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, 21 February 2013

Student-Directed Unit Planning: An Update

I have trialed getting my students to select the order in which they learn the key concepts in a unit, and how they will learn what they need to. This has been going for a couple of weeks, so how is it going?

The Process

This takes a lesson to set up:
  1. Identify the key concepts in the unit.
  2. Make a card for each concept (one set for each student).
  3. Students are given 10 minutes to find out a little about each concept from their books, talking to peers or using their devices.
  4. Students make a sequence for learning the concepts. Stress that the sequence may be changed at any time.
  5. Students find others students with similar sequences.
  6. Students plan out the learning experiences they want to use to learn these concepts.

Over the next couple of lessons, students present their plans and request resources. This is very easy to anticipate if you are teaching Science!

The Classes

I have tried this with three classes, to differing extents. As yet, none have had assessments, so I am not sure if it is preparing them well for formal assessment tasks or not yet...


This class are working on Organic Chemistry. I identified 21 key concepts for them. They were daunted by the prospect and scared of the process. Now, they are working well at their own respective ability levels and exploring things they are interested in in depth, while skimming over things they find boring. They are collaborating, learning and, best of all, I spend every lesson just wandering around talking with them about the work, rather than actually teaching them. I have taught a few concepts, but sometimes only to groups of one or two students. These "lessons" are filmed and put on a class blog. Every student is engaged and the collective confidence has been growing day by day. My only "at risk" student is blossoming being able to work a pace which better matches ability level.


This class are doing a very practical-based topic, on identifying unknown ions in solutions. There are really only six key skills or concepts to cover with this group, so the planning process was a lot quicker. What I learned from this class is that I do like the idea of breaking units up into smaller bites, and getting them to only plan parts of the unit; this adaptation of the plan may be tried out in future units. I taught most of this class some time in the last three years, and they were looking forward to having me because I "give good notes" and my lessons are so structured!!! Imagine their horror... However, this system has bought me time to work one-on-one with students who struggle with any aspect of the topic on any given day, or with those who have been away on sports exchanges. The class now agree that it is a good way of doing things. Again, engagement and self-motivation has been great, with the exception of a few whose parents needed to be contacted.


After the (unexpected) success with Year 12 Chemistry, I have tried this in a micro-managed way with my Year 11 Science class. They are given the week's Specific Learning Outcomes (usually only two or three). They then decide how to achieve them. So far, we have had a song written about the structure of DNA along with some other amazing work! Some chose to extract banana DNA, some decided they had better use the time learning some vocabulary. I must confess that this is quite an unusual Year 11 class: very driven and very able.

So, that is a wee update. Assessment results will really tell me if it has been a good idea or not, but my workload is down, engagement is up, and student enjoyment is through the roof. Those are big wins already.


  1. Hey Matt, you make me wish I'd had you as a science teacher when I was at high school! Love the way the kids are driving the learning and the fact that it is personal passion and pace leading the way. Do you worry about the 'black spots'? How will you ensure depth of knowledge/understanding for the 'boring parts'?

    I look forward to reading more about how this develops as the year progresses!

  2. Thank you for the feedback.

    I do worry about the "black spots" in their learning. However, we do have discussion forums and weekly homework assignments on Moodle,so I can track their learning via these. This also helps me ensure the "boring" stuff is being covered.

    The other way I plan to deal with the "boring" stuff is to actually teach it. I can be filmed teaching the concept so those not doing that yet can watch it on the blog later. Also, I can usually think of a fun activity or experiment to make it more interesting, or at least promote curiosity about it.

    Nevertheless, these are a couple of unknowns for me in leading learning in this way.