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, 23 January 2014

Applying the Lessons Learned in 2013

With the academic year about to start, I thought it would be prudent to outline what I intend to try to achieve this year, building on lessons learned from my experiences, colleagues and PLN in 2013. I wonder how many of these I do actually achieve and how successful I am with the things I intend to try out (or continue to use).

Do Less Better

In 2012 and 2013 I gained the confidence to try a lot of initiatives: blogging reintroduced for classes; forums; online homework assignments; inquiry-based units; student-directed unit planning; SOLO-based scaffolding of lessons/tasks; filming the teaching moments of each lesson; online quizzes; group-based learning (changing the layout of the furniture, really); more student choice in presentation of findings; a student-run Science Show; trialing different devices...
As well as this, I was involved in leading a Professional Learning Group based on eLearning, particularly centred on our LMS, Moodle. I had responsibilities as a Unit holder in the Science Department, running Robotics, and I had the usual sporting commitments. I was doing too much and I was trialing too many different things at once.
So, what did I do? I gave up my leadership role in the Science Department. Robotics is being shared out amongst the members of the Science Department this year, and I have finally got some other coaches to help with some of the Futsal teams. I am also not managing our LMS this year. Good boy. Nope. In their place, I have taken up the role of Year 9 Dean.
So, I have made a promise to myself. I am going to use fewer initiatives and use them much better than in 2012 and 2013. I have had my "play"; it is now time to choose a few, become "expert" at using them, and refine what I already tried... Let's see if I keep that promise over the next four terms.

What to Keep?

There are a lot of things I am going to keep doing. There are others I would like to keep doing, but I don't think I can manage it all at once. Hopefully I can add those back into my repertoire in the future.


I am definitely going to keep having blogs for each of my classes. Not only did my students find these useful, so did their parents and students from other classes. They did not add much workload for me, yet huge value was added. I would like to change how the blogs are maintained for my senior classes and give the students more ownership of these, but I think it is best if I continue to be the primary blogger for my Year 9 class. The big change will be to set up a common username and password for each class so any student can blog, even if they do not have an account yet, or are too young.

"Rewind Me"

This was the lovely little term I stole off Kevin Honeycutt to describe what I was doing with a smartphone in the guise of a video camera in my room every day. This really ties in with the blogging, but I actually posted my videos on YouTube as well. Again, I received appreciative feedback from my own students, parents and students from other classes...and a few from other countries! This is so easy to set up and not a workload issue, so long as I don't care that it isn't "perfect"...ever.

Group-Based Learning/SOLO

I have put these two together for a very good reason. The commonality of SOLO terminology, verbs and HOTMaps throughout the school has made this a very powerful tool for informal peer- and self- assessment. The rubrics make formal peer- and self-assessment easier. They also help scaffold tasks or even entire lessons very well. This opens many doors for students to work collaboratively. I am not moving my desks back into rows again.

Science Shows

The success of our Science Show last year was amazing. For a first attempt, I was overwhelmed. The students were engaged, learned about trials and planning, and empathised with what it is like to teach a noisy (but enthusiastic) class. This year, I have already talked to the Year 3 teachers. We are going to do it again. This time, we plan to do it over two lessons (somehow create a "double period"), so there can be more questioning. The Year 3 students will follow up with questions for the Year 9 students, via a video conference or letters...I'm not sure of the format yet. We are also planning on moving it to the start of the year. Then, the Year 9 students can reflect on their show and, later in the year, we could put on another show but for an older audience, such as the Year 6 classes.

What to Change?

Inquiry-Based Units

While it was great to let my students choose the context of their units and the format of their presentations, their inquiries were still not overly authentic. As such, a lot of the content was very superficial. The students need to be guided to come up with their own inquiry questions and to justify why they want to learn more about a given topic. I also need to find ways to connect students with genuine experts or ways to link their learning to their own community. I know this will require hard work, but the "What to Keep?" list isn't overly daunting.

Student-Directed Unit Planning/Online Homework

In the NCEA examinations, the units where the students directed their own pace and order or learning (rather than being explicitly taught by me) were the ones where my students generally enjoyed a higher level of success. However, the more apathetic of my students generally completely crashed in these particular units. Therefore, I am going to need to find more ways to make the students more personally accountable for their learning. I have considered a log, of sorts, outlining: what they intend to learn next week; how they intend to learn it; and how they will know they have succeeded in learning it. This would be followed up over the weekend with a reflection on how confident they are with what they learned, including any barriers they encountered with their learning and how they could be overcome, even if this is getting me to explain it to them.
This is going to have to be complemented with homework questions in a similar format to what they would expect in formal assessments, as well as opportunities to explore a concept deeper, and/or justify an opinion. I didn't do this enough last year and I did not make my students accountable enough for not completing the tasks I did set. This is not a big change, but it is an important one.

What to Stop?


This is a reaction to student voice; they simply did not contribute often enough and too many contributions were trite. Setting up and monitoring these was actually a lot of work and, ultimately, not a good use of time. I am still going to have a general Discussion Forum in each Course on Moodle, but I won't set topics and will only monitor it every now and then to check to suitability or contributions.

Online Quizzes

We are actually still doing these for our Year 9 students, but I will not be adding any more. I am much happier with quick-fire quizzes at the start and/or end of lessons if I want to check recall of basic facts. I might use Socrative though, as this can be competitive and fun.

Trialing Devices

This is not because I think it is bad idea; a lot of learning came out of trialing new devices. It is because we discovered which devices our students preferred for BYOD in 2013 by doing these trials. This year, my Year 9 bring their own device, and I expect to see more and more devices in my classroom for other year groups too. I am introducing my own MS Surface into the classroom, but not until after I have trialed it (played with it, really) outside the classroom. With everything else going on in my classroom, I need to be competent with my devices before I employ them in the learning process.

