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Going SOLO – Part 2 : Hexagon Alley!

January 13, 2013

I don’t know how well my overall approach to SOLO is going to go — it’s still too early to tell — but what I can say after my first week trying to apply some of the ideas in my classroom is that hexagons are amazing. No argument, they make a profound difference to how I approach delivery, and more importantly, how learners engage with what they are doing. Read on to find out how my #pedagooresolution is going.

Before talking about my week, I do want to just take a second to reply to this tweet that I received:

TweetGrab

I will be honest that I make no claims to being expert in using it… or even, necessarily particularly competent. That will require time and repetition (and how often do we say that to our classes?), but the early signs are very encouraging. As I interpret it, SOLO is a means of giving learners the tools by which they can ask their own questions, and drive their own learning. If this sounds like the Holy Grail of education, then you already appreciate that the fundamentals of teaching learners how to actually learn is one of the most important skills they will need as they grow and develop.  As I mentioned in part one of these reflections, SOLO describes 5 stages in the development of understanding: Prestructural through to Extended Abstract. These recognise the 5 stages of learning from knowing nothing through to being able to taking knowledge and hypothesising or creating in an abstract way based on what has been learned. What follows is my somewhat enthusiastic approach this past week… I have made a couple of mistakes as I progressed, but my classes and I have learned a lot!

Hexagons

SOlo HexagonAs I was reading through the reflections of other teachers who use SOLO, I recognised a common technique that many use when teaching: hexagons. As best as I can tell, these originated with Damian Clark on his In Visible Learning blog, though I first encountered them from David Didau’s Learning Spy. In simple terms, they are a physical/concrete means of encouraging learners to move beyond Unistructural and Multistructural knowledge to Relational understanding. In other words, they are used to take statements of facts and basic knowledge of the text/topic/subject/theory/etc, and to ‘see’ the relationships between them. As I have found, they are an incredibly powerful enabler for most learners.

Using Hexagons – The methodology bit!

Screen Shot 2013-01-13 at 11.22.44I had started by giving the class a sheet of A4 with blank hexagons (click the picture to the right to download the pdf for yourself) and simply asked them to write down a fact about the text they had been studying. Then, once I had done a quick visual check that they had done this (“Class, hold up your sheets… er, David, you’ve gone over the lines… have a new sheet and try again!” {tip: have spare sheets!}) , I asked them to add another couple of facts. I then threw in a couple of single words (basically the theme[s] or some key concepts from the text) for them to write in a hexagon, then asked them to write 3 or 4 statements about the characters, and finally, to fill in the rest of the hexagons with interesting lines/quotations from the text. In doing so, they were essentially moving from Unistructural (knowing one thing) to Multistructural (knowing lots of things). Next came the scissors!

Paired Hex Working

Two of my learners sorting their hexagons based on Cathy MacPhail’s novel “Tribes”. They responded magnificently to the challenge and surprised themselves almost as much as they did me!

I provided a pile of scissors and asked the class to cut out the individual hexagons (Learning point: ask them to put their name/initials on the reverse of each hexagon! I found out the hard way). Once we had a delightful mess, I tasked them with putting the hexagons together, the only criteria being that they had to explain why they had them touching — in other words, what the relationship was between them.

What followed was absolute magic. The class grasped what they had to do, and became thoroughly engaged. My role changed in that, rather than directing them to ‘the’ answer, I became a challenge agent. I could see at a glance what they were trying to put together, and could simply ask them to justify their decisions. And what decisions they came up with! The simple act of moving pieces of paper around, but with a reason, became really involving. I was finding genuine engagement and genuine responses in a way that way surpassed my hopes for the lessons. Before long, every desk was a mosaic of hexagons and a lot of learners were very evidently beginning to grasp the key concepts and relationships in their texts.

The next step was to pair them up with their neighbour/shoulder partner, and to see if they could combine their hexagons into one bigger mosaic. Given that they had had to come up with their own initial hexagons, none of them had exactly the same things written on them. Suddenly, and quite unintentionally, I heard them explaining to each other why they had written what they had, and in a totally natural and organic way, they were merging their knowledge. They also began to ask for some blank hexagons so they could add more to their creations — for me, evidence that they were learning and looking for deeper answers.

The Penny Dropped

I tried using hexagonal learning with all my classes this week (no half measures here!), and want to recount two classes experiences in particular — both S2 classes (aged about 13).

I have a really interesting mixed class with a number of pupils who do not have English as a first language, some who have problems staying focussed, and others who quite wrongly do not believe they are capable of performing well. I always have another support teacher (Mrs Jackson) in the class, and because of this, while the majority of the class have been studying Cathy MacPhail’s novel Tribes, some of the class have been looking at The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore on my iPad. Despite having read two different texts in class, all the class were able to complete hexagons for their text. They were also able to add extra information, and more importantly, no matter which text it was, they were all demonstrating really deep learning as they justified the hexagons they placed together. Working with this class was genuinely infectious. They responded so magnificently that it was impossible not to be proud of them. This also converted wonderfully into some of the most focussed essay writing they have done for me. In addition, what struck me after the fact was that, for the first time, they weren’t asking me to check what they had written was OK every couple of sentences. I see this as a sign of the confidence they had developed through the exercise, and also a sign that, having moved from Uni/Multistructural knowledge of their texts to Relational understanding, they had the confidence to write without seeking constant reassurance from myself or Mrs Jackson. In fact, Mrs Jackson was positively raving about the difference in the learners… to the extent that she has been telling everyone she has met about this technique! And we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface.

BUT… I got cocky! I have another S2 class who are very, very able. And I blew it completely. Having had a week of thinking I was beginning to master hexagons and the theory of SOLO taxonomy, I tried to deliver a really ambitious lesson that I hadn’t had the time to think through properly. It crashed and burned big time! Ironically, one of the classes I thought this would work best with, I had the least success with… but on reflection, this was about me trying to run before I could walk. I had not thought through the lesson, and crucially, it wasn’t my lesson I was using. I’d found James Theobold’s brilliant Heston Blumethal approach to poetry on the Wildern School Improvement site, and — because I admire Heston Blumenthal, and know a wee bit about poetry — thought that would be a great lesson to try. I hadn’t thought through the importance of making sure my own knowledge was deep enough, and so because of that, and my over-confidence at having had such startling successes with my other classes, I expected magic to happen again, but instead, the class found it too difficult to make the relationships between poetry and Heston Blumenthal come to life. The whole exercise began to feel forced and very unnatural. Lesson learned. Stick to my own texts/knowledge/topics, or make sure I am thoroughly up to speed before using someone else’s materials.

Reflection

I’m becoming very convinced that SOLO taxonomy as an approach should be an essential part of any teacher’s skill-set/tool box. It is not the only answer, but it is an incredibly powerful part of the solution. I am aware that the use of hexagons to develop Relational understanding is only a part of the SOLO process, but even if some of my learners never become capable of moving to the next stage (though I expect they all will), they have almost all found a technique that empowered them to be able to talk about, and write about, texts in a way that even a week ago, I wouldn’t have believed. This is a technique that I will be using regularly  in the future. It works…

Next week

Having focussed on one particular technique, and one particular stage (Relational) of SOLO, I’m going to be looking at making sure my classes begin to feel comfortable with the whole process. This will mean giving them the full SOLO toolkit, and especially the verbs they will need to allow them to make their own decisions and to become even more independent in their learning. Exciting times!

SOLO-Diagram

NB: I am finding my way so it is essential for me (and anyone else learning about SOLO) that you should pass on any thoughts, hints & tips, and especially clarifications in the comments — Thanks!
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