Going SOLO – An English teacher’s experience of using SOLO.

Going Solo…
Having been persuaded of the limitations of Bloom’s Taxonomy and introduced to the benefits of SOLO through an OTP course, I decided the only way to really find out was to experiment with it myself.  
My school is currently involved in a series of PLCs where, as teachers, we work in groups of three to focus on a particular area of improvement in our classrooms.  My group chose Progress and so this seemed like to perfect opportunity to bite the bullet and try out SOLO.
After a little research, I was particularly attracted to the SOLO hexagons and so I decided to base my lesson around these.  
I chose my top set Year 10s to `experiment on’ as they are always open to ideas and I knew I could be honest with them – I told them I was unsure if this lesson would work but I had decided to give it a go anyway!
Lesson one involved introducing the class to SOLO.  I relied upon YouTube and its explanation of SOLO through Lego as that is how I was first introduced to it.  It seemed to simplify, what appeared to me to be, a very complicated system.  They picked it up very quickly and remembered all the symbols and what they represented.  My first dip in the ocean of SOLO appeared to have gone well.
However, lesson two had the added pressure of two colleagues observing me.  I find this very unnerving at the best of times so with the added pressure of teaching the unfamiliar territory of SOLO I started to regret my decision to ‘Go SOLO’.  I needn’t have worried.   My pupils didn’t let me down and, even after several sleeps between lessons, they were STILL able to explain the SOLO symbols and their meanings as a starter.  
The next step involved pupils rating their knowledge of Curley’s Wife from Steinbeck’s `Of Mice and Men’, placing themselves in the corresponding SOLO stage: Prestructural, Unistructural, Multistuctural, Relational or Extended Abstract.  On the whole, most pupils placed themselves in Multistructural.  This was as I expected as we had already spent some time looking at the character of Curley’s Wife.  A particularly confident group, already thought they were Extended Abstract.  I made all this very visible for the pupils, me and my colleagues by having the pupils place their names on a post it sheet next to their chosen SOLO stage on the whiteboard at the front of the class.   
Pupils were then asked to work in groups to annotate the passages in which Curley’s Wife appeared – something they were already used to doing. They then had generate points about her character from the text and place them on the pre-prepared hexagons.  Was she a tart? Was she just an innocent girl? Was she misunderstood? These are all points which appeared on the cards.  Having spent a fair amount of time discussing her with the class I had never witnessed the quality of the level of thinking in which the pupils were now involved.  Even the quieter ones, who barely spoke let alone defended an idea, were arguing and debating points.  The hexagons really seemed to have given them a focus as they were discussing: which one was the best; were there better ones; did they need all of them?
Once this task was completed, they then had to construct an essay plan.  This involved linking and tessellating the hexagons in order to link their ideas about Curley’s Wife throughout the novel.  Having taught this essay several times previously, this concept was new to me as well.  I had always tackled her character chronologically rather than trying to focus on linking the presentation of the character.
At the end of the lesson, pupils then had to return to the post it sheets on the board and adjust their level of thinking.  All but one pupil moved up a level.  This was a particularly quiet boy, somewhat lacking in self-confidence.  The group who put themselves in the Extended Abstract also admitted they probably weren’t in that bracket initially but now felt they actually were.  On the surface, my first attempt at SOLO appeared to have been a success in both the pupils’ eyes and my colleagues’.  However, I had to reserve judgment until I actually read the final essays.  Having marked them, they were definitely different from any other essays I had read about Curley’s wife and perceptive and insightful links were evident throughout all the essays. Would they have produced the same level of work without the SOLO lesson?  I didn’t know and that was the flaw within my lesson.  I didn’t ACTUALLY know their level of knowledge – only what they thought they knew.  I had no real evidence to support this.
Undeterred, I decided to give SOLO another chance.  This time I used my Year 9 top set and I must be a glutton for punishment because I had my Head of Department and my Deputy Head observing me for my Performance Management.  Keeping to the basic structure from last lesson I knew I had to add another layer to the lesson.  I had to make sure that as well as the pupils’ own opinion I had to have evidence in the form of what we call a `Burger Paragraph’ which consisted of a Point, a Quote and an Explanation.  So, after the post it starter, I asked pupils to write their own paragraph about Curley this time.  They then levelled this using the NC ladders.  A controversial task I know but I wanted to really demonstrate progress.  Once they had done this they carried out all the same tasks as the previous class.  At the end of the lesson they then wrote another, paragraph which, once again, they levelled.  About 95% of the class received higher levels for their work.  
Finally, they were then asked to return to their post it sheets.  Once again all but one pupil felt they had increased at least one level of understanding.  Having read as many of the paragraphs as I could during the lesson, I felt I could legitimately judge that the SOLO aspect of the lesson had indeed been a success.  This was reinforced further when I marked their work after the lesson.  As an added bonus my Head of Department and Deputy Head also agreed.
So, although I still need to do some tweaking, I definitely see the value of SOLO and will be Going SOLO much more often in future.