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.

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?