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, 14 February 2013

What a Journey...

I don't mind if nobody reads this. Honestly, it is just a wee reflection for me to log how my thinking about teaching and learning, and using technology, have evolved.

Beginning Teacher to Respected Teacher

When I started, I got all sorts of good advice about classroom management, lesson/classroom routines, and I quickly learned how to use the school's management system to allow me to create a classroom environment conducive to learning. I was told umpteen times (by peers and students) that I was good at explaining concepts and clarifying what exactly had to be learned. Soon enough, I established a reputation I was proud of - a good teacher whose lessons were fun but "don't [mess] with him!!"

I worked hard on transitions between tasks, scaffolding (or chunking) tasks, using colour, being concise with instructions...all those things that I was told would help students with learning difficulties, while also being good practice to help all students. My students made progress; I felt like I was doing a good job. I was given classes with learning support needs because I got a lot out of them and they behaved for me...generally speaking, of course. I never got good at a few things though...

While I looked at students' books during lessons, I was terrible at taking them home to mark them. Even then, what was I looking for? I praised students for creating carbon-copies of the notes I put on the OHP or whiteboard, and for getting the same answers as me for the tasks we did in class and for homework. What did this achieve?! I was never good at giving enough feedback and even then, now I think about it, it was not often good-quality feedback.

In hindsight, what I made my students do was meaningless work, apart from making marking a little easier and classroom management a lot easier when students were sitting and writing. I guess it also gave the diligent students a sense of security that they had "all the notes" they needed for later assessments. But the flipside of that is that if I missed anything out or made a mistake, I was never challenged about it. The trust level was that high that students believed I would give them everything they needed.

Another thing I was not so good at was challenging my students to be independent thinkers and true problem-solvers. My best students did not get scholarships; often they did not even get straight Excellence grades in NCEA. They knew their stuff really well, but they did not know it well enough to apply it to completely novel contexts, or to adapt their knowledge to solve a problem. I could never give every possible context that may be in an exam, so I didn't try to. I tried to give contexts they would relate to; I think this is something I am actually quite good at. Yet, even today, I struggle with the pedagogy behind teaching students how to be creative or be problem-solvers.

So, I became a competent, respected teacher. But I was not getting the best out of my students; not really. Yes, we had experiments and we had debates and we did field trips and we had a lot of other valuable learning experiences. But why did I make them write so many notes? Fear. Fear and control. Fear and control and a lack of technology to do what I really wanted to do with my students.

The Data Projector

I was frustrated that I was spending so much time teaching, writing up notes, waiting for the notes to be copied, then clarifying... I really wanted my students to do more in each lesson. I thought I could teach better with a data projector, but that was not in the school's vision in 2006. So, I bought a data projector on TradeMe, drove from Napier to Hamilton to collect it, then proceeded to use it like a whiteboard or OHT. What was I thinking?!

I made lovely PowerPoint presentations and I got past the teaching part of the lesson much more quickly. It succeeded in giving more time for experiments and other learning experiences, so it wasn't totally stupid of me. Also, I could embed video clips and other dynamic images into my presentations, so this was nice. I was seen as innovative and embracing technology; I felt like a fraud. I had replaced the TV/DVD and OHT/Whiteboard with the Computer/Data Projector.

As an aside, within three years, every classroom in my school had a data projector.

Play and Collaborate

After realising that I had really only used technology to do the same things in a flasher, more modern way, I reflected and decided to change things. I actually went back to writing notes on the whiteboard; I still do, by the way! Briefer notes, with page references from the textbook, or just the instructions for a task. Handouts of any diagrams were distributed. I was going back to how things were before I got the data projector...but not completely.

I spent hours (literally hundreds) coming up with revision/learning games using PowerPoint and the data projector. I was going to get my students to collaborate, compete and, most importantly, engage in and enjoy my lessons. I designed a Trivial Pursuit game (it still relied on bringing in the board and game pieces, but that actually made it more fun) for Physics and started on one for Chemistry. I designed a generic revision game using the principles of baseball. I was shown templates for Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Jeopardy. I was asked to present how I used these games in IT Cluster meetings and staff meetings. Students I didn't know wanted to be in my class because we learned by playing games.

Baseball Revision Game: let me know if you want some guidelines for how to play it.


I went to my first ULearn 2006 in Christchurch, on the back of the work I was doing with games and trying to use technology in my classroom. I hope I was sent so I could be inspired to want to use technology even more and in even more interesting ways. Then, I was sent to Learning@School in Rotorua early the next year.

These conferences made me frustrated that technology was holding me back from doing real collaborative work with my classes. While we were looking at spending money on data loggers in Science, and justifying the expense of converting a classroom into a laboratory (because a few inspirational teachers had helped make the sciences so popular), I was also asking how I could get enough computers or laptops into my classroom to do some real learning.

Additionally, I was trying to get my students to collaborate via Blogger and/or Wikis. I was making some real headway with Class Blogs and even had one other colleague using them for Scholarship students across all of Hawkes Bay. However, without being able to access them in class on a daily basis, and without the technology to record those unplanned, amazing moments in class, students lost interest and were not even looking at the blogs, let alone posting any more. Frustration was setting in and I was starting to feel like a fraud again...and now I was thinking about to leaving the teaching profession.

