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.

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.