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.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Grant Lichtman

Here I am at ULearn15, listening to the inspiring and knowledgeable Grant Lichtman. I have just started #EDJourney, which I love. Then there is this wonderful keynote speech. They both remind me of a recent chat hosted by Danielle Myburgh of #edchatNZ with Grant. I was lucky enough to be invited into that chat:

He puts it so simply - let's let go of our fear and challenge the inertia of traditional education. Let's reignite the learning for today's (and tomorrow's) world!

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Purpose of Learning?

It has been a slow year for blogging, primarily due to the workload of balancing my pastoral role with another passion – leading and teaching a new Year 11 Science course. I have been able to explore and inquire as to the motivation and purpose of learning for my students, comparing and contrasting the students in this course with those in my senior Chemistry classes. Honestly, I have probably ended up with more questions than answers, but I have found one way to offer a course within a traditional school system which has the learning and the student at the centre, with NCEA credits being conveniently earned along the way.

Year 11 Practical Science

At the end of last year, I approached my Head of Department about redesigning our “Alternative Science” course. This was already a completely internally-assessed course, designed for students who struggled to achieve success in exam-format assessments. It was a meaningful and valuable course already; I just thought that it could be a little more student-centred and could offer more student agency.

The development and implementation of this course has been a real eye-opener for me, and highly rewarding for me, the teacher of the other class, and for most of the students who were given the opportunity to enrol in this course. I have been forced to become more fluent in a range of Level 1 Achievement Standards, and not just those in Science. I have learned a lot about the “credit-shopping” focus of students, regardless of their perceived ability and/or motivation. I have finally developed a way to support and guide less-organised students through portfolio-style assessments – it isn’t perfect, but it is a huge improvement on where we were at the start of the year!

If you are interested, you can read more about the journey in these posts:

We have designed a course which starts off with a Chemistry unit (because everyone loves mixing and burning chemicals) to teach observation and experimental skills. This is followed by a unit based around a Conspiracy Theory to teach about Scientific Literacy and research skills. The final prescribed unit is a Physics practical investigation to develop students’ Fair Testing. For these parts of the course, we kept a Class Blog to record the important content and skills:

The remainder of the year is focused on students’ interests and finding ways to structure these interests into robust inquiries. We had inquiries based on shotguns, MotoX, artillery, rugby kicking techniques, rowing technique, skateboarding tricks…it was amazing!

The teachers’ role is that of a mentor and (supportive) critic, while also being charged with finding suitable NCEA Achievement Standards to assess the learning with. As part of this, the marking schedules and portfolio coversheets have been co-constructed with the students. This has given transparency to the assessment and the expectations upon the students. This has also been the really time-consuming part, but also very rewarding!

The purpose of learning in this course has been, ultimately, to explore an inherent or developed interest and investigate it in a scientific manner. The wonderful outcomes have included most student earning at least 16 NCEA Level 1 credits along the way (some at Excellence level), outstanding student engagement, and a dramatic increase in students’ self-belief and self-worth.

“Academic” Courses

This year, I also had my philosophies regarding assessment challenged. While teaching the Year 11 course, I have also been teaching Level 2 and Level 3 Chemistry. These are courses where grades are ever-important. Most of these students are expecting to be shown how to excel in assessment tasks, sometimes regardless of the quality of the actual learning.

It would indeed be great to offer the same level of student agency and flexibility in these courses. However, the assessments do have the power to drive the learning in these classes. The day-to-day teaching and learning opportunities can be such that student choice and differentiated learning can be provided but, ultimately, there are externally-assessed examinations to prepare for.

There is no way to avoid the amount and specificity of the content that must be “covered” for these assessments. There is no escaping that students need to be coached how to answer examination-style questions at some stage through each unit. There is no avoiding the issue that to offer a meaningful number of credits, there is a LOT of work to get through.

