Documentation: A Critical Component of the Learning Process

It may be attributable to my love of history during undergraduate studies, or my time as Technology Director when having to keep a clear record of all that was happening on campus. It may be my incessant need to understand why things happen the way they do, and what leads people and organizations to make the decisions they do. Whatever the reason, documentation, for me, is an integral part of how I work. It is a way to capture moments in time so that they are not lost, to learn from past experiences, and to guide future decision making.

WHY is it important to document our learning?
When we document our work, we create a record of what we are doing. This can come in the form of pictures, audio recordings, video, written work and even the collection of materials and product that came out as a result of the experience. This record can be accessed later to help build understanding.

Proper documentation can help us to replicate and improve upon our existing work, and the work of others. Using the resources from past experiences, we can determine what worked well, what needs modification, and what can go to the waste basket the next time around. In essence, documentation can help us to be better teachers, as we learn from our past work.

Documentation is a metacognitive exercise. Through the review of our previous work, we must think about our thinking. Even for very young learners, this study of prior work helps them to recall what they were doing at the time and to describe what they were learning (Nilson, 2013). By externalizing this thinking, we gain a greater understanding of the concepts learned and the experience.

Beyond thinking about our thinking, documentation encourages us to organize the learning process. We demonstrate how a project began, possibly showing a first draft, a prototype, or an idea web. We might then include what happens in the next iteration, and then finally a finished product. While beneficial to ourselves as both documentarian and learner, this process becomes even more meaningful when we share the work with an authentic audience (our teacher, our parents, the community).

All of this documentation leads to the development of a portfolio of work. But this portfolio differs from a traditional one, where only a person’s best work is on display. Rather, what we are illustrating is not merely final pieces, but how we got there, what changes we made along the way, what growth occurred, and why we made particular decisions to alter our learning path.

Finally, documentation helps us to share our knowledge and experience with others. In the many years that I have worked in education, there is one common thread I see regardless of the institution; the sharing of resources, information, and experiences among peers. We are continually learning new methods, strategies, and technologies, and we often find support and inspiration from those in our same field. With the increase in social sharing and social media, resources abound. Here is a recent article about using social media to share our learning, from Common Sense Media.

WHO should document work?
Both teachers and students should be involved in the documentation process. For me, in the classroom, I am often with camera in hand ready to snap a photo of a project in process or of students engaged in an activity. I may use this material to share with other educators when discussing Project Based Learning or Design Thinking, for example, or to show student work in the area of coding or digital fabrication and design. The documentation from one class or one school year may serve as inspiration for future students and classes working on similar projects.

Students in my class use SeeSaw as their primary tool for documentation. I enjoy SeeSaw because it gives students the ability to take photos, video, hand-drawn artwork, audio voiceovers, text, and any combination of these, as they track and reflect on their progress. SeeSaw classes show a thread of entries from all students flowing down the page like an Instagram feed. The teacher can moderate how much interaction takes place between students and can invite parents to see their child’s work.

Weebly is another flexible tool, a web-based web editor, that allows students to create websites. This platform is wide open, allowing for multiple pages and multiple types of media.

Here are some examples of student documentation in SeeSaw and Weebly.

WHAT kind of work is documented?
From the teacher’s perspective, it is as valuable to document student work in progress as it is to document any final work. While one might argue that there is more value in recording the process over the result, I believe both are important for purposes of creating a history and for serving as the material for future learners.

When my students go through a design thinking exercise, where they might need to interview a “client,” walk through an ideation and brainstorming stage, design a solution and build a prototype, each step is documented. This documentation might be a reflective video, a quick snapshot of work in progress, or recorded thoughts in text or voice.

HOW do we document?
One of the simplest and most useful devices for documentation is the phone that sits in your pocket. Today’s smartphones have such powerful cameras, and the process of uploading media to the cloud is quick and efficient. Imagine back to the days when we had to have film developed before getting to review our work. Today we can point, shoot, review, edit, and post within seconds.

I’ve mentioned both SeeSaw and Weebly previously, but there are many great documentation tools available for free or very low cost. I have used FlipGrid and Recap with both educators and students as a way to reflect on their learning. These apps use the power of video to record the thoughts and reflections of learners, allow students to view each others’ videos, and even comment back via their own video if appropriate. Follow the hashtag #flipgridfever to see how educators across the country are using this tool in innovative ways.

The inherent sharing nature of Google Docs, part of the full GSuite for Education, provides a flexible, open environment for students to document their work individually, and in collaboration with their peers. Students can use Google Docs as an online journal, not only to store their work but to give them the ability to see revision history and revert to previous versions if necessary. Google Drive can serve as a repository for docs, sheets and slides, and also any files and file types that students choose to store and archive.

Teams of teachers can use GSuite for documenting what they do. As part of my work in Project Quest, I joined a group of 8 teachers (covering the disciplines of science, history, Latin, religion, art, and technology) working with forty students over the course of six weeks of study. During this time, different teachers worked with different students, with frequent cross-over and mixed groupings. Using Google Docs, we regularly documented what happened during the day, not only to keep each other informed but to reflect the process and make any necessary changes and adjustments moving forward.

Recently, I began using Google Keep to store snippets of documentation throughout the day. Keep stores text, links, photos, video, and hand-written messages. Hashtags can be added to create searchable categories. You can access Google Keep on the web, through the app, and on just about any device.

How do you and your students document all of the amazing things happening in your classroom? Is documentation shared with a broader audience? Can you recommend a new technology tool or app?

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