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, 26 January 2013

ICOT 2013 - Day Four Reflections

Capturing Attention, Maintaining Attention, Making Memories and Being Creative

On Day One and Day Four, I went to workshops run by Mike Scaddan (http://www.brainstems.co.nz/). He has worked with successful people in a variety of fields and has looked at a lot of research about brain function. He applies what he has learnt and experienced to helping students and athletes pay attention, maintain attention, and make memories. Needless to say, he also has a lot to say about motivation and being 'excellent'. I also had the pleasure of a few candid chats with Mike throughout ICOT; I felt like quite the 'groupie'!!

PAY ATTENTION! Getting their attention focused on the right thing and keeping it there...

When we teach, how do our students know what to pay attention to? We use all of our senses, but filters limit how much we actually pay attention to. In the secondary sector, we are lucky that most of our students' senses are pretty well-developed; our challenge is getting past these 'filters'.

Do we cater for all senses? Do we create filters which turn students off? Too much teacher talk creates filters. Too much sitting creates filters. Sitting for too long creates a major filter - fatigue! "When the bum is numb, the brain is too."

Activate the cerebellum with novelty, movement and excitement/risk taking (low level). This creates enjoyment and experiences.
e.g. Make yourself a map or globe; now point out key geographical features.
e.g. fists to model particles.

99% of stimuli is immediately dropped as being unimportant. How do we overcome this?
Development of using the senses to make sense of the world around us:

  1. Offactory
  2. Gustatory
  3. Kinaesthetic
  4. Tactile
  5. Visual
  6. Auditory
Yet, we primarily (traditionally) teach using visual and auditory cues. How will you use all of these senses to learn in your lessons?

Students have a variety of learning strengths; let them use them!!


USE IT OR LOSE IT! Remembering the Learning

Once we get past the filters, and the students are actually paying attention to the 'right' thing, those memories only go into the short-term memory - sometimes only 15 seconds, then it is gone!! If this is not put into practice or made personally relevant, it will all be for nothing.

Students need to use/experience what they have learnt to start making memories. Initially, the brain stores the learning in a 'working memory'; you remember it so long as you use it, but you lose it (sometimes only temporarily, admittedly) once you stop using it - this is why revision/study works!

The real challenge is making long-term memories. This actually links to the conclusions about capturing attention. If you give opportunities for students to learn using a variety of senses, you will be offering a variety of opportunities to learn the same 'lessons'. This repetition (lots of different experiences based on the same learning outcomes) is not the same as doing the same types of exercises/activities over and over; that is learning by 'rote' - it works, but is not stimulating!

SO WHAT?! Motivating the Learners

I am going to combine what I learnt from a few presenters here, as the same messages seem to be coming through very strongly.
  1. Emotional Reaction/Attachment: pose provocative problems; get learners to make predictions
  2. Personal Sense/Personal Meaning: give flexibilty/variety to choose the context, or the sequence of learning; choose contexts which are real and relevant to the learners (not necessarily to you!)
  3. Respect/Value: make sure every learner's voice is heard and respected as a possibility - how can we be creative if we get 'shot down' when we are not giving the expected answer
The limbic part of the brain (emotional response) is the “home base”.
For boys, this (generally) means:
  1. What’s in it for me?
  2. Why am I doing this?
For girls, this (generally) means:

  1. What's in it for me?
  2. What will it do to/for my relationships?
Keep these in mind when planning lessons/units.Yet again, we see the theme of the brain looking for patterns, and feeling a sense of reward in trying to find valid/correct answers. We encourage this giving students opportunities to take “safe” risks.

Learning Environment

The first way to encourage quality thinking which will lead to more creativity and lateral thinking is to create a "safe" environment for thinking and collaborating.
Traditionally, we had something like this:

The Unspoken Classroom Contract - adapted from Dr Bob Katterns
  1. The teacher talks most of the time
  2. The teacher is right
  3. The teacher does the thinking/directs the lesson
  4. The teacher chooses which students get to answer
  5. The teacher will ask most of the questions
  6. There is only one right answer to the question

Students know they don't know but are scared to admit it. What learning can happen in that environment. This is something I have worked hard to eliminate in my teaching ever since I walked into my first classroom. I never did any research, but I think most educators would agree that a positive, supportive environment and relationships support quality learning a lot.

