Getting into the SOLO way of thinking

20140413-224143.jpgI know it’s probably getting a bit repetitive all of these posts on about SOLO, but I’ve really been impacted by a lot of the ideas from that workshop and it’s really gotten me thinking.

I’ve wanted to find out more about how to develop a growth mindset in my students, as this is something I see to be a key idea to help make SOLO work. I found some great resources that I want to take the time to explore.

Alongside these thoughts, I’ve also been developing a new skill of my own – riding a motorcycle. Or a scooter, to be more precise. I’ve been wanting to take up the hobby for some time now and I finally acted on it a few weeks ago, booking into the pre-learners riding course that the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS – the new RTA) makes novice riders complete before they can get their L’s. I’ve been completing this course yesterday and today, and it’s been a whole lot of fun, as well as a steep-ish learning curve.

Interestingly, I’ve found that my developing ideas around SOLO helped me a lot in my attitude to learning this skill. In the past, when learning new things I’ve tended to have very high expectations of myself and assume that I should be awesome at it from minute one. Clearly these expectations are unrealistic (duh!) but I’ve always found that I put that sort of pressure on myself, even if it’s subconscious.

But I found myself using the levels of SOLO when analysing my own developing skills.

  • At the start of yesterday, I knew nothing about riding a bike beyond what I’d seen in movies and watching others ride (prestructural).
  • After learning some fundamentals (how to mount and dismount, learning the controls etc) I knew how to do some things but only with specific guidance and instruction one-on-one (unistructural).
  • As I practiced manoeuvres over and over again, I found myself getting it right more often than I got it wrong, but I still made mistakes. I was improving but still with a way to go yet (multistructural).

Now I certainly haven’t reached anywhere near relational or extended abstract (not without a whole lot more practice and experience), but using these SOLO concepts and terms I could definitely see how my skills were progressing. Most interestingly, I found that my attitude towards my rough skills was far more positive than I might have felt in the past. I was able to give myself permission to be rubbish at it much more easily than I would have. I saw where my skill was at, and rather than feeling frustrated at not being an expert from the start, I felt more satisfaction at my progress from one level to the next. I could also see strategies that were helping me to move up through the levels – repetition, visualisation, modelling the expert (I.e. the instructor), positive self-talk, and so on.

I really feel like I myself moved more towards a growth mindset in this totally un-school related activity, and I was really happy with that. I felt excited, positive and could readily accept that I’m still a novice, knowing that I’m simply not there yet.

Using the SOLO Hexagons – Some Classroom Examples

Today was the last day of our first term, so for some strange reason I decided today would be the day that I would road-test the use of the SOLO hexagons that I learnt about the other day.

Despite the admittedly tricky timing, I wanted to use them today as a way for my Year 10 students to finish off their unit on Chemical Reactions. I had hoped that they would use the exercise to build connections between ideas that we had met and refresh their memories.

Unfortunately, the reality was a fair bit more lacklustre than that. I had pre-prepared the hexagons for them but i wasn’t around for the start of the lesson, so they were rather lost. They were clearly also in last day mode, but some of them got something useful out of it. Here’s some samples:


As a spur of the moment thing, I also decided to do it with my Year 9 class. With them I just got them to write ideas down on blank hexagons and then piece them together – much like we did when at the workshop. This class seemed to get into the activity a bit more, and with some direct guidance came up with some useful connections. Here are some more examples:



20140412-170738.jpgLots of quality work here, with great potential for using it in future. I think that I need to work on how much explanation and elaboration I do to help them understand how the activity works. Hopefully this will save some of the blank looks in future!

SOLO Hexagons

One of the fantastic activities we learnt about (and modelled) at the SOLO workshop yesterday was the SOLO hexagons. Alice blogs about them here.

At the workshop we were introduced to this activity by brainstorming about the topic of morning tea. We had a blank hexagon template and had to fill in as many of the hexagons as possible with words, phrases and images that related to the concept of morning tea. We then cut them out and combined our hexagons with the others at our table, lining up and tessellating our hexagons to highlight connections between related ideas and words.

