiment in July 2012 led by John Sayers (known to many on Twitter) that was a group of geographers discussing Solo’s relevance to their teaching.

The geogsolo chat was on a Saturday so that it could cover as many time zones as possible. It included Penny from Virginia, USA;several of us who are UK based inc. John and myself; Emma in Abu Dhabi; Amy in Australia and we were also joined by a teacher from New Zealand. In one our we had made a global link based on one pedagogical idea.

So, why is this relevant? because Alice and I decided that we’d try a repeat exercise but for an open group to discuss Solo with a global audience one Saturday in April 2013.

The chat which we have been promoting in several countries is called #sologlobalchat and it takes place on Saturday 13 April at 11am UK time (GMT +1). Alice and I will host and the session will be archived using Storify by Alice. Feel free to join us or read about how it went after the event. To practice hosting a chat I acted as #ukedchat host last night on the topic of CPD. The rush of tweets was a surprise at first but I seemed to host successfully.

Onto Saturday and beyond …..

I am on Twitter at @aknill.

The ‘Great Big SOLO and PBL Mash-up’ #PedagooLondon

Planning a project:

Now this is a post that has been brewing since the London Olympics but has taken some time to compose.  To set the scene and give a bit of background to this post, imagine back to the brilliant summer that we have just had in 2012.  We were privileged to be a nation that watched one of the greatest spectacles that I have had the pleasure to see.  We were immersed with stories of determination, commitment, motivation, bravery, hard work, fair play…. and blessed to see role models and stories that inspired and moved us.  The London Olympics was filled with euphoric moments and had the whole nation caught up in its brilliance and moments of magic.

But after watching the Olympics, something changed within me in regards to the way I view sport.  As a PE teacher I now cringe at the number of Football examples and stories that I use with my students, particularly in my theory lessons.  I now think were these the best examples to share with students?  Did they provide enough variety?  Did they best explain the topics I taught.  Are they even the best role models to warrant recognition in students exam answers?  There was one part of the Olympics that caught my attention in particular:  Track cycling.  Now I remember back to Beijing and the success that we had, but London 2012 took this to a whole new level.  I was in awe of the professionalism of the athletes.  I loved the stories that they brought.  I was engrossed in the technological elements of the sport and the minute detail they focused on in order to gain a marginal advantage over rivals.  Watching this, I thought “Could I use cycling with my students and use it as a rich example that covers many of the topics we cover?”.  And with that, a plan began to hatch.

So, as any normal teachers does whilst relaxing in their summer holidays, I thought about school.  I knew in the back of my head that the topics coming up in my GCSE PE theory class where ICT in sport, Science and technology in sport, sponsorship, role models and media.  Everything that I had seen through the track cycling had effortlessly provided me with examples that I could use in my lessons.  But this wasn’t enough.  I didn’t simply want to replace my Football examples with Cycling ones.  Instead I wanted to go bigger.

It was at this time that I had also re-read Ron Berger’s mind blowing book called ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ (recommended to me by the excellent Martin Said).  The book is a must read if you haven’t already and explains his vision to make learning more whole and strive for a culture of excellence in the work students produce.  He uses well structured projects that bring in the real world/community to develop secure understanding of content knowledge.  He refers to this as Project Based Learning (or PBL for short).  I could really see myself putting together an eye opening project which covered all of the content I needed to, gave rich examples for students to put in their exams and was both inspiring and challenging.  But with anything new, I also had the worrying doubts as any reflective practitioner does such as:

  • What if it goes wrong?
  • Why try something so radical with students when they’re in Year 11 and have exams at the end of the year?
  • What do I know about cycling and should I just stick to normal ‘content lessons’?
  • Will they gain secure content knowledge in all of the topics or will the project hinder this?
  • What happens if what I create isn’t PBL and doesn’t work?
  • Will what I do have a negative influence on my departments/colleagues plans?

With these in mind I used my Twitter ‘mentors’ in the form of @DKMead, @Totallywired77 and @saidthemac.  I bombarded them with these cautious questions and was overwhelmed by the support and guidance that they gave.  They helped with many aspects of my planning and posed further questions for me to think about in an effort to create something that was not only driven by content, but also incorporated as many of the elements of a good project as suggested.  It is this collaborative culture that Twitter has created which is so helpful when trying something so daring.

Finally, I have also been a firm user of SOLO in lessons and as a non classroom specialist, this has been an excellent way for me to structure lessons and develop learning.  I had been thinking in an earlier post that I could use SOLO as part of a bigger scheme of work where each topic in itself would be a multi-structural element of a big picture.  I therefore decided to incorporate SOLO within the project in order to measure and look forward for opportunities to secure my students knowledge of the content.

So what did I do?  What was my aim?

It would probably be best if I explain the process that I took with the project using the structure from Berger’s book ‘An Ethic of Excellence’.  In it he describes an essential toolbox that should be incorporated when planning a project.  These elements ensure that the project is planned meticulously and is detailed enough to ensure all of its aims are met.  Following these steps also helps students to develop a culture of excellence with their work.  Although I promote students to take pride in what they do, I felt taking it a step further would enhance the quality of work that students were creating.

I also (rather shamelessly) wanted to make the experience of learning this topic to be memorable.  I wanted to ensure that students worked with the topics over and over again and so reinforced its understanding.  I wanted students to be able to sit in an exam and specifically remember the content because the information had been covered in detail numerous times. 

Berger’s toolbox for designing a project

1 – Powerful projects

‘It may sound obvious, but the first step in encouraging high-quality student work is to have assignments that inspire and challenge students’.

