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The lesson

I first heard about SOLO in late 2012. Initially, with the new language of multi structural and extended abstract, it seemed overly complicated – why would I want to put my students through that, I thought. There was, however, something alluring about the simplicity of the structure. It appeared to make more sense than the derided cone of learning, and offered a more reasonable and transparent hierarchy than Bloom’s. Actually, it didn’t have to be hierarchical at all, which further appealed to my nascent everything we do is wrong thoughts. Stripped of its potentially esoteric language SOLO offered students a clearer way to see their next steps.

What I really liked, though, were the accompanying hexagons. Actually, it wasn’t the shape but the opportunities that these hexagons, laminated and chopped out, might provide: think of the links a student could make! It was like Tarsia on acid. No, better than that: Tarsia doubled with an exponential number of possibilities to demonstrate causation, prioritisation and counter-factual thinking. I printed hundreds in friendly pastel colours. My classroom looked like a a mid-90s hospital crèche badly in need of a lick of paint. I even – get this! – printed some hexagons with connectives and discourse markers already on them in smiley comic sans.

I soon found the Triptico Think Link website which allowed students to create virtual hexagons, saving me the chopping chore and engaging the students on the computer. This was a fantastic innovation! Students could create a board of hexagons which they were able to colour code and add notes to. There was also a very useful save function. Many told me they’d used it at home as a revision tool. Wow – I’d stumbled across the Holy Grail.

Tick, tick, tick, scratched the pen.

‘Give it a 1, inspector!’

And so the journey began. I let my students run wild with SOLO and had some success. Without ever having to explain the concept or the descriptors, which was a criticism that kept popping up online, students seemed to just get it. And they not only got it but their writing appeared to fly. Y8s who had always struggled to scale that 5b hurdle were now leaping over 7s and 8s. Or were they?

I worried that the success was shallow. Just as Bodil Isaksen wrote here, too many students followed the process exceptionally well without really either developing their historical knowledge or using very many details: SOLO provided a lot of direction but little foundation. They were jumping through the hoops but the hoops were the size of planets and so they couldn’t miss – the gravitational pull was too strong for even the weakest. So you can imagine my concern but also my delight, like finding the cat has vomited a £50 note. Thankfully I found that where others had worried before me deeper, three-dimensional SOLO charts were left: I was walking in the footsteps of giants.

Well-meaning, hard working teachers had created all sorts of diagrams and blogs about how to combat the potential pitfalls of SOLO. I read endless examples of how SOLO could be used in various subjects, for various tasks, for long-term planning and for short sequences. Videos, hot-maps and books abounded on the virtues of SOLO. I even ran some CPD on SOLO at school!

But, again, I worried.

  • If SOLO was simple why did it need so much rubric?
  • Was SOLO’s simplicity compromised by attempts to intellectualise it?
  • Were all these instructions complementary or competing with one another?
  • What about the associated resources – were others spending money on this stuff?
  • If SOLO was the answer what was the question, and why was it pregnant with so many questions of its own?
  • Was SOLO an answer at all?

Those who didn’t seem so keen on SOLO often had two main criticisms. The first was that the language was potentially confusing – why introduce a new hierarchy when the students could just get on with making links? In introducing both a new language and activity I’d be wasting precious lesson time. Well, fair enough, but I hadn’t had to waste much time and I also hadn’t really used the descriptors – they were clearly superfluous. The second criticism, however, was the one that really got me thinking: why use a new language (whether actually using the terminology or not) that is not domain specific?

Having recently rediscovered some of my PGCE notes at the same time as coming across Michael Fordham’s excellent blog, it was clear that SOLO disrupted the syntax of history: its language was too often at odds with the knowledge-rich curriculum I wanted my students to pursue. Yes, it might have provided a clear, though simplistic, structure for a causation-based essay but that’s Hoopla History (™): it’s knowledge that drives a subject, not systems.

The lesson learned

I asked a Y11 how she found the hexagons. Her reply? ‘I don’t think in hexagons.’ At the time this slightly annoyed me. It didn’t matter how many sides the shape had: SOLO was all about making multiple links between various pieces of information – it was, I thought, a tool for plasticising knowledge into something greater and more substantial.

But knowledge is the driver, the cargo, the road and the weather and as such cannot and should not be reduced to goods, handled by competing couriers and delivered at various tariffs. The languages of our subjects should not be ignored at the behest of a system which seeks to simplify and homogenise: by all means challenge approaches but do so within the confines of specific domains. Like the inset day where we’re all asked to brainstorm our ideas on giant sheets of sugar paper before the provider tells us what they think anyway, SOLO gets teachers thinking but unnecessarily.

It’s easy to criticise after the event, though. I can hear the cackling voices of the sceptics now, manically repeating we told you so, young French – we told you! But I’m actually glad that I went through the whole process because I’m now able to rationalise my objections. I know that David Didau went through a similar journey with SOLO and like him I also have quietly taken down my displays, hopefully so another young teacher doesn’t have to put them up in the first place.

For the record I don’t necessarily have anything against the hexagons, and the Triptico website has some fabulous resources. What is troubling, however, is that zeal with which I and many others approached SOLO as some kind of structrual saviour, gloriously guiding us up just five short steps before opening the six-sided gates of success. What does this say about us? What does it say about a profession which is so keen to find an easier way?

Everything we do isn’t wrong and I, of course, do not object to helping students follow a path. But that path is not generic and there isn’t a shortcut to be found. You can keep your magic beans, Jack – I’ll stick to my subject.