If tertiary institutions put the main onus upon the externally-assessed Achievement Standards, courses such as Chemistry will always be driven by the assessment, rather than the learning. As I say, my philosophies have been challenged. By offering such an exciting course to the Year 11 “strugglers”, I have felt as though my senior chemists have missed out on the opportunity to explore the magic of their subject due the focus on grades. This is not a criticism, merely an observation…tinged with a little frustration, as I do not have the answer.

Why Are We Learning This?

Through two very different types of courses, I come back to that old adage from the disenchanted student, “Why are we learning this stuff? When will I ever need it in my life?” If you do not view these as fair questions, then I suggest you care more about your subject than you do about your students.

Student agency regarding contexts and, dare I suggest it, means of assessment are key components of making the learning meaningful to students. Surely this is achievable in Year 9 and 10, even in the silo of a single subject. Not to be disparaging, but context is even possible in Mathematics. NCEA is using contextualised questions more and more. What better preparation can there be than to apply mathematical skills to real student interests? I know that subjects like English, Social Studies and Science lend themselves more towards this type of learning, but Science is often prone to being too abstract if taken out of context and focused more on content.

If it is manageable in Years 9 and 10, why not beyond this? This is where the students’ respective reasons for learning become vital. Does the student sees learning in school as part of the journey to tertiary study? Does the student see learning in school as a way to learn how to learn, but has no (current) aspirations for further study? Does the student just want to be entertained until he/she finds a job that is interesting enough to do instead of being at school?

If the student sees tertiary study as the ultimate goal, then getting the grades to achieve this goal makes the learning authentic in itself. Courses that optimise this student’s ability to reach this goal are suitable. At the same time, these courses need to develop the whole student, of course, but the purpose of the learning is further study; the course must cater for this for this student.

If the student does not see tertiary study as the goal, then grades themselves (beyond getting sufficient credits to earn their NCEA Level 1 certificate, for example) are not going to be motivation enough. Authentic learning opportunities are vital for this student. Can the learning be applied to a hobby, interest, potential career…? This student’s course must provide enough flexibility and agency for this student to persevere with the learning, and to see the value of learning.

As I said at the start, I think I have more questions than answers. Do we need to offer two (or more) pathways for students in our courses beyond Year 10, in every school? How do we make them synergetic enough that students can shift course if they find their goals and aspirations have changed along the way? Regardless of the answers that are correct for your students, your school, and your community, when looking at your courses please always ask yourself what the purpose of the learning is.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Practical Science Inquiries

What a year it has been with my Year 11 Practical Science course. This class have become the absolute highlight of my day and I miss not teaching them on a Wednesday. I even enjoy them when they are completely off the wall, like they were last Friday. Why do I love teaching these guys so much?


I made it very clear from the start that I wanted to get to know these boys (yes, boys' only class in a co-ed school...judge, if you want) really well. I wanted to know why they did/did not enjoy Science. I wanted to know what they enjoyed learning about and what they enjoyed doing in their spare time. I wanted to know what mattered the most to them about learning - NCEA credits, or enjoyment. Then I assured them that I cared, and that we could achieve credits AND enjoy the learning/course.


We had a frank chat about this after recently completing an Internal Assessment, just before starting to plan and design our Personal Inquiries. Yes, I gave up an entire lesson to ask my boys about their thoughts, opinions and to seek their advice. These are boys who have been (in the past) pigeonholed as "trouble", "reluctant learners", or "real battlers", for example. Never have they been labelled as "academics" and only a few are your classic definition of a "leader".

All but two passed this difficult Internal Assessment (AS 90935), and there was a fair distribution of Merits and a single Excellence as well! I was very proud of them. They were proud of themselves. "So, from here on, do we want to focus more or credits, or on learning about things you care about?" "Both, sir." I agreed that was a fair call. They assured me that they were enjoying the course as much as I was and, while they wanted credits, they didn't want to focus on getting Excellence at the expense of enjoyment...so long as they got credits at Achievement or Merit level.