Using Berger’s advice and guidance it was easy to come up with a brief idea.  I wanted students to undertake a project that meant students learnt the content of my subject whilst drawing out this information from the world of Cycling.  Using specific examples in PE exams has been a weak area in the past and I wanted to ensure that students gathered as many as possible as they went.  I wanted examples at every opportunity.  I also wanted to develop students extended writing as this is a skill that is tested twice in the AQA PE paper and again has been a weak area.  Finally, I knew I wanted students to really demonstrate their knowledge of the subject, but at first I couldn’t think how.

This is where the excellent Darren Mead, Martin Said and Tait Coles came in.  They allowed me to bounce ideas around and kindly offered advice, eventually coaching me to an answer.  Martin in particular helped create the idea for the driving question and final product (details on this below).  Now I had a starting idea, how would I ensure that I put an actual PBL plan into place, rather than just an end of unit ‘project’.  Believe it or not there is a big difference.

‘Projects don’t generally have a great reputation in schooling.  This poor reputation is often deserved.  I need to explain that the project model we use (in PBL) is very different from the models of my youth.  When I was a student in elementary school, doing projects meant getting ready for the annual science fair.  This was the structure: My teacher would say, In one month we’re having our Science Fair.  Projects are due May 1.  Good luck.

Here are some problems I have with science fair model.  The projects had nothing to do with what we were studying.  Instead of being a culmination of our learning that could inspire dedication and quality in our daily work, the fair was like visiting a carnival, disconnected from school learning.’

I too have run projects over the years.  I have even run enquiry based learning projects through our L2L course.  They did what they needed too but I never felt that students gave them their full effort and there was always a mad rush the lesson before the deadline.  Hardly ever did a four week project resemble the work of four weeks.  In class, presentations never really felt as professional as they could have been.  But PBL is completely different.  The way it is designed ensures that students get completely immersed in it and begin to take pride in the work they create.  They learn how to complete a project successfully and pick up many new skills such as critique, time management, presentation skills, research and much more.  They key is to design a thorough and authentic project.  One which isn’t seen as an add on to learning, but itself becomes the vehicle for it.  What you create needs to inspire students to produce work of the highest standard.  It also becomes a team effort where everyone in the class supports each other.  So what are some key points in designing a project?

First of all is a strong aim, driving question, purpose or authenticity.  I tried my hardest to ensure that I included all of these elements.  Too many times I have conjured up ‘fake scenarios’ that I wanted my students to work through a project on.  Needless to say that students didn’t ‘believe’ the process and never gave it their all.  PBL is different though.  If you can address an actual issue or link the project to a real world/community problem, the authenticity of it will help drive it forward.  I was very aware that cycling had very little media coverage despite the fact that we are world leaders in many of its disciplines.  The sport has numerous household names like Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton, yet we rarely see them race outside of the Olympics.  Is there a way we as a class can campaign or argue for more media coverage?  Can we take it to the media or create an audience to actually hear our arguments?  The topics we would be covering would support this.  And from this came the brilliant driving question from Martin Said:

‘How can we persuade the media to give more weight to cycling?’

To make the project authentic, we enlisted the help of British Cycling, Calshot Activities Centre, Eurosport’s David Harmon and local journalists from the Western Wards Gazette.  By having these organisations involved and actively helping us create our final pieces of work, it would only help increase the quality of the learning and drive up the final outcome.  It would create numerous experts who we could call upon and create an actual real life environment for the students to work in.

After deciding on the aim of the project I wanted to ensure that I planned for students to develop the very important content knowledge.  In PBL, it is the project that drives the learning and this can be achieved in various directions.  The process can be very organic and primarily is driven by the students and the class.  If needed, actual content lessons can be taught to ensure that there are no gaps in knowledge and key/difficult topics are understood.  I had a few of these up my sleeve if I needed them but planned to let the project drive itself to begin with.  I wanted the project to run similarly to how the SOLO levels are structured.  I wanted time for students to acquire knowledge (multi-structural), time for them to link them and apply them to Cycling (relational) and then use all of this information in an abstract way to put forward a case for Cycling to get more media coverage (extended abstract).
Once I now had a draft idea to work with, it was time to start putting together a detailed plan.  As this was my first time using PBL I probably over planned and factored as many possibilities that might happen during the project.  Because I would be working with Year 11 students in the final year of their GCSE, I really needed to be sure that I would not hinder their learning and miss out important content.  To help with the plan I used the many downloadable resources from the Buck Institute for Education (click here).  This is an excellent site that gives numerous pieces of guidance, exemplars and free resources to help structure your own project.  The BIE planning template I used allowed me to identify how and when I would certain aspects such as key skills, opportunities for formative/summative assessment, resources needed and other key criteria.  By unpacking my ideas and using the template to logically order them, I began to feel more confident about the project.
Another aspect that I had to consider was the length or timing of the project.  With previous projects I have used in the classroom, students have a deadline and there is that usual ‘rush’ to get it finished the night before.  As I said earlier, very rarely did a 4 week piece of work resemble a 4 week piece of work.  Ron Berger and  teacher Jeff Robin from High Tech High both have one clear message before starting a project:

“Do the project yourself!”  

This is a highly important part of your planning as it allows you to see what students will have to do, what pitfalls there are, what resources they might need and so on.  The general rule of thumb is – ‘However long it took you to do it, times it by ten for students’.  With this in mind I set off and created my own final product which I would share with students at the start of the project.  It really opened my eyes and I knew exactly what was needed if students were to also be successful at it.  From this I decided to run the project for just 10 weeks (which included 2 weeks suspended timetable for Mock Exams).  This would be ample time to learn, prepare and create an outstanding final product.

‘Projects are structured to make it difficult for students to fall far behind or fail.  They are broken down into clear components and students progress through checkpoints to insure they are keeping up’.

