Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Curriculum Integration or Thematic Units?

A colleague shared a chapter from Connecting Curriculum, Linking Learning, an NZCER publication.

Fraser, D., Aitken, V, & Whyte B. (2013) "Chapter Two: Curriculum Integration." Connecting Curriculum, Linking Learning. Wellington: NZCER

This chapter was both affirming and challenging at the same time. It made me think about whether the learning opportunities we plan for and offer in Connected Learning are truly "curriculum integration" or simply "thematic units" that cater for as many Learning Areas as possible. For example, the latter would demand "fitting in" English, Science, Social Sciences, Mathematics and (for example) Drama into every aspect of the learning journey. The former would demand more student agency, leading to only demanding integration of the Learning Areas that are authentically applicable to the learning context. What we planned to do in Term Two with Mantle of the Expert (MOTE) was consistent with Curriculum Integration, but we ended up resorting back to more of a Thematic Unit after some challenges with the "building belief" phase of MOTE. What we have planned for Term Three should be more successful as true Curriculum Integration.

I have come to the conclusion that I advocate more strongly for Connected Learning being Curriculum Integration rather than Thematic Learning. There are a few reasons, primarily based upon a statement in p16 of The New Zealand Curriculum: "All learning should make use of the natural connections that exist between learning areas." The word "natural" is important here. Inclusion of certain Learning Areas into thematic units can feel contrived at times. While some Learning Areas may get less explicit "coverage" this way, I put more value in the potential for the depth of cross-curricular, authentic learning that can occur in true curriculum integration.

Curriculum Integration in Connected Learning will need to see us include some key steps that I will quote directly from the chapter:
  1. "Negotiating the curriculum." Students take a role "in co-planning, exploring and evaluating" their chosen inquiries or contexts. In our plan for Term three, this is explicit as learners explore a social action they will be challenged to actually carry out. We are limiting it within a parameter, but it is wide-reaching: "Think Globally, Act Locally."
  2. "Issues driven rather than topic driven." Term Three is about Planet Earth. That is a broad enough theme to allow for this. As mentioned above, we are focusing upon a social action, so the learning (and action) will definitely be issue driven.
  3. "Scaffolding [of] student' learning rather than directing them." We are already looking at using SOLO Taxonomy, Design Processes (Technology Learning Area) and Investigating (Science Learning Area) to help with such scaffolding. Why reinvent the wheel...?
  4. "Only draws upon learning areas that relate to the central issues of the inquiry." This feels uncomfortable at first, to be honest. We have yet to explore geometry in any depth, and I expect few inquiries will have need for geometry in Term Three. However, we have to remember that we are viewing Connected Learning as an eight term learning journey. There will be times when every critical element of the explicitly-included Learning Areas will be explored. We are spending a few weeks to explore some aspects of "Planet Earth" as a theme, and hope that these inspire learners to come up with authentic social actions that they can actually succeed in. Once they choose (and negotiate) their issue and inquiry, only the Learning Areas that are related will be explored.
Finally, there are a couple of things raised in this chapter that really do put the learner at the centre by shifting from thematic units to curriculum integration. The first was that "...curriculum integration affords students status as negotiators in the pursuit of knowledge. Their say matters and, as a result, their commitment in enhanced." Last week, a learner asked me why we were getting them to come up with "Great Ideas" to tackle Global Climate Change, or Pollution.
"We are only kids. Nobody cares what we think."
It was one of those moments when my heart sunk, but it also sparked a great conversation and I explained to her (then later to the class) that we were going to help them see that they did indeed have the potential to make a real difference to their own community, region, country and/or planet. They were going to be challenged to matter.

This chapter made another statement that helped affirm that we are doing the right thing by aiming to do the right thing by our learners:
"Negotiating curriculum...has been recognised as an approach that caters for the learning needs of Māori students in secondary schools."
In my experience, whatever works well for Māori learners has positive outcomes for all learners. I have also noticed that empowering learners as decision makers results in higher engagement and better learning outcomes for all learners.

It was great to read a text that affirmed and challenged the direction we are hoping to take the learning in Connected Learning in Term Three and beyond.

My Further (Future) Reading:
Bishop, P. A. & Berryman, M. (2009). The Te Kotahitanga effective teaching profile. Set: Research Information for Teachers, 2, 27-34
Drake, S. M. (1998) Creating integrated curriculum: Proven ways to increase student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press
Drake, S. M. & Burns, R. C. (2004) Meeting standards through integrated curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Addressing Numeracy


I have been reading #EDJourney by Grant Lichtman for quite a while now. I have learned a lot from this book, and applied a lot of it to my teaching in the past six months. The lessons I am learning from the book now are even more applicable to something we are trying to do better at - Numeracy.

