A Geography Lesson: Making the learning visible

I remember being new to teaching and asking students to do complex thinking (analyse this…. Explain that…..etc.) and not really knowing how to help them do it. I have seen teachers that simply assume that students should be able to do it and if they cannot, then it is simply because they are “not that smart”. Fortunately I have learned a lot since my beginning days as a teacher (in fact I learn better now than I ever did). Anyway, what follows is a lesson I gave to my year12 Geography class in preparation for their exams. The intention was to de-code the technical words in exam questions and show that success does not come from luck or being brainy but from having effective strategies and applying effort.

These first slides are from a SOLO Learning team meeting I am facilitating tomorrow Then I get on to the slides I used with my class.

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I first learned about Parts/Whole analysis from a course I went to featuring Robert Schwarts and Art Costa. the work of Pam Hook and Julie Mills aligning it with SOLO Taxonomy is what has really made it powerful for me as a teacher. Anyway, these are the slides I used to introduce this to the class.

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I then went through heaps of exam questions to give a meaningful rational to what I wanted them to do. And to show them how it fits with SOLO

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As this was a revision lesson, we then used their notes and a text book to complete the Parts/Whole thinking map. I had them in groups (two groups doing each of the three parts) and at the end we collated it to create some super good revision notes.

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The first box was just for the detail (I am always reminding them that specific facts and numbers equals merit or Excellence (another good strategy) This is Multistructural thinking or bringing in ideas.

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The next box is about imagining if the part were missing or changed. What might that mean. Always good to use tentative language so the thinking is broadened and not limited. This is Relational thinking or making links

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The last box is all about reaching a conclusion or making an overall claim about the function of the part given the thinking that has been done. This allows students to show extended abstract thinking.

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For students to gain top marks (or Excellence as it is known in NZ) they need to show insight. Below is a visual rubric from Hooked on Thinking (Pam and Julie) that I think nicely shows that insight can be articulated by making some broader generalisations or insights about how the parts might influence each other or perhaps which part is the most significant and why.

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This post was a bit rushed so if anyone has questions or comments, go for it.


Ability Grouping & SOLO Taxonomy

One of the things I have been doing this year, is being Parent Help in my sons yr2 class. I am rostered in for one of the math lessons each week. This post may come across as being highly critical of my sons teacher which I do not want to be as she seems super competent, experienced and the students love her. Also, I am in a very naive position, only getting small snapshots into this classroom. Having said that, some things just hit you in the face and get you thinking.

So…….. In this class, they use grouping where the teacher will have a small group to work with on the mat while the two other groups are engaged at different activity stations or book work. My job as parent help is to keep the other groups on track and help where I can. I like this set up and do not know why I haven’t adopted it in my own High School Teaching – working with small groups and rotating them around. You kind of do it by going to different groups as a lesson goes on but I like the whole kinaesthetic get up and move around stations thing.

Anyway, it appears that the groups are ability based and this is where I have a problem. The groups are the Circles, Squares and Triangles but these students already now that they are the top, middle and bottom.  I found this out because I went to check on the Triangles (my sons group) and help them get organised. Their task was to play some math games in the Math corner. I saw a game that looked good and challenging for where I know my son is at but none of the kids would touch it. Why? Because it came from the squares box and they were in the bottom group and that was too hard for them. I was amazed at the conviction they had and I could not convince them to break the perceived rule that they could only do stuff from their own box. This totally spun me out to the point I spent the rest of the afternoon researching best practice on ability grouping. I am sure that my sons teacher has the best intentions and has diligently set up differentiated learning activities for students so they can work autonomously but in doing so, she is also embedding a belief, as said by one of the girls, that they are not good enough and that they are the bottom group.

I am particularly sensitive to this as one of the things I have to spend a lot of time on in a high school setting is convincing these students later in life about their potential as learners (remember Success = Effort + Effective Strategies). By this time, they no longer think of themselves as the Triangles but rather the “Cabbage Class” or something similar. I was totally freaked out that these 6yr olds were beginning to self label as not good enough and the risk that they will carry this for the rest their lives.

