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, 21 February 2017

Our Place, Our Story, Our Identity

In Connected Learning over the past seven school days, we have been exploring the link between our place (country, province, district, town, school...), our journey (born here, moved here, migrated here...) and our identity as individuals and as a group. The learning is multi-disciplinary, involving elements of Social Sciences, Health, Mathematics, Science and English.

We provided a task that looked at two narratives behind the formation of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (the Southern Alps). Kā Tiritiri o te Moana are at the boundary of our place, the Selwyn District. They are a major part of our place when we look further out to Waitaha (Canterbury), Te Waipounanu/Te Waka o Aoraki (the South Island), and Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Ākonga did a very good job of summarising the two narratives into sequences that made it easy for the reader to see the flow of the key events. However, the evaluation of the importance of  the two very different narratives was lost on most of them. In many cases, it was a bridge too far, and nothing was written (although time could have been a factor in this as well).

For many, they were happy to express an opinion about which was more relevant now - still fresh in many of their minds are the earthquakes we experience, that can be explained by the Plate Tectonic Theory but ākonga could not immediately see any link to the Ngāi Tahu narrative for these.

Despite ākonga generally not taking this as "deep" as I would have liked, I really enjoyed guiding them through the learning of these two narratives. I enjoyed the conversations and had to remind myself that these were only 12 and 13 year old students. I am enjoying giving feedback and advice when reviewing their responses. I always feel like ākonga have been offered a good learning opportunity when I enjoy reading and marking their work from the task.

When I reflect on this session, my main point to change would be the time allowance. We have 100 minute learning blocks, and this could easily have taken an entire block, particularly with the amazing human resources we have - 3-4 kaiako for 60 ākonga per block.

I would also consider altering the bullet-points used to guide them with their evaluation. I think challenging them about which story had more meaning for them, personally, might have led to even more interesting responses. Still, not too bad for their second piece of work in Connected Learning.

Monday, 20 February 2017

But I Don't Have Anything to Read...

This is a bit of a follow-up post on Rolleston Reads. Today, I my Ako group decided they wanted to read today and Wednsday this week. Great idea...except that I left my book at home. So did one of the students. Two ākonga without a book. Hmmm...what to do?

The process of Rolleston Reads is my saving grace for this:

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Because most of us have already done some reading, we do not all need to be in that step of the process. The student who left his book at home has done some non-digital reflection in his notebook. I have done some blogging (okay, not about my book, but about Rolleston Reads itself, instead).

As I type, I see that another student has moved from finishing her book to starting her blog post about her reading. Another is making notes about her book as she reads. Everyone else is so engrossed in theire respective book that I dare not stop them yet!

The process behind Rolleston Reads does more than just tell a student the answer to "What next?", it also tells all ākonga (me included) what we could do instead, if we have not come prepared for this session of Rolleston Reads. Simple, but effective.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Prove It!

Last year, none of my Selected options had enough enrolments for the courses to run in Term One, 2017. Instead, I was asked if I wanted to take a class of "Proof", a course about forensic science and New Zealand law. Fortunately for me, and sadly for two other staff members who did the original course design and brief, there was a timetable clash which meant I was being offered the chance to lead one of the two classes of Proof.

A lot of planning went into getting this course ready and making it feel authentic, including writing a script for the first crime scene, setting up a crime scene, and preparing the evidence for the students to use. Some amazing colleagues gave up their own time to help with staged interviews, to plant evidence leading to them as suspects, and even to pop into class to be grilled by the students.

Today was my first 100 minute block, and all of the effort was worth it. I can honestly say that was one of the most invigourating, enjoyable "lessons" that I have ever "taught". Not only were the students engaged, they were challenged and having fun. Word must have got out, because we had a lot of visitors during the lesson...

It was a huge relief to see that our crime and available evidence is not too easy to solve. They may only be Year 9, but these students have already exceeded my expectations in other things in the first few weeks. Luckily, we have written in enough stumbling blocks and misdirection to keep them engaged, entertained and driven to succeed. They have been asking questions that I never considered when writing the script. Overachievers!!

We are very lucky. This is a Selected course, so students opt into it. We also have two uninterrupted 100 minute blocks on subsequent days (Monday and Tuesday for one class, and Thursday and Friday for my class). We have a small roll in a big school, so can close off a lab to set up as a crime scene. Only the last of those things will change in the future, and it is definitely not an insurmountable barrier.

