Formative assessment with hexagons

Formative assessment is something I’ve been putting a lot more emphasis on over the past few years. I’m so sick of just relying of end-of-topic exams to gauge what students have learnt. I want my students to continuously question how they are going and make changes to their learning accordingly. This is one of the reasons that my faculty has embarked on a Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) journey this year. One of the ways that many teachers using SOLO use to assess student learning is with SOLO hexagons.

SOLO hexagons involves the major concepts or ideas from a topic to be placed individually onto hexagons. Students then work individually or in groups to connect the hexagon concepts together and they must justify why they have made these connections. It is the justification where both the teacher and the student can assess the student’s learning. It is how students have connected the hexagons and their justification of WHY they have done it that way that allows their learning and thinking to then be assessed using the SOLO taxonomy (or not; the hexagon activity still works with no understanding of SOLO).

Here’s a video showing one way of using the SOLO hexagons in a UK science class.

Here’s an explanation of how to use SOLO hexagons from the SOLO guru, Pam Hooke.

I changed the hexagon activity slightly to suit the needs of my students. The picture shows the instructions that my students received.

instructions for hexagon activity

And here are the hexagons my students used (note that the hexagons were pre-cut for students and placed into zip lock bags with the above instruction card). My students worked in groups of 2 to 4. I used the SOLO hexagon generator to create the hexagons.

Here’s some samples of the hexagons my students made.




Some things I noticed was that:

  • My students were all fantastic at explaining each hexagon concept
  • Some groups connected all the nervous system concepts and the endocrine system concepts together, showing they had an understanding that the nervous system and endocrine system worked together. However all the groups had the immune system concepts separate altogether. I did spend a lot of class time making it explicit that the nervous system and the endocrine system work together to control and coordinate the body. And while the students’ project was to make a fact sheet about how a particular disease/health issue affected the nervous system and the endocrine system, they seem to think that the immune system works on its own and is completely separate from the other systems.

From this activity we discussed their SOLO levels of understanding and how they can use their hexagon connections to see whether they were at a unistructural level, multistructural level, relational level or extended abstract level. Most students concluded they were at a relational level for most concepts and some thought they were extended abstract for some parts of the topic.

The SOLO hexagon activity is definitely something I will use again with my students. Now that they have done it once, the next time will run even better. Feedback from students was that they enjoyed talking about science with each other and that they learnt a lot from each other just by listening to what others had to say about each concept.


My 4 goals for 2014

an image of two people drawing targets

In New South Wales, Australia, the 2014 school year is just about to start so I thought I’d share with you my 4 professional goals for 2014.

Goal #1 – Keeping science real

2013 was the year where I started the journey of connecting my students with current, practising Australian scientists. This was a response to our students’ survey responses that they did not know many careers or jobs that science can lead them to. They also did not know what scientists actually do. Many students have accountants, tradespeople, bankers, etc within their families or family friends but students often do not have exposure to scientists in their everyday lives (ask a student to name a scientist and they’ll still tell you Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; they rarely name a living scientist). We wanted to make science real in the sense that we can put real people’s faces to what the students learn in the classroom. So in 2013 our school connected with Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools, where we are now partnered with scientist Melina Georgousakis. Melina has already spoken to our Year 8s and 9s on her journey to becoming a scientist, what she does in her job and explained how the immune system and vaccinations work (that’s her area of expertise). In our end-of-topic survey, a lot of our year 9s listed Melina’s visit as the best activity of the topic. In their words the best part of the topic was “when the lady came in to talk about vaccines”. In 2014 we have plans for our Year 12 Biology students to work with Melina when they explore the immune system more deeply.

2014 will also be the year where I want to utilise social media and technology to connect students with scientists, not just in Australia but from around the world. In 2013 social media led me to connect with a postgraduate student called Ash from the University of Technology, Sydney, where he came to the school and spoke to Year 8s about his work with sharks (Year 8s were learning about the role of sharks in the ecosystem and how removing sharks as apex predators impact on the ecosystem). We also connected with Dr Mel Thompson from Deakin University and Dr Karl via Skype. In 2014 I am hoping to expand to using Twitter to connect with my students with scientists. I want to create a class Twitter account for my students and connect with scientists on Twitter. There’s so many of them such as @realscientists and Dr Cameron Webb.

Goal #2 – Embed science communication into my teaching

I was very privileged to be involved in the UTS Summer School this year where I worked with Christy, a former Questacon presenter (a science communicator who does science shows for children). She re-emphasised to me the importance of designing learning that drives students’ curiosity and create learning experiences that are memorable. One of my biggest gripes with science education is that it uses flash-bang experiments inappropriately. You hear lots of students say they just want to do pracs. You hear a lot of teachers say that all students want to do are pracs. A lot of the times I think showy experiments are wasted at school as they only serve as entertainment. Christy re-emphasised to me that showy experiments need to be set up in a way that drives students to want to know the science WHY something has happened and the journey to understanding they experience must be memorable. This can mean turning explanations into stories, plays, musical items.