This is being a valuable lesson for me in my own teaching practice and I welcome any thoughts or reflections upon it. From my own thinking and the couple of hours I have spent online researching, here is what I have found and thought so far:

Research about Ability Grouping

I do not want to do a literature review (If anyone has done one, I would love to read it) but there is lots of research that supports both the negative and positives of ability grouping. From my brief look, I think the opposition side to ability grouping wins.

If you are going to use Ability Grouping…

If you are going to use ability grouping, there is a thing called best practice and this is labour intensive on the teacher (thus I suspect not done or forgotten). The main principle is that groups need to be flexible and constantly changing. For example, it is not good enough for a student to be fixed in a math group for the whole year. The teacher needs to be looking for opportunities to move students – for the fractions unit, addition unit, and so on. Even if this is done for social engineering purposes to stop these kids self labelling themselves as dumb, I am all for it. Also if you are going to create differentiated sets of learning activities, I think, the set for the lowest group still needs to have activities that allow the students to surprise you or have a go at more complex tasks. This aligns with a SOLO framework but more on that later.

Also, I believe, that if you are going to ability group, it is essential that the pathway for success to the top group is visible and understood by the students. This is more than “try harder”, it is about making visible strategies for success and helping students improve and be cognisant of themselves as learners.

SOLO to the rescue

Again and again I am reminded how a SOLO framework attends to best practice and the development of engaged, enthusiastic and positive learners who can see a pathway to success rather than accepting a fixed label for their ability in any given thing. Via simple rubrics (like the ones I have posted on this Blog or from the experts like Pam Hook, Julie Mills and increasingly other teaches around the world) we can empower students to see themselves as learners on a continuum where they can identify their own next steps for improvement rather than grow to believe they have fixed ability and a limited future.

Sorry, a bit full on but this topic really got me thinking. I know I do not have a wide readership and this blog is more about me pontificating and collecting my thoughts than a wiki for growing collective knowledge but if you or your colleges have thoughts or strategies on or around ability grouping, I would love to hear and share them.

Session 3: Facilitating a SOLO Learning Team

Quick re-cap: Our School has a culture of staff learning where everyone is part of a learning team that meets 6-8 times per year in meeting slots or on teacher only days. The Learning Teams are facilitated by staff that step up to do so and all have a requirement to be focused on a reflective teaching cycle (Teaching as Inquiry). Our school has SOLO as a shared framework for learning, and as a deliberate act, any new staff to the school are put into the SOLO learning team.

Our School uses the SCT(Specialist Classroom Teacher) roles for two of these learning teams (plus other jobs the teaching and learning committee thinks up). Anyway, I am on leave and there was a new person in the “SOLO” role this year. However, I was lucky enough to be able to run the first SOLO learning team at the start of the year (I have reflected upon that somewhere on this blog already). I was not required for the second Learning Team meeting but with some internal movements, I was back to facilitate the third team meeting yesterday and am tasked with the remainder as the new SCT grows into the role. I am quite likely mentoring myself out of a job for next year but it’s too soon to worry about that.

Anyway, I thought I would capture my thinking on yesterdays session.

As I have mentioned before, we have known of SOLO for several years now and while different departments are at different places with SOLO, there is now a large body of templates and exemplars in use. What has become apparent to me is that some have forgotten the “why” of SOLO and how it can be applied to anything if we are mindful of it. Or, they are picking up  and using templates that have no real meaning to them beyond it being a learning activity attached to a lesson plan within a unit of work. When I first blogged about this, it was a frustration/concern shared by other schools too. So, one of my goals yesterday was to enable our team to reconnect with the Why of SOLO and how we can see SOLO in whatever we do.