I am buzzing at the moment, more than I ever have after a lesson in 17 years of teaching. I am genuinely excited about what lies ahead in Proof...

The grand plan goes something like this for "Proof 1.0":
Week One: Use evidence to solve a crime scene - Crime Scene #1. The evidence has been collected for you and suspects interviewed. Now use this information and your own observations to create a timeline and deduce "whodunit".
Week Two: Reflect on Crime Scene #1. What went well? What did not? Reveal the true story and reflect on our own conclusions and assumptions.
Week Three: Learn about some forensic and other crime-solving techniques via online games. Students will decide which skills they want to become experts in. We will seek out experts (and do some actual teaching and experiments, of course) to help students become competent at, for example, collecting and analysing fingerprints, or interviewing suspects, or collecting and analysing fibres. The students decide, we guide them to those who can help...
Weeks Four-Six: Learning skills and proving competence and/or proficiency in these skills. During this time, I will be writing Crime Scene #2, based upon the skills the students have elected to learn.
Week Seven: Crime Scene #2
Week Eight: Reflect upon Crime Scene #2. The class then plan and set up Crime Scene #3. This may be a Murder Mystery evening for teachers, parents and/or friends. It may be something completely different. The students get to choose how to celebrate the amazing learning they have achieved.

Author's Note: Since writing this, there has been a change to the plan. More time has been needed for the exploring of key ideas, such as eyewitness testimony, which has put things back a bit. I am now co-writing Crime Scene #2 with one of the learners, and this will be the foundation of the Celebration of all ākonga learning. It may still be something we set up for friends, kaiako and/or whānau, but time constraints have forced a small change to the plan laid out here. M

We will be offering learning experiences beyond the obvious scientific observation and analytical skills. "Proving" is tougher than "knowing". Writing convincing arguments. Articulating convincing points of views. Weighing up the value of evidence. Formulating questions for interrogations. Using evidence to catch people out on a lie. Teamwork. Resilience (there will be deception in Crime Scene #2, so students will get frustrated). Science. English. Social Sciences.

Then, we are looking at where we go from here: Proof 2.0. What will the next level of course look like? When will it be offered? Just for Year 10? For any student from any year level who has completed Proof 1.0? Will the timetable allow for that? Should it? Will Proof 2.0 provide opportunities for students to earn NCEA credits? Should it?

This is what teaching can be like. This is what learning can be like. And I get to do it all again tomorrow...

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Rolleston Reads

Part of Ako time at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata involves "Rolleston Reads". We read for 30 minutes with our students. Not very ground-breaking, is it? However, this is a big deal for me. I do not read enough. This is going to make me read more.

The other part that I like about Rolleston Reads is the processes we are instilling in the ākonga, and ourselves:

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Today, we got reading. Today, we set up a blog. Today, we made some notes in our notebooks (on paper, not digital) about what we were reading. Once we have finished a book, we aim to write something about it, no matter how much or how little.

Today, every ākonga wrote something small about why they read. It is only fair that I model this practice here:

Why I Read

Ever since my eyesight started to deteriorate (in my early 20s), I have been a reluctant reader. I had a couple of favourite authors, such as Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. Other than that, I only read non-fiction. I read for information, not for relaxation or pleasure. I want that to change. I still want to read non-fiction and have three books "on the go" at the moment. But I want to read for pleasure again as well.

I am starting off with something easy. I am a huge fan of the discontinued series, Firefly. There are now some graphic novels to complement the television series. I have bought the first three of these and am starting to "digest" them. I love them. I can "hear" the actor's voices in my head when I read their respective characters' dialogue.

Today, I finished reading Better Days and Other Stories. I learned more about River and Book and was left wondering what happened to Wash after the TV series.

A story where River calmly returns after killing a group of scoundrels gave me a quietening insight into her character, and Shepherd Book's. River proclaimed to Book that it was easy...then commented that he has found it easy as well, hasn't he? I can't wait to read The Shepherd's Tale to get more insight into Book's past!

The story told through the recollections of past shipmates of Wash was difficult to read, simply because I wondered about the reason for their reunion. The ending was ambiguous but still left me thinking that Wash has died, but not until after Zoe had become pregnant. The final scene shows a very pregnant Zoe proclaiming that Wash's daughter will also be a helluva pilot...

