So here starteth the mystery...
Tait Coles and I were conversing about the SOLO taxonomy on twitter when I sent him an article by David Leat and Adam Nichols on the use of mysteries to concretely demonstrate learner understanding. Now Tait and I both have a passion for student learning and an equal passion for our own learning so the possibility of collaborating on a blog post was too great to miss out. Small problem; I live in Melbourne, Australia and Tait lives in Bradford, England. 10,000 miles apart, a 10 hour time difference, what a pickle. Luckily, being resilient and resourceful learners, we put a collaborative Google Drive folder together and started writing together. So welcome to the fruits of our labour, well at least the first part... In true collaborative style, the first part of this post can be found here and the second, well you’ll have to read the rest of this post to find the link to part two! (Or you could just scroll down, but what would be the fun in that?)
There is a powerful renaissance in the use of the SOLO Taxonomy, at least amongst those teachers who publicly discuss their work through blogs and social media, but SOLO is nothing new. First postulated in 1982 (BIGGS J and COLLIS K (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy New York: Academic Press), SOLO, in its initial iteration, was intended to be used as an assessment tool to look at the complexity of an answer measured against prestructural, unistructural, multistructural and extended abstract criteria.
In the current work of Pam Hook, Darren Mead et al, the focus is moving beyond SOLO as a teacher assessment tool and a move to develop its use as learner tool; a roadmap of learning for learners to support their progression in depth of understanding. To this end, practitioners are sharing the language of SOLO with learners and working with verbs and question stems which both describe the SOLO stages but also empower learners to move from one stage to the next.
In this post, we would like to share an activity that was made popular in early 2000s through the KS3 New Curriculum and the focus on developing “thinking skills” (with many examples being published in the Chris Kington Series of “Thinking Through...” books) ; the “mystery”. In particular, we wish to further explore the use of SOLO as a tool with which we can look at the depth of understanding students demonstrate in this activity and strategies for moving them on.
The “Mystery” is, on the surface, a simple activity where students in groups or teams of 3-4 are given a number of cards with information on them and a question to answer. Some of the information is crucial and highly relevant to the question whereas some of the information may have a less obvious connection to the question and indeed there may be some red herrings.
Students then work in groups with the cards going through stages identified by Leat and Nichols (David Leat & Adam Nichols (2000): Brains on the Table: Diagnostic and formative assessment through observation, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 7:1, 103-121). This work, aptly called “brains on the table” allows teachers and learners to see a physical representation of their thinking. At this point, it is very easy to use the SOLO taxonomy to make qualitative judgements on the thinking of the students. Leat and Nichols explain how, in their observations of students working on a mystery, they were able to clearly see different stages in the process of interacting with the cards which it is possible to relate to the stages of the SOLO taxonomy. ”As we watched pupils sorting data physically on table tops it began to dawn on us that the manipulation process was a window on cognitive process and as such a potentially powerful diagnostic tool” (Leat & Nichols, Scaffolding Children’s Thinking - doing Vygotsky in the classroom with National Curriculum assessment)
This video shows a group of Y11 Australian (i.e. Y12 UK) mathematicians tackling a mystery where they were given information about ccordinates, derivatives at x values, descriptions of the graph and descriptions of the derivative and second derivative on pieces of card and asked to draw the graph. This activity was put together by my awesome colleague Kimberly McGillivray (@kimberlyannmac). You can download the activity here- Download Mysteries - Graphing V2.
So how do the different stages observed by Leat and Nichols map to the SOLO Taxonomy, bearing in mind that the first three stages in SOLO relate to the quantity (or lack of) understanding and the latter two relate to the quality of understanding?
Prestructural and the Mystery “What the hell do you want us to do?” stage
When first confronted with an activity of this type, students may well find it difficult to engage with the cards, in fact they can’t see the wood for the trees and, as Leat and Nichols point out; “Those groups which, if left unaided, can make no sense of the mystery data in relation to the question could be considered to be showing a prestructural response.”
Unistructural and the Mystery “display” stage
When students understand that each card may or may not have information which is relevant to answering the question, they start to spread them out and display them, looking at each card as a unistructural piece of information. As Leat and Nichols say “Student responses use one piece of relevant data in a descriptive mode without a conclusion related to the data. The unistructural responses can be matched to the display stage, where data items, individually, are being tested for relevance.”
Multistructural and the Mystery “setting” stage
At the setting stage students are unaware of any relative significance or connection between any piece of information in relation to others. However, they are able to “set” or group the cards in an organised manner so that the data are in sets on the basis of what the students believe to be common characteristics or broad thematic themes. These sets could be grouped on the basis of ‘reasons for and against’, ‘useful and reject pile’ or grouped in overarching themes. Leat and Nichol describe this stage as where “On the tables, these sets are arranged as clusters, columns and blocks...The basic process being demonstrated is analysis, founded on the ability to classify.”
With the uni and multi structural levels of the SOLO taxonomy, the focus is specifically on the quantity of information learned as opposed to the quality of learning so, at this crucial point in the post, take a deep breath, grab another cuppa and click here to read SOLO Mysteries Part Deux -