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.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Never Too Young to Ask

Earlier in the year, my Year 9 class connected with the Year 3 classes through a Science Show. There was a hope that the Year 3 students would see the Year 9 students as "Science experts" to whom they could direct questions. This term, I was contacted by one of the Year 3 teachers, as some of her class had some tricky questions about Microbiology. They wanted me to answer their questions, as they saw me as the expert, not my students. This was not quite the intent, but it still gave me an idea. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity for me to reconnect with the Year 3 students and to explore their ideas and questions in Microbiology, one of my favourite fields of Science.


The email I was sent was one of those communiques that you cannot ignore:
I could not quite accommodate their every wish, but I asked Jane if she wanted me to do a Microbiology lesson for the class, including an experiment where they get to "grow their own germs" on agar plates.

Jane arranged some questions from the students, and it all started to come together:
I was blown away by the quality and wonder shown in these questions. It was going to take a while to prepare for this!! I prepared a simple PowerPoint which covered the main things I thought we should talk about, and included their questions, of course.


It is really hard to know how to gauge the level of preparedness and content that 8 year old students will require. I was so impressed with the quality of their original questions that I revisited my university textbooks and spent a bit of time on the internet, brushing up on my history of microbiology and finding some fun facts.

What I decided on was:
"Teach" about the size of "germs".
Address their questions.
Demonstrate how to set up an agar plate.
Address the rest of their questions...and have a wee chat about personal hygiene.

The quality of the questions is what will stay with me for a long time. I was so worried about how I would teach Microbiology at Level 1-2 of the NZ Curriculum. What a naive concern! The questioning showed such a high level of wonder. The students themselves made links to their own lives. All I had to do was respect each and every student as an authentic part of the "lesson" and to value each and every contribution. You are never too young to ask; you are never too old to be amazed!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

What IS Science?


During the most recent #scichatNZ chat, last Thursday, a side debate started between some NZ-based educators and a Zoology lecturer/researcher from the UK. This debate made me reflect on what I think Science actually is, and what it means to be called a Scientist, or to think scientifically. Are we doing our students a disservice and creating delusion in their minds when we make them believe they are Scientists (or can "do" Science) before they are able to formalise their ponderings into high-rigour scientific methods?

A small group of us (all teaching in NZ) were arguing that Inquiry is Science. The British academic in this debate was getting very caught up on the definition of "Science", very helpfully sharing the Oxford Online Dictionary definition with us:

"The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."

The argument being made by the British academic was that inquiry is [merely] an act, while Science is a process. Ignoring the semantics of the point, particularly that inquiry is a noun, so not an act (verb), it became very obvious that one side of the argument was unprepared to accept that the process of inquiry was the same as the process of scientific research (I hope that I am not over-simplifying the stance contrary to mine). For clarity and fairness, however, I will give the Oxford Online Dictionary definition of enquire:

"Ask for information from someone."

From this definition, I can see the objection this academic had to us saying that inquiry is Science. The key difference of opinion seemed to come from a difference in understanding of what Inquiry is. In NZ, Inquiry is a process, and this is supported by the usage notes in the definition of enquire in the Oxford Online Dictionary (it is only fair to use the same source as your "opponent", after all):

"The traditional distinction between enquire and inquire is that enquire is used for general senses of ‘ask’ while inquire is reserved for uses meaning ‘make a formal investigation’. In practice, however, there is little discernible distinction in the way the two words are used today in British English, although inquiry is commoner than enquiry in the sense ‘a formal investigation’. In all senses, inquire and inquiry are the more usual forms in US English, whereas enquire and enquiry are chiefly restricted to British English."

In NZ schools (and tertiary institutes, I would infer), the rigour of the process of Inquiry is developed and improved as students progress through their studies. This happens in many subjects, including Science. As most schools have a subject called Science, does this mean Scientific Inquiry is different to Inquiry in other subjects? I would argue that it isn't. An Inquiry with high rigour is sound Scientific Research, isn't it?