One other key aspect of PBL is having a clear timetable or calendar.  Although I wanted the project to be organic and drive the learning itself, I needed to plan in various checkpoints along the way when tasks either had to be completed or critique sessions would take place.  These were shared with students at the very beginning and with their help, we then filled in the gaps with a mature dialogue and honesty.  Because they were involved in the creation of the time line, it meant I felt confident students deadlines would be met and work flow throughout would remain high.
So what did I decide to do?  What was the final outcome?  Students would endeavour to answer the driving question through the form of a newspaper article and a ‘Teachmeet’ style presentation evening.  Each student would have to construct an article that used one or more of our five PE topics to convince the reader to support cycling’s call for more media coverage.  Students would also have to work in pairs to create a presentation that would be shared at our exhibition.  The presentation would come in two forms.  The stronger arguments would be shared as 7 minute presentations and would attempt to gain support from the audience to get more coverage of cycling in the media.  The remaining students would create expert presentations that would cover one of our five PE topics and these would be shared at the mid interval ‘Genius Bar’.  Now I had an aim, a driving question, a detailed plan, a list of experts, a calendar, authenticity and now an end product, time to look at the rest of the key ingredients.

2 – Models

‘I want my students to carry around pictures in their head of quality work.  It’s not enough to make a list, a rubric, of what makes a good essay or a good science experiment.  This is an important step, but it doesn’t leave a picture, a vision, an inspiration.  It’s not even enough to read a great piece of literature together and analyze the writing, or to look at the work of great scientist.  If I want my students specifically to write a strong essay, to design a strong experiment, I need to show them what a great essay or experiment looks like.  We need to admire models, find inspiration in them, and analyze their strengths and weaknesses.  We need to figure out together what it is that makes this work strong’.

Berger is very clear about the importance of good models.  I’d always know that showing a good piece of work to students is a good benchmark but I had never actually thought about how analysing it could form a strong part of the learning process.  I never thought that I could dissect this and give students an aim, goal or aspiration.  After reading Berger’s book I suddenly understood that a carefully selected model is different from showing students a nice example which is brushed aside in a few minutes.

Berger used a lot of previous students work as good models.  As this was my first attempt I didn’t have any to share.  I therefore had to find them myself.  As I stated in the earlier section, it is vital that you do the project yourself.  By doing this not only had I learnt what the project would entail, but I also had a model to share with students.  My model was the presentation.  I decided to create exactly what students had to but change the topic I was talking about slightly.  Instead of using one of the five topics to talk about cycling, I instead use ‘gender in sport’ which was a topic we had studied a few months earlier.  I did this so I wasn’t giving away any possible arguments that students could use in their work.  Whilst creating this model I undertook some in depth research and found articles and evidence to support my work.  I spent a long time carefully selecting quotes and gaining opinions from various viewpoints.  Although the topic I was talking about was slightly different, I eventually had created a piece of work which I felt could be shared, dissected, analysed, pulled apart and learnt from in a lesson.  I felt that it could really benefit students work in the project and give them a clear example of what they should be aspiring to create.  And what if they just copied this?  Well Berger calls this tribute work where an idea or structure from a model is borrowed.  It is up to us as the facilitator to ensure that students put their own spin on it.  It isn’t copying, it’s getting inspiration.

For the articles which students would have to create, I decided to use actual articles written about cycling.  I took these from numerous websites and newspapers.  To teach students the variety of styles of writing, I ensured I took articles covering actual news stories, insights into the sport, scientific analysis and so on.  This variety would help my students analyse the various styles that they could approach their own article.  A list of articles we used can be found here.  Students would spend designated time learning how to write like the professionals and understand the differing ways this can be approached.

3 – Experts

‘In my school, teachers meet with outside experts during the planning stages of investigations, bring the experts into the classroom to help guide and critique the work, and take the students to meet with them at their office or lab or at a fieldwork site.  My students often contact experts through email, letters and phone calls during the course of a study.

We treat our experts royally.  We honour them with respect, courtesy, genuine interest in their field.’ 

In terms of the content of my subject I am very confident in my knowledge.  I could therefore call myself an expert.  But part of this project required specialist knowledge to be brought in.  Rather than attempt to teach these elements myself to a satisfactory standard, I decided to get in a number of experts to share their professional knowledge.  This allowed my students the opportunity to learn new skills in their authentic context, rather than in a fictitious environment that I would have had to create.

Now I was very fortunate.  When I analysed my project plan, I identified the need for my students to get real life examples from the world of Cycling in order to relate the subject content to.  I also knew that I would need some expert advice on writing articles as close to those in the industry as possible.  And finally was the need to have some expert guidance on delivering presentations to an audience in a professional manner from someone who did it on a daily basis.  And why did I need all this?  Well purely to make the project as close to the real thing as possible.  I simply didn’t want to recreate a fake environment, I wanted students to actually to be in it.

For the Cycling element, I was very lucky to have contacted British Cycling once and instantly be put in contact with two of the most inspirational people I have met;  Mark Adams and Dave Jowett.  Mark is the Regional Development Manager of British Cycling and has been involved with the British Cycling programme for many years.  He has had experience working from the world class programme, all the way to the grass roots (which is where he found gold medallist Dani King).  Dave Jowett was the Go Ride coach for the southern region and was involved in increasing participation of the sport, running clubs and coaching youngsters into the first steps of cycling.  I was very hesitant to meet them as I knew I wanted their help and generosity but didn’t want to be too demanding on their time and resources.  Within five minutes of explaining the project to them they both offered to be involved above and beyond my expectations.  Dave offered actual cycling sessions in school for my students whilst Mark would run a seminar to my students to link all five PE topic areas to the elite world of British cycling.  He would bring along various pieces of equipment and materials to give my students a deeper understanding of how our course linked to the real world.

