Benjamin Bloom, Surface learning, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam are joined by Craig Parkinson, a Maths — No Problem! Trainer, to discuss SOLO Taxonomy. What does SOLO stand for? Clue: It’s not Chewbacca’s best friend! Plus, how many theorists were mentioned? Were you counting?
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
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Welcome back to another School of School podcast. It delights me that we've got another really special guest with us today, Craig Parkinson. I know Craig personally, I've worked with him, but for those of you out there who don't know Craig, Craig, can you introduce yourself? Can you just tell us a little bit about what you get up to?
Of course, so I'm a Maths — No Problem!! Trainer. I've been involved in delivering Maths — No Problem!! For, I think it's six years now. I wear several hats. So I started life academically and professionally as a maths teacher in a secondary school. And I love to have an impact with pupil. So having an impact with adults is just the same, I really enjoy that. I wear the another hat, which is looking at visible learning, which is the work of Professor John Hattie, looking at what things make the biggest difference to pupil learning. So I've been a consultant and trainer for 11 years there. And, I also operate as a Gallup coach looking at Clifton strengths, helping people to see what's right about themselves rather than fixing what's wrong with themselves. So they're the three main parts to who I am professionally.
I want to pick up if possible on one area that I know that you do a lot of work in and that's the work that's associated with John Hattie. I always get like a little sense of pride there cause he's New Zealander, isn't he?
Solo taxonomy the visible learning. Can you, can you explain because I pretend to know what I'm talking about. I don't. So can you explain to us and the listeners a little bit more about that?
Yes, certainly. I mean, if we start with Solo Taxonomy, which I think many people know in teaching that there are many light bulb moments that pupils have, but as teachers, we have them professionally as well. And it was the biggest light bulb moment for me because I'd grown up as a late entrant teacher with blooms Taxonomy and the big pyramid sort of overshadowing everything that we have, with the hierarchy in blooms Taxonomy. And then through the work with Professor Hattie and Visible Learning, I saw that there was another thing that you could speak about with Taxonomy and that was Solo. And the more I looked into this, the more I realised that quite often, we looked through the wrong end of the telescope, I think in education. Blooms looks at teacher inputs whereas Solo looks at what the learners are doing and producing, and hence why Solo stands for the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes.
So Solo really is pupil focused and everything that I've ever wanted to do in education has been about what the pupils do, not what the teachers do. I'm sort of mantra man. I love this idea of pupils learn when they learn, not necessarily when we teach. So I think that shining the lens on what happens at the pupils' interface with learning is more important than looking at what we're doing.
It seems remarkable, doesn't it that we have to say these things out loud. I remember discussions that were happening a few years ago where people were talking about exactly that, focusing on learning. Well, what do children go to school for? They don't go to school to listen to the teacher, do they? But it's remarkable about how often we hear in education, where perhaps that focus is skewed and it is about what the teacher's doing versus what the outcomes are. I want to hear more though.
Yeah. It's another lovely phrase. I've got thousands of these, because it's self-evident doesn't mean that it's self activating. So there are many things that we have to be really explicit about to get the greatest learning gains that we possibly can. I don't like this idea of accidental excellence. I like to pursue intentional excellence and focusing on what the pupils are doing in having a language through which can talk about where pupils at, in terms of their learning is far more important I think for teachers who want to have high impact than looking at what it is that the teachers are doing.
So yeah, Solo for me, a huge light bulb. And I've trained quite a few thousands of teachers, and Solo seems to be the thing that makes lots of them go, "we really should have known this, but we didn't because Blooms cast such a long shadow over everything else sometimes."
So Craig coming from the parents' perspective, having no prior knowledge on this subject, could you share with me and our listeners, the stages of learning using Solo Taxonomy?
So I'd speak to you as the parent and say, let's assume that you're at your start of your learning journey with regards to Solo Taxonomy. At the moment, you know nothing about Solo Taxonomy, so that's your starting point. You have no knowledge. It's what is being called the pre-structural phase of learning. So there's no structure there. The first thing that happens when you start learning about something is you get some knowledge. So you get to the uni-structural phase where you know something, you know one thing, you know what Solo the acronym stands for, or you've been told what it stands for. Just cause I've told you doesn't mean that you know it yet. It was sort of proposed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis in 1982. So when I give you knowledge about Solo, you start building up these little bits of pub quiz trivia about the subject.
So that's what we call surface learning, where you look at the quantity of things that you know. And then we move on to the deeper parts of learning, which is how well you know it. So when we move from knowing things, can you answer questions on what Solo is through to, can you compare and contrast Solo with Bloom's Taxonomy? Can you compare and contrast how to talk about a triangle with how to talk about a circle? When you talk about those things, you're at the relational part. And then if I should start going to the create part, which, it's not the end point, because Solo is about learning cycles. When you get to the create part, you'll then start saying, so what hypotheses do I have at this moment in time? What things am I thinking about? What am I curious about?
