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What every teacher should know about the hexagonal approach to learning

In a quest to find innovative ways to stimulate learning, teachers often try to reinterpret patented theories. One of these reinterpretations is the hexagonal approach to learning.

Based on the Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome of Biggs and Collins in 1982, also called the SOLO taxonomy, hexagonal learning derives its core purpose from learners’ actions and interactions with content. In the book "Evaluating the quality of learning, the SOLO taxonomy", the authors show how learners evolve from incompetence to competence going through various levels of learning.

The SOLO taxonomy emphasizes the transition from simple interaction with the content to more in-depth interpretations as a five-level learning process.

The levels of learning are:

  • Prestructural — learners meet the content for the first time. At this stage, they do not have a complex interaction with the new information. It's the moment when the novel content is acknowledged.
  • Unistructural — learners identify and name new concepts to start the process of deep learning.
  • Multistructural — learners describe notions and combine them to form analogies between structures to create a larger picture of the concepts in context.
  • Relational — learners connect different notions and concepts after they analyze and compare them. At this stage, they are able to link ideas to show cause and effect.
  • Extended abstract — learners reinterpret information going through moments of reflection and hypothesis to finally reach the deepest level of learning, which is creating content based on the reinterpretation of a given notion or concept.

These levels of learning take students from "incompetence to competence", from passive learning to active learning, from nonperformance to performance.

Hexagonal learning and deep understanding

The desired outcome of every learning approach is the same: deep understanding. Although students learn in different ways, the purpose of learning is the same: ensuring retention and retrieval. This can only be accomplished if the information is stored in their long-term memory.

Students remember things easier and for longer periods of time if they are actively involved in the process and emotionally stimulated. Learning something one likes, collaborating with peers, and learning by doing have a significant impact on understanding concepts and applying them.

To speak about learning implies, therefore, to speak about deep understanding. What is more, the structure at the basis of the hexagonal approach focuses on the six facets of deep learning:

In the middle of this hexagon, we could consider one aspect of learning, which is sharing knowledge. This means that once learners go through the entire learning process, they can become teachers for their peers for a deeper understanding of concepts.

The hexagonal learning process

Making hexagons part of the learning experience allows teachers to use a literacy tool to help students tessellate and make connections between concepts while generating more in-depth conversations in class.

Hexagons have six sides, which, if linked to other hexagons, can create a honeycomb structure. This structure differs from learner to learner and it provides a visual aid to facilitate the evolution to deep understanding.

The activities that use the hexagonal approach can be done individually, in pairs, or in groups to help students select, prioritize, categorize and link concepts, information, notions while activating their critical thinking skills and developing them.

Moreover, when applied in groups, the approach fosters communication and collaboration, setting the grounds for productive debates and complex interactions with content and peers.

Read more: How to facilitate meaningful discussions in hybrid or virtual classrooms

Students go through all the stages of the SOLO taxonomy in these activities, moving towards performance and competence, from a simple first encounter with concepts and notions, all the way through to deep analysis and understanding of them. In this way, they reach the ultimate goals of learning, which are create-recreate and invent-reinvent content.

Considering the five levels of learning of the SOLO taxonomy and the hexagonal approach to learning, we can derive the six stages of learning activated through the honeycomb structure in the form of actions:

  1. Name and identify
  2. Describe
  3. Combine and relate
  4. Compare and analyze
  5. Hypothesize and reflect
  6. Create

The hexagonal learning process takes students through consecutive stages. At first, students get acquainted with the content, then try to describe it with their own words to reach the stage of being able to relate one notion to another and even combine them to generate new ideas. From this moment on, students experience a deeper connection with the text through comparisons and analysis. Next, they are able to reflect on the meaning of the content from different perspectives and make assumptions about it. At the end of this process, students are able to have their own ideas and create their own content.

Benefits of the hexagonal approach to learning

Whenever educators try a new approach to teaching to facilitate learning, they question the benefits of it. Is it worth the effort of digging deeper and using it in class? Although it takes some teachers a while to adjust to how the hexagonal approach works, the advantages it brings to the class and, most importantly, to the students, are undeniable.

Keeping the honeycomb structure in mind, here are the six benefits of the hexagonal approach:

  1. It supports long-term learning;
  2. It documents learning;
  3. It supports reflection;
  4. It enhances engagement;
  5. It facilitates collaboration;
  6. It fosters interaction with the content.

To sum up

The hexagonal approach is a literacy tool worth considering. Using the visual shape with six sides, teachers can create successful learning experiences that ensure academic success and allow students to evolve.

Students, on the other hand, benefit from a clear structure to assign to the content they study by connecting hexagons that include different notions or aspects to form new ideas. This, in turn, opens the gate to deep understanding when students do not only learn, but they can also apply what they learn. In doing so, they become capable of analyzing, interpreting, and creating content, which is essential in the learning process.

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