The Ecology of a Classroom: Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy, Bloom’s Taxonomy and SOLO

A note from the the author (Laura McInerney):  As the GCSE storm continues teachers know that they must simply brace themselves for the political weather and carry on regardless. Politics is important, but the students sitting in front of you are always more important.Truly great teachers know that - in the end - the biggest difference you can make as a teacher is in your planning, preparation and delivery. For that reason I decided not to start the year off with a blog about politics but instead about lesson planning. It's an unglamorous parts of the job, but it's critical, and at the start of the year when the summer has been so full of anxiety, it can be even harder.  Below are some starting points for thinking about planning when you're stuck, or demotivated, or worrying about a class. Mostly I wrote it aimed at new teachers, but I think there are thoughts in there for veterans of the classroom too!

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In some circles it has become ‘cool’ to put-down theories that are there to help trainee teachers make sense of what they see in their classrooms, but which also have a great deal to teach anyone who works in a classroom.  Maslow’s Hierarchy, Bloom’s Taxonomy and, a recent theory, SOLO Taxonomy often stick from people questioning their value (“what is SOLO the answer to?”) or pointing to alternatives (“just use your common sense”).  But the fact is common sense isn’t common and all these theories give us a point to the question: “Despite my best efforts and well-planned lessons: Why aren’t my kids learning?”

First Aid has “ABC” as its guide. If you have a patient on the floor check their airways, breathing and circulation.  When a car doesn’t start, what do we check? Fire, fuel, oxygen.  And, in a classroom, if everything isn’t going to plan it is useful to think about: Maslow, SOLO & Bloom.

Why Maslow?  Because Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs fairly points out that certain things preoccupy our minds and take our attention. For example: if I’m starving hungry I’m less likely to be thinking about what my teacher is saying and instead wondering how I can be the first person out of the classroom door and in the prime dinner queue position.  Equally, humans tend to worry about being ‘liked’ by others more than they worry about achieving brilliance (unless they believe brilliance will lead to them being liked, then they don’t mind too much).  Knowing this can be very helpful when a brilliant student keeps acting like an idiot and you can’t work out why. Naturally, not every human worries about the same things; just like there are more than three reasons why cars don’t start (electrical systems for a start) – but as a rule of thumb for thinking about what your students needs are and what might hamper or improve the conditions, looking at how your classroom is ensuring that Maslow’s needs are being met is a good place to start. 

Sometimes, however, everyone in the classroom is clearly okay.  No-one is worried about security, or food, or being hated for getting the right answer.  Yet the students are still stuck.  The teacher asks a question and everyone looks blankly at them.  A student answers and though their speech sounds intelligible it clearly isn’t quite right but the teacher doesn’t know why. Here’s where SOLO can help.

All students know some stuff but how well they know it is sometimes hard to gauge.  I pretend to know nothing about History, but it’s not true; I know some stuff, I just don’t know it well.  How could someone tell?  Recently I spouted off the list of things I knew about History but (as pointed out by several people) I didn’t get everything in the right chronological order and I had absolutely no idea of the distances in time between events.  SOLO Taxonomy would therefore say I am at the ‘second level’ of knowledge, known in the model as ‘multistructural’. This means that I know a bunch of facts but I can’t link them together accurately.  So while I’m great at remembering thousands of facts about how centurions’ sandals were made, and the way Archimedes died, I have no idea of whether those things happened at the same time or in the same country. 

What usually happens when a teacher complains that they their students don’t “properly understand” is that the teachers wants their students to respond to a question in a way that requires lots of relational thinking but the students are still at the multi-structural level.  If you can quickly recognise that students are not relating their knowledge together in useful ways (e.g. cause and effect, or process order) it is much easier to focus on providing this ‘next level’ of knowledge rather than wondering why they simply don’t have it. SOLO Taxonomy’s genius therefore is in allowing teachers and pupils to figure out where their knowledge is and how they can make it more complex.

But even if we know our level of knowledge and our needs are being met, there’s one more classroom problem that hampers learning.  I have been told at least a hundred times about which one came first: Alfred who burnt the cakes or the 1066 invasion, but I always forget the order.  I just do.  Repeating it time and again in my head doesn’t seem to help get it in. Furthermore, learning by repeating becomes quite arduous and dull, if it becomes too arduous and difficult I’m likely to get distracted by all those other needs I have (see, we’re back to Maslow), so in order to trick my brain into paying more attention any decent teacher will need to come up with tasks for me to do.  These tasks should vary a little (to keep my attention) but also be aimed at the level of knowledge I am trying to develop (i.e. if I need to learn an order, there needs to be something in the task that shows the order is important)

This is where Bloom’s taxonomy is useful, though first, I will caveat: Bloom’s is often used as ‘hierarchy’ as though the types of tasks at the top of Bloom’s are superior to those at the bottom.  That’s not a helpful way to use it.  Far more useful is to think of it as a list of different types of activity which can be used for different purposes depending on where your students needs (indicated by Maslow) and knowledge (indicated by SOLO) are during any one lesson.

SO – back to history. Let’s imagine I am a bit embarrassed by my lack of history knowledge and hence anything which involves me standing up in front of people is probably not going to help me feel secure and enable me to concentrate. Also, given that I don’t know much about history at present creating some kind of ‘news programme’ (as suggested at the top of Bloom) probably won’t be that great for helping me learn as I will just fill it full of nonsense or it will be very short with only the two facts that I do know involved in it.  What might be useful though is listing all of the events I can never remember, hypothesising the order they should be in, re-jigging them about, then after checking the correct answer analysing how many years are between each event, compare the similarities and differences in the time, and then – and only then – if I feel confidently able to relate the concepts I might be able to synthesise them all into a newsreel.  Bloom’s taxonomy helps a teacher see there are many ways to teach a concept and can help even the most stuck teacher with an idea of what to do.

So: What is the point of Maslow, Bloom and SOLO?

Maslow can help you see if motivation is stopping learners so that you can rearrange the learning environment and also think carefully about what type of activity they will be motivated by (a team one, an individual one, one with a food prize!); SOLO helps work out roughly what a student knows and what they need to know next (i.e. how the events link together in time); and Bloom’s gives a range of activities to pick from in which to develop that knowledge.  Of course, there is no ONE PERFECT ANSWER about how to teach.  Experience, judgement, resources all become part of the judgement calls teachers make every day when thinking about their learners. This is no different than the experienced paramedic who goes beyond ABC or the experienced mechanic who knows more than just to fire, fuel and oxygen check.  But Maslow, Bloom & SOLO are useful ways of thinking about your classroom ecology, especially if you are new to the classroom, and “common sense” on these matters is still a few years away. Experiment with the model, see what they tell you, and let us know what you learn. 

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