We are very lucky in NZ; we have a Curriculum which focuses primarily on the Nature of Science, leaving teachers/departments to decide on the contexts and content which will best resonate with the students in front of them, year-by-year. There is some amazing inquiry work being done in Primary schools, yet many students still enter Secondary school with the perception that "Science is hard". Maybe inquiry is not Science...

One observation that I have made, is the wonder that primary school students have when they enter my secondary school laboratory. I also notice that they bravely offer inferences, not worried about being "wrong". I also notice that many of my primary school peers find Science intimidating.

Sometimes, it is as simple as being unsure of how to manage chemicals and a laboratory, but the sad thing is that it is often that they also have the fear that they don't want to "teach it incorrectly". I worry that secondary school Science teachers don't do enough to dispel these concerns. These same teachers do amazing inquiry work with the same students, but in contexts that they do not think of as Science. They embrace students' wonder and develop their open-mindedness, regardless of the context.

I genuinely believe that primary school teachers are helping every one of their students inquire about things they wonder about in a truly scientific manner: observe, predict, test/research, reflect. Is that not the basis of a sound inquiry as well as being the basis of sound Science? And we are talking about students who haven't reached puberty yet!

Without such a process, many would be turned off Science at a young age. Starting with wonder and using everyday contexts allows us to add rigour to students' inquiries, as we have "bought" their engagement. It is still Science at every stage of the process, it just becomes better Science when we add more elements of the Scientific Method.


As a secondary school teacher, this is the only "phase" I can talk about with any real authority. My biggest hurdles seem to be the perception of Science as being a "hard subject" and that scientists are super-intelligent and arrogant, along with misconceptions of what Theories really are. There is also an excitement about the equipment and chemicals we are going to get to "play with". Dealing with these preconceptions is the first thing to face...

Over the past decade, I have noticed more and more Year 9 students coming into my laboratory with the predisposition to challenge and inquire. This has given me a wonderful baseline to develop more rigour in their inquiries and to build their understanding of the content of Science. However, I am very quick to point out that they are already "scientists" when they walk into my room; I am just going to make them "better scientists".

My primary goals with junior Science classes are simple:

  1. Foster a passion for scientific contexts
  2. Foster a belief that they are scientists (but can be better)
  3. Develop more rigorous inquiry processes (including experiment planning, data interpretation and reporting).
My hope is that these same students will love Science so much that they choose Chemistry, Physics, Biology and/or Earth and Beyond as seniors. I hope that I turn students "onto" Science, rather than scaring them "off" Science, which focusing on the finer details too much at too early an age often does.

There is a transition in goals when my students become seniors. They become more focused on assessment success, while I continue to focus on refining their ability to inquire with rigour and become more independent learners. Their conclusions need to be supported with more depth. They need to be critical of experimental results and procedures. Ultimately, however, it is only the externally-set assessments that make us get caught up on pedantic definitions etc. 

The value of assessment (both formal, summative assessment and informal, formative assessment/feedback) cannot be downplayed: it helps guide students. Some students are simply not destined to be research scientists; I never was, that is for sure. It is absolutely vital that secondary schools offer the opportunities for all students to follow this road, however. This is why it is vital to teach rigorous inquiry processes.

There is also a level of content that needs to be covered to add even more rigour; this is where Science starts to become "hard", and rightly so, in my opinion. This is where I do agree with the academic who was debating with me about Science and inquiry being synonymous. Science, at this level, starts to also be a body of knowledge (Scientia is Latin for knowledge, after all) as well as a process.


This leads me back to the original issue. Is "Inquiry" synonymous with "Science"? The online discussion being carried out via the #scichatNZ hashtag was talking about Science in education, particularly in the school years. I would argue that Inquiry is indeed Science in this context. This is because NZ schools teach inquiry as a process, and this process becomes more and more rigorous as students progress through their school years.