Here is a snapshot of our work:

Every connected edge and vertex between hexagons is another connection to articulate and explain. It’s a beautiful activity because no two groups will make identical connections for identical reasons; there’s no right or wrong answer or “right way” to do it. If the students can thoughtfully make connections, they can succeed at this activity.

Pam Hook also has a free hexagon template generator that you can use to make your own labelled hexagons for a more guided approach.

Exploring the SOLO Taxonomy

Today I had the fantastic opportunity to explore the use of the SOLO taxonomy with Pam Hook. This is something I’ve been really interested in learning more about, ever since seeing it on Alice Leung’s blog.

For those (like me) who haven’t had much experience with SOLO, it stands for Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes. I would sum it up as a way of looking at student learning that is accounting for where their understanding at in terms of connecting ideas.

In a superficially similar way to Bloom’s taxonomy, SOLO is a sequence of five levels:

Prestructural – I don’t know anything about (X).
Unistructural – I have one idea about (X).
Multistructural – I have many ideas about (X) but they are unconnected.
Relational – I have many ideas about (X) and can make the connections between them.
Extended Abstract – I have many ideas about (X), can make detailed connections between them and extend it somewhere new or apply it to novel situations.

(I say superficially because there are fundamental differences between the underlying ideas behind and application of these two approaches, something which became increasingly apparent throughout the day.)

We can also think about it in terms of functioning knowledge (about how to do something), in which case it looks slightly different:

Prestructural – I need help to (X).
Unistructural – I can do (X) if I have lots of guidance and specific help.
Multistructural – I can do (X) by myself, but I don’t know the reasons why and I do make mistakes.
Relational – I can do (X) very well. I know the why and when of the steps. I can analyse the reason for my mistakes and self correct.
Extended Abstract – I can do (X) really, really well. I can take it in new directions. I seek critique and feedback to improve. Others can learn from me and I can teach others how to do it (act as a role model).

The idea behind this taxonomy is that you see the student’s work and rather than assessing it purely for correctness, you see how well the student can state and connect ideas about a topic. Can they only mention one thing about the topic? Can they state multiple facts but without understanding the links between them? Or do they have a deep, conceptual understanding of the topic, to the point of being able to effectively teach someone else? SOLO can help identify these levels.

Here are some of the things that really excite me about SOLO:

  • It’s a system that students can (and should) own. It doesn’t have to be purely a teacher-driven lens to examine students’ work. It will have its greatest power as an assessment-as-learning tool to help students identify a) where their learning is at and b) how to move their understanding to the next level.
  • It assesses where their understanding is at on that particular topic, rather than of the subject or semester as a whole. I see a lot of potential for it to help the students identify their specific strengths and weaknesses, allowing them (especially seniors) to target their revision and practice accordingly.
  • Everyone is prestructural about something at some point- regardless of our life experience or expertise. I may have two university degrees under my belt and have achieved the University Medal, but I’m certainly prestructural about how to hang a door! Everyone has to start out there, but the only way is up!

One fantastic SOLO strategy that I’m itching to try is the SOLO hexagons. A great way for students to bring in ideas about a topic, make connections and then explicitly articulate those connections.

So, I realise this is a lot of detail but I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to learn directly from someone who is apparently quite the guru – especially in a regional area. I really look forward to implementing some of these in my classroom and faculty.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It isn’t really something we celebrate in Australia (unless we have an American connection of some sort), but happy Thanksgiving for all my US friends and readers! My sister-in-law is from Phoenix and so in honour of her I made the pecan pie you can see above. Now admittedly my calendar has a mistake and so I baked it for *last* Thursday but never mind that!

Chemistry meets Cuisine: Molten Chocolate Cake and Heat Transfer

This past week in Science and Cooking has been about studying heat transfer. Why is it so difficult to cook a steak to the correct temperature? Why do you preheat the oven to 180C when the centre of the roast is only supposed to get to 65C?

We visited (as I found out afterwards) Newton’s Law of Cooling and used the concept of the random walk learnt in the Diffusion topic to describe how heat energy moves through food.

