Tag Archives: SOLO taxonomy

The Knowledge

“So, you’re wanting to be a London cabbie, then? Hope you’re prepared to put in all the hard work it takes to do the job? All the study?” asked the slightly gruff, porcine man.

“Er, yes. I’ve just got the Blue Book, and I’ve started trying to learn the roads and runs and that…” replied the enthusiastic young man.

“The what? Oh, yeh, you won’t be needing that. The Blue Book, I mean. We don’t really use that anymore for studying to be a cabbie.”

“You don’t… I mean, I don’t need the Blue Book? But it’s got all the runs and routes in it? The ones I… I mean, I thought the Blue Book was the main source of, you know… The Knowledge.”

The gruff man snorted. “‘The Knowledge’? Yeh, we don’t call it that anymore.”

The young man knotted his brow. “Huh? What do you mean? Why don’t you…?”

“Yeh, we don’t call it The Knowledge anymore. I mean knowledge is important, of course. But the people at Transport for London realised that it was more important to have higher order skills. They decided that we need cabbies who can analyse the routes, evaluate them and create new runs. No good just knowing the runs. Here, it’s all based on this.” The gruff man pointed to a poster on his wall:

bloom

“See?” he continued. “These things are much more important than the knowledge itself, so we focus on those instead.”

“Oh, right.” said the young man, perplexed. ” So how would I go about learning the… erm…”

“We now call it The Skills. As I say, The Knowledge isn’t really a thing anymore.”

“Right. So… how would I go about learning, The, er, Skills? I mean, I suppose I still need to learn the routes and runs first, right? I’d have to know that stuff first, wouldn’t I?”

“Hey, I’m not saying knowledge isn’t important. We all know it’s the foundation on which the higher order skills are built. We’re not that stupid.”

“Okay. I was a little worried then that I wouldn’t get the chance to do  The Knowledge…”

“We don’t call it that…”

“Yeh, of course. I mean, I was worried I wouldn’t get to learn all the routes and runs. My old man was a cabbie and he prided himself on learning The Kno… on knowing his way around London. I’d like to follow in his footsteps. So how do I go about learning the runs? What sort of time frame are we talking about?”

“I tell you what: you take your Blue Book out into the lobby and sit and read it for a bit. When you’ve got an idea of some of the runs, we’ll get you started on The Skills; the higher order stuff. I’m going for a coffee and a fag. Shall we say half an hour?”

“Half an hour?” The young man’s mouth hung open for a few seconds, before he snapped it shut and composed himself. “Doesn’t it take years to really know this stuff? I thought you said knowledge is the foundation…”

“Oh, it is. It is. We’d be stupid if we said it wasn’t. But it’s also really important to make sure that you are able to do the higher order stuff too. You go and get some of your knowledge and then when I’m back, we’ll sort out your tickets for your trip to Mumbai. I take it you are available to fly this week?”

“Yes, I’m… wait… what? Fly…? Mumbai…? This week…?”

“Yeh. Mumbai’s the best place, usually. But if you’d rather do Shanghai, we can…”

“Why would I need to go to Mumbai?” The young man was utterly perplexed. “I want to be a cabbie in London. I want to… I want to…”

“You need to do a placement overseas in order to learn The Skills. You’ll basically need to apply your knowledge to the streets of Mumbai. You’ll go there and learn how to evaluate and analyse and to be creative. Then you can come back to London and apply those skills so you can drive around better. Honestly, you’ll like Mumbai. Or Shanghai. Whichever you choose. I mean, if either of those are really a problem for you, I suppose we could send you to New York…”

“I don’t have a problem with those places… I mean, I do have a problem with them in that they aren’t London! It’s not the places themselves. I just want to be cabbie in London so I need to learn about London streets! Why would I…?”

“The Skills, son. You’ll need to learn The Skills. As I said before, you’ll need to learn how to create new routes. You’ll need to learn how to evaluate which route to take in rush hour or where to divert if there’s been an accident. You’ll need to analyse traffic reports in order to ensure you have all the details. Those things are really important. Higher order, innit?”

“But won’t it be better if I just learn The Knowledge…”

“We don’t use that…” the gruff man insisted.

“If I just learned… The Knowledge,” the young man darted a forceful look at his interlocutor as he mouthed the words, “I could just apply that knowledge to what I needed to do. The Knowledge would ensure that I’d know what routes to take at certain times. The Knowledge would mean that analysis and evaluation and creation would be more-or-less automatic: I’d be able to make quick decisions of analysis and evaluation and change my route using the knowledge I’d have of the runs. I’d be able to create new runs without really thinking too hard. Why do I need to learn these skills in a different place and then try and apply those skills to the place where I actually need to use them? It doesn’t make sense. I understand that creativity and evaluation and analysis are important to a cabbie, but these are things that just spring forth from a sound understanding of The Knowledge. I don’t need to learn creativity as a discrete skill. It’s nonsense.” The young man sunk back into his seat.