Also, be aware of the effect of your actions on your students’ amygdala (fight or flight response); don’t make them afraid/uncomfortable to be in the space where learning should occur and be safe.

A Positive Learning Environment:

  1. Create the learning environment (where they do the work and the learning)
  2. Teach the skills and strategies
  3. Have a purpose and transfer for the learning

Overarching these: self-talk and belief; choice and variety; passion, compassion and consistency:

  • Clear Operating Values
  • Sequence to Success (exemplars etc)
  • No blame, I’ll explain
  • Warm-ups, modelling and reviews
  • One thing taught at a time
  • Multiple Repetitions/competition
  • Mixed ability/flexible groups

Human Motivation

  • When you get something for nothing, its worth is limited/nothing
  • Without obligation, learners disengage
  • Obligations may be about behaviour and readiness
  • Obligations must be school-wide to have value

EUREKA! Creative Thinking

People who are encouraged to take risks will surprise you. And yes, you can teach creativity/lateral thinking. I like an analogy that Edward De Bono gave about driving to work. I have adapted it a bit so it makes more sense to me, so I can tell the story better:

You drive the same way to work every day. It is a quick way to get there and you have driven that way so long that you can do it without thinking about it now. There is nothing at all wrong with going to work this way.


Then, one day there are roadworks and you have to look for another way to get to work. You were so conditioned at going your usual way that you do not instinctively know how best to get to work.
Over the next few days you try a few possible routes to get to work until you find another one you like; it may even be better than your original way but you would never had known without the roadworks!
Familiarity with the problem had actually blocked your creativity and ability to think laterally. Even if someone had told you another way to get to work, until the roadworks, you probably had no reason to try it out.

Keeping in mind the story is only an analogy, what does this mean for making my students more creative and opening their minds to other possible solutions? A good thinker will "block" the obvious answer and look for alternatives. Opportunities for this need to be offered in class.
My students tell me I am very good at explaining concepts and processes in a range of ways and giving different ways of approaching a problem. Fine, but who is doing the work? And why should they try my 'other' approaches unless the first one I taught them didn't work for them?
What I should be doing is giving the problem and letting the students find ways to approach the problem, then share their conclusions with each other. Get them to do the work: "the brain that does the work does the learning."
In some cases, I also see the possibility to introduce "roadworks" in their process and challenge them to find another way to solve the same problem. Some of the tasks we do using SOLO HotMaps would work this well. e.g. Analyse how the ear works. The next task to this would be to infer what you would have to do if the hair cells in our cochlea are damaged.

ICOT 2013 - Day Three Reflections

Day Two

Day Two was interesting but held little that I could actively apply to my classroom. As such, I will not be recording my reflections of Day Two; instead those ideas will fester in my little brain and make me a better citizen...


I went to a very enjoyable interactive and energetic presentation by David Koutsoukis (www.acropolisleadership.com)about identifying and controlling your own cognitive processes. With these tools, you can help create an environment and experiences which promote attention, thinking and learning. For me, it defined a lot of what I already do in the classroom to achieve these outcomes, but never really knew if/why they worked.
Additionally, David talked about using "Intelligence Leadership" Model, both in the classroom and in professional dialogue with colleagues.

Intelligence: The ability to recognise, label, predict, respond to, and initiate patterns.
Leadership: The ability to inspire and enable yourself and others.
There are three types of leadership to consider:
  1. Self-Leadership
  2. People Leadership
  3. Organisational Leadership

In a nutshell:
  • Try to maintain calmness/equanimity. This is a good place for your brain to function/learn. How often are you in this emotional state? When are you emotional? When are you agitated?
  • Understand what type of personality you have (which sphere of your brain is dominant?)
    Understand that others have different personalities – cater for these in your lessons/PD sessions.
  • When do you have high energy levels? This is when you should make the important decisions.

