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.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Learning Support

I have just been spending a bit of time thinking about what I do in the classroom to identify and help students with learning difficulties, such as ADHD and Dyslexia. I am most happy to share what I have put together, so feel free to use this and share it:

Learning Support

A huge thank you must go out to Shelley Broad and Lynda Collins for their time and expertise in getting this summary compiled.

Any feedback/suggestions would be most welcome!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

After Exams....

In the past, after our junior exams, we have had activities and a trip to a Marae. This year, that was changed; instead, we continued with our teaching programme.

I had a few ideas of what to focus on, but ultimately decided on an idea which has been very successful for keeping students engaged and I am being blown away by the quality of my students' work. Heaven knows that my students had the potential to be very demotivated as this work could be considered unimportant!

The first idea that I had was to spend two weeks doing some scientific investigation. Spending two weeks on the "Nature of Science" has a lot of educational merit. However, we did a lot of this throughout the year in the context of the units we were studying.

The second idea was not actually mine, but came from my Head of Department. He set up a series of tasks as a Science Olympics. The tasks were really hard and interesting. I was very close to doing this, but came up with a third option that I felt would be more useful for my class; my students have a huge range of abilities and some have real learning difficulties.

So, the third idea, and the one I ran with...

In the exam, my students had very different areas of weakness. After going over the key aspects of the exam in class, I asked them to individually select a part of the exam they did poorly in and feel they could have done better in. These ideas were "big ideas" that are core to learning Science in the future, such as Graphing Skills, learning vocabulary etc. Students were discouraged from choosing specific content knowledge.

Then they were given a selection of possible ways to explain the concept (or help learn it), and choose one that they thought they could use:

  • song
  • poem
  • mnemonic
  • video
  • game
  • PowerPoint presentation

The students were asked to find at least one other student who had the same aspect identified. They could either work together (using an agreed medium) or work individually if they could not agree on a medium to use. The students were given four lessons to plan and create their piece of work.

Day One: select concept and medium
Day Two: plan (share idea with teacher for vetting)
Days Three and Four: creation

The next two lessons (next week) will be the time for students to present their piece of work for the class. With their permission, I will put some this work on our class blog.

I am not saying this was the best thing for us to do; the other options I mentioned above would probably have been successful too. But this has actually been a bit of an experiment (and risk) for me and more successful than I anticipated.

  • every student has been engaged in class
  • most students have commented that they understand the concepts they are working on even better
  • the quality of the work is very pleasing, and worth sharing
  • the students are having fun

So, this makes me wonder... Should more opportunities for this type of learning be made throughout the year? If I can find a way to put it into even one of my units, it would be worthwhile finding out.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Cloze Activities in Moodle

I am not a fan of quizzes etc on Moodle - they just take far too long to set up!! However, there is a lot of demand for quizzes from some members of my department. So, I decided I had better get more competent at doing them.

One way that I really found useful was to use Question Machine:

This has made life a lot easier, but one of my colleagues has had issues with using it to make Cloze Activities.

So, how can we make some nice Cloze Activites? This video explains it very clearly:

I am playing with it now, and the syntax is very fussy but it seems to be successful!

Numerical Answer

{1:NUMERICAL:=6} 1 marks, answer = 6
{2:NUMERICAL:=40:5} 2 marks, answer = 40 with a tolerance of +/-5

Typed Answer

{1:SHORTANSWER=centrifuge} 1 mark, answer = centrifuge

Selected Response

{2:MULTICHOICE=flour~sugar~salt} 2 marks, correct answer = flour, other provided options = salt and sugar

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Cancer and Mental Health

Hi all

This is an open letter, asking for you to support me (and my male colleagues) in our "Mo-vember" efforts. We are attempting to raise money for Mental Health and the Cancer Society in NZ. We will be leaving our top lips unshaven for the month of November.

You can donate to these great causes using this link:

8 Movember

12 Movember
Sorry about the wait for this one, but I actually wanted there to be something to see!

26 Movember

28 Movember

Cheers for your support

Friday, 2 November 2012

Learn, Create, Share

It is only a couple of weeks until the Year 9 exam and I have to teach a lot of concepts to cover in our new topic - Ecology. Ultimately, though, what do I want the students to learn?