Anything New?


I do intend to use OneNote to create templates for my Year 9 class for keeping their work organised. This has been trialed by some colleagues in 2013, so I will lean on them for guidance, and my HoD has indicated that the workload will be spread across all Year 9 teachers this year.

Finally, I am going to have to say "yes" less often. I have some clear ideas in my head for which initiatives complement my teaching philosophy. If I try more, it has to be once the routines for the others are already well-established. If I take on more jobs or responsibilities, what will be compromised? It is time to do less and do it really well.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Blogging "Tag"

I got "tagged" (nominated) by @JackBillie35, then by @ReidHns1 in their respective blogs: http://newadventureslearning.blogspot.co.nz/ and http://teachingyoume.blogspot.co.nz/

The blogging task includes:

  • Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  • Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  • List 11 bloggers.
  • Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

11 Random Facts

  1. I have lived in the UK twice, once in Cheshire and once in Northern Ireland. However, both times were for only three months each.
  2. I learned German at high school, although I understand French better than German now, despite never taking a French lesson in my life.
  3. I am extremely competitive, particularly when playing sport and games.
  4. I have a strong sense of fairness (a little ironic when you look at #3...).
  5. I referee and coach Futsal to a relatively high level, and have refereed Football to National League level.
  6. I hate talking on the phone, but love face-to-face and written/typed conversations...go figure!
  7. I tore my right Achilles tendon only two days before opening in Napier Operatic Society's Beauty and the Beast, taking me from being an onstage actor/dancer to a backstage singer.
  8. I have played the part of Edward Lyons in Blood Brothers.
  9. I have a husky-malamute cross called Rookie.
  10. My favourite band is Alice in Chains, but like many from my generation, I like most music from the "Seattle Scene" from the late 1980s to mid 1990s.
  11. My tertiary qualifications are primarily  in Biology but I have never taught that subject beyond Year 11.

Answers to @JackBillie35's Questions:

  1. What was your best teaching moment in 2013? There were two and I can't separate them, but they have the same theme. My Year 9 students teaching Science to two Year 3 classes. Then, in the first week of my summer holidays, I demonstrated some simple Science experiments with dry ice to some Year 2 students in Hawkes Bay.
  2. Where is your favourite place to go and why? Central Otago. I can't narrow it down to one place. Great wine, beautiful lakes, Rail Trail...
  3. What is one hobby that you have been doing for your whole life? Football.
  4. Who is the most influential person in your life? My father. He helped foster my love of Science, puns and "kept things real" for me.
  5. What is your favourite book and why? Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. It makes the history of Science accessible and humorous.
  6. If you could be a superhero which one would you be and why? Ironman. I love his gadgets and arrogance.
  7. Do you prefer electronic books or actual books? Why? Actual books. I like physical pages and physical bookmarks. I've never tried using electronic books though, yet...
  8. If you won LOTTO would you still keep teaching? No. Moot point as I never buy a ticket. But if I was to come into an obscene amount of money, I would tutor and put more time into Futsal and Football instead.
  9. What is the best way you switch off from school? Walk my dog or play Indoor Football.
  10. What are you a geek about? (Definition - become excited or slightly obsessive about!) I am a quintessential Science Geek.
  11. What would you like to change in 2014? Try fewer initiatives and use the ones I choose more effectively.

Answers to @ReidHns1's Questions:

  1. Who would you invite to your dream dinner party? (8 invites & they can already be deceased) Tough one!! This list might make for interesting discussions to listen in on: Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, Dara O'Briain, Richard Dawkins, Neil Armstrong, Tim Minchin, Brian Cox
  2. What is the first LP/Cassette/CD that you purchased? Def Leppard's Hysteria.
  3. What concert would you most love to go to? (Past or future) Queen at Wembley
  4. What is the one piece of equipment you can't go without in your classroom? (Computers or devices don't count!) Whiteboard markers!
  5. What is the one piece of advice you wish you had received in teacher training? Build relationships first. Once they know you care about them, the more likely they are to want to go on the journey you want to take them on.
  6. What was the most important thing you learned from your first principal? Teaching makes you a public figure, whether you like it or not.
  7. How long should teachers stay at each school? At least three years. The longest I have been at one school was nine years, and that felt like a good amount of time.
  8. Vegemite/Marmite/Neither? Marmite, but I'm not that keen on either.
  9. Star Wars or Star Trek? Star Trek but I like both for different reasons.
  10. What would be your super power? Invisibility. I'd love to see how my classroom operates without me there...
  11. Kid President tells us to be more awesome as teachers. What will you do this year to help your kids be more awesome? Try to pose problems and set tasks which allow them to "own" their own learning and to express themselves in their own way.

My 11 Questions:

  1. What inspired you to become a teacher?
  2. What is/are the biggest change/s you made to your teaching in 2013?
  3. What is the best thing about being a teacher?
  4. Which country do you most want to visit/revisit next? Why?
  5. What does Christmas mean to you?
  6. What are your favourite films? I'm not specifying a number, but don't go overboard...
  7. What type of music do you listen to?
  8. Film or theatre? Why?
  9. What pet/s do you have?
  10. What are you looking forward to most in 2014?
  11. If you had a million dollars but had to give it all away, what would you do with the money?


Sorry to break the rules and only nominate six, but others I might have nominated have already done this on their blogs.
  • @mcclure_heather
  • @AndreaHenson_nz
  • @phpnz
  • @dukelyer
  • @MissDSciTeacher
  • @GeoMouldey