But the best part is that the lab for this week was to make molten chocolate cake! Now, of course we were *supposed* to be scientific about it, taking temperature and ‘done ness’ measurements and so on. Except, it’s late and I feel like dessert and oh well, I guess I better get onto the lab! So, onto the process.

The recipe is as follows.


120g dark chocolate chips
~8 Tbsp oil or butter (107g) (NB – this is the US tbsp measurement, not the Aus one! Go by mass)
120g sugar
5 large eggs (275g)
60g flour
0.5g salt (pinch)

1 pot + metal bowl or 1 microwave safe bowl
1 medium bowl (wet ingredients)
1 small bowl (dry ingredients)
1 scale
1 fork or whisk

Method – Batter

Melt chocolate chips and oil/butter.
Microwave method: measure out chocolate chips and oil/butter into microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high 1min, mix the chocolate and oil until uniform, and then set aside to cool a bit.

20131126-215201.jpgStove method #1: place chocolate and oil/butter in a small pot and heat on low, while stirring, until it melts.
Stove method #2: fill another pot with some water and bring to a boil, then place chocolate and oil/butter in a metal bowl over the pot. Stir chocolate as it melts.
Mix sugar and eggs together well in medium bowl, then slowly add in chocolate mixture.

Weigh out flour and salt into small bowl, then mix it into the wet ingredients.


20131126-215845.jpgCooking the cakes

1 baking dish
6 mugs OR aluminum foil & bottle ~2” (5cm) across
1 cutting board
1 ruler
1 knife
1 oven mitt or tongs
1 thermometer

If using foil cups: Make 6 foil cups for cakes by taking 2 layers of aluminum foil and molding it around the bottom of a bottle with straight sides. Coat the cups or mugs with some oil to prevent sticking.
Preheat oven to 350F (177C).
Place 6 foil cups or mugs in a baking dish and pour batter about 1” high in each cup. If it’s hard to pour from the large bowl, pour into a thin-lipped cup (measuring cup, drinking cup, etc) first, then transfer to foil ones.
Prepare the water bath by pouring boiling water around the cups until about 1/2″ deep, being careful not to splash any into the cups.

20131126-220530.jpgCook for 18-21 mins (NB – as part of the lab, we were to take one out at particular time intervals and cut them open to check them and carry out measurements. This is the ideal timing for a nice molten centre)

Here was the first sample/puddle/delicious first try:

20131126-220716.jpgHere it is still in the ramekin:

20131126-220934.jpgAnd here’s the glorious final result. Yum!


Can Student-Centred Learning and the HSC co-exist?

One of the mild frustrations that I’ve been feeling lately is the disparity between the way I *want* to teach and the way that the HSC and its timeline dictate. For those who may be from overseas, the Higher School Certificate (HSC) is the exams that students in NSW need to complete to finish their final year of high school. It isn’t mandatory for students to do it (they can leave school at 17 if they so choose) but if they want to complete Year 12 they have to do them. The lion’s share of students decide to push through it and graduate, going on to their life post-school, whether it involves university, TAFE or something else.

Now the problem I have is that I have been trained in (and have experienced the value of) a more student-centred teaching approach. I’ve been dipping the toe with the principles of Modeling Chemistry for the last few months and firmly believe that this sort of approach has massive value in developing students’ thinking.

However, the sheer amount of chemistry content in the HSC and the tight timeframe in which to teach it have made me resort to a far more teacher-centred teaching style than I would like. My Year 12 classroom at the moment feels very chalk-and-talk, and while it feels like it’s working to some degree, at the back of my mind I can’t shake the feeling that it’s pseudoteaching. Am I actually *teaching* anything? Are my notes from the board (which seem to be far too many) actually achieving anything? To further exacerbate this, a lot of the content that we cover goes well beyond the scope of the Modeling Chemistry course, so I don’t even really have a solid resource to fall back on for advice and strategies.

I want to go back to student-centred learning, but within the context of the HSC I just don’t know how. Am I doing the right thing by my students if I do? Or am I just making it worse? I realise that my title is rather facetious, as I’m sure they can and do – but I just don’t know what *I* should do. Any and all advice appreciated!