To start, we spent the first 8 or so minutes reflecting upon terms 1 & 2 and completing an “improving teaching cycle” diagram. For those that may not see the value of “Teaching as Inquiry”, the saleable rationale is that this is needed for your attestation. I was time conscious so we did not share these but maybe next time. (Idea to remember, these could be used for a staffroom notice board display – celebrate the learning?????)

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Then I Launched in to making links between John Hattie’s research and the why of SOLO. (I acquired these slides back in 2008 at a presentation he gave in CHCH but they essentially come from his book “Visible Learning”)

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We went through his ranked order list of the influence that different strategies have on raising achievement. My goal was to show that SOLO can attend to many of the top influences as can be seen below.

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Then a couple of quotes that also come from his book.

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That was the knowledge input bit and rationale for the why of SOLO. Next I wanted to start connecting with what this looks like for us. The slide below is it in it’s simplest form.

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Before moving on, I wanted to debunk the myth that SOLO is just filling in boxes so I told the story I blogged about here http://wp.me/p2WwXN-3K.

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To further add to this we did the following activity in groups.

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This is what a couple of groups came up with. What is missing is the conversations that the staff had to justify their thinking so some of the coding might seem wrong but it got them being self critical which was the goal.

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I followed this up with a worked example I had from a relief lesson where the students were tasked to “make notes” (multistructural). I added that for the notes under each heading (it was about sub cultures – very interesting) they were to annotated the most significant thing and say why (relational). For the high flyers, they might imagine if something was changed and how that might influence the sub-culture (extended abstract). Anyway, the moral of the story is that we can SOLOise anything. I then gave them something to try which I thought up and then thought it might be a naff idea but thought I would share it anyway. (explained below)

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I don’t have my own class to try this with so if anyone has a go I would be keen to hear about it. Then I re-caped some ideas and with 30min left in the session, it was their time to plan or explore a SOLO idea for a lesson that is coming up while I made myself available to help. We finished by reflecting on what we had done, setting expectations for trialling something and identifying possible areas of need for the next meeting.

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For the next session I think we will link back to the HOT maps. In particular, the ones that attend to Explain, Analyse and Evaluate. The reason being, that I think we often ask this of our students but fail to scaffold or make visible strategies for success.

Reflections on Mark Osborne Presentation

Not being in the staff room everyday, I thought I would use this blog as a way of having a conversation with myself (and anyone else out there).

I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a Presentation from Mark Osborne @mosborne01 this morning after I had done my bit with our in school SOLO Learning Team (I will blog on that later). Anyway, Mark mentioned a few things that reinforced or enlightened me that I thought I should record. Note that the particular lens I often look through is that of someone helping enact the vision of SOLO as a whole school framework for learning.

So, in no particular order:

Keep reminding and engaging staff in the WHY of it

Mark used the “golden Circle” to show this. As a school we had worked with this idea with Julia Atkin in the early 2000’s where her message was start from what you value and believe and then make sure your practices actually align with it. Either way, it reminded me that over time, people forget the why or, with staff turnover, new people have not been part of the conversations and it can be assumed they know the why when they don’t. That is one of the deliberate acts LHS has done regarding SOLO. Anyone new to the school defaults to the SOLO learning team (about 16-17 staff this year). I wonder if more needs to be done to re-remind other staff.

Helping kids help each other be bright

I really liked this notion. I have forgotten the exact wording but something like Not helping the bright kids but helping the kids know how they are bright (I should have written that one down cos I am sure I messed it up). Anyway, SOLO as a framework for learning is all about that. Success = Effort + Effective strategies and SOLO is all about effective strategies just as ICT’s can be.

Groups around one machine

Our journey with BOYD is reasonably new but I have seen it in my sons yr1 classroom last year and I wish I was teaching this year so I could play around with groups of students around one tablet learning from and with each other.

Teaching as inquiry

We are pretty switched on to this but it is another one of those things that you need to keep coming back to the why of it. Our learning teams are directed to engage in using a reflective teaching cycle flow diagram for their professional learning logs. I cannot speak for all learning teams but we had just done one ourselves this morning and then to have an external consultant further validate it is so useful.