However, within the context of research and academia, I do not believe the two are the same. Science (at this level) also includes a very high level of knowledge, and a level of peer critique that goes far beyond the inquiry process itself. It is this difference in perception that probably led to the debate that prompted this post. I do not mind having my perceptions challenged at all; good debate leads to good reflections and, in this case, a slight amendment to my stance.

I would offer a few words to academics hoping to preserve the "status" of Science. Please do offer guidance and help to teachers and our students; we will really appreciate and welcome this. We also welcome your comments on the skills and characteristics you would like us to prepare your future students and collaborators with. However, please do not judge us with you preconceptions of what we do, or what Science is. Please do not be condescending about our choice of career, either. I have peers who chose teaching after time in academia or research. We give our students passion for Science and start developing their ability to research and inquire. You are welcome.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Exploring Organic Chemistry with SOLO

At the #edchatNZ Conference, I was part of an "unconference" session where we talked about giving the students the power to direct and plan their own learning. I shared a (failed) experiment at doing this last year with some of my classes. I have blogged about the initial idea and some positive reflections. However, assessment results did not mirror the levels of engagement I observed in class, which did make me despondent about the idea.

I was challenged about the reasons for its "failure" (in terms of student results), and asked if I would try it again. I was offered some great ideas for using SOLO hexagons to help make the links between concepts more transparent to the students. The acceptance that I cannot compare the exam results of one group of students to another as a valid measure has reinvigorated me about the idea. The positivity about my initial plan and the constructive criticism I was offered in the "unconference" session has "sealed the deal" for me - time to try it again...

This blogpost will be a "living document" until the end of our Organic Chemistry unit in my Year 12 Chemistry class. I have asked my students to share their learning with me via written and/or videoed feedback, and asked their permission to record their journey. We have school exams next week, so I will be able to gauge their level of understanding and thinking quite shortly.

DESCRIBE the Compounds

I prepared some SOLO Taxonomy hexagons containing the names of the seven types of compounds we have studied (or need to study this week). There is a great hexagon generator on Pam Hook's website.

The students spent today cutting them out and writing "study notes" on the back on them. They have been given absolute freedom to choose:
  • the order to fill them out in
  • how much detail to include on each card
  • whether to work individually or to collaborate

EXPLORE the Compounds

Our trolley of chemicals for the remainder of the unit.
I have given the students some page references from our textbook, Beginning Chemistry (Wignall and Wales) and some experiments they may choose to carry out. I have directed them to past examination papers and provided PowerPoints on Moodle, our Learning Management System. I have asked the technician to prepare a trolley with all of the possible chemicals (that I can think of) required to explore these compounds. The students have access to NetBooks, if they want them. I have made videos and blogposts to direct the learning.

My students have been challenged with the following "ultimate" outcomes:
  1. Can you find (and explain) all the possible links between these compounds? CONNECT the hexagons in such a way that this is represented visually. I will challenge you to justify why certain hexagons are touching!
  2. Can you EXPAND on every bullet-point/note on the back of each card? I will challenge you to do this over the next few lessons!
  3. I am going to choose any two hexagons at random. Can you FIND a link between them, even if it is via another hexagon? Can you explain how I would tell those two compounds apart? Can you tell me how to turn one of them into the other?
One student's idea of the links between each type of compound.


I will write this next week, once I have talked to students about their learning and seen their assessment results... Watch this space.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

#edchatNZ Blogging Meme

"I have a few questions after the last two days at #Edchatnz and I think that lots of others will too. I want to keep the connections going and make more connections. So maybe a blogging meme will work." Reid Walker

If you get included in the blogging meme: copy/paste the questions and instructions into your own blog then fill out your own answers. Share on twitter tagging 5 friends.

1. How did you attend the #Edchatnz Conference? (Face 2 Face, followed online or didn't)
I was there in person and had the privilege of being part of the organising committee, working with Danielle to make this happen.