These stories keep me hooked on the Firefly and Serenity franchise, despite their demise as a television series. Who knows, maybe Fox (or some other channel) might reboot Firefly. It seems to be the vogue thing to do these days... Shiny!!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Going Solo in a Collaborative World

Yeah, I admit it: that was a catchy title to grab your attention! This is about my views on SOLO Taxonomy, my new role at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata, and what I hope to learn from this role. At the end of last year, I was appointed to a role supporting the implementation of SOLO Taxonomy into the teaching and learning in the College.


SOLO is an acronym for “Structure of Observed Laerning Outcomes”. In New Zealand, PamHook is the guru of implementation of SOLO Taxonomy into schools.

A SOLO HOTMap (graphic organiser).
To get full access to these, contact Pam Hook
At my last school, I was very fortunate to have been exposed to SOLO Taxonomy from Day One. Pam led Professional Learning during a Teacher-Only Day, and provided ongoing support. I was impressed with the common language (much like any other taxonomy that I had been exposed to beforehand) and the graphic organisers for helping students get started – you do need to sign up with Pam to get access to these. I thought the symbols were a bit abstract at first, but I now “get” them. I was overwhelmed by the rubrics, but saw the huge value in helping students be explicitly aware of what was required from them to have deeper knowledge and/or understanding.


As the “new kid on the block”, I was more than happy to adopt SOLO Taxonomy. This was what the school saw value in and I had applied for the job because I had the utmost respect for this school. Pam had made it very clear that you didn’t need to be an expert to try using it. She recommended starting something eay, like using SOLO verbs in our lesson Specific Learning Outcomes, first. As I was already in the habit of writing these on the board at the start of every lesson, this was a natural place to start.

I was also a strong believer in providing students with graphic organisers to help them get started with work, and to offer some guidance for how “deeply” they should aim to take the task. Therefore, I took it a step further than what Pam suggested and started using the graphic organisers as well. That meant I had, by default, created a requirement to give feedback in terms of the SOLO Taxonomy. The symbols and terms (prestructural, unistructural etc.) had to be adopted and visible in my classroom.

Communication with students and parents was needed to explain what these meant. I nailed the first part, but failed in the second. The school did a very good job at providing information for parents, so I presumed I just had to report progress in terms of SOLO. Not quite. More explicit explanation from me, the classroom teacher, was needed. The classroom time I invested into teaching the students about what SOLO meant for them and their learning did need to be replicated for their parents. I fell short on that front.

The next time Pam visited our school, I was asked to go to the TV Studio to be filmed talking about SOLO in my practice and in my specialist subject, Science. It was still early days for me, but a lot of this still holds true:

One of the key things I found with implementing SOLO Taxonomy was that it was being used across multiple Learning Areas, particularly Science, Mathematics, Social Sciences and Health/Physical Education. At Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata, this needs to be a consideration. However, as our teaching and learning is, by its very nature, going to be multi-discipline, this should not be difficult to implement, monitor and maintain.


In 2011, our Science Department had started to move from SOLO use only in class and homework tasks to being the way we would report student progress and achievement. We redesigned our assessments to include SOLO verbs, graphic organisers to help students plan and start their answers, and rubrics for marking and providing feedback for “next steps”.

By 2012, our Year 9 and 10 exams had strong SOLO elements in them, which correlated well with the work done in classrooms, and allowed students to express their thinking better. We kept things like multiple-choice, short answer and graphing in our tests and exams, as these could explicitly assess content knowledge and critical scientific skills. With the advantage of hindsight, I feel that we undervalued the SOLO-centred tasks, giving more relative weighting to the content knowledge in the exams. If I could do that again, I would not change the format of the tests and exams, but would place a lot more value on the tasks assessed using SOLO Taxonomy.

A Visual Rubric
SOURCE: http://pamhook.com/
One of the best things about the work in our department in 2012 was the use of visual rubrics. They made it much easier to make judgments about student work and provide quick feedback for the students’ “next steps”. As a department, we also put together more detail rubrics for marking. These were very similar to what we see NZQA produce for marking NCEA assessments. Students could be given either (or both) of these rubrics to help them understand the level of thinking they had communicated, and to see what would be needed to show deeper thinking in the future. I do not think I used the visual rubrics nearly as often as I should have, and will look into using them more in feedback and learning discussions in the future.