The power of John Hattie’s research

One of the challenges of facilitating a group of teachers is to identify their mental models of learning and challenge them if they are incorrect. John Hattie’s meta analysis stuff is brilliant. Mark used it to confront our mental models and then challenge us to think how a BYOD structure could attend to some of the winners in terms of raising student achievement. You can use the same research to help show the why of SOLO as a framework for learning. SOLO can attend to at least 5 of the top ten in Hattie’s list.

BYOD to share notes

One of my takeaway ideas from Marks presentation is that next time I have a class in front of me, I would like to get them collaborating using Google docs on revision notes or something like that. I usually pick out some great notes that students have made and (with their permission) share them with the class but I would like to explore the potential of a shared doc where they can critique and contribute outside of class time (even if it means learning from each other because I didn’t do a good enough job to grab them on that day or that week)

Reciprocal teaching from students to other students to show extended abstract thinking/knowledge

There is room here somewhere to really empower student to demonstrate extended abstract knowledge by testing how well they can teach others. I am not sure yet how I would facilitate this but if it was made visible to the students, I think it could be a really motivating and empowering process.

Right, just some quick notes. I have to blast to go pick up my son from school.

Being a Reading Ninja Functional Reubric

Right, lets see if this works. Our son knows some strategies for reading but he often gives up before he has really given them a go. The purpose of this rubric is to show him a pathway for success and thus I am hoping he will be more cognisant of the process of learning to read and also be more motivated and persistent in his efforts.

Who wouldn’t want to be a “Reading Ninja”! We will see how it goes.

I would be curious to see what others think.

Being like a reading ninja

Quick update: Day one: this evening, Nico got to a tricky word and wanted his Mum to take over reading. Then he remembered and said NO! I’ll do it. He proceeded to sound out the rest of the paragraph and thus demonstrate Ninja Reading skills. High Fives all round…. It’s so much fun being a parent.

Using SOLO to become a Reading Ninja

This post comes under the “learning with a 6yr old” category. I am not primary trained and thus have a lot to learn about teaching at that level (particularly patience) but I like getting involved with our sons learning. I also live in fear of what traditional teaching at both primary and secondary level can do to kill the joy of learning in students. I don’t know enough to critique Nico’s teachers and it is inappropriate to do so in this sort of forum, but we have been getting a bit worried about our sons reading and attitude to reading. In particular, he has stagnated on level 8 books which is below where he “should” be (given pushy parents expectations and national standards).

Now there is a whole lot of stuff in that. You could say, boys often take longer, he’ll catch up and so on but what freaked me out was that he just stopped enjoying reading and started saying opposite words when he was reading, reading the books upside down and stuff like that. When Nico was 4, he loved learning, weather it was figuring out where the pee went in a men’s urinal or how far out the Oort Cloud was in the Solar System. He would also make up cool stories that went on and on. He has now learned that the expected length is three sentences and doesn’t want to write beyond that.

Anyway, we decided we needed to be more proactive in helping Nico with his reading. I am new to twitter (I only have 66 followers) but I thought I would put out a plea for help from the twitter community. I got some great ideas, particularly from @helenOfTroy01 @1Mvd and @digitallearnin . They offered some great online digital learning websites. This pretty much confirmed one of our thoughts. That is, that the books Nico was given at school really had zero appeal to him but when presented with choice and games to play online, he loved it and launched into it. He was also happy to have a go at books that were challenging or way more tricky than what he was getting at school. This is another thing I am worrying about and that is the use of ability grouping (which has a pretty low effect size according to John Hattie’s research compared to allowing for acceleration which rates much higher). I am caught on this though as maybe there is value in being in a reading group where you feel “safe” – not sure.

The other thing we have done these holidays is buy a couple of sets of “Top Trumps” which is a card game where you compare different things (deep sea creatures, wonders of the world, dinosaurs, Starwars characters and heaps more). Nico cannot get enough and it is full of literacy and numeracy. In four days, he has learned to say numbers in the thousands and is sounding out all sorts of complex words and feeling success at doing so.