2. How many others attended from your school or organisation?
Our senior leadership were very supportive, allowing 10 of us to attend. I cannot thank them enough!

3.How many #Edchatnz challenges did you complete?
I am quite impressed that I achieved seven of them...I thought I had only managed the selfie/grelfie ones.

4. Who are 3 people that you connected with and what did you learn from them?
Reid Walker: he is even funnier in person and one of the few people at #edchatNZ with a worse "filter" than me.
Nanogirl/Michelle Dickinson: I was already an unashamed "fan boy" but I was unaware how much of her own time and money she puts into spreading her passion and talent. I really hope we can host her when she visits Christchurch.
Sheena, a Year 9 HPSS student: The discussion we had about "How do you know you are learning?" was inspiring. You are an articulate young lady and further evidence that young people are indeed self-aware and self-driven. I loved your statements about the differences between learning and assessment, and the arbitrary labels we put on things in education. Thank you for connecting with me!

5. What session are you gutted that you missed?
There were a lot on while I was presenting that I wanted to go to, particularly Mel Moore's. I was also pretty gutted to miss Nanogirl's (Dr Michelle Dickinson), but she is so amazing that she made time to chat to me afterwards.

6. Who is one person that you would like to have taken to Edchatnz and what key thing would they have learned? 
Our ICT Director, Sam McNeill. He already uses Twitter a lot to connect and would have loved connecting with people face to face, as well as the learning that went on.

7. Is there a person you didn't get to meet/chat with (F2F/online) that you wished you had? Why
This is a huge list. Too many wonderful people, not enough time. Over half of my NZ-based PLN were at the conference but I only sat down to chat with a small number. I have advice for those not wanting to fall into this trap "next time": don't attend all sessions; save one for connecting face to face with people who you connect with online.

8. What is the next book you are going to read and why? 
I haven't thought that far ahead, to be honest. I am yet to finish Brain Rules by Dr John Medina. I am keen to hear any suggestions, based upon leading change and influencing people...

9. What is one thing you plan to do to continue the Education Revolution you learnt about at #EdchatNZ?
Hacking my staffroom to build my sphere of influence. Once I reach critical mass, real change might start. Once my school starts to see real change (and the positive impact of it), we can permeate these ideas far and wide... The revolution has begun; will you join our movement?

10. Will you take a risk and hand your students a blank canvas?
No. It won't be a blank canvas, but I am ready to take a risk on letting them build the canvas, knowing which elements (specific learning objectives) need to be expressed on it. I am ready to let my students take control of the pace and direction, but there are still assessment result expectations that they will be judged by. I will also be judged by their results, of course. I am prepared to take risks, but the risk:reward ratio is too great for a truly blank canvas at this stage.

Who do will I tag with this meme: 
Philippa Nicoll Antipas @AKeenReader
Chhaya Narayan @ChhayaNarayan
Ben Hilliam @benhilliam
Mel Moore @mrsmoorenz
Red Nicholson @rednz

Thursday, 7 August 2014

#edchatNZ Conference - Hopes and Dreams

I thought it would be wise to record why I am so excited about going to the inaugural #edchatNZ conference this weekend. I am sure it will live up to my expectations, and I hope I do well as a presenter!


I cannot wait to meet some of my Personal Learning Network in person! These are people who have made a real difference to my practice, and have made me feel like my ideas are valued and critiqued by respected peers.