By 2013, SOLO Taxonomy was being used by me in all of my classes, not just in Years 9 and 10. I was so fluent in the use of SOLO with Years 9 and 10 that I wrote a reflection on why it worked so well for me and for my students. In Years 11-13, students were more interested in the NCEA Achievement grades. Therefore, SOLO was used for learning and feedback related to specific tasks, while the NCEA grades were used as judgments for assessed work, such as past exam questions or practice internal assessments. Most homework tasks were the latter, while most in-class tasks were the former.

2013 was the year that I was introduced to SOLO Hexagons. I saw these as a vehicle for making the learning more student-centred. I had already tried to make the learning more student-centred with my senior Chemistry classes in2013, with mixed success. It was an engaging way for students to learn and gave them ownership. It lacked a way to show the relationship between concepts. I felt that hexagons might be a way for students to visually and explicitly create those links. In 2014, I tried again, this time with hexagons in my kete. I do not think we fully exploited the potential of using the hexagons, but it was a start. I had a few ideas after reflecting on this second attempt.

In 2015 and 2016, some of those ideas had really come to fruition, particularly in Year 12 and Year 13 Organic Chemistry. We also used SOLO-driven tasks for the learning of Spectroscopy, and Atomic Structure and Periodicity. However, time pressures did limit the amount we could actually explore the concepts in class. Many of the gamification ideas were left with the students to take or leave. They proved useful revision tools in class. The “Hexagon Challenges” were something we only had time for once or twice within the unit. That was a shame, as I am interested to see whether this reinforcement would have a positive influence on the students making links between the key concepts.


I am excited about my role in implementing SOLO at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata in 2017. There are a few elements that really “float my boat” about this opportunity:
  • Cross-Curricular use of SOLO
  •  Supporting other staff
  •  “Leading from behind”
  •  Reflection

The very nature of how learning is structured at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata means that SOLO will be utilised across different Learning Areas. I envisage that we will need to find and/or develop tasks, rubrics etc. that measure student success in dispositions that transition different Learning Areas. Conversely, I expect that there will need to be success criteria specific to each Learning Area within each topic, or even within each task.

I see this as an excellent opportunity for me to learn about other learning areas while supporting other teachers’ needs in developing success criteria, tasks, rubrics etc. What will be measured? How will it be measured? How will this be reported? Each Learning Area has its only peculiarities. Which ones are critical in the success criteria for each task?

I see my role as one of supporting other staff to upskill in SOLO, while also looking at how SOLO might satisfy their needs or complement their current practice. From our time together in Term Four 2016, it is clear that we are not only a very collegial group, but we are well on the road to being a strongly collaborative team. This has made me think seriously about how I want to “lead” the implementation of SOLO in the College.

So often, when asked to “lead” something in the past, I have looked to drive it as an “expert”, taking others on a predetermined journey. From this point forwards, I found it easier to support individual needs. Interestingly, it was often how I taught my students as well… I expect that things will be much different in this role at Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata. The idea of “Leading from Behind” is one that I really want to experience, and I hope that this role will be more in this mould.

At Rolleston College Horoeka Haemata, Learning Leaders are currently synonymous to Heads of Department at most other New Zealand Secondary Schools. Serving and supporting their needs is critical in leading the implementation of SOLO Taxonomy, in my opinion. Rather than directing Learning Leaders in how they should be incorporating and implementing SOLO, I expect that I will be doing a lot of listening and asking many questions. How can SOLO help with that problem? How can SOLO help measure that? How can SOLO support student learning in this? I wonder if I will need to be the point of contact for parents who need clarification of “this SOLO thing”. If I do a good job, I expect that this would not be the case in the future, though…

In my reflections of using SOLO Taxonomy in the past, one of the big questions was why it lost traction in the NCEA years with so many colleagues and with students. Was it just a change in focus, or was it less relevant beyond Year 10? Did we SOLO-assess too often? Were the correlations between SOLO (for learning) and NCEA grades (for assessment) not made clear enough?

If, despite a staff that are “sold” on SOLO, we see a similar lack of traction at my current school, it will be critical to ask why. I see this reflection (and the potential for teaching inquiry around this) to be the bases of this role if it continues beyond 2017, along with continued support for colleagues, particularly new staff. For now, though, let’s get started in leading the implementation of SOLO in a highly collaborative workplace. I am looking forward to a role in which I will learn a lot, while also getting to apply my experience to new challenges and opportunities.