I had planned to take students to our local velodrome at Calshot Activities Centre.  The idea behind this was twofold.  Firstly, we would be able to get on the track for an expert session for 90 minutes.  This would give students an insight into the demands of the sport and what it is actually like to ride in a facility like this using actual track bikes.  Dave Jowett would prepare us in 5 cycling sessions at Brookfield so that we had experience of how to ride before we made the visit.  Secondly, it would also allow Mark Adams an opportunity to deliver his 90 minute expert seminar and teach students the five PE topics with very specific examples from GB cycling.  And underlying all of this, I wanted the students to feel the excitement of the sport which would hopefully motivate them to argue harder for more media coverage of cycling.

Dave Harmon was a stroke of genius from Darren Mead.  I had  a Skype session to Darren with Shaun Riches to run some ideas and alleviate some worries I had about the project.  When discussing the use of experts, Darren suggested using Eurosport’s David Harmon to Skype into our classroom and chat through some of the road cycling elements and how they link to the five PE topics we were covering.  A tweet and an email later and David was on board.  I shared with him the content we needed to cover and he began to put an expert session into place.

One element of the project which I didn’t feel confident about was the creation of authentic newspaper articles.  I know how to write as any teacher should be able to.  What I was missing was knowing how to create a piece of writing that resembled that of a professional journalist.  I was unsure how to structure opening paragraphs and how to ensure readers stayed interested throughout the entire article.  I could have used some of our amazing English department but was very concious of time and burdening them with extra work.  Instead our Deputy Headteacher solved the problem by putting me in contact with our local contact at the Western Wards Gazette.  Rachel Fraser is a journalist who had worked closely with the school and agreed to come into our lesson and run an in house expert article writing/presentation session with the help of her editor Kevin Briscoe.  Both had also agreed to come back in during our first in depth critique session to offer expert advice.  Having this authentic element to the project would really help drive up standards.

4 – Genuine research

‘There is almost nothing more exciting in education than being engaged in genuine research – research where the teacher and students are exploring new ground together’

Berger talks about the need and the importance of conducting genuine research when undertaking a project. He talks about replacing text books and encyclopedia’s and instead use resources such as local public records, journals or allowing students to conduct their own experiments or research interviews.  He states that the excitement and energy that students get from real discovery, rather than from a prescribed source, is unparalleled.

For this initial attempt at PBL, I had to analyse the opportunities and facilities that my students would have to conduct this research.  Contact time with the group as well had a factor to play.  The driving question we chose had a real need for students to find out information and gain viewpoints from various individuals.  It also required students to get a deep understanding of not just the topics, but also the vast world of cycling.  To ensure that something resembling Berger’s idea of genuine research happened I had planned to both model genuine research taking place whilst providing the opportunity for it to be carried out.  I chose a number of ‘lead in articles’ which I shared with students in our very first lessons.  I would use these to show students how rich these resources could be and the variation of content from various media outlets.  I would also directed students towards the Victoria Pendleton and Road to Glory documentaries which gave a real insight into the lives of elite cyclists.  I had lined up a number of experts who shared email or Twitter names which students were able to contact.    All of these experts were booked into our lessons and were open to answering probing questions.  We had access to the internet in most lessons so students could go away and researched very specific examples of the topics we covered.  This may not have been to the level, extent or depth that Berger talks about in his book, but it was the first step in our PBL journey and felt sufficient enough for our students to achieve the project outcome.

5 – Building literacy through the work

Part of an outstanding project involves the development of literacy skills.  This can come in many forms and Berger lists a number of excellent examples of how he has implemented this into his students work.  For me, I decided to really emphasise the use of literacy in our work and created a number of opportunities to help students develop this aspect.  I didn’t want it to be a add on to the project with meaningless tasks, instead I wanted it to be at the core of what we did.

There was a substantial requirement for students to immerse themselves in reading within the project.  I had a strong connection with driving literacy in our subject and planned to develop the skills wherever possible.  I had chosen a number of lead in articles for students to analyse in an effort to develop their understanding of the world of cycling.  I would also require students to independently research the link between our topics, the sports and our project aim.  This in itself would require detailed reading using specific analysis tools.

Students would also be required to write an article as part of their final piece so I planned to spend time dissecting real ones to learn the skill of doing it.  We booked in local journalists to help us do this and offer expert guidance on writing something as professional as they were.  This skill combined with specific terminology taken from the world of journalism would also increase the literacy element.

The use of Mark Adams and Dave Jowett, combined with Eurosport’s David Harmon and Team GB cyclist Andy Hargrove would also help develop the specific terminology that my students would be using.

The last part that I catered for in my planning was getting students to present at our exhibition evening.  Some of these would be 7 minute Teachmeet style, whereas some would be Genius Bar expert presentations where guests would be able to question students on their knowledge.  Student would obviously need to have the literacy skills to formulate such presentations, as well as having the specific speaking skills to present to a real audience.  The use of key specific terminology from our subject and the world of elite cycling would therefore be essential.

So why do all of this?  Deep in the back of my mind is the dreaded thought of exams.  Traditionally, many students struggle with answering the two essay styles questions in our final exam.  They require students to link a number of very different topics together in a constructive way, all the time relating it to a ‘fake scenario character’.  This is tough for many and the thorough focus on literacy in this project (in particular the ability to write an extended piece in the form of an article) would be a key skill for students to take away to the exams machine.

6 – Multiple drafts

‘What could you possibly achieve of quality in a single draft?  Would you ever put on a play without rehearsals?  Give a concert without practicing first?How much editing went into every book that we read?