I think I will encourage my students (and maybe even my colleagues) to 'play' this meta-cognition game early in the year. For my students, it will be to understand their personal learning/thinking strengths and why they do not 'click' with everyone else. As well as self-awareness and social tolerance, it should make it easier to guide them towards suitable learning/studying strategies.
It would be great to get David in to work with the staff for similar reasons. His energy and strategies seem wonderful for making people want to learning, want to collaborate and be tolerant/accepting of others and others' ways of doing things.

What do I need to accommodate for in my lessons and meetings?

What do I need to ask of others once they are more self-aware?

What About Me?

I know that I often fit into different 'boxes' depending on the environment and situation. David explained that would be the case but we 'naturally' associate more with one than the others; also there is often one that is definitely a 'polar opposite' to us.

  • curious
  • impulsive
  • playful
I think this the one that resonates with me the most, but the poor outcomes (and judgment of others) of impulsive decisions throughout my life have 'killed' a lot of my natural creativity and willingness to take risks. However, my natural curiosity has never wavered. Heaven knows that I hate giving in-depth justifications/reasons, hate being 'one of the crowd' and am a shocker when it comes to being distracted! When I look deep inside, I love taking risks; being careful makes sense but is doesn't 'feel right' for me. I guess that is why I haven't been scared to try new teaching and learning strategies, to film my teaching/lessons, and to put my thoughts and practices out there on the internet...

  • practical
  • careful
  • organised
I have become more and more like this - society and professional necessity has driven me to take on many of these attributes. I usually organise my lessons to the nth degree and consider a multitude of possible permutations regarding behaviour, student responses to questions etc. This is a good thing. Sadly, I was a very 'safe' teacher and have become too 'safe' in many things I do now. But naturally, this is the one which resonates least with me.

  • analytical
  • logical
  • problem-solver
As a Scientist, it is not surprising that I have developed these skills as inherent parts of my psyche. I just know that I am far too emotional to have selected this as being dominant in determining my responses and reactions.

  • sensitive
  • spiritual
  • emotional
I do not like confrontation, but get wound up (invested??) enough in ideas or situations to naturally be confrontational. I am also quite trusting, following my 'gut' instincts. But there is no way I am empathetic enough or a good enough listener to be described as 'The Carer'.

Capturing and Maintaining Attention

Judy Wills, M.D. gave some insight into the neuroscience behind successful (and other) teaching strategies used to capture attention and to maintain it. To be honest, I felt like we were being treated like primary school children for much of her talk, but there was a lot of affirmation for strategies I support the use of.
As mammals, we are 'programmed' to pay attention to changes in the norm (changes in patterns), especially if these changes are a perceived threat.

Strategies to direct students’ attention:
  • sound (volume changes, pitch changes, cadence)
  • colour
  • movement (if you move around, this makes the students’ heads/eyes move and changes the background; these open the intake filters for at least a short time)
  • your appearance
  • curious items

  • walk backwards (teaching negative numbers, reverse timelines etc)
  • suspenseful pauses
  • curious videos
  • use promos for something that is coming up

What about those students who might be distressed by change or the unexpected?
  • Plan and partner with them
  • Let parents know

Draw attention with cues; don’t just say “pay attention”! e.g. Certain colours for levels of importance. A change is tone/pitch etc to emphasise importance.

Curiosity gets attention; prediction sustains attention. The brain seeks the pleasure that rewards accurate predictions. Why? It releases dopamine!

Judy used the idea of getting the students to make predictions at the start of the lesson. These predictions are recorded and "held up" so you know the students have done it. These predictions can be changed at any time throughout the lesson, as they get more "clues" about the possible answers. At the end of the lesson, they will know if they are right or wrong, but not have to share that. I can see this being a very useful and enjoyable way to explore a concept where there is really only one or two correct answers:
  • personal accountability
  • lower fear of failure/participation

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

ICOT 2013 - Day One Reflections

1. Measuring Success

How do we measure someone’s success? How do we know that they are successful? These were the questions posed by Ewan McIntosh at the start of his keynote speech at ICOT 2013. He explained that how good ideas can become great, and outlined some ways to help our students (and ourselves) to become great thinkers.
A few key points resonated with me, and a few ideas I will record here just so I have them for further reference. In a nutshell, four key things can lead to great thinking and great ideas:
  • Know the "why"
  • Be an agent provocateur
  • Trust the process
  • Live to perform
So, how do these apply to my classroom? Will they change or adapt what I currently do?

