Wednesday / July 24

Using the SOLO Taxonomy with Diverse Learners

Today’s classrooms are diverse. Learners arrive in our classrooms from all different walks of life and at different locations in their development and learning. As teachers, we strive to create and provide educational experiences where:

  1. all learners are active participants in their learning
  2. all learners are provided the support that offers them opportunities to be successful

These are the mindsets for meaningful, intentional inclusive practices. Through inclusive practices, we strive to identify what learners must know, understand, and be able to do as a result of these educational experiences, articulate clear learning intentions and success criteria, and provide the necessary and appropriate scaffolding so that each student can achieve the success criteria. So, how do we successfully provide an inclusive environment that actively engages learners from all different walks of life and at different locations in their developmental journey?

Successful inclusive practices are wholly dependent on the supports teachers can provide learners. Without a meaningful and intentional scaffold in place for moving each learner from facts (surface knowledge) to generalized and abstract knowledge (deep knowledge), educators risk missing opportunities to further a learner’s understanding, facilitate the making of connections with prior knowledge, and promote higher order thinking. This is the kind of deep understanding that we, as educators, want for each of our learners regardless of their racial or ethnic background, socioeconomic status, or ability status. We want to give learners access to information, experiences, and opportunities coupled with feedback and extension that allow for them to grow knowledge that they then own, manipulate, use in innumerable situations and contexts, and to which they can add more information, experiences, and opportunities.

However, this is easier said than done and leaves many teachers unsure about how to meet this challenge amidst the other demands of being a classroom teacher in the 21st Century. For example, some classroom teachers focus on student labels (i.e., poor, learning disabled, autistic, below grade level, etc.), unintentionally isolating learners from this access to information, experiences, and opportunities in the classroom based on preconceived notions about what the learner can and cannot do. Low expectations. Yes! This is detrimental to student learning.

The solution is to shift our focus from categorizing, classifying, or labeling learners based on demographic, background, and disability characteristics, and, instead, focus on the structure of their observed learning outcomes: the nature of their thinking. We make this shift using the SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982).

The SOLO Taxonomy, short for the structure of observed learning outcomes, zeros in on the strengths of the learner by providing a framework for understanding the nature of his or her thinking about a particular concept or idea (e.g., addition and subtraction of fractions, writing a persuasive essay, photosynthesis, or eminent domain). Put differently, the SOLO Taxonomy provides teachers with a framework for classifying student thinking in terms of quantity and quality, not in terms of overgeneralized characteristics associated with a student’s eligibility criteria (e.g., what they can or can’t do because of, say, a diagnosed learning disability).

Using the visual representation shown in Figure 1, let’s briefly walk through the progression of thinking in the SOLO Taxonomy from left to right. For a particular concept or idea, learners may have no prior knowledge or experience with the information and thus have no relevant structure to their thinking (the dot). Learners may focus on irrelevant ideas or avoid engaging in the content, requiring the teacher to support the learner in acquiring and building background knowledge. As the learners progress in their thinking, they may have single ideas or components about the concept, represented by the single rectangle. Through additional educational experiences, learners then begin to acquire multiple ideas (three rectangles), identify relationships between these ideas (three connected rectangles), and then generalize or transfer learning to different contexts (three connected rectangles with the extension) (Hook & Mills, 2011; 2012; Martin, 2012).

Figure 1

Figure 1. Visual representation of the structure of observed learning outcomes, or SOLO Taxonomy. SOLO symbols © Pam Hook, Hook Education Ltd. Reproduced with permission.

Assessing prior knowledge and level of thinking depends on the student’s responses to classroom strategies or activities. The goal, of course, is to use this understanding of student thinking to design educational experiences that give them access to developmentally appropriate information, experiences, and opportunities coupled with effective feedback and extension that allow for them to grow knowledge that they then own, manipulate, use in innumerable situations and contexts, and to which they can add more information, experiences, and opportunities. Developmentally appropriate, in this case, means teaching one step beyond the learners’ current level of thinking, also known as the “plus one rule” (Biggs and Collis, 1982).

