The Documenting Dilemma

This is a story of hypocrisy and empathy.

If there was a voice recorder in my classroom this year, more than anything else, you would hear me urging my students to document their learning.

At the beginning of the day…

“Don’t forget to document your learning!”

Throughout the day…

“Are you documenting your learning?”

“You should document that!”

“You’re missing it! Something awesome is happening… capture it!”

At the end of the day….

“Did you document your learning today?”

“Did you capture what you did? How you did it? How you felt about? What you learned? How you learned? How you felt about your learning?”

I had workshops about stronger documentation of process and growth


We developed success criteria for strong documentation of learning

doc criteria.JPG

I shared exemplars of strong documenting of learning

examples documenting.JPG

I was obsessed with having them document their learning. And, I would bet that I am no different from any educator who is striving for more learner agency, yet still working in a fairly mainstream system. There seems to be some unwritten agreement that – yes, we will transfer ownership of learning back into the hands of the students… but only as long as they document it all to prove that it is happening. 

And then it happened… hypocrite moment #1

We were all sitting around at a weekly team planning meeting at the beginning of March and realized that we had neglected to document our learning journey. The blog that was set-up with the specific purpose of allowing us to capture what we were doing, how it was going and what we were learning from it… was blank.

Even though we knew about it.

Even though we all saw value in it.

Even though we had weekly reminders to document and capture our journey.


This really got me thinking! It wasn’t that learning hadn’t happened. We had all experienced so much personal and professional growth. And it wasn’t that nothing worth capturing had happened. The previous 7 months were full of risk-taking, new initiatives, testing out new ideas, reflective conversations, multiple iterations….

It just wasn’t “documented”.

And there were perfectly acceptable reasons as to why:

We were busy.

It wasn’t the top of the priority list. 

We we’re so “in the thick of it” it was hard to step back from it to document it.

And here comes empathy moment #1. As I reflected on the reasons we were identifying for our lack of documenting, I realized these were likely some of the same reasons my students had for their lack of documenting.

Then came hypocrite moment #2

At the beginning of the year we were sent out a Google Slides template with 12 slides based on specific professional criteria. We were told to document our professional learning and growth throughout the year, by populating the slides with artifacts and explanations.

We were reminded to continuously update it.

We were reminded to “capture” our growth and progress.

And 3 days before my end of the year appraisal meeting with my administrators…. guess what? Completely blank.

Again, it wasn’t that I hadn’t experienced any professional growth. It wasn’t even that I hadn’t documented it somewhere. It was just that I hadn’t documented it there.

And there were perfectly acceptable reasons as to why:

I already had ways that I captured and documented things that were meaningful and relevant to me.

I was already comfortable with certain platforms (my blog and Twitter) that I updated on an ongoing, organic basis

I was more internally motivated to document and capture my journey for my own reflective purposes, rather than for an external source of accountability. 

Again, all perfectly acceptable reasons. Again, likely the same reasons my students hadn’t been documenting either.

(I got it done, of course. I did what I’m sure my students do when their documenting is “due” for review. I went back through and filled it in retrospectively.)

These two moments, connected to my own practice of documenting learning – when I document, how I document, why I document, how often I document – really gave me some food for thought about how I was approaching documenting with my students.

Everyone knows the philosophical conundrum:

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

I wonder if a similar question holds true for documenting:

If learning happens and it is not documented, did it happen? Does it count?

The more I got thinking about this, the more I was reminded of a tweet that I saw a while ago from @AnneVanDam1996

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 10.50.20 PM.png

So, before we ask (force?) our students to document their learning, I think we first need to ask ourselves:

What is the purpose of documenting learning?

Who is it really for? Who should it be for?

Does everything learned need to be documented?

How often and in-depth am I documenting my own learning?

How different does it feel to document for my own purpose versus when it is mandated by someone else?

… and what might this all have to do with what we are asking of our students?

I have no answers. Just lots of questions. And lots of empathy….

14 thoughts on “The Documenting Dilemma

  1. learningtowearthebigshoes May 11, 2018 / 12:38 pm

    Feeling your pain and very emphatic… Also feeling guilty as I have definitely contributed to the ‘blankness’…

    I continuously wonder about the balance of authenticity and accountability…


  2. LeahLeht May 11, 2018 / 3:25 pm

    Thank you, this is exactly what I needed to read today. I have tried all year to build this habit of documentation/reflection with my G3, but I just haven’t got there. At the end of every day, I have scheduled ‘reflect’ time and am always feeling in two minds about it. Do I document my learning every day? No! But does that mean I don’t reflect on my learning? Certainly not! My personal documentation skills leave a lot to be desired, is this why it is not sticking with my students? Or am I trying to stick something that shouldn’t be stuck? Only more questions…


    • tbondclegg May 12, 2018 / 7:15 am

      But I think the more we are asking these questions of ourselves and each other, the closer we get to respecting and supporting their agency as learners 🙂


  3. somethingsihavelearned May 11, 2018 / 4:29 pm

    A familiar adage about assessment comes to mind. I’ve swapped the word assessment for documenting. “Not everything that counts can be documented and not everything that can be documented counts”.