One of the ideas I have this year is to have a science communication project where students work in small groups and become science communicators themselves where they design and perform an act that explains a scientific concept. If I could I’d like to make this a cross-curricular project with Drama.

Goal #3 – Making learning, thinking and understanding visible

This year is where our faculty applies the Structured Observed Learning Framework (SOLO) for all students in Year 9. We have used this year’s implementation of the new syllabus for the Australian Curriculum as a drive for this change. See this previous post for more details. The challenge (not so much a goal) will be to evaluate the impact on student learning.

Goal #4 – A better work/life balance

Over the last few years I realise that looking after yourself is a one of the most important jobs for teachers. After reading this post on 10 tips for slowing down, I really want to make sure that my entire faculty’s wellbeing is well looked after this year. I tend to be someone who doesn’t know when to stop. I feel guilty when I’m not doing work related to school. When I’m relaxing it feels like I’m doing some kind of injustice to my students’ education. I love my job but I’m no use to my students if I burn out. From the post on 10 tips for slowing down, I want to make these changes:

  • Allocate time to opening and closing meetings

Schools are such busy places that many teachers schedule meetings right on bell times so that we are rushing from one place to another. This year I want meetings where people are now running from their classrooms, crashing down and then expected to immediately adjust their mindframes. I’m hoping that simple things like having meetings start 5-10 minutes after the bell will avoid that rush feeling that make people stress.

  • Make time to eat

Eating recess and lunch is my other goal for wellbeing this year. While this seems self-explanatory, I know many teachers don’t eat, or sit down, or even visit the bathroom during school hours because there’s just so much to do. I’m not sure how successful I’ll be at this but this year I want to reduce the number of times where I eat my sandwich while driving home.

Learning about SOLO – using self regulation and feedback to increase student achievement

This year my faculty have been designing units of work for the new NSW science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum with the Structured Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) framework.(If you don’t know what SOLO is, watch this video for a crash course) The reason why we are investing quite heavily into SOLO is because as teachers, we know that self-regulation and quality feedback are the two of the most effective elements in increasing student achievement. SOLO, with its associated learning intentions and success criteria, will allow our faculty to develop our students’ self regulation skills and further improve the quality of teacher feedback and peer feedback.

For most of the year, we have been designing learning with the SOLO framework so that each series of lessons have learning intentions and success criteria catergorised  by the different SOLO levels of thinking and understanding. A couple of weeks ago, we went a step further. The whole faculty sat down and designed an agreed approach to how we will use these learning intentions and success criteria. As a team, we decided learning intentions, success criteria and SOLO were examples of best practice, but we need to ensure that it filters down to every individual student. We agreed that learning intentions, success criteria and SOLO must be high visible and evident in everyday teacher practice for it to have maximum impact on student achievement.

As a team we decided on the following for communicating learning intentions and success criteria to students:

  • At the start of a topic, students are given a list of the learning intentions and success criteria for the whole topic so they know where they are headed before they start learning about the topic.
  • Each lesson will have the specific learning intentions and success criteria displayed. This can be written on the board, or displayed via a data projector or interactive whiteboard.
  • The teacher will explain the learning intentions and success criteria to students at the start of the lesson.
  • At the last 10 minutes of the lesson, students are to reflect on whether they have achieved the success criteria for the lesson and what they need to do next to be successful.

As a team we also agreed that we need to teach students about SOLO. We have designed different activities for students to learn about SOLO. Here’s one of the activities

As a team we also agreed to providing student feedback using the SOLO framework.

What we hope to see are:

  • Students and teachers using a common language to discuss levels of thinking and understanding
  • Students and teachers using SOLO as a way to see current levels of thinking and learning and where that thinking and learning needs to head
  • More students moving from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Many students have a mindset that they are “not good” at science. We want our students to realise that to be good at science, there needs to be a certain level of thinking and learning that can be achieved with effort, as opposed to natural abilities. It’s part of making learning and thinking visible.

Our faculty has also devised a draft plan to evaluate the impact of SOLO on students’ achievements and mindsets, with help from a university academic. So watch this space for more updates on our SOLO journey.


