Monday, 26 October 2015

The Purpose of Learning?

It has been a slow year for blogging, primarily due to the workload of balancing my pastoral role with another passion – leading and teaching a new Year 11 Science course. I have been able to explore and inquire as to the motivation and purpose of learning for my students, comparing and contrasting the students in this course with those in my senior Chemistry classes. Honestly, I have probably ended up with more questions than answers, but I have found one way to offer a course within a traditional school system which has the learning and the student at the centre, with NCEA credits being conveniently earned along the way.

Year 11 Practical Science

At the end of last year, I approached my Head of Department about redesigning our “Alternative Science” course. This was already a completely internally-assessed course, designed for students who struggled to achieve success in exam-format assessments. It was a meaningful and valuable course already; I just thought that it could be a little more student-centred and could offer more student agency.

The development and implementation of this course has been a real eye-opener for me, and highly rewarding for me, the teacher of the other class, and for most of the students who were given the opportunity to enrol in this course. I have been forced to become more fluent in a range of Level 1 Achievement Standards, and not just those in Science. I have learned a lot about the “credit-shopping” focus of students, regardless of their perceived ability and/or motivation. I have finally developed a way to support and guide less-organised students through portfolio-style assessments – it isn’t perfect, but it is a huge improvement on where we were at the start of the year!

If you are interested, you can read more about the journey in these posts:

We have designed a course which starts off with a Chemistry unit (because everyone loves mixing and burning chemicals) to teach observation and experimental skills. This is followed by a unit based around a Conspiracy Theory to teach about Scientific Literacy and research skills. The final prescribed unit is a Physics practical investigation to develop students’ Fair Testing. For these parts of the course, we kept a Class Blog to record the important content and skills:

The remainder of the year is focused on students’ interests and finding ways to structure these interests into robust inquiries. We had inquiries based on shotguns, MotoX, artillery, rugby kicking techniques, rowing technique, skateboarding tricks…it was amazing!

The teachers’ role is that of a mentor and (supportive) critic, while also being charged with finding suitable NCEA Achievement Standards to assess the learning with. As part of this, the marking schedules and portfolio coversheets have been co-constructed with the students. This has given transparency to the assessment and the expectations upon the students. This has also been the really time-consuming part, but also very rewarding!

The purpose of learning in this course has been, ultimately, to explore an inherent or developed interest and investigate it in a scientific manner. The wonderful outcomes have included most student earning at least 16 NCEA Level 1 credits along the way (some at Excellence level), outstanding student engagement, and a dramatic increase in students’ self-belief and self-worth.

“Academic” Courses

This year, I also had my philosophies regarding assessment challenged. While teaching the Year 11 course, I have also been teaching Level 2 and Level 3 Chemistry. These are courses where grades are ever-important. Most of these students are expecting to be shown how to excel in assessment tasks, sometimes regardless of the quality of the actual learning.

It would indeed be great to offer the same level of student agency and flexibility in these courses. However, the assessments do have the power to drive the learning in these classes. The day-to-day teaching and learning opportunities can be such that student choice and differentiated learning can be provided but, ultimately, there are externally-assessed examinations to prepare for.

There is no way to avoid the amount and specificity of the content that must be “covered” for these assessments. There is no escaping that students need to be coached how to answer examination-style questions at some stage through each unit. There is no avoiding the issue that to offer a meaningful number of credits, there is a LOT of work to get through.

If tertiary institutions put the main onus upon the externally-assessed Achievement Standards, courses such as Chemistry will always be driven by the assessment, rather than the learning. As I say, my philosophies have been challenged. By offering such an exciting course to the Year 11 “strugglers”, I have felt as though my senior chemists have missed out on the opportunity to explore the magic of their subject due the focus on grades. This is not a criticism, merely an observation…tinged with a little frustration, as I do not have the answer.

Why Are We Learning This?

Through two very different types of courses, I come back to that old adage from the disenchanted student, “Why are we learning this stuff? When will I ever need it in my life?” If you do not view these as fair questions, then I suggest you care more about your subject than you do about your students.

Student agency regarding contexts and, dare I suggest it, means of assessment are key components of making the learning meaningful to students. Surely this is achievable in Year 9 and 10, even in the silo of a single subject. Not to be disparaging, but context is even possible in Mathematics. NCEA is using contextualised questions more and more. What better preparation can there be than to apply mathematical skills to real student interests? I know that subjects like English, Social Studies and Science lend themselves more towards this type of learning, but Science is often prone to being too abstract if taken out of context and focused more on content.

If it is manageable in Years 9 and 10, why not beyond this? This is where the students’ respective reasons for learning become vital. Does the student sees learning in school as part of the journey to tertiary study? Does the student see learning in school as a way to learn how to learn, but has no (current) aspirations for further study? Does the student just want to be entertained until he/she finds a job that is interesting enough to do instead of being at school?

If the student sees tertiary study as the ultimate goal, then getting the grades to achieve this goal makes the learning authentic in itself. Courses that optimise this student’s ability to reach this goal are suitable. At the same time, these courses need to develop the whole student, of course, but the purpose of the learning is further study; the course must cater for this for this student.

If the student does not see tertiary study as the goal, then grades themselves (beyond getting sufficient credits to earn their NCEA Level 1 certificate, for example) are not going to be motivation enough. Authentic learning opportunities are vital for this student. Can the learning be applied to a hobby, interest, potential career…? This student’s course must provide enough flexibility and agency for this student to persevere with the learning, and to see the value of learning.

As I said at the start, I think I have more questions than answers. Do we need to offer two (or more) pathways for students in our courses beyond Year 10, in every school? How do we make them synergetic enough that students can shift course if they find their goals and aspirations have changed along the way? Regardless of the answers that are correct for your students, your school, and your community, when looking at your courses please always ask yourself what the purpose of the learning is.

Matt Nicoll – Year 10 Dean; Teacher of Science & Chemistry at St Andrew's College


  1. Great food for thought. Really challenges the thinking around the equity of all students being provided the opportunity for agency, inquiry, and authentic contexts. Did you find that the Year 11 class assignments may have demonstrated critical thinking better than than standard Year 12 'academic' courses?

    1. Thanks for your feedback. Yes, I have found that my Y11 students' work shows a higher level of critical thinking. In some cases, they show deeper content knowledge as well, but this is not uniform enough for me to say that it is an actual outcome. My Y11 students would still struggle with exams on the same concepts, so have I done them a disservice in that way, though?