We are now doing Personal Inquiries (the class begged me not to call them "Passion Projects" because "primary school kids do those"). Having been through units to develop scientific literacy, fair testing, and design thinking, we are in the "fun" part of the course (in my opinion). The structure behind these inquiries has come from HERE.

Students were asked to identify a topic they were really interested in, then brainstorm some key aspects of that topic that might be interesting to them:

From this "scanning", they start to focus their inquiry:

Once they have a few possible focus questions, I helped them (along with another teacher who team-teaches with me on a Monday with this class) to develop a hunch (possible answer) to investigate:

The students are now in the phase where they are researching, experimenting, collecting data... They are doing anything and everything they can to explore whether their hunches are correct or not. My job is a dream. I get to talk with the lads about what they have learned in the past 24 hours. A group looking at tyre pressure and MotoX racing have some interesting results which was awesome to discuss in class today. They have a great understanding; now, to apply that to some Physics principles so I can reward them with NCEA credits...


The potentially time-consuming part of this has been finding ways to reward the learning with NCEA credits. After all, this is what the students want as a tangible reward for their hard work. Most students are doing some work on a sport or machine, so assigning a Level 1 NCEA Achievement Standard was easier than I expected: AS 90936. I have also become very familiar with the Level 1 and Level 2 Internal Assessments in Science, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Earth and Beyond.

Once we all agreed that we could start by having our work assessed by AS 90936, we unpacked the Achievement Standard and an example from TKI to come up with our own task. Students were given manila folders to keep a portfolio in, along with a checklist of things that needed to be in the portfolio to complement the final report, video, PowerPoint...

Now, I stressed above that this is the Achievement Standard these boys are starting with. This is only 2-3 weeks of work. After this is finished, we will go through the process again; again matching what each student is focusing his learning on with an Achievement Standard. Some students will do new topics, while others will just have new focus questions for the same topic.

I just get to go along on the learning journey with them...and it's a real rush! Trust me.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Radio Debut!

My last post was about an #edchatNZ regarding innovation in assessment. Shortly afterwards, Danielle asked me to be available bright and early on the Sunday morning for a radio interview via BAM! Radio Network about the chat.

We had a great discussion about the chat and the innovation I am doing with a colleague at my school with Year 11 Science and assessing it using NCEA Achievement Standards based upon the Nature of Science and students' passions.

The team at BAM! Radio did a wonderful job of editing it, making me sound almost intelligent and articulate! Danielle has since done another one with Mel Moore, showing her talent at asking good questions and leading interesting discussion. Personally, I was delighted this was done, as I missed that particular #edchatNZ chat due to other commitments.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Innovation in Assessment

#edchatNZ on 23 April addressed this issue in education. I was lucky enough to be Devil's Advocate for this Twitter Chat. "Lucky?", you rightly ask... Well, yes, lucky. This is a topic that I am passionate about, particularly in the realm of teaching Secondary Science and Chemistry. Lucky, because I had to (try to) ignore my predispositions, preconceptions and passions for the chat; instead, I had to "listen" to what was being said, and to challenge people, whether I agreed with them or not. Lucky, because I had to be more open-minded about this issue than I (probably) usually am.

During and after the chat, I was struck by two resounding themes:

  1. Many feel like we are slaves to the assessment process/expectations.
  2. There are some people who have wonderful ideas of how to make assessment work for their students (not to their students). They just need the opportunity to put these ideas into action.
In a nutshell, I see these as a closed mindset versus a growth mindset. I personally believe that NCEA (as a form of assessment) and SOLO Taxonomy (as a form of feedback, advice and self-assessment) provide us with opportunities to have a growth mindset.


First if all, I want to address a definition of "assessment". I am going to talk about assessment as a formal, reported task (or set of tasks). This may be to report National Standards or to give NCEA grades (primarily used in the New Zealand education system). I am not talking about the formative processes of feedback and advice. These are indeed assessments, but I am talking about assessment as a task, not as an act. I am talking about formal, summative assessment, not formative assessment.

