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    Philippa On The Ice Philippa Werry at an Antarctic research camp 2016

New Zealand Science Teacher

Learning in Science

Personal inquiries into practical science

What if an NCEA science course focused on pure enjoyment of the subject, and the relationship between teacher and students? MATT NICOLL reflects on his year teaching a new practical science course for year 11 students. 

This post originally appeared in the 2016 New Zealand Science Teacher print journal, and on Matt Nicoll's blog.

earthWhat a year it has been so far with my year 11 practical science course. This class has become the absolute highlight of my day. 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?

Relationship building

I made it very clear from the start that I wanted to get to know these students really well. I wanted to know why they did or did not enjoy learning 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 science 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 students 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 – find more information about it here), and there was a fair distribution of merits and a single Excellence awarded as well.

I was very proud of them. They were proud of themselves. "So, from here on, do we want to focus more on credits, or on learning more 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.

Student interests

We are now focusing on 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.

matt1Students 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 initial ‘scanning’, they started to focus their inquiry.

Once they had 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 (or possible answer) to investigate.

These inquiries have mostly focused on a couple of key ideas: their chosen sport of interest; their favourite hobby; or astronomy. The investigation between tyre pressure, soil type and acceleration for MotoX bikes has been impressive. One student is becoming a real expert in fishing – casting styles; rod types; best times for fishing; and the relationship between the moon and tides. Two students have been looking at factors that affect the swing of a cricket ball, while another two are exploring the use of a choke on the spread of shotgun shot.

Getting the students interested and engaged in their respective inquiries was, therefore, very easy. Matching these interests to science has been the fun part, and not always successful. One student wanted to look at ergonomic rowing and, other than the mechanics of a rowing machine, we really struggled. Ultimately, we adjusted his inquiry to focus more on the technique of rowing, which ergonomic rowing reinforces, and the biomechanics and physics of ‘good technique’.

Most students have done their research in class, and their experimenting in their own time. They are learning more about something they already care about, so they are actually keen to try out what their research suggests and see if it is correct.

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 students about what they have learned in the past 24 hours. 

Some challenges

As the focus is on student learning, not preparing for an assessment, it takes a lot longer to ensure the students are carefully directed to provide enough evidence to satisfy the assessments we plan to use to measure their learning. For example, in the Conspiracy! unit, very few students provided enough evidence of research and critique of resources to earn credits.

The learning was good, but not able to be rewarded with NCEA credits. From this, we have developed better ways to guide the students, specifically check lists to be submitted with research portfolios that must be submitted with the final report.

There is also a real time management issue with matching assessments to the learning as we go. It makes it nearly impossible to use assessment tasks found on TKI. Even minor adaptations to these tasks have not matched the learning very well. Therefore, we have been forced to create assessment tasks ourselves, based on the contexts of the students’ learning. TKI is very helpful as a starting point for this, but it means spending more time getting very familiar with each achievement standard.


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 planet 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 just starting with. This is only two to three 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, trust me, it's a real rush!

-          Matt Nicoll is a chemistry and science teacher at St. Andrews College in Christchurch. Find more about teaching practical science, as well as other pedagogical ideas, on his blog.


Practical science at St Andrew’s College

This completely internally-assessed course was specially designed for students who have a track record of underperforming in exam and test-style assessments. At the school, this course is offered to approximately 35 students and is spread across two classes. It is not for students deemed to be simply apathetic or disengaged, but rather for those for whom an internally assessed course would increase the chance of academic success that matches their efforts, despite any learning difficulties they struggle with.

By chance, the make-up of the students identified for this course in 2015 was very male-dominated. We had the choice to either spread the few girls across the two classes, or to create a truly co-educational class and a boys-only class. We chose the latter.

Matt says he was selected to teach the boys class because of his prior experience teaching at a boys’ school. There has been a ‘trade-off’ between targeting Excellence grades for focusing on developing a passion for learning about science.

“The learning in this class has been at a slower pace, but at the same curriculum level as our other year 11 (level 1) science courses,” he says.

“However, there has been more scaffolding of tasks and assessments, and the contexts are more student-driven. These students entered the course just hoping to get credits, not aiming for Merit or Excellence. As it works out, they now target Merit as their measure of success (not simply getting Achievement).


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