Key Concepts

The students need to understand the concepts, link them, and apply them to a New Zealand example. The problem is that there are a lot of concepts and to teach them in the "traditional" way (or should I say, my usual way...?), I will not have time for the students to choose a context for doing their case study.

  • adaptations (structural, behavioural and physiological)
  • habitats and communities
  • interactions within communities (commensalism, predation, parasitism etc)
  • food webs (and the effects of changes to these)
  • nutrient cycles
  • natural selection and evolution
I would also like to look at the threats to the New Zealand ecosystem, with particular focus on our rocky shore, marine reserves and/or forests.

Student-Directed Learning

As I feel we will struggle to have enough time to do justice to this topic prior to the exam, I am going to try something I haven't done before, but was inspired to try during ULearn12. I am going to get the students to choose an indigenous New Zealand animal or plant (marine or terrestrial) and do research on it. They will have to put their findings into a blog post on our Class Blog:

I will outline the key things they need to identify and discuss about their chosen animal/plant, but not the order in which they learn them. Yes, in some lessons, I will guide them to certain activities in the book that may help, and we will do some class activities which demonstrate the dynamics of a successful (vs. threatened) ecosystem, but ultimately, the students will chose their own pathway for learning the content in their own chosen context.

Ideally, students will gravitate into groups who want to learn the same concepts at the same time, then apply them to their chosen animal/plant. However, realistically, I expect they will gravitate into groups doing the same (or similar) animals/plants then agree on a unified learning pathway (probably with my guidance).

So, now it is time do design the activity and its instructions.... Keep your fingers crossed for me!!!!

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Food for Thought

Today we had an ICT Committee Meeting and I was asked to present about Blogging with my Year 9 class. The response was generally very encouraging, but a few things came up that are worth considering:

Student Images

A colleague asked a good question about how I get around getting authority for using images of the students. At this stage, it is not an issue as I make a concerted effort to only use students' first names (not full names or nicknames) when my teaching is filmed and have set rules about images/video being only of me and the work, not of the students. I know I am being a bit over-careful and a lot of students would love to see themselves in the blog, but how do I permit that unless every parent is on board with the idea?

Next year, I intend to inform the parents of the blog and as for permission for images of their respective children to be used on the blog. But how will I manage it if one or two parents do not give consent? Food for thought.....

School Reputation

Another good point made was that we are representing an aspect of our school in a public forum. Currently, the school has no set policy about what is posted on blogs, wikis etc.

There is real potential for these public shared spaces to create negative perceptions about the school. Conversely, by being public, students' extended families and networks can see what is happening at the school and (hopefully) build a very positive opinion; it could be a great (free) marketing tool! Food for thought...


From the discussions today, it was agreed that these issues all need to be considered by the school leaders and we probably need some school policies on them. Or are we being overly cautious?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Conditional Access for Moodle

I think I have got my head around getting student-based tasks, resources and assignments onto Moodle, so 'what next?'

At ULearn, I was shown how to set up Conditional Access Activities. Basically, the students cannot access certain activities or resources until they have met certain criteria in earlier tasks. This kind of flies in the face of what I want to do with allowing students to find their own pathway to learn the key specific learning objectives for each topic, but it has some huge positives!
Check out this good overview. It has great ideas for providing support material (for struggling students) and extension work (for the high-fliers).

I can see the students seeing this as a kind of 'game', competing to get further through the "course". The way I see my extension students compete with each other on BestChoice (see below), I can imagine this may have real success.

Also, there are some game elements out there (for free) which could be made to pop up as they reach certain achievements. Look up "Achievement Generator" in a search engine and you find things like this:

Yes, it is going to be a lot of work, but it will only need "tweaking" every year... As a well-respected educator said recently, "Don't wait for it to be perfect to start, just start doing it. Otherwise you never will..."

Friday, 26 October 2012

Simple but Effective


It is that time of the school year again - revision for the seniors. I don't know why I try to be so "clever" with revision sometimes; the simple ideas work so well.

Today, we were revising the links between the "big ideas" in Genetic Variation. Basically, my students struggle with the links between the key terms: chromosomes, DNA, genes, nucleotides, bases etc.