Drafting is a term that I had never actively used in my classroom before, and if I did, I didn’t use it in its correct context.  For many years I have asked students to do a piece of work.  It gets written once, I mark it, it gets given back with feedback and we move on.  Feedback was only intently acted upon when I required it.  Normally this was during pieces of GCSE PE coursework and that happened only once a year.  My reflection on this prompted me to write this post earlier in 2012.  Now like Berger, away from being a teacher I have a secondary interest/job.  I design gardens and run my own company.  Don’t believe me then click here.  Every time that I meet a client and then design their garden, I create numerous versions of the design.  I take them back and forth to the client for their opinions and run them past my old mentor Simon Foster.  Each time I would amend or redesign the design and then carry on with this cycle.  Only after multiple ‘drafts’ did I have a piece that was commissioned and perfect in my clients eyes.  It was when I read Berger’s book that I realised that this approach to producing excellent work was essential and is something at the centre of PBL.

I planned to refer to all work as drafts until students felt confident that they had produced their best final piece at our deadline.  The word draft immediately makes it clear that the work isn’t finished.  I would try and embed the culture that because of the authenticity of the project and the way the final outcome would be shared, it was in our best interest to do our driving question justice and create stunning work.  I would get students to create multiple drafts of their final pieces and using critique sessions, provide clear instructions on how to improve it.  I would also use these sessions as a chance to develop specific elements and teach new methods to produce the work.  I would aim to take away the fear of the word drafts and demonstrate how these small amendments and developments would eventually result in work to be proud of and not be seen as rejection or failure.  As Berger explains in his book, I had clear deadlines on a class calendar to ensure everyone would keep up to date.  Many of these deadlines were our actual critique sessions where drafts would be reviewed and then taken away to be reworked.  So is this time consuming?  Well in my opinion I hoped not.  If critique is providing specific feedback and this is being acted upon in redrafts, this incorporates the learning of content and actual becomes the driver of it.  And ultimately, with such high stakes in terms of our final outcome, I wanted students to see how their work had progressed over time (linking to Dweck) and how they were all capable of producing excellent work.  Producing multiple drafts which were kept in their portfolios clearly would do all of this.

‘Students need to know from the outset that quality means rethinking, reworking and polishing.  They need to feel that they will be celebrated, not ridiculed, for going back to the drawing board’.

7 – Critique

By far the biggest revelation in my teaching career and it all stemmed from one Tweet sent by Jamie Portman whilst he was on a visit to High Tech High in America.  The picture was a very simple one and showed pieces of work which had feedback pinned under them on a cork board.  Now this image wasn’t in a classroom but instead was in a normal corridor within the school.  This single image really got my mind thinking.  Students were clearly displaying draft work and wanted their peers to suggest specific improvements.  All of the drafts were in well presented frames and there was no evidence of other students damaging them.

This image led me to Berger’s book and opened my eyes to the power of effective feedback that was actually acted upon.  He took this process and embedded it into his practice in a way that I had never thought about.  The process he used was called critique.  Critique is more than just an activity that we place in our lessons to get students to peer assess each others work.  Of course critique involves that, but it takes it a step further and makes the giving and receiving of this feedback a culture, habit or classroom norm.  Now Berger takes this process beyond a 15 minute type activity and dedicates in depth sessions to allow students to unpick each others work and suggested areas for improvement.  This can then be redrafted by the author.  He uses a very simple cycle which is initially led by himself as an example and good model of how to undertake the process.  He then allows students to critique before the redrafting of work takes place.  The work then returns for more critique, then a redraft, then a critique…….  So what about the time constraints and opportunities to teach content?  Well Berger explains….

‘When teachers ask me when I could possibly find the time to fit in critique will all the lessons I need to teach, I explain that these critique sessions are the lessons.  Rather than talk in the abstract about how to write well, how to compile a good bibliography, or how to prepare a data analysis, we sit as a group and critique examples at our attempts at this work, refining our criteria and vision of what constitutes excellence’

Critique sessions can run in two distinct ways.  The first is an in depth critique where individual pieces of work are analysed as a whole class before students critique work for themselves.  The other method is called gallery critique and involves students work being displayed and individuals are invited to give feedback.  All of these methods follow 3 simple rules.  All comments in a session must be:

  • Kind (Focus is entirely on the work.  No sarcasm or personal comments)
  • Specific (Refined and precise dialogue with detailed explanations on positives and steps to improve)
  • Helpful (If it doesn’t benefit the work, the learning, the learner or the class, don’t share it)

This process really appealed to me and with the final outcome being a public exhibition, it was essential that work was completed to a high standard.  I therefore decided to have critique at the core of the project and as suggested by Berger, I timetabled critique sessions into the project calendar.  This gave students clear deadlines to drafts and raised the profile and importance of giving well structured feedback.  I decided to run the critique sessions as suggested by Berger, holding an in depth session first to demonstrate/model the process, and then opt for more independent critique sessions using both the in depth or gallery model.  I also played with the idea (in a chat with @pekabelo) of taking the gallery element further and maybe putting students work online for Twitter users to critique, or even post students work up at the local Velodrome so the local Cycling club could critique it.  If work was going to be outstanding, these critique sessions were vital and careful accumulation of support materials such as assessment criteria and expert help sheets would be essential.  I also knew that I had to work hard to make critique the culture of the class and demonstrating its impact to students would be vital to this.  Finally I was also conscious that I had to refine the comments, terminology and feedback that students were giving and planned time in lessons to support students in doing this.

Now there are numerous other elements to critique which make it stand out from normal assessment lessons.  These range from the protocols, the critique rules, the way in which the teacher structures the session.  To make it easier to understand, I have included a video of a session that I ran to our whole staff during a morning briefing.

8 – Making work public

Berger makes a very valid point that a lot of the work that students produce is for a very singular audience.  Usually work is completed and handed in purely for the viewing of the class teacher or maybe just an examiner.  Understandably, because of this, work isn’t always completed by students with a sense of pride or completed to the high standard that it could be.  If I am honest and look back at work I have set my students (even the creative bits of work), I know it could have been that bit better.  Berger again takes a bold step and plans to have every project piece end up being displayed in a public setting/forum where it will be viewed by numerous people.

