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.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Our New Science Course

SOURCE: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/
How does your Science Department cater for those students for whom Science is a swear word? I mean the type of swear word they use in anger or frustration, not the type that makes them sound like they have “street cred”, by the way! We run a completely internally-assessed course with small numbers of students in each class. This has helped rebuild confidence in scientific skills and thinking, enjoyment for Science, and helped students achieve a meaningful number of credits in a course they were predisposed to hate and/or fail in.

In 2015, we are changing the format of this course a little. Students will be encouraged to follow their own (individual or collective) passions, and formulate these into rigid inquiries. This will give the course a heavy Nature of Science theme, without really having a strong focus on any one “branch” of Science. Students will be learning about things they are passionate and inherently interested in, and being assessed on their inquiries against the most-applicable Achievement Standards.

There will still be some prescribed Achievement Standards being used to assess the students’ inquiries, and there are two topics which have predetermined Achievement Standards being used to assess them. This way, we hope to cater for those students who respond better to explicit instruction, as well as those who need the freedom to explore their own passions. Either way, I hope the students show an increase in scientific literacy and ability to think scientifically.

Topic One: Chemical Reactions

SOURCE: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/
What better way to start a Science course than exploring chemical reactions? Our first topic is going to be looking at different types of chemical reactions and using our knowledge and observations to classify these reactions (e.g. combustion, precipitation, displacement). We will work with the students on writing word equations, formulae and balanced equations for these reactions, although there are no illusions that some students may struggle with these latter skills.

We have yet to decide how to assess this unit, except that we are going to use Achievement Standard 90947 (Investigate selected chemical reactions). The resources available online use portfolio-type assessments and/or one-off assessed laboratory sessions. To be consistent with the other outcomes of the course, it may be better to get the students to keep a portfolio of their work. Something to ponder over the holidays…

Topic Two: Inquiry Processes

This is our first point-of-difference from how the course was run in the past. In this topic, students will be mentored through an inquiry process. I am still working on the templates for making this process more transparent for the students, but do know there will need to be explicit milestones to identify for the students if their inquiries are to have any substance. We will need to do a lot of work on critical analysis of the reliability and usefulness of sources students use in their respective inquiries.

SOURCE: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/
One of the big decisions we made before the holidays was to allow our students to do this particular inquiry on anything they want. The only “rule” will be that it has to be an inquiry, not just a research project. That means posing and answering a question, or challenging an opinion/claim (e.g. “The moon landing was a hoax”).

We will be looking at assessing the students’ inquiry processes using an English Achievement Standard, 90853 (Use information literacy skills to form conclusions). If a student’s inquiry also involves measurements, we may be able to also assess their work using a Mathematics Achievement Standard, 91030 (Apply measurement in solving problems), If a student’s inquiry does indeed involve a scientific context, there are many Science internally-assessed Achievement Standards that we can look at to see if they should be encouraged to submit a report (written, video, digital…) to be assessed against one of these as well.

Topic Three: Fair Testing

All of our Year 11 students have their ability to plan, carry out, and analyse a practical investigation assessed using Achievement Standard 90935 (Carry out a practical physics investigation that leads to a linear mathematical relationship, with direction). The students in this course will be no different. I foresee the work we do in preparing for this assessment having a real positive spin-off for the rest of the course.

Topic Four: Scientific Inquiry

This is potentially the culmination of the other topics. The hope is that the students can be mentored (by us) to find authentic Science-centred inquiries to pursue for the remainder of the year. Depending on what they choose to do, they may collect more evidence for the Achievement Standards already assessed earlier in the year. Ideally, they will also collect enough evidence in their inquiries to be able to be assessed against other Science internally-assessed Achievement Standards.


Term One will be primarily focused on the Chemical Reactions topic, and starting the students’ first inquiries. Teacher-student meetings will be a big part of making sure students are progressing well in their inquiries and checking what support and help they need. The only formal assessment in Term One will be AS90947.

Term Two will see the conclusion of the first inquiry, and the reporting of this. Feedback will be given, leading to the students making a submission to be assessed against AS90853. Depending on the timeline for the other Year 11 Science courses, we will then either work on Fair Testing, or start our first Science Inquiry.

Term Three should be very similar to Term Two, ideally with a second Science Inquiry being undertaken. As inquiries progress, potential Achievement Standards should be identified in conjunction between each student and the teacher. The aim for Term Four is to give the students time to turn their processes and findings into submissions for the Achievement Standards the students have elected to be assessed against.


We have a mid-year report and a final report at the end of the year. The mid-year report will report on AS90955 (Investigate an astronomical or Earth science event) which we get the students to submit at the end of Year 10, as well as AS90947 and AS90853. Potentially, students will already have 12 credits earned before the end of Term Two.

At the end of the year, we will only report on the common Achievement Standards, not the individually-elected ones. This means the course will appear to only have 16 credits available, but I expect to be able to find at least two more Science Achievement Standards per student to assess that student’s work against throughout the year.