As a word of caution, the representation of the SOLO Taxonomy is linear. However, the progression is cyclic. For example, learners may be engaged in a learning experience focusing on identifying relationships among ideas (three connected rectangles), when the teacher notices a gap in learners’ background knowledge. Thus, it is necessary, and developmentally appropriate, for the teacher to circle back and support the learners as they fill this gap (single rectangle). A lack of background knowledge does not exclude a student from engaging in relational learning. It just requires additional support from the classroom teacher and fellow classmates (Biggs & Collis, 1982; Martin, 2012).

The SOLO taxonomy provides this scaffolding for teachers in a meaningful way. The possibilities of grouping based on the nature of learners’ thinking rather than on “ability” provide teachers flexibility to facilitate the development of new knowledge amongst leaners. Learners experience natural ways to extend their understanding through intentional opportunities to connect new information with prior understanding regardless of how simple or complex.

For diverse learners, this can mean entrée, and thus inclusion, into the classroom learning environment. Shifting the lens from what a learner can or cannot do to the place on the SOLO Taxonomy where that child’s prior experiences and opportunities provide groundwork for moving into increasingly complex understanding demands that educators see strengths and potential in each learner. It allows for each learner to also serve as a teacher to others as they are all acquiring and attaching new information to existing knowledge.

Most importantly, the taxonomy prepares teachers for collecting meaningful assessment data and using that data to inform their instructional plans. Using standardized assessments to determine grouping or scaffolding learners will not work with this model. Formative and authentic assessments allow teachers to ask the most important, and often absent, “so what?” question about what learners know and are able to do. For instance, when a learner demonstrates a relational understanding of volume, we cannot assume that means the student possesses a relational understanding of decimals. This learner is obviously proficient at math as evidenced by her understanding of volume. Right? Maybe. But maybe not. Therefore, assessing a learner’s prior knowledge and level of thinking for each new chunk of content (objectives) drives instruction. With meaningful data in hand, teachers are armed to guide their learners to a complex and abstract knowledge.

For learners with differing abilities, this is essential. Learners come into learning opportunities with an assumption of strength as the teacher assesses for prior knowledge and nature of their thinking rather than assuming this level of readiness based on prior experiences with the learner or on the learner’s eligibility for special education services. This strengths-based approach to learner outcomes envelopes learners of differing abilities because differences in prior knowledge and nature of thinking are assumed within the model.


Biggs, J. B., & Collis, K. F. (1982). Evaluating the quality of learning: The SOLO taxonomy

            (structure of observed learning outcome). New York, NY: Academic Press.

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2012). SOLO taxonomy: A guide for schools. Book 2. United Kingdom:

Essential Resources Educational Publishers Limited.

Hook, P. & Mills, J. (2011). SOLO taxonomy: A guide for schools. Book 1. United Kingdom:

Essential Resources Educational Publishers Limited.

Martin, S. (2012). Using SOLO as a framework for teaching. United Kingdom: Essential

Resources Educational Publishers Limited.

Written by

Dr. John Almarode, an educator and staff developer for many years, has worked with all age groups in education from pre-kindergartners to graduate students. As a staff developer, John has presented locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. He has worked with thousands of teachers, dozens of school districts and multiple organizations such as the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools, International Schools Group, Council for Exceptional Children, The Division for Early Childhood, P. Buckley Moss Foundation, the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, and most recently the Leadership and Learning Center. John’s action-packed workshops offer participants ready-to-use strategies and the brain rules that make them work. He has authored several publications on brain-based learning, including Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12, and has recently published a children’s book to help educators inform students about their amazing brains.

Jen Newton is an assistant professor at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Newton’s research interests include early childhood inclusion and inclusive teacher preparation. She regularly presents locally, regionally, and nationally on a range of inclusive educational topics. Dr. Newton earned her doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas and spent four years as an assistant professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., preparing inclusive educators before moving to St. Louis with her husband and their three children. Follow her on Twitter @jenrnewton for a few insights about inclusion, higher education, politics, and social justice.

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