“There is a reason to do the work well, and it’s not just because the teacher wants it that way”

Berger also talks about the fact that if you can make the work link outside the classroom and tie in with local life, it again takes on a greater sense of importance.  Is there a task that locally needs to be carried out that your class could do?  When writing a biography in English lessons can’t you interview real local people and present the work back to them?  In fact Berger offers a number of examples where the end result of the project has close links to the outside world, the real world.  Now this isn’t possible every time but knowing the final piece of work will be publicly viewed is a great driver of quality, pride and excellence.

“Not every project or assignment can have life importance, but when students know that their finished work will be displayed, presented, appreciated and judged – whether by the whole class, other classes, families, or the community – work takes on a different meaning”
Collaborating on ideas for this project with various Twitter teachers led to Martin Said giving me an amazing final product.  With the project aim being students ability to argue the case for more media coverage of Cycling, Martin suggested having a ‘Teachmeet’ style exhibition evening.  The night would consist of a number of 7 minute presentations that answered the driving question and aimed to persuade the audience to give us support.  During the mid evening interval, the other half of my class would run expert sessions at our ‘Genius Bar’ and would go into detail about the five topics we had covered.  This would be a less formal presentation and would allow for guests to question my students.  It would also tick off my ‘are they learning the content’ worry I had.  
The other final product would require every student writing a newspaper article that used a range of the topics we covered to again highlight the case for more media coverage of cycling.  These articles would be displayed on the evening and invite feedback from our guests.  As the articles would be the first final product to be completed, it would also allow us to decide who would do the main 7 minute presentations on the evening, and who would be best suited to lead the Genius Bar.

The final piece of the puzzle would be the guests that we would invite.  To once again raise the stakes, we would need to have a range of people that covered the world of cycling, media and the general public.  I therefore decided to invite journalists, members of the cycling world and parents and students from all of our GCSE PE classes.  The importance of doing this meant that we had an authentic audience with all three key groups catered for, and students could expect some extremely challenging questioning which meant their knowledge needed to be high.

Hopefully this authentic and genuine outcome to our project would ensure that every student produced work and developed knowledge way beyond what I would normally have expected.

9 – Using assessment to build stronger students

Quite a clear and obvious outcome for most work with students is a grade.  Some form of summative assessment usually follows a unit or piece of work and usually tries to quantify the level of learning that a student has achieved.  Berger talks quite passionately that through a good project, there is more than a final grade outcome that is on offer.  He worries that this branding of grades doesn’t always reflect students abilities.  He offers a different view and looks at alternatives to grades and talks about the use of portfolios to reflect the work that students have done.  There is much that I agree with Berger on this point and feel that I could incorporate strategies within the project to allow students to present their achievements away from a final test or grade.  I do however have to be conscious of the structure of our education system and exam specification where ultimately a test will take place.  So, to merge Berger’s thoughts within the constraints of our subject, I decided to incorporate the following systems:

A portfolio system:  The portfolio idea instantly appealed to me.  As a garden designer as well as a teacher, I know the importance of a portfolio.  My qualifications confirm my secure academic knowledge, but the portfolio is what prospective employers or clients spend most of the time looking at, analysing, discussing, questioning and so on.  The portfolio shows my audience how I work and what I can do.  I always keep every draft and design for each garden as well so I can talk through my process and show people how ideas have evolved.  It’s always nice to see the route I took to get to a final piece.  I really wanted students to see this as well so decided that every paired group in my class would receive an A3 portfolio wallet which I would keep centrally in a file.  Students would be required to keep all of their work in here.  Every draft they do will be put in here.  This A3 wallet would be the main reference point for students.  It would allow them chance to look back through previous drafts and ideas, analyse what to do next, hunt out any previous research, check to see that they haven’t made the same mistakes and so on.  It would also help students see at the end of the project, the amazing journey that took place.  I wanted the progress from draft one to the final pieces of work to be extremely visible and the upkeep of a portfolio would clearly do this. Something a simple final grade wouldn’t.

SOLO Rubrics to assess students content knowledge.

Use rubrics:  Grades are important in our education system.  I know that because of the nature of the system, grades have become increasingly important to students as well.  Sometimes I feel they value this too much and seek out the grade before the more important feedback.  But certain grades for some students can be seen as elusive.  For some categorised as C/D borderliners, the dizzy heights of an A* seems unattainable.  In this project I am trying to get students to break free from this grade labelling and am expecting all students to produce work of excellence.  Although I need to be aware of data and previous scores, I aim to pitch Berger’s notion that ‘If it isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished’.  But how can I convince students that they all can create great pieces of work? I have thought carefully and plan to use well structured and detailed rubrics/assessment criteria.  I plan to keep this visible so students know what to do to create outstanding work.  I plan to make the criteria detailed enough so students know what to do to get that grade rather than hope to get that grade.  Having this framework for the two final pieces will be essential. Using the process of critique and redrafting, comparing work to examples of excellence/models and using the criteria to structure comments will all serve to help students push their work forward.  I also plan to integrate SOLO levels into assessment as my class have been using this all year.  This is an ideal way to stay away from grades and purely focus on the quality of work that students will be creating.  Luckily, due to the English nature of the article and presentation, I have had some excellent help from @huntingenglish and @hgaldinoshea who constructed the assessment criteria for the final pieces.  By merging their suggestions I feel that students will have a criteria that can both help structure students progression and drive the quality of the work up.

Test: Finally I have written in a unit test at the end of the project to ensure that content knowledge is secure.  This will also allow me a chance to assess any areas of weakness from the project and address them before we move onto new topics.  Finally this will allow me the opportunity to gather data which I can compare to previous units (not taught through PBL) and evaluate the impact this method has had.

