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, 3 June 2016

The Class vs. Nicoll - Choosing the Tougher Road

A key focus for my teacher inquiry this year has been to explore ways to develop perseverance ("grit") in my students. I have taken action in two of my classes, with mixed results.


In the current unit, the students were posed a series of challenges that would guide them to explore atomic structure and periodic trends, such as electronegativity and ionisation energy. These challenges were in the format of booklets, each with three scaffolded tasks and the ultimate challenge.

The challenge in each booklet was beyond the requirement for Level 3, so was my "test" to see if students would explore concepts deeper, if given some direction and challenged to do so. Each booklet also contained some past NCEA questions, and completing these by certain deadlines was the minimum expectation on the students.

I found that very few of my students even attempted the challenges, but every student made an honest attempt to complete the scaffolded tasks. Most students met the deadlines for the NCEA questions, but not all. I was disappointed that any students at this level of learning needed to be pushed to meet important deadlines, when they have all told me that success in the NCEA exams is their ultimate goal.

I was not overly surprised that few students attempted the challenges, as they were very difficult. However, having none share their thoughts on the challenges with me was a disappointing outcome. Was the work simply too challenging? Was it too boring? Does the "carrot" of NCEA assessment override intrinsic interest?

There are some questions to ask the class before I try something similar in the next topic...


We are in the middle of learning about "Fair Testing" - developing and carrying out a procedure (method) to find a relationship. In our current context, the class are investigating the relationship between angle and distance when kicking a rugby ball from a tee. We are recording our processes and learning here.

My experience of doing this last year led to some changes, as well as an opportunity to explore how much grit these students would have, particularly if they knew their chances of success were very low.

The class actually chose this context after hearing how much fun the 2015 class had with it. I think some of the less diligent souls thought it would be a fun way to waste time, pretending to be doing something constructive. How their attitudes have changed; how happy I am with this change!

I gave the class some planning templates and we explored the key variables as a class discussion, led by me. I warned them that there were variables we would find impossible to control, due to their random nature. Do you want to carry on? YES!!!

They were told to write up a method for homework. I seldom give homework, so stressed that this must be important if I was giving homework tonight. The next day, the students shared their methods with their group (we sit in groups of 4-6 students) and came up with a hybrid that they were happy with. I went around each group and gave honest critique. I also said, to each group that there was an easier way, involving models. Would you prefer to do that? NO!!!

At the end of that lesson, I told the class that no method contained enough details to be successful. None of them controlled enough key variables to give meaningful results. All the while, I had my hand on a cannon that fires projectiles at known angles. I explained that in Science, we sometimes use models to test an idea, then go out and see if our results apply to the real world. If they wanted, I would provide them with a method, using models.

Alternatively, they had two more lessons to work as a team against me. If they could come up with a workable method that might get meaningful, valid results, I would let them do it their way. I must warn you: This is the hard road; I will challenge every decision you make in your method; I will push you for details; you will have to organise all the equipment. Or, I will give you my method... What do you want to do?

They took the tougher road, and boy did they prove me wrong!!! I still suspect that their results will be invalid, but their process in developing a method and what they have learned has been a huge success. Their method is workable, at Level 1 of NCEA.

What did I observe?
  • The class needed guidance for allocating jobs to achieve what was required in the very tight time frame. "Focus Groups" met this need, as well as regular "checking in" by me.
  • The students who were "passengers" stepped up to the challenge once they were made accountable by their peers in their "focus group" and me.
  • The chance to learn in a context they chose seems to have had a positive outcome for engagement and grit.


One "investigation" does not make for meaningful, valid conclusions. I need to come up with some other ways to push my students in a way that will test their grit and perseverance. In terms of a spiral of inquiry, new action is required...

In Practical Science, I will be playing "Agent Provocateur" when students are learning about Conspiracy Theories. This will put barriers in the way of them coming to conclusions. I look forward to seeing if this makes students review and refine their evidence and conclusions, or if they will just brush me off and submit their work, as is.

In Chemistry, I am not quite sure what to do next. Feedback from the students has to be the next step. What did they like about the challenges? What did they dislike about learning that way?