I can only speak with any experience about teaching Secondary Science and Chemistry. I do not have much firsthand experience in Primary, Early Childhood, or in other subject areas. Therefore, I will only talk about the areas in which I feel I have some experience and expertise. My comments may, therefore, be very incorrect when related to these other fields of education.

In Junior Science, my experience has been that we have a set of common assessment tasks (tests, assignments, exams) to measure the level and/or progress of our students. We have units of work designed to excite students about the wonder of Science, develop their understanding of the Nature of Science, and to prepare them with prior knowledge that will be useful in future years of science study. In my experience, performance in the assessments is less important than the engagement, effort and learning of the individual students. I love teaching Junior Science!

Nevertheless, students are ever-judged by their outcomes in these common assessment tasks. This may be by their peers, by their parents, by the school, or by themselves. For some, this is wonderful motivation for doing their best. For others, these assessment results emphasise (or reinforce) what they cannot do. All too often, I have students who produce good work (some even produce excellent work) when producing project-type work, while these same students score incredibly poorly in tests and exams. Yes, my report comments and parent-teacher interview discussions focus on what the student can do well (and identify the student's limitations in test-/exam-type conditions), but that doesn't prevent many hard-working students becoming despondent about their progress/achievement in Science. It starts to create a closed mindset about their ability in the subject. I want to be clear; I am not talking about apathetic students, but those who genuinely try very hard and usually "do their best".

  • "Science is hard."
  • "Science sucks."
  • "I can't do Science."
  • "I'm not smart enough to do well in Science."
  • "I can't wait to drop Science."

For those who do succeed in Junior Science, and have a passion for Chemistry, I am lucky enough to teach a vast majority of them. I love Chemistry, but this is a subject where I feel like a slave to the assessment. It feels like the students' primary goal for taking Secondary School Chemistry is to get NCEA credits, and to get the best grades possible. The love for the subject itself is secondary to this goal. This focus is usually shared (handed down from?) parents and from the school. Again, success is judged upon grades in the assessments.

For this reason, units of work are designed to neatly marry up with assessment tasks. The aspects that will be assessed are given the most time in the teaching of these units. Fortunately, in Chemistry at least, this can still preserve the magic and awe of the subject, but this is not always the case. Assessment Calendars start to dictate the amount of time that can be dedicated to each unit of work, and parallel opportunities often need to be foregone because they cannot be fit in.

Again, I see students who have been working very well having their confidence and enjoyment of the subject undermined by an assessment result. Sometimes this is a lack of preparation and it is a tough (and good) lesson learned. Sometimes this is a "bad day at the office", but the die is cast for that particular assessment. Yes, Internal Assessments do often have re-submission or reassessment opportunities, but sometimes the time pressure is too great on students to do this justice as well as performing "to their potential" in their other subjects at the same time.

The students' sense of worth in the subject is being controlled by their achievement in the assessments. The teachers' programmes are being controlled by allowing students to perform at the best level possible. What a shame we are slaves to the assessment rather than servants to learning.


"Moonshot" was the term used in #edchatNZ. There was some real magic suggested there by teachers.

Teachers talked about designing assessment tasks and marking rubrics with their students. I challenged them on this in my role as Devil's Advocate, but see this as wonderful! How often do we actually unpack Achievement Standards with our classes as part of the learning process? How often do we get into a dialogue about what a certain level of detail for a definition, for example, is so important in the marking schedule?

Teachers talked about allowing students' submissions to be in a non-written format. Why not accept a "selfie video" or an annotated PowerPoint as a formal submission? English and Languages have speeches and other oral assessment tasks. Why can't Science, Geography, Mathematics...? So long as it satisfies the assessment criteria, why does it need to be written. We often accept verbal re submissions (clarifications) when someone is on a grade boundary; what is the difference?