ULearn08 came along at just the right time for my career. I needed to want to be a teacher again. I was going through the motions with my students getting good results or making pleasing improvements. But a huge focus on literacy made it all feel a little stale to me. I wanted students to be literate for a modern, ever-changing world, and this meant getting them on computers and,more importantly, online as often as possible. But, I taught Science, not IT; I couldn't get into a computer suite even once a month! While ULearn08 actually didn't give me any solutions to this, it did get me thinking about thinking. I remember that three key ideas stuck in my head: critique, create and collaborate. These ideas have been the basis of what I have wanted to do in every lesson since. I have not always succeeded with every student (or with any in some cases), but those are the goals.

Would you believe I did not even take my laptop to ULearn08? I took notes in a book, which I lost within 12 months. However, what I learned at the conference gave me some new visions for the 2009 year. I was going to face technology and bandwidth issues. Deal with it. Adapt. Get your students thinking. 2009 was the year I started to love teaching again. I didn't care about the frustrations, I cared about the pedagogy. Why? ULearn08. To this day, I cannot remember which presenters inspired me to adapt and to focus more on thinking than on knowledge. But I do know that after I got back from Christchurch, I had the passion back.

What changed? Actually, very little changed in the classroom. What really changed was my attitude. I worked with my students on problems and shared websites with them. I let them bring me things that they found online and we tried to work out if they were real or manufactured. I let my students inspire me with their questions. We don't know what the world would hold for us in the future, so let's just ask lots of questions and think of abstract ways to solve them. Let's be critical of what other people say on the internet.

Oh yeah, we better do the course work too. So let's buy some time... Read the notes at home. Try the exercises at home. I will teach you the concepts, knowing you have a little prior knowledge. Then we will discuss it, and a few of you might have thought of a context that matters to you when you did the homework. Hey, let's do this experiment. Lab report? Nah. Photograph it, and report it as a narrative please; it will mean more to you when you revise it. We will do proper lab reports when we practise for an assessed practical.

Moving On, Shaking It Up, Taking Risks

With a new lease on (teaching) life in 2009, I was not looking to leave Napier. Then a job came up in Christchurch that I really wanted. Christchurch will always be home for me, and this job was at a school I have always held in very high esteem, even when they were school-boy rivals for me! So, I took a chance and applied.

Just as I had given up, I was offered an interview, and subsequently offered a position there. I am now in my fourth year there and have already been sent to ULearn10, ULearn12 and ICOT2013. These conferences have inspired me even more... Add to that, some major interruptions in 2010 and 2011, I am living more and more in the ether, and expecting my students to do so as well.

By February 2011, I had been putting resources online for students at my new school for a year. I felt well-placed to provide information and activities online. Some aspects of my teaching had migrated to the digital arena, but nothing much had changed since Napier. This wasn't a bad thing; I was doing things well. I just wasn't doing things quite the way I wanted to; I still am not, but I have gained some serious momentum now!

When the earthquake struck, I was setting up an experiment with concentrated sulfuric acid and concentrated nitric acid; being chased by a trolley containing those chemicals was scary! Worse than any accident I've had in the lab, including setting myself on fire...

Putting aside the emotional and physical damage the earthquake did for a moment, think about this: you will not see your students for a month; parents (and many students) expect some sort of tuition will still be made available; we do not know what dispensation (if any) will be made for our students by NZQA. The resources and activities I had put online were a real asset. By the way, we were also closed due to snow in 2011 and in 2012. So, why can't we offer this level of support for our students normally? Wouldn't this allow us to do more of the real thinking and deeper learning in class? Naturally!

At ULearn10, I became really interested in Moodle as a Learning Management System. I was still a bit naive about it and had preconceptions about how it works, most of which were wrong! But it seemed a better fit than our current LMS for catering for collaboration and interactive activities. Some very valuable discussions with our ICT Director followed, then suddenly I was being asked to help phase Moodle in from 2012. Kid in a candy shop...!!!

I was still unsure how to achieve some of my pedagogical goals, but the light-bulbs were starting to ignite as I was exposed to what Moodle could do, then my whole brain lit up at ULearn12. I want my students to take risks so they can become more creative, more independent, and be better problem-solvers. Take the lead, you wimp!!! Stop wanting to do it "right" and just have a go!!

Thank you Kevin Honeycutt for the inspiration and some of the methods. Thank you also for making me realise that I just had to start, accept it wouldn't be perfect, then improve on it. ULearn12 was also great for one more reason: I started using Twitter better for collaborating with other educators. Now I tweet a lot, and have a few followers with whom I often share ideas.

This gets me to the point where this blog begins. Without some key moments in this journey, I would not even be teaching any more. And, even if I was, I would not be taking risks in the hope of making my students better learners. I made mistakes by being safe - thank goodness I learned from these mistakes. My beautiful city was brought to its knees; out of that came a necessity to provide more online opportunities. I was inspired by many intelligent, gifted people who presented at conferences or just sat and talked with me. Then there are those amazing colleagues, past and present, who are willing to share their ideas. There are pedagogical theories I strongly agree with and now the technology and bandwidth are available to me to start making it happen. Add to that, I have become more willing to try and fail in the hope that I try and succeed. Game On!

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