Do you want to help your students move beyond surface knowledge and develop a deeper understanding of the material you are teaching them?
Research shows that you can use visuals and the SOLO framework to help you.
Students learn best when you present information in multimodal ways. This is because we find it easier to learn through a combination of words and visuals.
A visual is simply a diagram or image that you create to get your point across. They come in many forms, and they may even include text. However, they are never text-based. Rather, visuals give you something to talk about, and they give students’ eyes something to focus on while they listen.
For example, when describing the differences between a solution and a suspension you would talk (words) about how the substance:
- Fully dissolves into the first in a solution,
- Is just spread out in a suspension
You could do this while displaying this diagram. You could easily draw this diagram on a blackboard, project it using PowerPoint or display it on an interactive whiteboard. In all cases, it is just a visual representation of the oral explanation that you give.
You could follow this with diagram two while explaining that the second substance doesn’t stay spread out in a suspension. Rather, it spreads out when your shake or stir it, but it separates when left still.
The key is to use a combination of words and images at the same time.
The SOLO Framework
The SOLO framework was developed by John Biggs and Kevin Collis as a way to describe how we move from knowledge acquisition to deep understanding.
In this sense, it is similar to Bloom’s taxonomy. However, unlike Bloom’s taxonomy, it is more closely aligned with how our minds take in and process ideas.
We can take in single ideas, and we can expand the breadth of our knowledge by taking in more ideas. Broadening your knowledge base is an excellent thing to do, but it only expands your surface knowledge.
You can then deepen your knowledge base by connecting different pieces of information together. Connections come in many forms. Which came first? What caused this? How does this compare to that? What effect will this have? Is this part of a group? What other things are also in this group?
- Your breadth of knowledge is determined by how much you know
- Your depth of knowledge is determined by how well you connect pieces of information to each other
You can only connect bits of information that you know. Therefore, deep understanding is dependent on and restricted by the amount of surface knowledge that you possess.
An Example of Visuals in Action
I will show you what I mean by using a series of concepts contained in a short Year 7 history unit on the origins of humanity. Please feel free to use these visuals yourself.
Inquiry Question 1: What are historical theories?
Theories are a core concept in history, as is the related concept of evidence. This short series of visuals introduces these concepts.
To begin the unit, I would explain that historians have beliefs about what happened in the past. They have reasons why they hold these beliefs, but the beliefs are different from facts. We call these beliefs historical theories. I could support my explanation by displaying and referring to the following visual, which shows what theories are and what they are not.
I would then explain that while theories are not always facts, they are more than just wild guesses. Historians take factual clues and think about them logically. They then come up with theories about what happened in the past based on the clues they have found. I would do all of this while displaying the next visual, which shows how different things combine to create something else.
In the third part of my explanation, I would talk about how there are different types of clues and that historians call these clues evidence. While my focus is the clues themselves, I would also explain that there is a variety of scientific techniques that can help us understand the clues we have found. These methods include radiocarbon dating, analysis of rock layers and DNA analysis. Students do not need to understand the science behind these techniques. Rather they just need to know that they exist, and they help tell us more about the clues we have found. With that in mind, I would do this while displaying the group-type visual below, which focuses on types of clues rather than the scientific techniques used to analyze them.
These three simple visuals help students to have a deep understanding of historical theories and how they are developed. Furthermore, they allow me to succinctly explain some key concepts and to show how they connect with each other and with their own elements.
Inquiry Question 2: What is the Theory of Evolution?
The theory of evolution is not a core aspect of Year 7 history. However, a brief introduction provides a foundation for the historical theory Out of Africa and also allows you to introduce another key historical concept – contestability.
At the core of the theory of evolution is the belief that living things change or ‘evolve’ over time to better adapt to their environment.
I would introduce this idea with a simple visual showing woolly mammoth evolving into a modern elephant. The actual theory about how elephants evolved, and their relationship to mammoths is more complex than this, but the point here is to illustrate adaptation over time.