And when we look at learning, there's two phases to it in a way. Well, simplistically, there's the building knowledge, and then there's making meaning of the knowledge that you've got. So that's sort of, the 101. What's changing as you navigate through the Taxonomy's complexity changes? There's a difference between easy and hard, because some people can naturally remember a lot of things. So it's not hard for them, but to make connections between things is harder for them. So complexity comes as the structure, your schema gets bigger and bigger.
So with maths, we'd talk about Richard Skemp's idea of developing schema. You've got a core component and then the bits that go around it, and then how they link with other parts of knowledge that you've got. So complexity comes from having more things to think about. If I give you three bits of knowledge and say, compare and contrast them, which is the odd one out? That's the easier task.
Odd one out, I'd say, Andy.
Hey, come on now.
And, but then we'd go to, okay, I'm going to give you seven things to think about. Which is the odd one out and why? And it's harder to find consistency and closure about those seven things than it is about the three things. And for me, it fits so beautifully into mathematics. Cause with George Pólya's idea of it's much better to find five ways to solve one problem than to solve five problems one way, that moves into the how well do you know things, as opposed to how many strategies do you know? It's how you can adapt them.
What's always interesting to me is how all these different learning theories actually mesh together. And we often talk about them as if they're entirely separate different things, but whether you look at the work at Skemp or Pólya or any of the theorists and educational psychologists. They all kind of mesh together. And I think sometimes what's confusing is they find different vocabulary for explaining the same phenomena, so it can be confusing. I think it can be confusing to newly qualified teachers, or teachers that don't delve into the theory too much. It can also be confusing to parents and other people because sometimes they seem like they conflict, but there's actually very little conflict between what all these different people are saying. Like, again, we can separate Bloom's Taxonomy from Solo Taxonomy and say, "wow, they're different" but are we just looking for differences as opposed to looking for similarities when we do that? Are they more similar than they are different or are they more different than they are similar, I guess is my question?
Yeah. And I suppose what you have to do is look at... You're absolutely right when you look at Piaget and the inactive, et cetera, that's the fundamental building block. And then people take that and they make versions of the way that they see learning occurring. Or in the case of Blooms, it was about teaching. It was presupposed that if you ask questions at a certain level, you get responses at a certain answer, which is definitely not the case. You've also got with Blooms this idea of the original notion of mastery was that 90% of the class have to score 90% or more on a test based on knowledge before they can advance to the next step. Whereas with Solo, you just say that you go from no idea to one idea to then having many ideas to use the visible learning parlance.
And you don't wait until you've got all the ideas, which is what Blooms suggests. You just then say, do you have enough to be able to compare and contrast, to look for similarities and differences? You don't need to have all the knowledge before you move on to the next stage. You need to have enough knowledge or what we call sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deep. So I think that it's not an interpretation of how the Taxonomies are, it's down to the sort of methodology associated with it. So when Blooms came out, it was, you don't move on the next phase until you've mastered that phase. Which then caused great gaps in learning in outcomes between low and high attaining learners.
What do you think, Adam? You look a bit sort of miffed or stunned.
You know when you have those moments. And your brain just goes. It's going about 8 million miles an hour at the moment because here's my, is it a worry? I don't know. I'll describe it, and you decide, you categorise it. Look like you're saying about we have these different theorists and when we read them and actually dedicate some time to the theorists and principles, and we can give it enough time that we can understand. And any sort of support reading or associated reading that we have with it, helps us to digest and understand this and the impact, well for anyone that works in education should be that we are better prepared to support children to better outcomes, right? If we're working in education, that should be the number one thing that we have to keep in mind.
So if we know that the research that's been done, the principles and the theories can lend themselves to us being better teachers to support learners better. I'm thinking, first of all, how do we package that to people who are coming into the profession or people who are longer in the tooth and have been working in the profession or associated with the profession for some time? So we are able to get the best outcomes. Or is it simply a case of that we need to just dedicate more time learning about these things. And as part of our professional integrity, that should be something that is ring fenced. And I just wonder if that happens, because if I thought right, now this might be luxury, this might be dreamland or whatever else. But there's a directed time to read theorists who have been long enough in the game and still not been dismissed.
There's probably a worth to their work. Or their work's been cited somewhere and we can read it. And I just wonder, is that the key? Because there's a lot of good stuff out there that's going to help our children. But like Andy was saying, if I look at say Blooms, and I have that comparison model, if I just say, "oh, I think one's better than the other", cause I don't know enough about it. Well then there you go, I've lost a trick that maybe could help the children. And I'm trying to work out, how does all of this fantastic information disseminate to a point where it's actually helping a child in someone's class tomorrow?
