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.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Finding the Recipe

I have tried a lot of things to "jazz up" the teaching and learning in my Year 9 class.

In the past, I have seen students progress when I have a real literacy and key competency focus in each lesson, and rigid routines. However, this "formula" just doesn't work for so many students. Additionally, there are so many more valid possibilities now, with the technology at our fingertips.

This year, I have tried a mixture of things: collaborative notes in our Class Blog; online assignments; student inquiry; and using SOLO taxonomy, maps and rubrics. They have all had varying levels of success, and some notable issues which have been mentioned in earlier blog posts here. These successes and issues have led to a "recipe" for my Year 9 class.

Class Blog

This started out as a way for students to have turns posting their contributions instead of doing the class homework tasks. However, it has become a place where I post a record of the lesson every day so students can review the content if they missed something important or were away.

I think the way we run it now is a good compromise and will be the way I start the Class Blogs for Year 9 in the future. Then, if students wish to contribute themselves, they can ask to become authors and I will encourage that; I just won't expect it.

A key part of the blogging has been that I film myself teaching the concepts and my board work is photographed and uploaded as well. I have needed to establis some good routines in class to buy me time to do all of this.

Online Assignments

We use Moodle as our Learning Management System, and I am unashamedly a proponent of it. I had great ideas about creating quizzes that students could do during a unit and get immediate feedback from, and a weekly assignment which I would mark.

In reality, I just don't have enough hours in my week to achieve this (and to have a life, and write reports, and...and...and...). So, the focus this year is to have a weekly online assignment. Next year, I will add quizzes. In the future, I will probably scaffold the quizzes and add conditional access. This means that the students only get to do the harder quizzes if they do well enough in the easier quizzes.

Student Inquiry

We just finished our Astronomy topic. Part of the assessment of this topic is for the students to research as aspect of Astronomy and present their research as a poster/model, plus a speech/audio-visual presentation, plus a one-page report. Their "grade" is holistic and based on their information and research, not on their presentation per se.

This allows students to find a way of presenting information in a way which best suits them. It also gives me a vessel for teaching real research, rather than just using search engines and Wikipedia; databases, primary and secondary resources, newspaper and magazine articles, e-books... Thank you to our wonderful librarian for helping with this!

The results of this inquiry were pleasing for a variety of reasons. Most importantly to me, the level of student engagement was excellent and they cared about what they were learning about. Students took my criticisms and advice on board and actually assessed why their project would be of any interest to other people when doing research and creating their presentations.

Many of the posters were merely collections of information and this worried me initially. However, the speeches and audio-visual presentations were a different story altogether! Students talked with passion and showed a real understanding of their chosen topic. As an added bonus, the quality of the presentations was higher than anything the class had achieved in the other units so far.

This has driven me to want to include an inquiry and/or research element into every unit for the rest of the year. From the start of next year, I will try to have an inquiry/research element in every unit. The challenge is to make the inquiries varied in format and genuine to the students.

A very gifted colleague, Ginny Thorner, has inspired me to base inquiries around drama. I hope to work with her some more to plan such inquiries into a few units; we already have an idea which could be useful for Astronomy, and another for Ecology - watch this space!


SOLO has been an integral part of my teaching for nearly four years now. We had it as a school-wide goal for three years, which has helped make the terminology and the use of maps commonplace for our students across all subject areas. Therefore, basing tasks within a lesson around the SOLO taxonomy has helped give my students a sense of their respective ability and to be aware of what is required to reach the next level. It also was useful in the peer marking of our Astronomy work; the students' prediction of the grade I would give was usually spot-on.

Within a lesson, I aim to have two tasks at the "Multistructural" level. These are things like defining a concept or identifying some examples of a concept. All students are expected to complete these tasks and keep a record of them. These tasks are often collaborative, but each student records their group's results in their own book or laptop. For example, today the students had to describe decanting and filtration, including labelled diagrams.

Every lesson, I also set a task which is "Relational", with the potential to be answered to an "Extended Abstract" level. These tasks are often less explicit, sometimes without a "correct" answer. There are usually a few activities which the students can choose from to help them come to a conclusion. It is then up to them to justify their conclusion. For example, today I asked the students to decide what the best method was to separate suspensions. They were told that a good answer would probably compare and contrast decanting, filtration and centrifuge and that there was no "correct" answer. They were told that the experiment I had available could help them; there was also a Case Study in their book that could help them; and I told them that some simple research could help them too.