School holidays – the perfect time to learn from other schools

“I don’t know why you would even think about going near any school while you’re on holidays”

This is what one teacher said to me when I told them that I was going to spend half a day visiting a school during the school holidays. At the moment it is the Term 3 school holidays in New South Wales, Australia. For me teaching isn’t something I can switch off. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my down time and I think this down time is important for all teachers’ wellbeing. But I personally like to take advantage of the school holidays and use the time to visit schools that are outside the NSW public education system. Especially schools that are drastically different to the one I currently teach in because what I’ve learnt is that almost every school faces a similar set of challenges whether it is student engagement, student wellbeing or finding ways to develop students higher-order thinking. I find that when I visit schools that have different circumstances than my own, I am exposed to different solutions that I can adapt to my own school and my own classes.

Over the past two years I have been able to visit schools outside of New South Wales and outside of Australia, and they have been some of the best professional learning I have ever had. While some of these visits were done during term time, most visits were done during school holidays. Here are some of the schools I’ve visited and what I’ve learnt from them.

During my time with Microsoft’s Partners in Learning team in 2012, I was able to travel to Auckland, New Zealand and visit Ferguson Intermediate School and Howick College. These two schools kick-started my journey and my faculty’s journey into using the Structured Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) framework, learning intentions and success criteria to design learning for the new science syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. Howick College is also where I saw the fantastic Julia Breen and got ideas from her on how to use green screens in student-produced videos.

I took a week of without pay from school in December 2012 and travelled to London and visited ACS International School, Egham. I ‘met’ the Principal of ACS International School, Egham online via LinkedIn and he was kind enough to take time out to show me his school for half a day. I was also privileged enough to speak to their Head of Science and observed a part of a middle school science lesson. During this visit I learnt more about the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program and how technology was integrated into the school’s middle years science program.

Just last week I was able to visit two schools in Canberra – Brindabella Christian College and Dickson College. I was able to further connect with two passionate educators who are part of my online professional learning network on Twitter, Melanie Spencer and Betty Chau. From these schools I took away ideas for learning space design, how to drive change and how to further develop the digital leaders team at my own school.

Visiting other schools is one of the best professional learning that I undertake. If you’re a teacher and you have some spare time in the school holidays, ask another school if you can visit them and then return the favour to them 🙂

Incidentally I am planning to travel to Tokyo, Japan in the April school holidays in 2014. Would love any suggestions of schools in Tokyo that I can visit.

SOLO and 21st century learning

So it has been about a week after #sologlobalchat, a TweetMeet (an online conversation on Twitter) that involved teachers from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. If you don’t know what SOLO is watch this video and read this.

From #sologlobalchat we created an Edmodo group to continue our conversations and collaboration. On that Edmodo group I shared an assessment that a colleague and I worked on for a unit of work based on SOLO.

For Part 2 we came up with some questions that will guide students’ evaluation of an existing public health campaign. When I uploaded it onto Edmodo, a teacher called Craig Perry from Christchurch, New Zealand, modified the part into a SOLO exploded map. Not only is the exploded map more visually appealing than a bunch of questions typed up on a sheet (which is essentially what I had at the start), but the exploded map also classifies each question into a SOLO level. (Note that Craig and I have never met. This once again shows how generous the teaching profession is.)

The exploded map demonstrates one of the main reasons why I love SOLO. SOLO lets teachers take a step back and analyse whether they are helping students develop higher order thinking skills. When we talk about 21st learning, we often criticise how traditional school tasks can be completed by students using Google. Using SOLO can help teachers overcome this. If a task only requires students to work the unistructural, multistructural and sometimes even the relational level, can be completed by Google. For something that is non-Googlable, it needs to be extended abstract.

How many of the tasks your students do are non-Googlable? Perhaps SOLO can help 🙂

Lessons from #sologlobalchat

I became interested in structured observed learning outcomes (SOLO) late last year when I was contemplating how to approach learning design in the midst of implementing the new NSW syllabus for the Australian Curriculum. I want to lead my team in using this opportunity to do something that will shift the way our students learn. I don’t want to take the shortcut of cutting and pasting existing units of work and making it fit to the new syllabus.

I have always known about SOLO from my work with the Essential Secondary Science Assessment and the National Assessment Program for Science Literacy, but until last year I didn’t make the shift from using SOLO to assess student learning to using SOLO to design learning. So when I began exploring using the hashtag #SOLO on Twitter, I found quite a few teachers in New Zealand and the UK who are much ahead of me in their SOLO journey. From there I met Andy Knill. I have never met Andy in real life, nor have I even spoken to him via Skype or anything. My only interactions with Andy are from tweets and sharing ideas on a Google Document. But from using only Twitter and a Google Document, we organised the tweetup, #sologlobalchat where educators from Australia, New Zealand and the UK shared and learnt from each other in everything related to SOLO from what is SOLO to how can we drive authentic change on a whole school level. Click here for an archive of #sologlobalchat.

