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.

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