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November 1, 2018
Vol. 14
No. 7

Documentation of Learning Makes Growth Visible

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Most people enjoy documenting their lives through photographs and videos. In much the same way, schools have been documenting learning—both formally and informally—for decades. Teachers can ask learners to document their own learning for three purposes (Tolisano & Hale):
  1. Documentation OF learning focuses on displaying artifacts: What did the learner do? What is the result of the learning?
  2. Documentation FOR learning focuses on interpretation of artifacts: Why do I accept this artifact as evidence of my learning progress? How could someone else learn from my failures and successes?
  3. Documentation AS learning focuses on the learning process involved in capturing and reflecting on artifacts: What is worthy of capture during a learning opportunity? How can I convey my thinking visibly and audibly using media platforms and tools?
Documentation of, for, and as learning are not direct synonyms for assessment of, for, or as learning. While assessment is an integral part of documentation, the learning framework of documentation goes beyond assessment and allows student and adult learners to participate in their learning processes.

A Tweet Prompts a Connection

Janet: How can educators and students document their learning in more meaningful ways? After I copublished a book on documenting learning with educator Silvia Tolisano, we asked teachers to share their documentation experiences with the hashtag #documenting4learning. A teacher named Melanie, who had tweeted "I am always learning …" and shared her blog post on active learning, caught my eye.
I was impressed with her transparency and passion. Her interpretative thought process was a documentation for learning attribute. I reached out to her, and we began to discuss ways she could upgrade her professional learning journey to a documentation as learning focus. This meant focusing on the learning process involved in strategically capturing student artifacts, as well as asking her students to take more responsibility to document their own learning. Because such transformations are best accomplished gradually, I stressed that "one unit at a time" was a perfect approach (Hale and Fisher, 2013).
While Melanie had been asking students to document learning experiences for about a year, she had never simultaneously participated in this process as a professional learner. She realized she needed to be more cognizant of what to look for in her students' learning processes as well as her own and to share captured artifacts with her students and colleagues for feedback.
Melanie also wanted to make sure she was truly following all the proper phrases and steps in her documentation process (Figure 1). She coplanned her next documenting experience with a colleague, Michael Isaac, and their 7th grade students, who would document their construction of particle theory models.

Figure 1. Documenting Learning Framework

Source: S. R. Tolisano and J. A. Hale. Used with permission.
Students used a familiar design-thinking action plan with an additional component: They chose what's called an "I can …" learning target for each of the four action plan stages (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Design-Thinking Action Plan

Source: Used with permission from Melanie Mulcaster, Peel District School Board, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
Figure 3 includes the "I can …" targets that students chose to document their learning during the Brainstorm/Sketch/Designate stage.

Figure 3. Brainstorm / Sketch / Designate "I Can …" Look-For Targets

Source: Used with permission from Melanie Mulcaster, Peel District School Board, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
As part of her desire to share her professional journey with colleagues, Melanie asked me to generate questions to help her contemplate her choices and improve her learning documentation after she and Mr. Isaac completed their project.

How is owning my learning valuable?

Melanie: As a teacher, I never have enough time. Becoming more mindful of what I need to look for when students are engaged in the learning process has given me a new directive in my professional learning. In the past, I took pictures of everything the students were doing to (hopefully) capture some evidence of learning. It was eye-opening to know that the documentation framework requires purposefully planning the "look-fors" based on learning goals and targets.
While I am making gains in better defining look-fors in the predocumentation phase, defining the right look-fors while students are self-documenting is something I struggle with. For example, in the particle theory experience, some of the "I can …" look-fors Mr. Isaac and I generated were (1) too numerous per stage and (2) not as important as we thought. For example, one sentence we gave students ("I can show the challenges my group faced in construction") didn't always let them show evidence of how their thinking was changing over time. Some of what we thought were the best "I can …" look-fors in the four action plan stages were not relevant as the students began to document.
I also found I needed to define what was most important—our students being able to showcase their knowledge of the particle theory or their ability to capture their own learning evidence? Through continuously reflecting alongside my photographs, videos, and text on social media and my blog, I continue to challenge my own misconceptions about the ways students learn best.

How will I and others know that I am, in fact, learning?

Melanie: I grow when I am able to make my thinking visible, shareable, and discussable. Documentation of learning takes time and effort—something 7th graders do not always have a desire to do. While our students agreed to join us on their journey of choosing "I can …" targets to capture evidence of their learning through photos and videos, I do not think they truly understood the depth of thinking required.
To help my students become cognitively aware of the act of learning while it takes place, I have them think about these questions as they work:
  • Am I modelling what the process of learning looks like? Am I making those actions visible to and shareable with my peers?
  • Do I really believe when we are engaged in a documenting experience that the learning process is more valuable than the product
Evidence of learning also includes learning from other educators' insights and expertise. For example, during our particle theory experience, our students hosted Janet in a Google Hangout to discuss students' planned documentation process in the Tinker/Create stage, where they applied their design plans. She helped crystallize their (and my) understanding of what it means to be laser-focused on a specific learning target while the learning takes place. She encouraged us to take time to slow down and reflectively pause throughout the learning process by asking ourselves: What is happening right now? What is important to capture for our learning journeys?
Mr. Isaac and I generated three guiding questions in framing what the students needed to think about when looking for evidence of their learning in the Tinker/Create stage:
  • How might I prove my learning?
  • What's really important that I want to take a picture of?
  • Whom do we want to see and give feedback on our work?
Janet also used the analogy of capturing the most important events at a party. We applied that concept as students drafted their next I can…look-fors, including the need to connect and reflect in each stage (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Connect and Reflect

Source: Used with permission from Melanie Mulcaster, Peel District School Board, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.
I overheard a group of students discussing their design obstacles and what they might need to change for their model to work. The moment when they were discussing this met one of the look-fors they selected: I can show evidence of how my thinking and model changed over time. "This counts?!" they exclaimed. As I moved to converse with another group I overheard a student reflectively share with his partner, "Is this the best way to show our learning? I don't think it is." Ah, music to my ears.

What are your next steps?

Melanie: Documenting learning is a powerful process that takes time. In the past, when I documented my students' learning, I omitted reflection. Being reflective in the moment now fuels my students' and my own practices, especially as we continue to strive to reach a comfort level with conducting documenting AS learning opportunities.
I want to include my students in the cocreation of the "I can …" look-for targets. As I created targets with Mr. Isaac and other colleagues, I couldn't help but think about how much richer and deeper the learning would be if students joined in the design process.

Embrace the "Messiness" of Learning

Janet: Melanie's honesty and willingness to engage in the messiness of learning embodies what it means to be a contemporary professional learner. When teachers choose to learn the art of documenting learning alongside their students, they engage with a self-directed pedagogy that allows them to improve their craft one experience at a time.

Hale, J. A., & Fisher, M. (2013). Upgrade your curriculum: Practical ways to transform units and engage students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tolisano, S. R., & Hale, J. A. (2018). A guide to documenting learning: Making thinking visible, meaningful, shareable, and amplified. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Janet A. Hale is an educational consultant who specializes in curriculum mapping, standards-based curriculum design, and transforming units of study. She travels extensively throughout the United States as well as internationally. She enjoys introducing curriculum design and curriculum mapping to newcomers, supporting implementation, aiding struggling initiatives, and advising those ready for advanced curriculum work. She has written two books focused on curriculum mapping, including A Guide to Curriculum Mapping: Planning, Implementing, and Sustaining the Process and An Educational Leader's Guide to Curriculum Mapping: Creating and Sustaining Collaborative Cultures, both published by Corwin Press.

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