Helping Andy co-host #sologlobalchat (Yes, Andy did do most of the work. Hat tip to Andy) has made me realise 2 things:

(1)    Teachers are a generous and dedicated bunch of people – #sologlobalchat was held at 11am on a Saturday in the UK, 8pm on the Australian east coast and 10pm in New Zealand. I was tweeting from an iPad on a Saturday night. Andy was tweeting from a mobile device in his car and it was bed time in New Zealand.  I don’t think there are many professions that will be holding a virtual meeting in such circumstances. Also, not many of us knew who each other was until we got onto #sologlobalchat. Yet we were ready to hand over our ideas and resources to almost complete strangers. This is one of the best things I love about teaching and teachers. We are happy to share anything at anytime to anyone because it makes learning better for our students.

(2)    Learning anywhere anytime – The massive increase in technology in our lives have always been discussed in the context of student learning. How can we flip learning for students? How can students use mobile phones to learn? How can learning be transformed in a 1:1 device program? However, the impact of technology isn’t just limited to students. Technology has also transformed the way teachers learn and collaborate. #sologlobalchat used technology to connect teachers from 3 countries in different timezones to synchronously share their expertise with each other. Professional learning for teachers is now breaking through the walls of schools. Teachers are no longer having conversations with teachers in their own staffroom or school only; we now also have conversations across the globe. Sharing of resources is no longer confined to photocopying a sheet and placing it on someone’s desk; resources are now uploaded online for anyone to download.

All teachers can greatly benefit from using online professional learning networks to improve their practice. And teachers are a generous bunch. We will share anything with anyone because we want to improve all students’ learning. So if you are not part of an online professional learning network (PLN), join one. If you haven’t participated in a Twitter chat or Tweetmeet, just lurk around one and have a look if it’s for you. If you are doing all of these things, tap on the shoulder of a teacher who haven’t yet discovered this and show them how the benefits of an online PLN. The more teachers we have collaborating and sharing online, the better the learning will be for our students.

Note – #sologlobalchat now has an Edmodo to share. Click here to submit a request to join the group.

Andy Knill has also compiled a list of teachers who participated in sologlobalchat

Leading learning design with SOLO

A photo of resources for designing learning for new syllabus

I led my science faculty in using structured observed learning outcomes (SOLO) to design learning for the new NSW science syllabus over the past two days. Like all other NSW schools, we are spending this year preparing for the implementation of new syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum. As a faculty we felt that this was a great opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of our current teaching and learning practices. We are using the new syllabus as a driver of change in teaching and learning.

We decided to use SOLO as the framework to design learning for the new syllabus. Why did we choose SOLO? One of the main reasons is that the Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA) uses SOLO to assess students’ understanding. ESSA is a state-wide science assessment that is completed by all Year 8 students from NSW government schools. An analysis of the trend data shows we needed to work on moving students from being able to recall scientific information to making relationships with this information and then applying this information to real world situations. Another reason why we chose to use SOLO is because it makes learning visible to students and teachers when it is accompanied by learning intentions and success criteria. Learning intentions and success criteria help students focus on the purpose of learning activities rather than just merely completing work. They also help enhance students’ self regulation.

So the two days played out like this:

(1)    Getting everyone on the same page

We started the two days by analysing where our students currently are and where we want to move our students in their learning and achievements. Why SOLO was explored. We used a KWHLAQ table to do this.

 (2)    Drawing out main concepts from the syllabus

We decided to program a unit on human health and diseases first. We familiarised ourselves with the relevant sections of the syllabus and brainstormed all the concepts, ideas and facts that students needed to understand. Individually we wrote each concept, idea and fact onto post-it notes and stuck them on the whiteboard. As a team we sorted the post-it notes into logical categories.

 (3)    Classifying into SOLO categories

We then classified each concept, idea and fact into SOLO categories. We decided to have 3 SOLO categories:

  • Level 1 – unistructural and multistructural
  • Level 2 – relational
  • Level 3 – extended abstract


 (4)    Assigning SOLO verbs

We assigned SOLO verbs for each concept, idea and fact.

Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
Extended abstract
Follow a simple procedure
Compare and contrast
Explain causes
Form an analogy

 (5)    Creating learning intentions and success criteria

We created learning intentions and success criteria based on the verbs for each category.

 (6)    Teaching and learning activities

We split up into three teams to design teaching and learning activities that will allow students to meet the success criteria.

We also designed an assessment task gives students an authentic context to learn this unit.

What next?

We are still in the progress of completing the unit and I will share it once it is completed. Meanwhile some of our next steps will also include

  • using SOLO for feedback and feedforward
  • working with our school’s PDHPE faculty to see whether we can make this into a cross-curricular unit and assessment

It will be great to get some feedback on how we are going so far in using SOLO to design learning.