While still displaying the woolly mammoth visual, I would talk about other interesting adaptations. For instance, scientists believe that some lizards lost their legs so that could burrow better in the sand and that horses evolved from fox-sized woodland animals. As forests gave way to grasslands, and predators grew faster, horses evolved to grass-eating, quick animals.
I would emphasize the idea that we adapt over longer periods of time with humour and the following visual.
At this point, I would refer back to the idea that theories are a set of beliefs based on factual clues, but that theories are not the same as facts. Then, I’d introduce the idea of contestability – the idea that different people can use the same set of clues to come up with different theories.
I would then explain that while most scientists and historians believe the theory of evolution is correct, there are people who do not. There are some people who believe that all living things were created just as we are today. There are others who believe that animals evolved, but they evolved in a way that was guided by God (or some other intelligent being), rather than evolving on order to adapt to their environment.
Inquiry Question 3: How did humans evolve?
I would introduce human evolution by referring to the commonly held belief that humans evolved from monkeys.
I would then move to what, from a historical perspective, is the main idea of this lesson. Humans did not evolve directly from apes. Rather, apes and human-like creatures evolved from a common ancestor who had a mixture of ape and human features. These human-like creatures were called hominids. Today, humans are the only hominids still alive. However, in the past, there have been many other hominids.
The hierarchical visual above shows you that:
- Hominids were different to apes (although we shared a common ancestor)
- There were many different types of hominids (even more than I have shown)
You can revisit the idea of contestability, by highlighting that while scientists agree on the idea of hominids vs. apes, they disagree on some of the specifics. For instance, some scientists will include Neanderthals as a type of Homo sapien, rather than being its own species. Other scientists include chimpanzees as hominids.
The above diagram is very useful in differentiating between
- Apes and hominids
- Various types of hominids
However, it doesn’t offer much insight into when each type of hominid lived or when they died out. I would explain that some lived before humans and some lived at the same time while referring to the sequenced and comparative visual below.
Students should now have a deeper understanding of the origins of humanity. Specifically, they should now know that we were one type of hominid, that some hominids existed well before we did and that some hominids existed at the same time as early humans.
However, students still don’t know who evolved from who. You could use this sequenced visual to show this. In simple terms, we evolved from Homo erectus, who in turn evolved from Homo habilis. The question marks show that evolution probably involved other hominids in some way, but most scientists agree with this basic sequence.
Inquiry Question 4: What is the Out of Africa Theory?
I would explain that the Out of Africa theory is a belief that all humans (Homo sapiens) evolved in eastern Africa. Then, some of them decided to venture out of Africa and settled in various parts of the world. I would display the following visual while explaining this.
While still displaying this same visual, I would also mention that Homo sapiens were not the only hominids to venture of Africa. Both the Neanderthals and Homo erectus left Africa before we did.
Next, I would explain that this happened a long, long time ago (100-60 thousand years ago). I would then emphasize this point graphically with the following visual.
I would finish by returning to the idea of contestability. Most scientists and historians believe in the Out of Africa theory. However, some of them disagree on the dates, on the paths taken and on the number of times hominids left Africa.
Then, there are others who disagree entirely, and who propose an alternative theory. In this alternative theory, Homo erectus left Africa and settled in different parts of the word. Humans then evolved from Homo erectus, not just in Africa, but in all the corners of the globe.
I would show the following hierarchical visual while discussing this contestability and the alternative theory.
- Remember that the quality of your visual depends upon the insightful connections it shows. It does not depend upon your artistic ability or your familiarity with computer graphics.
- This article focused on using visuals as one part (I Do) of an explicit teaching sequence. It is still important to ensure your students actively engage with what you have explained. It’s just that student engagement was not the focus of this article.
- This article focused on teacher-generated (or teacher-acquired) visuals. This is only one of the potent ways you can use visuals to help students connect ideas. It is also a great idea to get your students making additional visuals themselves, but only once you have given them sufficient foundational knowledge and explained some critical connections yourself.