I was very excited to be part of a discussion about basing the learning on students' interests and passions and/or on the most "wow-factor" aspects of a subject. From the learning, selecting assessments that the students could be measured against. This switch of the horse and carriage is one that I think NCEA internally-assessed Achievement Standards are perfect for. Externally-assessed Achievement Standards could be used this way too, though.

I have been working on this with my Year 11 Science class. We have only two predetermined Science Achievement Standards. The rest are being selected from the work the students do throughout the year. We started the year learning about Chemical Reactions. This included skills such as observing, classifying, balancing equations, inferring and justifying. Throughout the unit, the students built up a portfolio which was submitted and formally assessed.

The next unit was "Conspiracy!!". Students selected a conspiracy theory to learn about and decide if they believed the conspiracy or the "face value". They were taught research skills and how to analyse resources (the CRAAP Test) by our wonderful Librarian. I then used Austin's Butterfly (below) to teach a Critique Process. Depending upon the quality of the students' work, they will be given the opportunity to submit this as a formal assessment or not. Depending upon the context of their respective conspiracy theories, and the format of their submissions, we will search for Achievement Standards to measure their work against. Some may get Astronomy credits (Moon Landing hoax), for example. Many are likely to be assessed against an English Achievement Standard - Using Information Literacy Skills. Many are considering using this research for their speeches in English for later in the year!

The remainder of the year is based around Passion Projects, and using the experimental skills learned in "Chemical Reactions" and the information literacy skills learned in "Conspiracy!!" to make these inquiries robust and meaningful. Who knows how many Achievement Standards these students may decide to be assessed against.

There is one more predetermined Achievement Standard we are doing. We are doing the Level 1 Physics Practical Investigation. This can count towards Level 1 Numeracy as well as being a very good assessment for testing students' experimental design and laboratory report writing. It is a common assessment for all Year 11 students, not just my special lot. It fits in the ethos of "my" class, so I was always keen to assess them using this.

There are ways and means to be innovative with assessment and make it work for you and your students. There are some moonshot ideas that were shared via #edchatNZ last week, but many are not quite so "out there" as we may think; some teachers and some schools are already embracing and attempting many of these great ideas. Connect with someone who is trying these things, then have a discussion with the "powers that be" to see if you can be part of a growth mindset about assessment.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

NOT Teaching to the Assessment

This is one of my biggest bugbears - designing my teaching (and students' learning experiences) around the assessments at the end of the unit, or the end of the year. My other big gripe is with students "credit counting" but I'm not going to get into that here...if I can help it - no promises, mind you!


Why do we traditionally align our units so neatly with the assessments, rather than authentic learning experiences? Why do we focus so much on "training" our students to give "model" answers? Why are our students so focused on being guided to the "right" answers (rather than seeking answers to their own questions, perhaps!)?

Surely the answer lies in the view of what success in our classrooms is measured by. If you get good grades, you are a success. If you get poor grades, you are not. Maybe the fault is actually in the assessments themselves. Do they really reward the type of adaptability and level of thinking that we would like our students/graduates to have?

I'm not going to offer answers here. I am hoping people might share their thoughts in the comments section of this blog... Nah, it'll never happen!


Being solely (I use this word deliberately) focused on preparing students for their assessments has made me enjoy teaching Science and Chemistry less. I am making a concerted effort not to focus exclusively on the final assessment(s),but more on the Nature of Science and exploring students' wonders. Science and Chemistry are amazing subjects, and linked so closely to other important learning - Health (drugs and alcohol, for example), English (research, writing reports, making sound arguments, analysing source material...), Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Astronomy...you are getting my drift here, I think. Why stay constrained to only the learning that will be assessed? How myopic!

So, I have been making a concerted, deliberate attempt to have my cake and eat it too. I am trying to make the learning experiences more student-centred and student-directed, while also trying to make sure they are well-prepared for the assessments - because these do matter, no matter how Utopian we try to be. I have also not succeeded yet. Sometimes I "teach to the assessment" too much; sometimes I do not explicitly teach how to excel in the assessments enough.