Know the Why

When Ewan started on this, I thought I knew what he was going to say: Students need a context and to see the relevance of what they are learning in their own lives. Yes, this was part of it. But there is a lot more to it than that!
Students should also understand why a problem or an idea is important to others - empathy! Honestly, I had not considered the absolute importance of this. It can allow a problem to be approached from a variety of angles and come up with novel solutions.
What could this look like for my class?
I envisage giving more time to investigate, explore and research a problem. Ideally, students would be encouraged to interview people in different industries and different walks of life about the problem they are investigating. But will every unit in every class at every year level have appropriate issues to investigate in this way? Yes, but I do not think that I am creative enough to think of problems/issues/contexts for every one of them; this will be something I will develop over many years, I think.

Be an Agent Provacateur

This mirrors something I have always believed in and is supported by evidence and presentations given by Mike Scaddan in this conference and in ULearn12. This is something I think I do well already. I use stories and points-of-view which evoke emotional responses from my students.
Emotions help you remember things; you have an invested interest in your emotions. Emotions can also provide the motivation to investigate something in more depth.

Trust the Process

What is 'the' process? This was a little unclear to me, probably because I am not a "great thinker". But here are the sub-headings, which I hope to be able to make more sense of in the near future. If I can understand 'the' process and believe in it, then I can guide my students to use the process.
  1. Empathy (understand the problem/issue/context from a variety of points-of-view)
  2. Define (have a clear definition of the specific problem; why are we spending time on this?)
  3. Ideat (maybe use post-it notes to get every group member's idea onto paper)
  4. Prototype
  5. Feedback

Live to Perform

I love this idea - don't be scared to put your idea/solution out there. Be a performer! I am already encouraging my students to share ideas using blogs (authentic, international audience) and forums in Moodle ("safe" audience of classroom peers). So, what next to really get my students to love performing? Videos on YouTube, perhaps...? I think my students might offer better ideas than I could ever come up with, so I might leave them the flexibility to present how they see fit in many cases.

Other Ideas

Some other 'catch phrases' and ideas resonated with me:

  • “Non-Googleable” ideas/questions: these are the things we should spend class time looking into. This is valuable learning. Just go look up the “Googleable” questions in your own time.
  • What if you could only deliver six lecture-type lessons all year; what would they be about? For the rest of the year, let the students learn in the other ways that children learn....
  • Pose. pause. pounce, bounce..
  • Don’t assess too early!
  • Creative people are content to have their ideas taken apart; they will just come up with some more ideas...

2. Context-Based Learning

There has been some great work done on context-based units of work in Science. Georgina Barrett et al at Lincoln High School have collaborated with NZTA and Pam Hook to develop a detailed unit on Road Safety. It covers aspects of biology and physics while also looking at being a responsible citizen (speeding etc).
Burnside High School's Physics department has also done some great work on context-based units for both Level 2 and Level 3 (NCEA). These contexts stride across more than one Achievement Standard and focus on investigation and deeper understanding.
I can see a lot of positives with teaching through contexts but know I will struggle to find suitable contexts in every subject and every year level that I teach. How do I find contexts which will have enough scope and interest for my students to do work which is meaningful and genuine for them?
I had an idea which I would love to trial with my Year 9 class this year, inspired by the work at Lincoln HS and a recent documentary on Discovery Channel:
Life on Earth is under threat. The human race needs to leave Earth to survive. What might cause this scenario? How might we leave Earth? Who gets to leave; who has to stay and die? Where do we go? How do we find places to go?
This idea could cover aspects of Conservation, Astronomy. It could generate some great debate. It has huge scope, potentially. I will let you know how it goes....