I used Easybib to create this citation for the book:

Lichtman, Grant. #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education. Hoboken: Wiley, 2014. Print.

Chapter 6 was an unexpected goldmine for where my thinking is regarding Numeracy. While I am really happy with the level and amount of Mathematics being covered and used in Connected Learning, I have been wondering how to get more Numeracy into our Learners’ programmes. This will have a home in Ako Learning in the near future, but how do I want it to look for the Learners whose programmes I am overlooking?

Chapter 6: Schools are More Dynamic: Mess, Noise and Chaos

This chapter explored a few things (that I think we do well here, actually):
  1. Listen to Students
  2. Why Go to School?
  3. Students Own the Learning
  4. Blending Content and Skills
  5. Reach Every Student, Every Day

It was the last section of Chapter 6 that helped me unpack how Numeracy may look in my Ako Sessions. This is based upon Grant Lichtman’s account of a Mathematics programme being run at Presbyterian Day School in Memphis. This is an Elementary School (equivalent to a primary school in New Zealand), but what we can learn from them has a lot of value in our setting.

Each Math Programme runs for eight days. The “units” include video podcasts, short assignments and tests that the Learners can opt into. The video podcasts and assignments (possibly the tests as well) offer real time feedback to the Learner and Learning Coach. It would be great if the same feedback went to parents as well.

Learners who pass the test in the first three days move into project-based learning, called “Guided Challenge”. Those who do not pass the test (or opt out of the test) in the first three days move into a “Learning Circuit”. So much of this programme appeals to me for how we can support our Learners’ numeracy development here.

Eight Day Programme

For us to offer such a programme over eight days, I expect that would take a chunk of time out of two Ako Blocks per week, so run for four weeks (per critical numeracy skill). This would not detract greatly from the other important learning and opportunities in Ako, while adding the support to develop every Learner’s numeracy (one of our school’s Critical Skills).

Learners would be attempting the test in the second week of such a programme, which would be ideal timing. They would have had enough time and opportunity to get support from Learning Coaches, whānau, peers and/or other mentors etc. to make a genuine effort with the test. It is also early enough in the programme to allow students to really “get their teeth into” any inquiry-based extension work (Guided Challenge)

Learning Circuits

There will be numeracy skills that Learners struggle with. There will be Learners who always struggle with numeracy. Persisting with the same type of work (podcasts, videos, worksheets etc.) is not going to address this. Expecting all Ako coaches to be able to support these Learners is also not going to address this adequately.


Using the skills and time of Learning Coaches who are confident with leading the learning in numeracy is key to this being successful, if implemented here. If a variety of “workshops” are offered by different Learning Coaches, all of which unpack the numeracy skill in different ways, Learners should make progress. If these workshops within the Learning Circuits are engaging and provide enough repetition, Learners should gain more fluency in the numeracy skills being explored in each unit.

Guided Challenge

I may come across as a bit of an academic snob for saying this, but it is this side of the programme that really excites me. Not only are there Learning Circuits to support those Learners who are struggling, there is the opportunity to extend and challenge all other Learners. As a teacher who specialises in an aspect of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), this is the “next step” that I really like.

Learners who already have fluency in a particular aspect of numeracy can be challenged to apply and/or extend that fluency via an abstract and/or complex context. I can imagine a lot of contexts that could form the basis of Guided Challenges, and I bet the other pro-STEM Learning Coaches here would jump at the opportunity to design and lead the learning in a Guided Challenge.

The pathways this opens for our Learners are also exciting. The obvious pathway is that Learners may get even more engaged in STEM and the opportunities STEM courses can provide. As part of that, our numeracy programme could be (should be?) supporting Learners in gaining the NCEA qualifications (and any other NZQA qualification that may exist by then) along the way. The real “wow” that popped into my head when I was reading about this was that, in Years 11-13, these Guided Challenges could be helping prepare Learners for Olympiad and Scholarship as well. The natural next thought was that these Guided Challenges could also be preparing our Year 9 and 10 Learners for Cantamaths, and other such Mathematics-based competitions.

Numbers Count

The section of Chapter 6 may have been titled “Reach Every Student, Every Day”, but it really helped solve a burning issue for me: Numeracy. I can see how such a programme would indeed reach every student. Hopefully it would reach them every day, too. Mathematics can be a bit polarising, so even if it doesn’t “reach” them, it would at least allow them to grow as learners.

I think that a system of real time (ideally automatic) feedback would also be critical to its success. Every Ako Coach could facilitate that, while the STEM-specialists could lead the learning in the Guided Challenges and Learning Circuits. If parents/whānau and learners and learning coaches all have real time access to the feedback, this can only help “Reach Every Student, Every Day”.

I am going to enjoy to continue reading #EDJourney, by Grant Lichtman, and to continue to learn more and challenge my thinking, as well as the way we do things here.