10 – Project tuning

The final element of an effective project is called ‘Project Tuning’.  This involves sharing your initial plan with a group of individuals.  In the first part they listen to your pitch before unpicking it as a group and finding any areas needing improving.  The set up sounds scary but is essential if we are to produce projects of clear value.  I was lucky enough to have been offered a tuning session which would include Jamie Portman, Darren Mead, Simon Brown and Tait Coles.  The plan was to work this through a platform online and allow these teachers a chance to scrutinise my plan.  Unfortunately the time element worked against me so this session couldn’t be set up in time.  I therefore ran my plan past my Head of Department and line manager.  I also had a Skype session with Darren Mead from Cramlington which alleviated a number of concerns and fears.  Having the plan talked through allowed me to develop any weak areas and include clearer structures and systems where needed.  With this I could make any amendments and set the wheels in motion.

So now that it was all planned, how did it go?  Well the next post will provide a reflection of some of the key elements of the project and tie together the theory behind the plan.


All quotes taken from ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by Ron Berger

Pedagoo London Presentation on Project Based Learning and SOLO.

Article Assessment criteria

How to write a Newspaper Article – Expert guide

How to write a Presentation – Expert guide

My BIE Project Overview Planning document

Critique sheet – differentiated

Cross-posted from My Learning Journey

Going SOLO – Part 2 : Hexagon Alley

I don’t know how well my overall approach to SOLO is going to go — it’s still too early to tell — but what I can say after my first week trying to apply some of the ideas in my classroom is that hexagons are amazing. No argument, they make a profound difference to how I approach delivery, and more importantly, how learners engage with what they are doing. Read on to find out how my #pedagooresolution is going.

Before talking about my week, I do want to just take a second to reply to this tweet that I received:


I will be honest that I make no claims to being expert in using it… or even, necessarily particularly competent. That will require time and repetition (and how often do we say that to our classes?), but the early signs are very encouraging. As I interpret it, SOLO is a means of giving learners the tools by which they can ask their own questions, and drive their own learning. If this sounds like the Holy Grail of education, then you already appreciate that the fundamentals of teaching learners how to actually learn is one of the most important skills they will need as they grow and develop.  As I mentioned in part one of these reflections, SOLO describes 5 stages in the development of understanding: Prestructural through to Extended Abstract. These recognise the 5 stages of learning from knowing nothing through to being able to taking knowledge and hypothesising or creating in an abstract way based on what has been learned. What follows is my somewhat enthusiastic approach this past week… I have made a couple of mistakes as I progressed, but my classes and I have learned a lot!


SOlo HexagonAs I was reading through the reflections of other teachers who use SOLO, I recognised a common technique that many use when teaching: hexagons. As best as I can tell, these originated with Damian Clark on his In Visible Learning blog, though I first encountered them from David Didau’s Learning Spy. In simple terms, they are a physical/concrete means of encouraging learners to move beyond Unistructural and Multistructural knowledge to Relational understanding. In other words, they are used to take statements of facts and basic knowledge of the text/topic/subject/theory/etc, and to ‘see’ the relationships between them. As I have found, they are an incredibly powerful enabler for most learners.

Using Hexagons – The methodology bit!

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 11.22.44I had started by giving the class a sheet of A4 with blank hexagons (click the picture to the right to download the pdf for yourself) and simply asked them to write down a fact about the text they had been studying. Then, once I had done a quick visual check that they had done this (“Class, hold up your sheets… er, David, you’ve gone over the lines… have a new sheet and try again!” {tip: have spare sheets!}) , I asked them to add another couple of facts. I then threw in a couple of single words (basically the theme[s] or some key concepts from the text) for them to write in a hexagon, then asked them to write 3 or 4 statements about the characters, and finally, to fill in the rest of the hexagons with interesting lines/quotations from the text. In doing so, they were essentially moving from Unistructural (knowing one thing) to Multistructural (knowing lots of things). Next came the scissors!

Paired Hex Working

Two of my learners sorting their hexagons based on Cathy MacPhail's novel "Tribes". They responded magnificently to the challenge and surprised themselves almost as much as they did me!


I provided a pile of scissors and asked the class to cut out the individual hexagons (Learning point: ask them to put their name/initials on the reverse of each hexagon! I found out the hard way). Once we had a delightful mess, I tasked them with putting the hexagons together, the only criteria being that they had to explain why they had them touching — in other words, what the relationship was between them.

What followed was absolute magic. The class grasped what they had to do, and became thoroughly engaged. My role changed in that, rather than directing them to ‘the’ answer, I became a challenge agent. I could see at a glance what they were trying to put together, and could simply ask them to justify their decisions. And what decisions they came up with! The simple act of moving pieces of paper around, but with a reason, became really involving. I was finding genuine engagement and genuine responses in a way that way surpassed my hopes for the lessons. Before long, every desk was a mosaic of hexagons and a lot of learners were very evidently beginning to grasp the key concepts and relationships in their texts.

The next step was to pair them up with their neighbour/shoulder partner, and to see if they could combine their hexagons into one bigger mosaic. Given that they had had to come up with their own initial hexagons, none of them had exactly the same things written on them. Suddenly, and quite unintentionally, I heard them explaining to each other why they had written what they had, and in a totally natural and organic way, they were merging their knowledge. They also began to ask for some blank hexagons so they could add more to their creations — for me, evidence that they were learning and looking for deeper answers.

The Penny Dropped

I tried using hexagonal learning with all my classes this week (no half measures here!), and want to recount two classes experiences in particular — both S2 classes (aged about 13).

