Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Going Solo in a Collaborative World

Yeah, I admit it: that was a catchy title to grab your attention! This is about my views on SOLO Taxonomy, my new role at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata, and what I hope to learn from this role. At the end of last year, I was appointed to a role supporting the implementation of SOLO Taxonomy into the teaching and learning in the College.


SOLO is an acronym for “Structure of Observed Laerning Outcomes”. In New Zealand, PamHook is the guru of implementation of SOLO Taxonomy into schools.

A SOLO HOTMap (graphic organiser).
To get full access to these, contact Pam Hook
At my last school, I was very fortunate to have been exposed to SOLO Taxonomy from Day One. Pam led Professional Learning during a Teacher-Only Day, and provided ongoing support. I was impressed with the common language (much like any other taxonomy that I had been exposed to beforehand) and the graphic organisers for helping students get started – you do need to sign up with Pam to get access to these. I thought the symbols were a bit abstract at first, but I now “get” them. I was overwhelmed by the rubrics, but saw the huge value in helping students be explicitly aware of what was required from them to have deeper knowledge and/or understanding.


As the “new kid on the block”, I was more than happy to adopt SOLO Taxonomy. This was what the school saw value in and I had applied for the job because I had the utmost respect for this school. Pam had made it very clear that you didn’t need to be an expert to try using it. She recommended starting something eay, like using SOLO verbs in our lesson Specific Learning Outcomes, first. As I was already in the habit of writing these on the board at the start of every lesson, this was a natural place to start.

I was also a strong believer in providing students with graphic organisers to help them get started with work, and to offer some guidance for how “deeply” they should aim to take the task. Therefore, I took it a step further than what Pam suggested and started using the graphic organisers as well. That meant I had, by default, created a requirement to give feedback in terms of the SOLO Taxonomy. The symbols and terms (prestructural, unistructural etc.) had to be adopted and visible in my classroom.

Communication with students and parents was needed to explain what these meant. I nailed the first part, but failed in the second. The school did a very good job at providing information for parents, so I presumed I just had to report progress in terms of SOLO. Not quite. More explicit explanation from me, the classroom teacher, was needed. The classroom time I invested into teaching the students about what SOLO meant for them and their learning did need to be replicated for their parents. I fell short on that front.

The next time Pam visited our school, I was asked to go to the TV Studio to be filmed talking about SOLO in my practice and in my specialist subject, Science. It was still early days for me, but a lot of this still holds true:

One of the key things I found with implementing SOLO Taxonomy was that it was being used across multiple Learning Areas, particularly Science, Mathematics, Social Sciences and Health/Physical Education. At Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata, this needs to be a consideration. However, as our teaching and learning is, by its very nature, going to be multi-discipline, this should not be difficult to implement, monitor and maintain.


In 2011, our Science Department had started to move from SOLO use only in class and homework tasks to being the way we would report student progress and achievement. We redesigned our assessments to include SOLO verbs, graphic organisers to help students plan and start their answers, and rubrics for marking and providing feedback for “next steps”.

By 2012, our Year 9 and 10 exams had strong SOLO elements in them, which correlated well with the work done in classrooms, and allowed students to express their thinking better. We kept things like multiple-choice, short answer and graphing in our tests and exams, as these could explicitly assess content knowledge and critical scientific skills. With the advantage of hindsight, I feel that we undervalued the SOLO-centred tasks, giving more relative weighting to the content knowledge in the exams. If I could do that again, I would not change the format of the tests and exams, but would place a lot more value on the tasks assessed using SOLO Taxonomy.

A Visual Rubric
SOURCE: http://pamhook.com/
One of the best things about the work in our department in 2012 was the use of visual rubrics. They made it much easier to make judgments about student work and provide quick feedback for the students’ “next steps”. As a department, we also put together more detail rubrics for marking. These were very similar to what we see NZQA produce for marking NCEA assessments. Students could be given either (or both) of these rubrics to help them understand the level of thinking they had communicated, and to see what would be needed to show deeper thinking in the future. I do not think I used the visual rubrics nearly as often as I should have, and will look into using them more in feedback and learning discussions in the future.

By 2013, SOLO Taxonomy was being used by me in all of my classes, not just in Years 9 and 10. I was so fluent in the use of SOLO with Years 9 and 10 that I wrote a reflection on why it worked so well for me and for my students. In Years 11-13, students were more interested in the NCEA Achievement grades. Therefore, SOLO was used for learning and feedback related to specific tasks, while the NCEA grades were used as judgments for assessed work, such as past exam questions or practice internal assessments. Most homework tasks were the latter, while most in-class tasks were the former.

2013 was the year that I was introduced to SOLO Hexagons. I saw these as a vehicle for making the learning more student-centred. I had already tried to make the learning more student-centred with my senior Chemistry classes in2013, with mixed success. It was an engaging way for students to learn and gave them ownership. It lacked a way to show the relationship between concepts. I felt that hexagons might be a way for students to visually and explicitly create those links. In 2014, I tried again, this time with hexagons in my kete. I do not think we fully exploited the potential of using the hexagons, but it was a start. I had a few ideas after reflecting on this second attempt.

