Introducing SOLO and the Growth Mindset

The new school term started back today, and so I’ve decided to start implementing SOLO into my everyday practice. At the moment I feel rather unprepared for it all, so I suspect that I’ll just have to feel my way through for a time.

Over the next few days I will be introducing SOLO to my students in a more explicit sense, discussing the levels in the taxonomy and what each one represents with some scientific examples. I have an introductory PowerPoint based on one that Alice posted that I showed to my Year 10 class today and will roll out to the others over the next little while (I’ll endeavour to put it up if I get the chance).

Tomorrow I’m also going to start giving my students a survey to find out their attitudes about intelligence, effort and scientific ability. I plan on using this as a way to introduce the concept of the growth mindset, which I see is crucial to success using SOLO.

Watch this space!


Paging Dr You – Help with Haemochromatosis PBL task


For the past two years, when Year 10 has been studying an evolution and genetics unit, I’ve included a PBL-style mini-project/case study/medical mystery to learn more about genetic diseases and heredity. I also incorporated a QR code scavenger hunt for the students to gather clues! However, I want to implement it differently this year differently and would love some feedback on both the task itself and how I can do it as a deeper, more engaging PBL task.

It was inspired by a post from Terie Engelbrecht, which she wrote as a way to try and clue us into her way of writing a PBL activity. In the example she was describing, she used a case study from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science about maple syrup urine disease to try and get her students to be the doctor. I loved how she deliberately made it a messy and complicated exercise for her students to untangle, and I wanted (in my ambitious, first year teacher way) to create the same sort of challenge for my students.

However, given that maple syrup urine disease is much more uncommon in Australia, I decided to do it about haemochromatosis, the most common recessive genetic disease in Australia and one that runs in my family. Incidentally, I created this mini-project right around the time that my son was born (clever, huh?) when I apparently had some time on my hands! So I’ll outline how the task has gone in the past.

So I start out with an introductory video, a “Skype call” from the patient’s mother (actually my mum!), explaining some of the symptoms. We then move onto:

Each clue is collected as a QR code in a scavenger hunt (clues are here), which involves a whole heap of fun of them racing around the school collecting this information using an iPad. The first year I did it, it was tricky for the students to do with their school laptops. They had to try and take screenshots using their webcams and so on – lots of tricky logistical issues that led many to throw their hands up at one point or another. Last year, at school we had gotten a class set of iPads that the students could use which made it much easier. They could scan the QR codes, access the files and record their video response all on the one device. I look forward to doing the same again when I run it this year.

Some good points about this activity:

  • They were really engaged and enthused, especially by the scavenger hunt aspect (who wouldn’t love that?) and the use of the iPads was novel for them as well.
  • They enjoyed solving the mystery, trying to work out the clues for themselves and sorting the relevant from the irrelevant just like a real doctor would do.
  • It was also great to develop their literacy skills, encountering scientific and medical language they hadn’t seen before and had to decode to understand the symptoms.

However, there were a number of drawbacks:

  • The students who just like to be told the answer were frustrated by my refusal to just tell them what it was. I’m not suggesting to change this aspect at all – I like making them think for themselves and make the decisions for a change. They’re just going to have to get used to it!
  • Some students were inclined to give up when it became challenging, especially as I had them working in groups and so it became easier for some to just coast and let their group mates do the work for them. Not much that can be helped here, but perhaps I will enforce smaller groups this time around.
  • Because of the timing of this 10 week topic (coming after the assessment task 5 or 6 weeks in), it’s been difficult in the past to give this mini project the time that it needs. I’ve typically done it for about 1 or 2 weeks if I’m lucky, often at the end of the term when the students are over it anyway. It’s also tended to come AFTER a lot of the content that they might need and yet they haven’t really learnt a lot of science through the project. The scientific content is definitely the part that has been done the poorest, due to time constraints. Naturally this needs addressing!

What I really want to do is to turn this 1 or 2 week mini-project into a more substantial 4 or 5 week PBL task, where the task DRIVES the learning about genetics and heredity instead of capping it off. I want the solving of the mystery and formulation of a response to create a need for their learning in manageable chunks – what are genes, how are traits inherited, how do faulty genes pass from parents to children? The timing of the assessment task may mean that this doesn’t work, but I really want this task to give the students an authentic REASON to find out the content.

How can I do this? How can I restructure this task to drive the learning, rather than follow it? I really don’t know what I should do to change it and would love some feedback and advice.

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!