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.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Growth Industry

I work in the most important growth industry in the world - education. And this industry relies upon building (growing) positive and trusting relationships if it is going to have successful outcomes for all involved.

Let Their Minds Grow

What does a good teacher do? A lot, of course. Ultimately though, surely a good teacher is there to empower students to learn more knowledge and more skills that they can apply to:
  • the subject
  • their lives in general

Giving clear learning outcomes and learning objectives are vital. Equally as vital are things such as: encouraging students to ask questions which matter to them; how to find things out for themselves; and how to listen to other people's points of view, especially when trying to make an informed decision.

Let Their Confidence Grow

A really good teacher doesn't necessarily have to be a really good academic. In fact, my best teachers gave me the confidence to express myself and reduced my inherent fear of being wrong, regardless of their academic credentials. Even now, as an adult who loves to learn, I am becoming more and more prepared to take risks and to allow myself (and my work) to be criticised. It is only because of others, who I personally rate as excellent teachers/educators, that I have this confidence. How selfish would it be if I did not use these ideas to help my own students...?

Let Their Relationships Grow

As if subject content wasn't enough, the effective teacher also has to make sure students are good citizens. A really good teacher will encourage students to reflect on the impact upon others of their actions (or global decisions). Being a protagonist works for me, but every teacher is different...and thank goodness for that!

Let Them Grow

What, teachers do even more?! We are also coaches, supporters, mentors, directors...the list goes on (and on, and on). We are in the most important growth industry around. We are harvesting the future. So surely it is our responsibility to keep up with all the best ways to empower our students to grow and to find their own unique niche and skills set. I use technology (and terrible puns and jokes). And surely it is the responsibility of every country's government to help us do this for every student... 

Friday, 8 March 2013

Digital Natives...Really?!

At the moment, I am trying to get my Year 9 students to create a lab report. They can use any technology they like and the experiment is a very straight-forward one. However, I have needed IT support in my room every lesson, and have been completely stressed out by the students who are struggling to save and/or analyse their work. This idea of our young people being "Digital Natives" is proving to be a real misnomer!

I have learned a very important lesson here: I need to allow for more differentiation regarding the use of technology, not just for the Science being taught. I was hoping that the freedom would allow students to discover ways to create a lab report and how to use technology to help them. Instead, it has created stress for some poor souls, and for me!

In the future, I am going to set up a space where I will work with students having particular issues. For example, on Day One of this task next year, I plan to show the students how to film and/or photograph themselves doing the experiment and upload this to their SkyDrive (or YouTube, or something similar). On Day Two, I plan to show the students how to put their results into a table, then create a graph from these results. Those who do not need the tuition can just get on with their work.

I am hoping this approach will better-cater for those who are not the "Digital Natives" I hoped would be entering my classroom while still allowing others to move ahead if they already have great ideas. I would love some comments...

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Balancing Act

I am loving the way my senior classes are running right now. My students are managing their own learning having been given some direction from me so they know what they have to learn and by when. It makes my job easier and more fun, but it is a careful balancing act.

How do I know that they are learning things well enough? How do I know that they are learning the skills required to answer an exam question? How do the parents know that their child is learning?

The Guide

Students need to know what they are expected to master and by when. I need to be a guide who shows them how to use tools such as planning and researching. I need to model some different ways to learn so they can use the ones that work best for them. I need to help them be critical of their own strengths and weaknesses so they can set realistic goals for each topic, or each aspect of a topic.

The Mentor

A key thing I do to walk this exciting tightrope is to make sure that I do not just sit at my desk during lessons. I move around and check in with the groups in my classroom. Check in, not check up on. How can I help? Is there anything you need explained? Are you on track for timing? Are there any resources you need tomorrow? It can be tough to identify students who struggle unless they are honest and proactive, but it makes me feel useful, if nothing else. It also makes the students aware that I am not being lazy, I am trusting them and there if they need me. This also allows students to work at their own pace, knowing i am there to help when needed, but will also leave them alone if they are doing just fine without me.

The Assessor

I use weekly online assignments, based upon NCEA questions, to check the level of understanding of my students. This is the part of my balancing act that stops me feeling insecure and helps me identify students who are bluffing in class or struggling with the work. Without these assignments, I would struggle to "sell" what we are doing in class to the students, to my colleagues, or to parents. Already, these regular assignments have helped me identify students who need support and I have made time to mentor them in class more than the students who are already coping well.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Power of Play

Today was the first day of a two-week laptop and tablet trial in my classroom. I completely changed my learning objectives for the week to cater for these new devices...and to see what magic my students come up with themselves.


In my Year 9 Science class, we are learning about doing Fair Tests ("Scientific Method(s)") and "writing" lab reports. So, today I asked them to use the laptops/tablets to identify the things a lab report should have. Why do we bother putting time and effort into them at all? Discuss....

Then, I gave them a Fair Test to do this week. It is easy: here is a spring, here is a ruler, here are some masses. What happens when you put different masses on the spring? I am being ambiguous on purpose, by the way.

You have one week to do the investigation and create a lab report. I was very deliberate about using the word "create:, not "write". I want to see what happens.

Play and Learn

I made another tactical decision: I would not show the students how to use the devices. I let them choose which device to use (although we only have 10 of each). Some students still used their own devices, of course...until I told them they could download any apps they wanted/needed etc.

Very little traditional Science followed in this lesson. Real learning happened, though! Students worked out how to film, photograph, type, draw, research...then lost everything when they realised they didn't know how to store their work!!

Again, I was tactical with this. I want to see how they want to store things. A few have cottoned onto SkyDrive. Some others want to upload directly to our class blog. The students are problem-solving because they want to save their "play"/work.


I have allowed a complete week for my students to do a task which should take two lessons. This time is to allow real learning to happen, not just with finding their own "Scientific Method", but also to work out how they want to use the technology. I want their feedback so they need time to explore the technology without a draconian deadline over their heads.

What a day!!! I am still buzzing despite a delayed international flight depriving me of any sleep last night. I am more excited about the tablets and laptops than my students, albeit for intrinsically different reasons. I cannot wait to see what these lab reports will look like. How many will be videos? How many will be hybrids of text and graphs and static images and videos? How many will be completely unexpected? Buzzing...