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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How to Increase Leadership Impact on Teacher Observations

By Debra Masters & Peter DeWitt — March 01, 2015 4 min read
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Today’s blog is co-authored with Deb Masters and Peter DeWitt. Deb is the Director of Visible Learning Plus in Auckland, New Zealand.

Leaders have an enormous opportunity every day to make either a positive...or negative impact in a school building. Finding the right leaders is vital to improving student learning, but also to fight the negative rhetoric going on about schools by people who don’t spend nearly enough time in schools.

Teacher observation is one area for a leader that offers an opportunity to share their instructional wisdom, as well as learn a great deal about instruction from teachers and students. Unfortunately, many leaders take the path of least resistance in an observation.

Not true? Think about your own observations. Were they helpful? Did they offer the feedback you needed? Or did they just focus on how great you were and how well your students behaved?

Observations should be a time when leaders offer effective feedback to the best and worst teachers, and all the other ones in between. Outstanding teachers shouldn’t just get a pat on the back...they should be provided feedback on how they can keep improving.

That’s where SOLO Taxonomy can be helpful.

SOLO Taxonomy For Leaders?

SOLO Taxonomy was created by two Australian academics, John Biggs and Kevin Collis in the 70’s. You can read more here about SOLO here and here. According to the 2004 paper written by Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTle) team,

The SOLO Taxonomy was developed by analysing the structure of student responses to assessment tasks in response to given body of information or knowledge and identifying the type of thinking exhibited by extended written responses. SOLO has been applied in many different school subjects: poetry (Biggs & Collis, 1982), history (Biggs & Collis, 1982),mathematics (Collis & Romberg, 1992), geography (Courtney, 1986; Stimpson, 1989), science (Collis & Davey, 1986), economics (Pong, 1989), chemistry (Holbrook, 1989), computer studies (Ki, 1989), and assessing attitudes towards teenage pregnancy (Kryzanowski, 1988)."

So why not use it as a tool for school leadership?

If we are concerned that school leaders only provide surface level feedback to teachers in their instructional rounds, walkthroughs or post-observation meetings, wouldn’t it make sense to use a tool that would help school leaders and teachers get to a much deeper conversation?

Using the Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning team’s graphic, Figure 2 below represents the four levels of SOLO, which is an acronym for Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes.

The structure of the questions go from one single idea to an extended abstract. Another way to look at it is to consider that unistructural and multistructural is surface level processing and relational and extended abstract are deep level processing. Imagine if school leaders used the SOLO Taxonomy and surface and deep processing in their teacher and student conversations?

Clearly, this would be something that would be agreed upon between school leaders and teachers, and it would also be deeply explored in faculty meetings. We also know that in order for this to be used effectively, the school climate would have to be one that is based in trust and collegiality.

With all of that being said, conversations around learning could go more in depth than the typical observations or walkthroughs that stay in the “Land of Nice.” Instead of pomp and circumstance where an observation is about getting it done instead of getting it done right, leaders and teachers could actually focus on learning and effective feedback.

Teacher observations are supposed to be focused on student learning, but often they provide teachers with a pat on the back and opportunity for principals to cross a task off their list. That sounds much more critical that it is supposed to. Principals and teachers are working hard every single day, but observations are so caught up in “doing it right” instead of a professional conversation around learning...especially in states where teacher observation is tied to a point scale and high stakes testing.

The following table provides a start for leaders about how to think about their classroom observations from a SOLO taxonomy perspective. If you read the table and have more questions about the SOLO taxonomy and surface and deep learning then you can find more information on HookED website.

Using SOLO taxonomy for professional conversations could help ensure that the leaders and teachers stay focused on learning. Clearly, using a taxonomy would be difficult at first, but consider the work of Malcolm Gladwell where he writes about the idea that it takes10,000 hours to become better at a practice, or Blink where that practice becomes so engrained that it happens naturally.

If we are going to work harder at making observations, for both teachers and leaders, effective in order to grow professionally from year to year and go from good to great, using a taxonomy like SOLO may help everyone involved become more focused on that observations are one of the most important things that happen between a school leader and teacher. And that the feedback established between both parties can go both ways to help improve teaching and learning, but also leadership.

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* Cognition is the parent company of Visible Learning Plus. Peter DeWitt is a Visible Learning trainer.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.