I will give some general ideas that I have tried (and am getting better at offering the students), along with some anecdotes.

  1. Teach key concepts, film this teaching and make it available online. I currently use blogs but am shifting more to OneNote as the College becomes more and more BYOD.
  2. Set weekly assignments that are in the style of the assessments that will be used for each topic. I use Moodle to set these as it makes it easy to track students' attempts and grades.
  3. Use SOLO hexagons to identify the key concepts of the unit. This is really easy in Organic Chemistry, as you can just use the main functional groups. There are so many different ways to use these hexagons to challenge the students' understanding. We have some games to play with these concept hexagons as well.
  4. Set challenges. This is sometimes with the SOLO hexagons, but usually it is something a lot more exploratory. For example, I set a task in which the students were given one set of quick-fit apparatus, 1-propanol and acidified potassium dichromate solution. Using only this equipment, they had to prepare propanal and propanoic acid, somehow. Research, trial-and-error, testing outcomes... They didn't all succeed, and this was a learning experience as well!
  5. Investigations/Inquiries. I try to base all of the learning around investigations or inquiries. This is much easier in Junior Science due to the lack of any NCEA assessment. However, we now have an NCEA Level 1 Science course that is primarily based around student inquiries. You can read about the plan in this blog. We are actually going to assign Achievement Standards to the learning as students progress through their inquiries, rather than predetermining them. I'm nervous; I'm excited!
  6. Let the students determine the direction and pace of the learning. I gave the class two days to explore the carbonyl compounds. There were chemicals made available so they could do experiments when they felt it suited them best. Some ideas were given for them to use to find out information and to test their understanding. We talked about these chemicals in the real world. There were molecular model kits to "play" with - yes, some of them made models of methamphetamine initially...so we talked about drugs and addiction for a while in that group.

I think I am managing to balance covering the content that will be assessed, while also making the teaching and learning all about the Science/Chemistry. I doesn't suit every student, but it buys me time to work with every one of them a bit more, and to see which buttons I can push to make them remember every lesson for at least a day or two longer...

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Know Your Students

I make a real effort to get to know what makes each of my students tick. I look at data to help me guide them with goal setting. I cherish the relationships that are fostered within my classroom/laboratory. However, a very simple stroke of genius that I was exposed to just before school started that has given me so much more and so much sooner in the year: "5 Things You Should Know About Me."


Before any teaching or learning happened in any of my classes this year, I armed every student with a pen and a blank piece of paper. I then talked to them about how I could view them as potential Excellence grades or Scholarships or... You get the idea. So did they. Then I said that I would prefer to view them as individuals with individual reasons for taking "my" subject along with their individual aspirations, both in terms of academic achievement and enjoyment or fulfillment.

"So, please write your name on the top of that piece of paper. Don't let anyone else see what you are about to write on there. I want you to share five things about yourself that you think it is important for me to know. But first, here are five things about me that I would like you to know." I shared a few things like how I am very competitive but think I'm a pretty good winner (and loser), and how I never wanted to be a teacher but feel very fortunate to have found a career that resonates with me.

I assured the students that I would not share anything they shared with me, unless it made me concerned for their safety. I gave them time to get this done and stressed that this was more important than going through Course Outlines etc. for Day One.


Of course I am not going to give any details. I am going to keep my promise! However, getting the students to hand write their "5 things" was a good way to get an early indication of anyone who might need some literacy help . I also got a better image of the true make up of my classes.

There are students whose grades suggest they would be targeting Scholarships this year, but they are more interested in other subjects so doing "my" subject purely for interest-sake. No apology, just thought that I should know. There are students who wanted me to know that they aren't the best-behaved - sorry in advance, sir!

I know of the anxieties of certain students and have already been able to focus my attention of some of them to help them more in class. Never before have I arranged lunchtime tutorials to help students so early in the year because never before have I been so explicitly aware of the anxieties of students.

Such a simple idea, but so insightful! This is something I will do every year from now on.