I have already met a few of these people via other avenues, but I am prepared to go out on a limb to name a few who I am really looking forward to seeing for the first time, or reconnecting with:

  1. Philippa Nicoll Antipas. My 2nd cousin has an amazing blog and is a collaborator in #edSMAC. We have many plans to make for "upping our game" with #edSMAC, and hopefully building this community more.
  2. Steve Mouldey. I love reading Steve's blogs regularly, and really want to have a chat about how HPSS is going to use NCEA within its current philosophy and practice. I am really hopeful that his ideas can be transferred to a school which still operates in subject silos.
  3. Dr Michelle Dickinson. I think Nanogirl is a superstar!! I am facilitating another wonderful session while her and Cathy (Science Learning Hub) are presenting their session, but I hope I get to meet both and chew the fat about all things Science!
  4. Chhaya Narayan. One of the team (along with Rachel Chisnall, who cannot come, sadly) who set up #scichatNZ chats on Thursday evenings. We have many plans to lay...
  5. The entire #edchatNZ organising committee. I have felt a bit like a passenger in getting the conference off the ground. I can't wait to meet the people who have done the real "hard yards" to support Danielle
You have to stop a list somewhere, so that is it. I know that I am going to make some amazing connections at the conference that I have not even thought about yet. Alex (#engchatNZ), Pam Hook (SOLO), Terry Beech, Andrea Henson... I can't wait to meet you all/see you again!


I am really hoping to hear stories about how people have led change in their respective schools. I am lucky to have a very supportive group of peers at my school, and a leadership team that respects what I do and gives me the scope and freedom to show initiative. I want to hear ways of letting my "wins" permeate through the school and beyond our gates into the Christchurch education community...and further still.


I am really nervous about presenting. I am talking about my filming and blogging and how it has made my lessons "rewindable". I really hope this idea appeals to people and I hope I do a good job with my presentation/workshop. I really hope people are open-minded enough to try filming themselves! I think I've got the basis of some sound pedagogy and I want to share it; I just hope people buy in long enough to see if it is their "cuppa tea" or not.

I guess you could say that I am looking at this conference as a way to meet people and increase my circle of influence. I hope that doesn't sound too shallow; it has been a great way for me to improve the quality of my lessons for my students so far...and #edchatNZ has already played a major part in that.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Elements, Mixtures and Compounds

We are currently doing a unit about mixtures, elements and compounds. I love the practical side of this unit, but the students often find it challenging. I have made a concerted effort to keep this unit "real" this year. Two effective contexts have been food science and disasters. I hit a bit of a stumbling block when it came time to teach about the Periodic Table of Elements, but I will talk about that shortly.


Most of my students lived through the earthquakes of 2010-2012 in Christchurch. They remember the need to purify water, liquefaction, and all of those sorts of things. This gave me some authentic contexts to talk about what mixtures are, and ways we might separate them.

My favourite one was the challenge to clean up muddy water, with the intent that we would want to cook with it, or drink it. I loved that the students remembered that boiling and/or chlorine/bleach tablets would be needed to make it safe to drink, even if it looked clean. They were provided everyday items from home - coffee machine filters, sieves, dishcloths etc. 

Sadly, I forgot to take some photos of the contraptions the students set up to clean the water. Please trust me when I say there were a lot of FAIL moments (First Attempt In Learning). Ultimately though, they all got some water that I would happily drink after it had been boiled.


This has been great!! Today, we learned about the difference between physical changes and chemical reactions. There are great experiments around for this, but I wanted to use the same reactant, and make it real. So, I decided on sugar. Some recipes ask for you to melt sugar, some ask you to caramelise it. What is the difference? How do we actually achieve this?


I also used food to help demonstrate the difference between a mixture and a compound. While our actual experiment was using iron and sulfur, the students were challenged to relate this to making biscuits or a cake. We have recorded the instructions in our CLASS BLOG.


As a Science teacher, I love the Periodic Table of Elements. It is a road map, a bible, a multi-tool...I have so many analogies. I was thinking about a fun way to teach about the elements and the Periodic Table, in particular. This idea came to me:

The Periodic Table of Elements is a city. Every city has its suburbs. In Periodi City (do you like that??), these suburbs are called: Transition, Alkali, Earth, Halogen, Noble, etc.

Choose a "house" in Periodi City. Which neighbourhood is it in? What is that house made up of (protons, electrons and neutrons)? Who are your neighbours? Who are your closest "relatives"? Who are your best "friends", or are you found on your own? What happens when you spend time with your "friends"? Is there anyone you don't like? Why?