The other thing we have noticed is that Nico would prefer not to read if he thinks he might get something wrong. To help with this, I am working on a SOLO rubric for reading. The purpose is to make a pathway to success visible to Nico rather than him just not being able to do it (which is what he thinks). I only just started on this and I talked through a first draft  with him at bed time. We decided that extended abstract was “knowing and showing that with effort and effective strategies you can have a go at anything (reading) even if you get really tired. You don’t give up.” This we are calling being a “Reading Ninja”. It was my wife’s turn to read to/with Nico tonight (and I wanted to write this all down) but after the front loading stuff with the rubric and the appeal of being a “Reading Ninja”, he was unstoppable. On a challenging chapter book he was sounding out and nailing words he had never read before. He didn’t want to stop until they at least got to the bit where the characters would start fighting.

When/if I get the rubric done, I will post it. I am sure there will be teachers that can improve or modify it. Also, a big thanks to the PLN – which took me a while to figure out is my slowly growing personal learning network.

Intoducing SOLO to New Staff

At the start of the year, I was invited back to facilitate the first SOLO learning team meeting for staff that were new to our school. This is one of the strategies that the school uses to enact the vision of having SOLO as a whole school framework for learning. Anyway, in the past, I have usually launched into the HOT maps straight away but this time I thought I would start by trying to help teachers connect SOLO to a strategy they already may use and give one strategy that might be new but very cool. What follows is really just me documenting my thinking but it may be useful???

So………. I started with a bit of a timeline to show the culture and history of learning teams at our school. Then it was on to the rational of “Why SOLO” referring to the one given in “SOLO Taxonomy: A guide for School” by Pam hook and Julie Mills. Capture 1

I also aligned it with our school values and the New Zealand Curriculum to help cement the value of it as a framework.




Then we did some “what is SOLO” activities but simplified it down to the slide below.


Then we explored the expectations of the learning team. Essentially it is about “action research” or “inquiry learning” (identify something you might work on, plan an intervention or trial something and then reflect upon the results).

To finish, we had time to look at two take away ideas. The first was about trying to make the link between SOLO and a really common strategy that teachers use – that being a brainstorm. The following slides show the process we went through. My aim was to highlight that this can be more than just a strategy to bring in ideas or start thinking in a lesson.


I am also a huge fan of Art Costa’s work and in the slide above, I have used a positive presupposition (as you think about…) and invited multiple ideas (as many as you can). It can get a bit wordy but I think the language we use can really influence the effectiveness of the thinking. On that, I am really particular with how I bring in ideas/brainstorm with a class. The golden rule is “value all thinking in a neutral way” i.e. just say “thank you” to student responses. It took me a while to see how important this is but I was lucky enough to see an experienced teacher really shut down a classes thinking within just a few seconds. It’s a story worth telling so I will….. The teacher had asked for ideas on a certain topic, 30 hands went up, their owners keen to share their thinking. First response the teacher praised with a “Good idea”. Immediately a third of the hands went down. The next idea the teacher praised with “fantastic idea!”. At this point all hands went down and the teacher could not get any more ideas out of the class. What Art Costa had found was that as soon as the teacher placed a value like “fantastic” on a students thinking, all the other students begin filtering their ideas and anything that they do not deem as equal to or that can beat “fantastic” they choose not to share. Moral of the story, if you want to encourage thinking, manage your responses – you can be critical of the ideas after.

Anyway, any brainstorm can be elevated to relational thinking by doing the following:



This example also shows how you can use SOLO to allow for differentiation within a lesson. The last slide below uses one of the define map visual rubrics that comes from Pam and Julie’s work.


The next example we used was SOLO Hexagons as shown below: (I need to get on with planning the next session so I will just do a cut and paste – Sorry, a bit rushed and brief)

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