Saturday, 10 May 2014

SOLO to open up closed questions

I've been dabbling with SOLO for a while now, it's been part of bits of my practice (see here, here and here) but I've yet to really embed it in all lessons as fully as I would have liked. I have used it as a problem solving tool, or to help structure revision, but not really deployed SOLO on a more day to day basis, and I want to change that.

I recently completed an interview for an Assistant Head position and as part of that was asked to teach a PSE lesson. This took me well out of my Maths comfort zone, so I had to give the planning deeper consideration than a maths lesson might have. After some thought I decided to introduce SOLO as part of the lesson, and it worked really well...

SOLO as a structure for discussion
I was teaching this PSE lesson to a group of year 7 students that I had never taught before and I knew that they had never seen SOLO before. As such a bit of my lesson needed to become an intro to SOLO. Fortunately the symbols are so intuitive that once I'd suggested that a single dot (Prestructural in SOLO terminology) meant you basically knew nothing about a topic, and a single bar (Unistructural) meant you knew something about it, the students were able to develop their own really good working definitions for Multistructural, Relational and Extended Abstract:

Once they had defined this hierarchy I could refer back to it at any point in the lesson and they knew what I was talking about. As such when I asked a question and the student responded with an answer I could categorise their response using the SOLO icons, such as "one bar," "three bar," "linked bar." If the student gave a "one bar" response I then asked them, or asked another student what was needed to make it a "three bar" response, and so on.

I was really pleased with how natural the discussion became, escalating up to really high level answers in a structured way. Similarly the students could use the same method with each other to improve their written answers through peer and self assessment. It even gives an easy way to open up a closed question question... For example:
T: "Name a famous leader"
P: "Nelson Mandela"
T: "What type of answer is that?"
P: "It's just a fact so it's got to be One bar"
T: "How could the answer be improved?"
P: "Give more facts about him, like that he led South Africa, or say why he was famous"
T: "Can you improve that further?"
P: "Maybe make links to other countries or compare him to other leaders"
T: "Fantastic, work on that with your partner..."

Rightly or wrongly I have a feeling that the opportunity for this type of discussion is much more common in a subject like PSE, and the SOLO linkage is much clearer as a result, however it got me thinking about how this approach could be used in the same way for Maths...

SOLO vs closed questions
A constant battle for maths teachers is the old "there is only one right answer in maths." Now of course that may be true in terms of a numerical value, but that ignores the process followed to achieve that answer, and often there are many mathematically correct processes that lead to the same final answer. In more open ended activities there may also be multiple numerical answers that are "right."

In maths we constantly battle to get students to write down more than their final answer and to show their full method. Following my experience of using SOLO for PSE I started thinking about how to use it to break down the closed answers we encounter in maths. As such I've put this together as a starting point...

The pupil response could be something that is seen written down in their working, or something that they say verbally during discussion. The possible teacher response gives a suggestion of how to encourage a higher quality of response to this and future answers. This could be part of a RAG123 type marking (see here for more info on RAG123), verbal feedback, or any other feedback process.

An alternative is to use it for peer/self assessment, again to encourage progress from closed, factual answers, to fuller, clearer answers:

 I realise I may be diluting or slightly misappropriating the SOLO symbols a little, e.g. is the top description above truly Extended Abstract or is it actually only Relational? In truth I don't think that distinction matters in this application - it's about enabling students to improve rather than assigning strict categories.

Proof in the pudding
The assessment ladder is part of a lesson plan for Tuesday, and I am going to try and use the pupil response grid throughout the week to help open up questions and encourage students to think more deeply about the answers - watch this space for updates.

As always - all thoughts & comments welcome.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Policies not straightjackets

I'm starting to lose track of the number of times I've heard or seen people say that they can't do or try something because it's out of line with their school or department policy. It really worries me when I hear that - it means they feel unable to innovate or experiment with something that could be an improvement.

Most often for me it's linked with RAG123, but I've seen it at other times in school, and all over the place on twitter too. It normally goes something like this:

  • Person A: "Why not try this (insert suggested alternative pedagogical approach here)?"
  • Person B: "That sounds great and I'd love to, but our policy for (same general area of pedagogy) means I can't try it."
Frustratingly this is usually where the discussion ends - the opportunity for person B to try something new that might improve their practice and improve outcomes for their students is squashed.

More specific examples I've actually seen/heard over the years include:
A: "For that lesson why not try using a big open ended question as your learning objective that all students work towards answering?"
B: "I can't because we're required to have 'must, should, could' learning objectives for all lessons"

A: "Could you re-arrange the tables in you room to help establish control with that difficult group? Perhaps break up the desks to break up the talking groups?"
B: "No because our department policy says we have to have the tables in groups to encourage group work."

A: "Why not try RAG123 marking?"
B: "I can't because our marking policy requires written formative comments only."

What are policies for anyway?
Policies should be there to provide a framework of good basic practice that all in a given organisation can use as a bare minimum to baseline their practice. However there is a difference between a framework to guide and a set of rules to be applied rigidly.

For example a policy that says that learning objectives must include suitable differentiation for the class being taught is substantially different to saying that all lessons are required to have Must, Should, Could learning objectives. One is  the essence of what we really want, the other is a single, rigid example of how this might be achieved. One allows the teacher to use their professional judgement to set objectives in a way that is appropriate for their relationship with that class and the material being taught; the other applies a blanket approach that assumes that every lesson by every teacher with every class is best set up in an identical fashion.

For me policies should set out a standard that is the bare minimum to ensure that the students get a good deal in that aspect. For example if a teacher is unsure of how often to mark their books the policy should clarify the minimum requirement, it should also detail what minimum information is needed in order for it to count as good marking.

However policies should never stifle innovation. Should never prevent the trial of something that could be even better. They also shouldn't dictate set structures that can't be deviated from under any circumstances - it should always be allowed to do it better than laid down in the policy!

Teachers as professionals should always have the option to deviate from the policy if it will produce better outcomes for their students in that particular situation (and if this becomes a consistent improvement then perhaps the policy should change to incorporate the deviation so that everyone benefits). However as professionals they should be both able and willing to justify a decision like this if questioned. Similarly if they have deviated from policy to try something that turns out to have not been so good then as professionals they should acknowledge this and return to the policy.

Consistency not uniformity
The bottom line is that policies should ensure a consistency in quality of experience, which mustn't be confused with a uniformity of experience. Quality in education is about high standards, high expectations and about professionals making informed decisions about how to get the best from the students in front of them. Quality is not about every teacher doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way, if it was we could record model lessons and just play them to students, or just learn scripts to follow.

Uniformity and rigidity isn't the answer to the multi-faceted challenge that teaching presents; we can't always assume that one size fits all. Therefore policies should never be straightjackets. Policies should be guidelines and bare minimums, with innovation and improvement specifically allowed and encouraged.

Comments always welcome - I'd be interested to know your thoughts. :-)