The students then report their findings as a short (three-slide maximum) PowerPoint, a creative story, or an A3 (maximum) poster. This has been so much fun so far!!! I am going to write and narrate my own creative story for an element this week, to model how much fun they are "allowed" to have with this. I will put it on YouTube, if you care to look for it...

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

#scichatNZ - The Hungry Little Hashtag

I have changed the title and some content of this post. In my very tired state (pre-#edchatNZ conference), I used a phrase I had heard ("the little hashtag that could"), thinking it was something I had simply discussed with my father; as a child, I loved "The Little Engine That Could" (I think I can, I think I can...). It seems this idea was in my head as Danielle had earlier used it about #edchatNZ - sorry, Danielle!! I hope you like the new analogous link to a children's story, "The Hungry Little Caterpillar" - this idea really has grown and morphed!

Over the holidays, I used twitter (#scicon14) to follow SciCon2014 (in Dunedin), but with great regret. I regretted that I hadn't registered and gone along. I regretted that I was so busy at the end of last term that I rated rest ahead of equally invigorating professional development and connections. I was ever so thankful that #scicon14 was being used well by those who did attend, though! I may not have been in Dunedin, but I felt like I was contributing.

One of the great things to come from SciCon2014 was the birth of the #scichatNZ hashtag. It was promptly added to my columns in TweetDeck! Its existence was enthusiastically shared throughout the New Zealand "tweecher" community via a variety of other hashtags and communities. Here was a hashtag to use if you wanted to share or talk about Science. Inner-Geek empowered and energised. Game on!

In conversations that followed, Rachel Chisnall (@ibpossum) and I floated the idea of starting a fortnightly chat in a similar mold to #edchatNZ. Before we knew what was happening, there were umpteen offers of help and advice, not least from Danielle Myburgh (@MissDtheTeacher). This was about to happen!!!

We decided to run #scichatNZ every second Thursday, the week that #edchatNZ was not happening. Our inaugural chat was to be 31 July. There were some things to do:

  • Create the @SciChatNZ Twitter Account
  • Create the SciChatNZ Facebook Account
  • Create the SciChatNZ Google+ Account
  • Decide on a Topic
  • Choose Some Questions to Ask
  • Choose a Moderator
  • Choose Someone to Create a Storify
  • Advertise!
Luckily, we were shown the way (along with the awesome #engchatNZ team) by Danielle via a Google Hang-Out. Having the guidance of someone who has established a wonderful community and moderated every #edchatNZ chat was invaluable. Rachel and I were also very lucky to have Chhaya Narayan (@ChhayaNarayan) offer to join us to create the "#scichatNZ committee". Mel Moore (@mrsmoorenz) also helped out hugely by surveying her students; their responses guided my question selection for the actual chat on 31 July.

So, what about that first night? I was the moderator and I can honestly say that it was the most intense hour I have ever experienced on Twitter before. I'm not good at moderating, contributing and sparking up conversations all at once - I don't task-switch quickly enough!! Have a look at the Storify to see if you think we did okay.

I feel that we chose a topic which was always going to spark good discussion and grab people's attention: Maintaining Students' Love for Science. It still exceeded my expectations - I felt like a teenager about to have his first ever party: I hope someone else turns up, not just my friends who said they would!!

We had a wide variety of people involved, which delighted me: pre-service teachers; primary school teachers; secondary school science teachers; secondary school non-science teachers; and university lecturers and researchers!

#scichatNZ chats are here to stay for a while. Rachel, Chhaya and I already have some exciting topics arranged for future chats, and interested parties will be welcome to vote for which one will be next (14 August). This is unashamedly copied from the #edchatNZ model and we hope it will help participants feel they have more ownership of the chats, and can help the "hungry little hashtag" grow and morph into something amazing. See you on Twitter on 14 August...