They chose which activities do do, but had to do the overall task. I will choose two at random tomorrow and read them out to the class; the class will help decide at which SOLO level the pieces of work are.


Concepts do need to be taught, but students need to learn the way that best suits them. Not every student will excel in every task, but they need to feel some sense of achievement in every lesson. Students need the time to explore ideas that matter to them. Differentiation and collaboration are the key things I see as being useful to achieve these goals. So how do I want my lessons and units to look?

Explain the key concepts within the lesson. Get this filmed. Do a demonstration/experiment.
10 minutes

Get the students to collaborate to create a group set of notes about the key concepts. DESCRIBE, IDENTIFY, DEFINE. Keep it simple. Everyone can achieve this - hopefully!
While this is happening, upload the video of the teaching to YouTube.
10 minutes

Differentiate (and Challenge)
Give the students an ambiguous question which will make them think. Give them some learning experiences, such as experiments, case studies, models to make, readings, etc. to help them come to their own conclusions. Let them collaborate. Give them more options than can be achieved in one lesson so they choose the activities that resonate with them.
Be Devil's Advocate and a provocateur when you move around and hear their ideas. Challenge them to explain their ideas further.
While this is happening, also get the blog post written and posted.
30 minutes plus homework time

Once the students are "armed" with some knowledge and skills, let them explore an aspect and/or application of the unit content in more depth. Spend time on this. Do genuine research. Get the findings presented in a way that the student(s) find is best for them. Be open-minded to ways information can be presented and opinions can be justified and expressed. Again, be a Devil's Advocate and provocateur. Be interested and enthusiastic about their work...but do ask why. Why is this work important to you? Why would I want to know about it?
2 weeks

Thursday, 13 June 2013


The Routines

Well, I have finally made filming my lessons a routine that students accept and expect. I have class blogs that students expect to either have to update or expect to see updated by others, especially if they are absent. I have one homework task set on Moodle each week which students know they have to complete, and they expect some quality feedback if they meet the deadline.

Senior students know they are expected to do work/research outside the classroom and come to class with a plan of which learning experiences and what content/skills they will be focusing on after I teach a new concept/skill at the start of the lesson.

My Year 9 class do not have the same routines for independent learning...yet. I tried this and it was an overwhelming failure. This class do still have my teaching filmed and I do a blog post during the lesson while they do their work.

If I am "off my game", we don't film my teaching and we embed something from Khan Academy, for example. Or I might film me teaching the concept/skill at a later date, then upload this to the blog.

The Outcomes

I have noticed a negligible change in my workload. If anything, I can manage my marking and student feedback better. The quality of students' homework responses tend to show gradual improvement. Students are reviewing the videos and blog posts and able to ask for more targeted help/guidance in class or via email. 

Students are actually managing the pace of their own learning more independently and seem to be more confident of the course content and skills than what I had noticed in the past when i just set the pace and they had to do the tasks I set them in one lesson.

Time management in the classroom has become less of an issue...apart from those students who are so absorbed in their own work that they are mid-task when the bell rings. Time management outside the classroom is good but I do need to check up on and check in with students regularly to make sure they are not falling behind.

Added to this, I am able to run tuition for Olympiad Chemistry every week, while only having a face-to-face tutorial or laboratory once every three weeks. Students can opt in or opt out of the online work depending on their respective workloads. They are actually looking forward to 7:15am tutorials/labs!!

Where Next?

My Year 9 class have just done independent research work, and it looks like this could be the first stage in moving them from teacher-directed lessons to student-directed learning. I need to grab this opportunity and plan some meaningful inquiries/projects which I could align with the remaining units of work.

I need to find more variety in my student-based tasks for all of my classes. Too many students resort to working through the book in class and wait for me to provide the experiments, rather than seeking out learning experiences they want to do. This is my responsibility, not theirs.

Basically, I am happy with the routines I have established as they allow students to work at their own pace, doing the types of tasks they feel most comfortable with. Students are using class time to collaborate and use me as a mentor which was one of my primary goals. What I have set up does not impact on my workload dramatically, and it will have even less impact once I have all of my classes set up properly on Moodle - they will just need refining year-to-year rather than starting afresh like this year. I just need to build on this good foundation to get some really amazing things happening with my students, both inside and outside the classroom.