Welcome to my attempt to archive and share some experiences at making learning more visible in my classroom

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Creating a "need to know"

One of the more difficult aspects for students when beginning an enquiry where they do not have a wealth of prior knowledge is deciding on what they "need to know".  Without a clear direction it can mean that enquiries become very messy during the research phase.

I have decided to try a couple of strategies to help students decide on what they needed to know, so that their research and evidence gathering would be more focussed, relevant and potentially quicker.

I should mention that I tried all these strategies with my Year 9 Project Humanities class - a set of able students.

Strategy One - Decide for yourself

As an introduction to the Project Humanities course I give the students a 2-3 lesson challenge to investigate the question - "When was it best to be a germ?" The end product would be a living graph of how germs "felt" throughout different periods of history.
A typical finished product - a living graph.

This kind of activity will be familiar to anyone who has taught the SHP Medicine Through Time course or read of the excellent strategies in the Thinking Through History resource book.  I use this challenge as a way of returning to a solid historical concept (continuity and change) and as a way of tapping into the learning habits the students have brought from Year 8.  I am keen to see how they collaborate to plan, break up the tasks and use their time effectively as well as the depth of thinking they participate at.

The challenge was introduced by watching a Domestos advert and brainstorming as a group the purposes of a germ.  Typical answers were - to multiply and spread; to survive and live a long life; to infect and make ill etc.  Next we discussed how in the modern world we deal with the threat of germs and illness and how this differed from the past.

Students were introduced to the challenge and given a chance to form their own groups and familiarise themselves with the task and the resources available - a book box from our fantastic LRC, some pre-printed sheets and if they felt it necessary - the internet.  Students had around 30 minutes during which time I observed students deciding how their group would divide the task; re-reading the challenge instructions; asking questions about the different time periods they had been asked to consider; making notes; discussing which periods they would investigate.

Interestingly, one or two groups decided to make some predictions about what they believed might be the pattern they would find using their own (pretty basic) prior knowledge of some of the periods.  Both these groups were helped enormously by engaging in this thought process - they were quicker to decide on what they needed to know, were able to visualise their end product earlier and had a sense of direction about the task.

Two groups of students made predictions before they began their research - a helpful thought process.
In the second session pupils were introduced to the success criteria for the task and I used the SOLO taxonomy to provide a structure.  Only two pupils recognised the symbols and words associated with SOLO from other lessons so I gave the students a brief overview of the meaning behind SOLO using a football analogy. We read the success criteria together and then I asked students to decide as a group on three things -

  1. What do we need to know? (what would we have to find out in our research)
  2. What do we need to be able to do?
  3. What decisions do we need to make?  
I emphasised that the students needed to try and use the success criteria to help them decide what they wanted to know and the results were very pleasing.  A few groups took a few attempts to decipher the success criteria into the knowledge they required but all groups successfully decided on relevant avenues of enquiry and areas they wanted to find out about.  

Here are some examples of what pupils decided they needed to know...

How well did this strategy work?

Very well.  Primarily because students were actively deciphering the success criteria and explaining to each to each other and myself what they needed to know.  But it also worked well because using the SOLO success criteria invited many students to consider the kinds of knowledge they would need to effectively reach the relational and extended abstract levels.  All students were able to describe at least two pieces of information they would need to know to be able to answer the questions, for example:   "We will need to know what people thought caused the illnesses and how they treated people", "We would need to know how clean people were during this period or if they had any hygiene".

One of the completed living graphs

Detail from one of the living graphs

On reflection there are a number of important features of how the challenge was structured which also helped pupils decide on what they needed to know:

  1. Some limitations - clarity about the historical periods to be investigated and the question to be answered and a time limit which was fairly challenging.
  2. Using predictions and prior knowledge - students who sat and thought or discussed what they expected to find before they began any research were far more successful.
  3. A chance to get to understand the problem - the first 30 minutes were spent allowing the students to go and view sources of information, see what was out there, re-read the task, discuss and ask clarifying questions.  I find that this time is essential for students to make sense of a complex task and I often only ask students to formally "plan" their enquiry after they have had this time.
  4. Clear success criteria which challenged pupils to think in complex ways, not just produce "more"
  5. Accessible material for all levels of ability.

Ultimately, enquiry learning can engage, inspire and challenge students but it needs careful design to make it work for all learners.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

SOLO Enquiry

After spending over a year thinking about SOLO taxonomy and its application in my students learning I have finally had the push I needed to get going with a proper enquiry into its effectiveness in my classroom.

Our school has given us time to meet as part of Professional Enquiry Groups - small groups of teachers with a common interest in a particular pedagogical theme. I belong to the group on 'developing thinking' (led by @dkmead) and in the last week we were encouraged to map out an enquiry into our chosen area of interest. This was a really rewarding experience - facilitated using a structure for critiquing projects used in High Tech High.  More of this in another post.

In essence this is what my enquiry is about - can student's improve their performance by (self) referring to the SOLO taxonomy?  In particular I wanted to (a) make a display for my classroom which I could introduce the SOLO taxonomy to my students and (b) encourage students to use the display as a place for them to refer to to see how they can make improvements to their thinking and (c) where they can find copies of thinking maps / graphic organisers to use in learning activities.  

I have today enlisted some help in creating my display and it will hopefully take shape so that it eventually communicates the message contained within this slideshare (from Pam Hook)

For me the first step has been to design some learning activities using the SOLO taxonomy. That way I could get to grips with my own understanding of how it works.  I created the learning outcomes for a GCSE Humanities lesson with year 10 students looking at the contentious issue of building a large dam in the Amazonian rainforest basin.  Here's a link to the outcomes.  Using the SOLO taxonomy had reminded me of the need to plan lessons and activities with a clear, explicit link between the learning intentions and the learning outcome.  

Thinking in shapes:

I decided that the main activity would be a hexagonal card sort which would allow students to classify the effects of the dam being built and compare the positive and negative effects.  The following slideshow shows the student's arrangements in response to the question: "Are we right to stop the Belo Monte Dam project?"

The shape of the hexagonal cards along with an invitation to be creative in their arrangements allowed students to create patterns and arrangements which not only showed classification (groups of effects) but some also sequenced the relationship between effects (how some minor effects of building the dam could create other effects). There was only one group of students who teetered at 'multistructural' for the most part of the activity while they tried to work out the relationship between the cards.


I found that all groups reached "relational" stage during the lesson.  Every group was proficient at explaining their thinking ie why they had arranged their cards the way they had and the meaning behind them.  I also asked every group "How did the cards help you to think about this topic?" and every group was unusually expressive at describing how the shape of the cards had allowed them to make creative links and bring in evidence that they might have otherwise disregarded.  I was really pleased that all groups had been capable of this type of reflection.

There were a number of benefits to using SOLO to plan this lesson - (a) it refocused my mind on planning activities which encouraged higher order thinking (b) it allowed students to demonstrate their thinking in a visible way (c) the card sort enabled students to express through talk their response to the investigation.  It also highlighted how certain groups worked at solving this type of problem and how certain groups were capable of readily demonstrating relational thinking of a complex nature.

Next steps

My mission is now to build in a number of opportunities to allow students to actively use the SOLO taxonomy as a rubric for their learning.  After that I will need to spend time exploring with students how the HOT thinking maps can be used to organise effective thinking - hopefully in preparation for written work which demonstrates the same level of thinking.

ps here's the lesson powerpoint I used...