I have a really interesting mixed class with a number of pupils who do not have English as a first language, some who have problems staying focussed, and others who quite wrongly do not believe they are capable of performing well. I always have another support teacher (Mrs Jackson) in the class, and because of this, while the majority of the class have been studying Cathy MacPhail’s novel Tribes, some of the class have been looking at The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore on my iPad. Despite having read two different texts in class, all the class were able to complete hexagons for their text. They were also able to add extra information, and more importantly, no matter which text it was, they were all demonstrating really deep learning as they justified the hexagons they placed together. Working with this class was genuinely infectious. They responded so magnificently that it was impossible not to be proud of them. This also converted wonderfully into some of the most focussed essay writing they have done for me. In addition, what struck me after the fact was that, for the first time, they weren’t asking me to check what they had written was OK every couple of sentences. I see this as a sign of the confidence they had developed through the exercise, and also a sign that, having moved from Uni/Multistructural knowledge of their texts to Relational understanding, they had the confidence to write without seeking constant reassurance from myself or Mrs Jackson. In fact, Mrs Jackson was positively raving about the difference in the learners… to the extent that she has been telling everyone she has met about this technique! And we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface.

BUT… I got cocky! I have another S2 class who are very, very able. And I blew it completely. Having had a week of thinking I was beginning to master hexagons and the theory of SOLO taxonomy, I tried to deliver a really ambitious lesson that I hadn’t had the time to think through properly. It crashed and burned big time! Ironically, one of the classes I thought this would work best with, I had the least success with… but on reflection, this was about me trying to run before I could walk. I had not thought through the lesson, and crucially, it wasn’t my lesson I was using. I’d found James Theobold’s brilliant Heston Blumethal approach to poetry on the Wildern School Improvement site, and — because I admire Heston Blumenthal, and know a wee bit about poetry — thought that would be a great lesson to try. I hadn’t thought through the importance of making sure my own knowledge was deep enough, and so because of that, and my over-confidence at having had such startling successes with my other classes, I expected magic to happen again, but instead, the class found it too difficult to make the relationships between poetry and Heston Blumenthal come to life. The whole exercise began to feel forced and very unnatural. Lesson learned. Stick to my own texts/knowledge/topics, or make sure I am thoroughly up to speed before using someone else’s materials.


I’m becoming very convinced that SOLO taxonomy as an approach should be an essential part of any teacher’s skill-set/tool box. It is not the only answer, but it is an incredibly powerful part of the solution. I am aware that the use of hexagons to develop Relational understanding is only a part of the SOLO process, but even if some of my learners never become capable of moving to the next stage (though I expect they all will), they have almost all found a technique that empowered them to be able to talk about, and write about, texts in a way that even a week ago, I wouldn’t have believed. This is a technique that I will be using regularly  in the future. It works…

Next week

Having focussed on one particular technique, and one particular stage (Relational) of SOLO, I’m going to be looking at making sure my classes begin to feel comfortable with the whole process. This will mean giving them the full SOLO toolkit, and especially the verbs they will need to allow them to make their own decisions and to become even more independent in their learning. Exciting times!


NB: I am finding my way so it is essential for me (and anyone else learning about SOLO) that you should pass on any thoughts, hints & tips, and especially clarifications in the comments — Thanks!
Cross posted to If You Don’t Like Change…

Going SOLO – Part 1 (#pedagooresolutions)

Pedagoo SOLOMy Pedagoo Resolution is to introduce SOLO taxonomy to my classes. SOLO is something I’ve been hearing a lot about this past year, but is not something I’ve found the time to do much with… so it is a perfect candidate for a resolution. I’ve heard too many people I respect saying it works, and like most people who are involved with Pedagoo, I’m interested in being a better teacher, so, here goes!

My intention is to ‘think out loud’ the whole process from finding out more about SOLO, adapting lessons, implementing it, and reflecting on how it goes in my classroom, with the intention of finishing up by reviewing the impact on my learners… with them getting the last word as I’ll be asking them to reflect on and comment on what they think they’ve improved on. But that is some way down the line, first, I want to get my head around what SOLO actually is and what it involves. [1]

What is SOLO?

SOLO is the acronym for Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes. It is a method/skillset for encouraging learners to become more reflective and involved in the learning process. It highlights 5 ‘stages’ of understanding and these lie at the heart of SOLO. They are:

  • Prestructural
  • Unistructural
  • Multistructural
  • Relational
  • Extended Abstract

I was going to go into a great big long explanation of these, but instead, will point you at the video that I found most useful when getting to grips with the basic concepts. It’s the (always excellent) David Didau explaining SOLO at a TeachMeet:

So (and apologies for my very simplistic approach):

  • Prestructural = lack of knowledge
  • Unistructural = knowing one thing
  • Multistructural = knowing several things
  • Relational = being able to identify relationships between the known things
  • Extended Abstract = the ability to hypothesise based on the previous levels…

If I relate this to my own SOLO journey, I have gone from knowing nothing about SOLO a year or so ago (Prestructural), to hearing it mentioned on Twitter as a good thing (Unistructural), to learning more about it from David, Lisa, Tait (Multistructural), getting to grips with it by making connections between different blogs and research on it (Relational), to finally beginning to design some lessons that will use SOLO as part of their planning and delivery (Extended Abstract). This may not make perfect sense, but I’m fairly happy that I have learned enough to start thinking about implementing it in class.

Next up, will be a short attempt by me to devise a revision lesson on An Inspector Calls using SOLO approaches. My S3 class need to get up to speed on it quite quickly in preparation for writing a critical essay on the play in the next week or so. Until then, I highly recommend you follow the embedded links above, and if you have any questions, please post them in the comments… and if you have already been using SOLO, I’d really appreciate any thoughts and hints you care to share!

Cross-posted to http://nwinton.wordpress.com

1. I should point out that everything I write here is drawn from a number of excellent people who have generously and kindly made their own thoughts and advice available in their own spaces. In general, I’ll link to them in the body of the text… all errors are mine, not theirs!