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, 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.