Collaborative Revision

This is an old one, but keeps proving to be successful (and the students stay focused!). I work with five groups of 5-6 students in each for this activity.
  1. Every group is given a key concept to describe, ideally using labelled diagrams. They do not know which concepts are being done the other groups.
  2. After 10 minutes of discussing their given concept, every member of the group must have a copy of the group's work (even if it is a photocopy).
  3. Then the groups are mixed up so there is at least one person in each group from the original groups. They work together to create a single summary which shows the link between all of the key concepts.
In this lesson, I taught for less than two minutes (!!!), yet every student was engaged and refining their understanding of these key concepts. Some of the summary sheets were absolutely brilliant!

Student Feedback

I asked the students to put an anonymous mark on the board during the lesson on a "Lesson Appreciation Continuum"; did they find the lesson "Very Useful" or "A Total Waste of Time" or somewhere in between? Overwhelmingly, the response was "Very Useful"; the students actually ran out of space to put a mark at that end of the board!
Interestingly, there was a real buzz in the room today; the students were having fun doing revision, believe it or not!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Basing Teaching on Learning

One of my main frustrations has been the assessment focus of many of our courses. This is not a surprise, as the media and government seem insistent on publishing results which look remarkably like league tables. However, at ULearn12, I was inspired with an idea which might overcome this frustration while also allowing my classroom to look more how I would like it to.

Specific Learning Outcomes

Every topic has Specific Learning Outcomes (SLO). These are often based upon the elements of the topic which may be assessed at the end of the topic (or in formal exams/internal assessments). Naturally, they are also aligned to the National Curriculum.
If the students are given a breakdown of each SLO for a topic, then maybe they can be given the freedom to work via their own route and their own pace (within a larger deadline) to achieve each SLO. This will require providing a possible programme to follow in the early days for each class, but hopefully the students will rely less on my guidance and find their own paths for achieving the same (or more, perhaps) as they did when the lesson/learning sequence was more prescribed.

Differentiated Learning

Yes, that wonderful catch phrase of education!! My classroom is already set up in groups to allow for collaborative learning but true differentiated learning opportunities are limited. Yes, I set a group of tasks, or scaffold the tasks each lesson; this allows many students to work at their own pace, but the learning sequence is still prescribed by me.

If students are told what they need to learn and by when, they can be helped to select groups which learn in similar ways and with students who want to learn the content in the same order. Hopefully, the students will find their own experiments and activities to do, and learn the aspects of each topic in far more depth than they would with me "teaching" each key concept.

Student-Based Tasks

A lot of my students already come up with experiments they want to try out in class, so I can see this approach leading to even more student-selected experiments. This is going to need some clear ground-rules:
  1. Three-days notice for equipment/chemicals.
  2. A clear method (so I can check that it will work and is legal!).
The same sort of rules are going to have to apply for activities, such as building models etc.
I can also see the value in getting each group to add to the class blog with their progress and findings. It may also be useful to get each group to make videos/presentations to explain the concepts/contexts they have investigated. These ideas are pretty exciting - if they work!!

Teacher Role

My role in the classroom is going to change a bit if this is successful. It is also going to necessitate some modelling of 'best practice'.
Early in the year, I may need a few possible lesson/learning sequences to be presented to the students, and allow them to create their groups based on the sequence which best suits them. Some testing on the types of learners they are may also be useful.
I am also looking at filming myself explaining some of the key concepts in each topic, just to ensure that the key assessed concepts are available to every student, regardless of the progress of their own group.


Naturally, the biggest constraint will be the time taken (particularly early in the year) to make videos of the key concepts being explained, and to provide alternate "pathways" to learn each SLO for the first few topics. Additionally, my technician is concerned at the amount of different experiments that may need to be prepared each lesson; I am not quite sure how to overcome this issue, to be honest.
I am fortunate enough to teach at a school where classroom management and student motivation are generally very high. I can imagine that student behaviour and motivation could be potential constraints to learning in this way.
A lot of my current students actually like being "spoon-fed". They like my notes and they like being told what they need to remember. Yes, each SLO tells them what they need to remember, but this link seems to be lost on them! I guess, a topic summary is going to be key prior to the formative and formal assessments.
Last, but by no means least, if there is any slip in student grades, this approach may be frowned upon.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Why am I Doing This?