“Right. I see.” The gruff man looked thoughtful, but not entirely dejected. Then he smiled, and spoke again. “You have a problem with the Bloom’s taxonomy approach to cabbie training? I understand that. It’s not the way you like to learn things. You don’t think you need to learn creativity. That’s okay.”

The young man looked on, breathless. The gruff man continued. “There is another approach to cabbie training we could use. You’ll like this one.”

He pointed to another poster, this time on the adjoining wall.

“Now, at the moment, you are at the SOLO Prestructural stage. But what if we got you thinking about driving a cab in an Extended Abstract way….”

Towards a confusion of tongues (why a common language isn’t always helpful)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the Elder – The Tower of Babel (1563)

There sometimes exists in schools a cognitive dissonance that appears to hold these three theories as truth:

  1. Learning other languages is beneficial to pupils.
  2. Developing a wide English vocabulary is beneficial to pupils.
  3. Creating a common language across subjects is beneficial to pupils.

The reason I think this represents cognitive dissonance is because the third theory seems to want to reduce the language pupils use in school, whereas the first two seek to increase it.

It would be very hard to argue against the first two ideas. Learning a second language (or more) has obvious benefits in terms of communication in an increasingly global community, but there have also been neurological benefits identified too. And the importance of developing a wide vocabulary within English is uncontested (unless we count some pupils’ protestations: “I know all the English I need. I speak it already. This is pointless.”)

Despite this understanding that increasing the language of our pupils is a good thing, the idea does seem to exist, if not pervade, that we should create or rely on a reduced, common language to use across the various subject domains.

Most recently with the removal of National Curriculum levels, I have seen numerous people suggest that the levels and language of SOLO taxonomy could be a suitable replacement. This was notable during last Thursday’s #UKEdChat.

This is quite bizarre: one of the complaints about NC levels was that they were vague. I find it odd that some feel that moving to an even more equivocal set of levels and descriptors is the answer. Like Bloom’s taxonomy, SOLO uses descriptors which are open to a wide range of interpretations, even within a single subject area.

And this is the other problem with assuming that a common language is helpful to pupils: words have different (usually polysemous, but sometimes homonymous) meanings in different contexts. Surely when words can shift in meaning depending on context, the language is no longer a common one? As each subject area presents a different context, the ‘common language’ gets taken in different directions by its different speakers. It’s analogous to the dialects of England and America and George Bernard Shaw’s observation that the two countries are “separated by a common language”: both England and America use the same words, they just don’t always mean the same thing.

But we don’t have to look at different dialects to see how meaning shifts. Standard English is a minefield of ambiguity. For example, the word ‘bank’ has a number of meanings. Ignoring the many definitions of the verb form, here are just a few definitions of the word as a noun (but by no means all of them):

  1. A financial establishment
  2. A stock of something available for use when required
  3. A receptacle where something may be deposited for recycling: ‘a bottle bank’
  4. The land alongside or sloping down to a river or a lake
  5. A set of similar things, especially electrical devices: ‘a bank of monitors’
  6. The cushion of a pool or snooker table

So if I said, “I took off my trousers by the bank”, the context in which I said this would certainly change the meaning of the word bank. You’d hope that I was stood by the side of the lake, replete with a bathing suit and not lining up a shot in the final frame of the World Championship at the Crucible.

It is therefore much more efficient for me to use a more domain-specific word (or words) other than bank to ensure the meaning I wish to convey is clear and precise: “I took off my trousers by the embankment,” or “I took off my trousers by the Abbey National.”

Likewise, if we have to rely on the vocabulary of a school’s common language, we are avoiding the more domain-specific vocabulary that would make meaning more precise.

So when I ask my pupils to analyse a text in English, it is a fundamentally different thing to when they are asked to analyse a chemical compound in Chemistry. Just look at this enormous list of applicants of the term analysis across a large number of disciplines. And even within disciplines, there are different meanings to the word. If analysis had one fixed meaning, there would be no need for the numerous collocations (‘aura analysis’, anyone?) in that list.

This means that if we try to establish a common language across schools, the words we use will have no meaning until they are applied to each subject. At this point the language is vague, at best. And as they have different meanings within each domain, the language isn’t a common one. It becomes more confusing and less helpful for pupils. Put simply:

I would always argue the case for schools to allow subject areas to establish their own,  domain-specific language for practice and assessment. Why assume that our students need a reduced, catch-all vocabulary in order to make sense of their learning across subjects when it is more likely that such a vocabulary will obscure the understanding process.

When it comes to world globalisation, we are always reminded of the importance of the plurality of languages and heed warnings to protect them. Are we as defensive of our domain-specific language when it comes to ‘globalising’ schools and blurring the boundaries between subjects?

As Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, says of globalisation and language:

“If you’re going to combine many countries with different national languages — and do it by political compromise rather than by military conquest — then you can’t impose any single national language on the result.”

Likewise, if we are going to combine many subjects with very different vocabularies, we shouldn’t impose any single language across all of them.