August 13, 2012

SOLO Taxonomy: giving students a sense of progress in learning

Without a sense of progress you cannot be creative, so what language can we offer students that enables them to take control of understanding where they are in their learning?

One key notion about creativity is that the ability to calculate progress is an important part of the creative process: knowing when something feels 'done'. Knowing when you're stuck, when you're done, when you're at the end of that chunk of learning is essential. It gives that indication that you need to go back out and get some more insights from someone or something.

Knowing where you are in your learning requires a language, a rubric of some sort, and one which fits the bill really well is John BiggsSOLO Taxonomy (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes). This is a thinking tool which I came across from Chris Harte in his Cramlington Learning Village days. Often, the language used to frame learning in the SOLO Taxonomy is used by the teacher to assess learners' progress, but far more powerful is when the learner him- or herself is encouraged to use the language as a self-assessment tool. Giving the rubric to the learner by making it clearly visible in every classroom increases their capacity to take ownership of their future direction of travel.

The SOLO Taxonomy is like a stepping stone progression through the perceived understanding of a given area. We use it in the ideation phase of our design thinking work to test how rich an idea might be, or whether more immersion in the topic needs done to add depth to it:

SOLO Taxonomy Stepping stones


The model provides five levels of understanding of a given topic or area of learning:

  • Pre-structural - The task is not attacked appropriately; the student hasn’t really understood the point and uses too simple a way of going about it. In languages, this feels like knowing odds and sods of language, but never being able to pull together a sentence for oneself. 
  • Uni-structural - The student's response only focuses on one relevant aspect. In a languages classroom this might be where a student can answer a specific question with a very specific answer, but can't go "off piste" linguistically.
  • Multi-structural - The student's response focuses on several relevant aspects but they are treated independently and additively. Assessment of this level is primarily quantitative. In a languages classroom you might see a student able to link together some obvious connections of language, but still unable to pull the conversation around to other related areas.
  • Relational - The different aspects have become integrated into a coherent whole. This level is what is normally meant by an adequate understanding of some topic. In a foreign language this might be the capacity to speak the language well enough to understand and be understood, but perhaps some of the cultural impact or context is still lost.
  • Extended abstract - The previous integrated whole may be conceptualised at a higher level of abstraction and generalised to a new topic or area. Here, in a foreign language, we can imagine both a linguistic competence but also the capacity to develop an understanding of how that language has impacted on its culture, on other cultures, on literature and so on.

Tait Coles describes how he put it into action with phenomenal results in his classroom, and David Didau builds on Tait's thinking and provides some resources to get you started:


Additional links (14/08/12):

Pam Hook, a New Zealand educator who has taken Biggs' thinking and created many of the graphical rubrics and other resources you'll see peppered around the web, provides a rich bank of practical advice and printables to get you started on her site. If you're starting a school year, her downloadable slideshares will help you help colleagues make sense of how this can change practice.

Have you been using the SOLO Taxonomy? Want to start this new school year? Let me know in the comments how it impacts the capacity of your students to take control of their own learning.


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We're going to pilot SOLO with some colleagues to attempt to improve the challenge of learners in our school. I have some truck with those who suggest that it might be superfluous - as in we can do that without SOLO. But this might be a useful way of thinking about our objectives, our questioning, and sharing with students their levels of understanding in different areas.

We have an Art teacher, a Maths teacher, a History teacher and a PE teacher ready to start, and I anticipate there being about a dozen of us.

I just have to plan a bit better how to start/ introduce it, but another blog gives good tips on that.

The book you reference has been discredited for falisified quotes. Perhaps this needs a rewrite?

Wow - thanks for the heads up. Found the story, from last week:

As my reedit will show, I still think this notion of needing to see progress is essential to being able to know if and when to stop on a creative problem, and seek more information or understanding. But as for the reference, consider it cut!

As an NQT I want to know why they didn't teach me this at uni, seems much more useful than some of the stuff they did teach me! I love this as a concept and I feel it really simplifies something which I often find difficult to articulate! I definitely want to display this on my classroom walls and refer to it with pupils. Great article.

Fantastic that you can put this to use this week! I'm also wondering, but can't believe enough time would have passed: did I teach you?! I'm thinking there can't be that many Jordan-Leigh Cunninghams in the world, AND in East Lothian! ;-)

Many New Zealand schools have been doing a great deal of work around SOLO. Our school has found working with Pam Hook over the last three years very useful. Pam has a website

You did indeedy until you left to do something fancy with computers (I think that was the story back then)... who knew you were such a high flyer in the world of education :) very inspiring :) love your articles and will definitely be recommending them to the other NQTs I know.

Jordan-Leigh - it's such a pleasure to see you coming into this profession! A real thrill. Do stay in touch with this first year, and if there's anything my colleagues or I can do to help out, just shout!

Wow - thanks for the great blog and very insightful indeed. Found this blog from last week:

Students teach each other and it is a brilliant way to learn as well. Explaining concepts to others does help in better understanding and retention of the concepts. Lots of different things can be done in classrooms. For instance, moving the students around, using interactive content, learning with games, etc. In short, it is more than using a PPT. Presentations make you sleep and maybe that’s the reason most of us should realize ‘learning is more than just listening’.

found this article, if you haven't seen it already was quite interesting. Definitely got me thinking about how to incorporate this with the pupils.

Haha, except I realise now that this is the site you linked to in the first place :P woops, this is what happens when you google and get over excited about solo taxonomy!

This is the more excellent post. It is helpful for me. Thank you so much for this post.

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Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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