It is taking a lot of time and effort to trial all of these things, but my students are actually watching the videos etc. My Year 9 class are on board with the blog, although they are very pliable so maybe it is for this reason rather than its inherent value.

However, I am reminded of discussions I had with students earlier in the year about online learning. They were pretty much unanimous in their desire to have a more complete record of each lesson online. They panic about missing lessons or work being covered too quickly. They enjoy my lessons. That is why I am doing this....

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Lesson Sequence

Well I tried to have the teaching moment of my lesson filmed with my Year 9 Science class and it was a bit of a disaster. Basically, I think my lesson sequence was poor and not conducive to the differentiation of tasks this practice necessitates.

  1. I had to try and switch between teaching concepts and guiding the "blogger".
  2. There was no time after the teaching moment to work with the "blogger" to upload the video and create a blog entry.
  3. The lesson lacked the smooth transitions I have worked so hard over the past few years to instill into my lessons.
So, what have I learned from this?
  1. Have the teaching moment(s) occur very early in the lesson; maybe have a short task for the students to work on while I get the "teaching" organised (there is often another teacher in the room prior to my lesson so this cannot always be done prior to the lesson).
  2. Once the majority of the students are working on their particular task(s), work with the "blogger" and get him/her blogging during the lesson; hopefully this will encourage students to send/bring the "blogger" any of their work they wanted included in the blog entry for that lesson.
  1. Starter Activity
  2. Teaching Moment (+ experiment/demo, maybe)
  3. Student-based Task(s)
    • encourage all students to keep a digital record of their work (photos, video etc)
    • get blogger started on the entry for that lesson, including uploading the video footage
    • once blogger is working away, help other students/groups
  4. Summary (possibly also filmed)
Hopefully, this sequence will work better and create a good routine for my classes to follow.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Filming - First Attempt

My Year 12 Chemistry class are a pretty cooperative bunch. When I explained what I wanted, they jumped at the idea of filming me.

The lesson followed this sequence (after I explained about why I wanted the teaching moments to be filmed):

  1. Explain the task (and link to the upcoming assessment expectations).
    • there were a variety of oxidants and reductants available
    • students were to try different combinations of these and record any changes they observed
    • for any reactions (changes), students were to infer what the products were
    • write half equations and a balanced overall equation for any reactions which did occur
  2. Demonstrate a possible combination of chemicals(experiment)
  3. The students were left to carry out the experiment throughout the remainder of the lesson.

Here are the two videos we captured:
Explaining the Lesson/Task

Demonstrating one Possible Experiment

After these were captured, I uploaded them to YouTube. I got this set up while the students were getting their respective equipment for the experiment; this allowed me to move around the lab and help students while the video uploaded.
The biggest issue I found was that I then had to use part of the following lesson to organise these videos on YouTube and email the embed code to the students. I am going to need to find a much more efficient way to share with them!!
Currently, I am thinking that I should embed the videos into our Class Site on Moodle. This will still take time, but it will avoid me having to send out group emails.
Alternatively, I could task one student per lesson to upload the video, then embed it into a Class Blog. Ideas please...!!!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Recording My Teaching

At ULearn12, Kevin Honeycutt inspired me to get the students to film the "teaching" part of my lessons. Students who miss lessons (or just miss the point!!) can revisit and rewind these moments. They may even share these aspects of their lessons with other students.
I am going to trial this with my Year 9 Science class in Term Four. It will be interesting to see:

  1. How well the students respond to having to film me.
  2. How often the students view the filmed "lessons".
  3. If students from other classes/schools view the "lessons".
  4. The feedback/responses to the "lessons".
My current plan is to get a different student (or small group) to be responsible for filming the teaching moments of each lesson and to update the class blog each day. What I am unsure of at this stage is whether to upload the video footage myself (so I have some level of control) or whether to trust this to my students.

Why I Teach

Last week, I had the pleasure of going to ULearn12 in Auckland. While I was there, I was inspired to record a video of the reasons why I teach. 
So, here it is....