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.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

SOLO Hexagons - Reflection

In August, I decided to have another shot at letting my senior Chemistry students control the pace and direction of their learning in our new topic, Organic Chemistry. This was on the back of some very supportive comments during #edchatNZ Conference from peers who saw a lot of merit in the original idea. Here are a few reflections...


My students liked a few of the aspects quite a lot:
  1. The Specific Learning Objectives were transparent. By putting each key concept on a SOLO hexagon, the students knew what content they needed to master by the end of the unit.
  2. Demonstrations/teaching of key concepts and experiments were filmed. This created more differentiation of pace of learning, and made everything "rewindable".
  3. Experiments were optional. A lot of my students fail to see the point in the prescriptive experiments, particularly when I could just do them as a demonstration. They were actually allowed to "explore" (play with?) the chemistry of the unit a little more this way.
I am not sure if it was an increased level of self-awareness, or a lack of grit, but many students found out a lot sooner that they struggled with Organic Chemistry. This has led to many deciding not to attempt the external NCEA assessment for this topic at the end of the year. This is not ideal, as it goes against one of my initial goals; I had hoped this would make Organic Chemistry a lot more achievable as students were controlling the pace of learning.It will be interesting to see if I observe the same thing when I do this with another unit next year.


One of my reservations for having the students plan the pace and direction of learning was that my previous attempt yielded disappointing assessment results. However, there were some important differences this time
  1. SOLO hexagons. The SLOs were more transparent, particularly the links between them.
  2. Games. The students were introduced to some games that I made up to help them with finding links between concepts.
  3. NCEA questions. I complemented the students' work with past NCEA questions, so they explicitly knew what the assessment for this would look like, from Day One.
So, what was the outcome? This was a mixed bag. As I mentioned earlier, many students worked out for themselves that the complexity of Organic Chemistry was beyond them at this stage of the year. They are not going to even attempt it in the NZQA External Assessments, but will focus on the upcoming Internal Assessment and the other two externally-assessed units.These are also the students who are not continuing with Chemistry next year.

Those who are attempting the External Assessment for Organic Chemistry performed very well. A larger-than-usual number of Excellence grades, along with a large number of students just on the "wrong" side of grade boundaries for Merit or Excellence. With a little more practice of past NCEA questions, most of these students should lift their grades.


All in all, I am a lot more encouraged than I was last time I tried this. I will be doing it again next year, but with a few changes:
  1. Nature of Science. I need my units to have a stronger Nature of Science element to them. Currently, it still feels like training students for an assessment, rather than exploring these amazing aspects of Chemistry. I intend to include investigation/research (not worth credits, necessarily) to run parallel to each unit of work. These investigations/researches will be co-constructed with the students, so they are about something they are passionate about.
  2. Hexagon Challenges. I want to start each lesson with a 5 minute "Hexagon Challenge". I will choose two hexagons at random, and the students will have 5 minutes to write/compose the most interesting link between the two hexagons as they can. Two students will be chosen at random to have their answer read out (I use The Hat from Harmony Hollow Software for this). Prizes if your answer shows some real abstract thought ("Extended Abstract")!
I am going to continue explicitly teaching concepts and getting these moments filmed. I am going to keep doing demonstrations of the key experiments and getting these moments filmed. I am going to to keep "coaching" students how to write good assessment answers. However, these will be to complement the learning, not to guide it.