In 2015 and 2016, some of those ideas had really come to fruition, particularly in Year 12 and Year 13 Organic Chemistry. We also used SOLO-driven tasks for the learning of Spectroscopy, and Atomic Structure and Periodicity. However, time pressures did limit the amount we could actually explore the concepts in class. Many of the gamification ideas were left with the students to take or leave. They proved useful revision tools in class. The “Hexagon Challenges” were something we only had time for once or twice within the unit. That was a shame, as I am interested to see whether this reinforcement would have a positive influence on the students making links between the key concepts.


I am excited about my role in implementing SOLO at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata in 2017. There are a few elements that really “float my boat” about this opportunity:
  • Cross-Curricular use of SOLO
  •  Supporting other staff
  •  “Leading from behind”
  •  Reflection

The very nature of how learning is structured at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata means that SOLO will be utilised across different Learning Areas. I envisage that we will need to find and/or develop tasks, rubrics etc. that measure student success in dispositions that transition different Learning Areas. Conversely, I expect that there will need to be success criteria specific to each Learning Area within each topic, or even within each task.

I see this as an excellent opportunity for me to learn about other learning areas while supporting other teachers’ needs in developing success criteria, tasks, rubrics etc. What will be measured? How will it be measured? How will this be reported? Each Learning Area has its only peculiarities. Which ones are critical in the success criteria for each task?

I see my role as one of supporting other staff to upskill in SOLO, while also looking at how SOLO might satisfy their needs or complement their current practice. From our time together in Term Four 2016, it is clear that we are not only a very collegial group, but we are well on the road to being a strongly collaborative team. This has made me think seriously about how I want to “lead” the implementation of SOLO in the College.

So often, when asked to “lead” something in the past, I have looked to drive it as an “expert”, taking others on a predetermined journey. From this point forwards, I found it easier to support individual needs. Interestingly, it was often how I taught my students as well… I expect that things will be much different in this role at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata. The idea of “Leading from Behind” is one that I really want to experience, and I hope that this role will be more in this mould.

At Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata, Learning Leaders are currently synonymous to Heads of Department at most other New Zealand Secondary Schools. Serving and supporting their needs is critical in leading the implementation of SOLO Taxonomy, in my opinion. Rather than directing Learning Leaders in how they should be incorporating and implementing SOLO, I expect that I will be doing a lot of listening and asking many questions. How can SOLO help with that problem? How can SOLO help measure that? How can SOLO support student learning in this? I wonder if I will need to be the point of contact for parents who need clarification of “this SOLO thing”. If I do a good job, I expect that this would not be the case in the future, though…

In my reflections of using SOLO Taxonomy in the past, one of the big questions was why it lost traction in the NCEA years with so many colleagues and with students. Was it just a change in focus, or was it less relevant beyond Year 10? Did we SOLO-assess too often? Were the correlations between SOLO (for learning) and NCEA grades (for assessment) not made clear enough?

If, despite a staff that are “sold” on SOLO, we see a similar lack of traction at my current school, it will be critical to ask why. I see this reflection (and the potential for teaching inquiry around this) to be the bases of this role if it continues beyond 2017, along with continued support for colleagues, particularly new staff. For now, though, let’s get started in leading the implementation of SOLO in a highly collaborative workplace. I am looking forward to a role in which I will learn a lot, while also getting to apply my experience to new challenges and opportunities.


  1. Interesting reflections Matt. My reflections on SOLO are from my own experiences at the “chalk-face” and are a little bit negative sorry. Although SOLO has the potential to help you develop an amazing learning atmosphere, I think it can’t be “half-baked” (and often is half-baked) and it needs to be done really well to get its intended results.

    I have heaps more thoughts on SOLO, but I felt they were a bit long for a comment, so have chucked them up on my blog. A first foray into the blogosphere…

    Good luck guiding SOLO in your new school.

    p.s. Thanks for inspiring me with your teaching 16 years (a long time) ago!

    1. Hi Matthew!!

      Wow, was it that long ago that I was lucky enough to teach you?! Great to see you are looking into sharing your experiences etc. via your blog. Tag me when you post something, so I can have a read. I am really looking forward to reading some more about your journey.

      I agree wholeheartedly that SOLO (or any taxonomy and/or assessment tool) cannot afford to be done half-baked. That is why my experience at my last school was so positive with SOLO (for Y9 & 10, anyway). It was "the way we did things". I cannot imagine any other way being successful.

    2. It was that long ago - we have been getting old! I wrote the code for my site myself, so not sure how to tag you yet. Something I might add in next holidays! I'm enjoying reading your blog, do you have any other NZ or science recommendations?

    3. There are a lot of very good education blogs. I find the best way to find gold is via Twitter, looking at the #edblogNZ tag

  2. A great reflection Matt and I feel I have an understanding of your SOLO journey thus far. I like your thoughts on leading from behind as this is a concept that resonates strongly with me and I like the idea of the 'guide on the side'. Excited to see how our SOLO journey goes and hope that we can keep traction in the senior school cos it just makes sense. So good to hear the learners using SOLO language and symbols already.