Yeah. I think waving a magic wand, you'd hope that the profession has sufficient reading time to be able to find out what's best to do next. I like the idea that in the Singaporean schools that teachers are freed up in the afternoon to do some elements of research and to look at impact and to evaluate the impact that they've had. Whereas some countries just fill the entire school day with delivery, but with no space to reflect. And John Dewey's idea of we don't learn from experience, we just learn from reflecting on experience. I think it's a critical one for us to do as the profession.
So I'd be wanting to encourage, especially new teachers come in. And I was keynote in a term early career framework conference recently, and as I just said, if you don't make time for it, now, if you wait until you have time to do this later, you'll never have time. It's like wanting to go to the gym. If you go to the gym, when you've got time to go, you never have time. You have to make time for it. So I think there's an element of professional sacrifice that we have to make sometimes. But also to find good mentors who can help us to distil the information that we don't have time to read, just to say, these are the things on option. Here's one option. Here are several options. This is where I go through the Taxonomy. So I've got one idea, I've got several ideas now, and then I want to be critical and to appraise them against each other, to put some into practise and then to come back and say, "okay, on balance, this is what I need to do next to have greater impact."
Yeah, I suppose the more you know, the better decisions you can make as a teacher, right? So it really comes down to when you teach a lesson to a class and there's a whole class teaching going on, you have to do, what's going to work in a whole class environment. So you have to consider the fact that there are going to be different children who have maybe different levels of understanding, they're on different parts of the journey, some of them may struggle with language for example. There's all kinds of barriers that you need to consider when you teach a whole class. But then of course, when you get to the point of assessment, as a teacher, you have to be able to very quickly assess and say, "Hmm, okay. The evidence that I see is leading me to believe that this is where you are. And based on that, I'm going to make some decisions maybe for tomorrow or for the next lesson or whatever it is." Right?
That's where the knowledge becomes really important. Because otherwise, you're left to really crude decision making. So you're like, "well, you got the answer wrong therefore you don't know anything. Therefore, I have to teach you again." Right. Might be the most simplistic. And unfortunately, probably a lot of teachers operate on that level. At least in certain topics. Mathematics is obviously the one that we always end up talking about, but in mathematics, that's easy because either the answer's right or wrong. Right. So if it's like, "you got the wrong answer," we don't diagnose why you got the wrong answer and then try to figure out where you're at. Maybe because we don't have the tools, right. Or we don't have the understanding of what might be the root cause of what's just happened. And then we just get into this kind of binary mode. You don't know it, therefore I need to reteach you or whatever. Right. I don't know. It's important.
Yeah. And I can agree with much of what you're saying there. I think when you view, and many people do view mathematics, as, it's right or it's wrong, if you take the idea of the answer's 32, how many questions can you give us that gets 32? And can you rank them in order of complexity? I think that's a different way to think mathematically. As opposed to doing maths. So when you have people who just self diagnose and say, "I can't do maths, cause I can't get the answer", what you might say to them, "Of these three strategies that you could use to get to that answer, how are they different from each other and how are they the same?" And I think that's another part of mathematics that maybe isn't explicit on the curriculum, but real high quality teachers spontaneously draw that out of their pupils.
But herein lies the problem. And I know we've got minutes left, but I think when Andy was talking, I think there's two paths, right? When we're learning something, I think there's two paths. We either think that we've learned it and therefore we stop because there's no more learning to do, right. "I've got this teaching game boxed off on how to do it now. So we're good." That's one way of looking at it. But the other one is, "I now know that there's actually a huge amount more that I don't know. And I've just realised that."
And I think that things like what you've just said, Craig, if it is one of those and it's a right and wrong, you got two options, right? You can either reframe it and learn how to do that, because you realise, "I don't know how to help this child", or you say, "I'll just do it in exactly the same way, and I'll keep doing that for 20 years". Anyway, I think that therein lies the problem, those two paths. Are people self aware enough to know that there's a lot more to learn? Or do they think they've got it boxed off. Worrying, if that's the case.
Okay. So to add to Adam's comments, let's say a teacher takes the time and puts this into practise with their students and students are using these tools and they're engaged and they're learning. But then they move into the next year and surprise surprise, different teacher, who's still teaching their same old, same old 20 year method. So what's going to happen?
Think at the simplest level, I call it the Triple A model. If we can empower pupils with three A's. One is articulation. That's an ability to be able to speak about how they are as learners and how they learn. Second one is to do with action to make sure that they act in line with what they say they're going to do. Walk the walk and talk the talk. And the third A's awareness, which is, are pupils aware of themselves? Because it's okay having these things on the wall that say, great pupil does this, are you aware yourself of what you're doing? And I think if we can get those things instilled alongside what it is we're teaching curricularly, then pupils, irrespective what teacher they have in front of them, they have that greater level of agency and autonomy. Which means that "I know how to work and adapt my learning with this teacher in front of me."
Wow. I really feel like there is just so much still to unpack on this topic.
Yeah. We're definitely going to come back and talk about this again. I think it's a quite fascinating topic. Yeah. All right. Well, thanks for joining everyone.
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