    I enjoyed reading your recent posts on student planned UOIs. What not take a risk and let your students decide what to document, how and when?


    • tbondclegg May 12, 2018 / 7:18 am

      Thanks for your comment. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes circulating around Twitter these day, “Not everything that is measured is meaningful, and not everything that is meaningful can be measured”.

      Currently, my students do choose what, how and when to document… but I am struggling with my perceived sense of accountability and what might happen if a parent, or administrator or head of school asks for “proof” that they are learning. So I end up in this weird in between place where they do choose what, how and when…. but with me constantly running around reminding and encouraging and suggesting MORE, MORE, MORE!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Westley Young May 11, 2018 / 9:47 pm

    My colleague has pushed me constantly regarding documentation and self assessment to determine how much is enough.
    Without me, my students wouldn’t do any documentation. I’m sure of it. It’s something I ask of them, something they’ve never done before.
    Now I ask them to document to show me evidence of their learning when we self assess. It’s more for me but it also helps them see what they can do. This way it makes sense to themdo too

    Liked by 1 person

    • tbondclegg May 12, 2018 / 7:13 am

      Is it that they don’t document at all, or that they don’t document that stuff we deem important for them to document? I feel as humans when we are experiencing something meaningful and relevant, we do capture it and share it an reflect up on it- on our own terms. But when we’re asking them to document their learning for accountability purposes it still says to the students that the locus of control over their learning is external and outside of themselves.

      Like I said in my post… I don’t have the answer. But I feel the more we understand what documenting of learning looks like in authentic, self-chosen contexts (like how we document our own learning) hopefully we can move closer to a model that allows students to document for themselves… not for us or other external factors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Westley Young May 12, 2018 / 3:50 pm

        I’m sure my students reflect and think about their learning, as they are able to determine if it’s what they wanted to achieve or if they need support etc. But documenting is more for me to have the ‘proof’ you spoke of, and to help them reflect more deeply.

        I just read a post about Reggio Emilia schools and a part about documentation made me think about what you have been asking:

        …The core of documentation is observing. Mara Krechevsky from Project Zero defines it as, “teachers and learners observing, recording, interpreting, and sharing, via a variety of media the processes and products of learning in order to deepen and extend the learning.” Reggio educators refer to documentation as “visible listening.”

        I think if we are asking students to reflect and document to deepen and extend their learning, we are helping them develop their thinking skills. It’s also, often in my case, a practical means of understanding each student’s thoughts and understanding of their own learning if I don’t have time to conference with them as much as I would like.

        I believe that schools should be authentic learning spaces which reflect the way the world works outside to a certain degree, but I think we should value our role as guide to enable students to learn to be better thinkers when planning, documenting and reflecting, better writers when learning the writing process, better mathematicians when asked to show and explain using multiple strategies. (Or maybe this again is too much do as I say and not asking what they need /want to be done.)

        There is no perfect solution I guess, but even if it’s not always authentic, is asking a student to do something, whilst helping them understand the benefits for their learning, a problem? As a guide, we sometimes know what would help and asking for something which will help them develop can be positive. Maybe it’s just about finding a way which seems less like traditional schooling methods and more of a personal /community approach- extensions of conversations and observations: ‘visible listening’.
        We can help out with the photo documentation and then make it more about conversations around their learning. Seems more natural and authentic this way, possibly! 🙂


  5. Westley Young May 11, 2018 / 9:50 pm

    Typo. It makes sense to them too. It’s documentation for them that leads to reflection for future planning.


  6. Stephanie May 12, 2018 / 6:23 am

    Hi Taryn
    I’ve been thinking about it and you and the teachers have been documenting your learning it’s just you’re doing it in short bursts on Twitter.

    Does the medium matter?

    Is the accumulation of small ideas greater than the sum of their parts?



    • tbondclegg May 12, 2018 / 7:04 am

      I totally agree. And it was recognizing that fact that made me question the expectations we place upon our students regarding their documentation of their learning.


  7. Gareth Jacobson May 28, 2018 / 6:58 pm

    Interesting post, I think documenting (from both students and teachers) needs to be iterative, otherwise, we are just doing it for accountability purposes. For what it’s worth, a question I would ask is; how does what we document feed into what we plan and teach? – surely that is the ultimate level of accountability.


  8. Danny Glasner May 31, 2018 / 10:05 am

    The underlying principle here is “accountability”. I put it in quotations because in this context it’s a meaningless term that too many decision-makers who don’t even remember what a classroom looks like are just transferring responsibility down the line. Reporting is at the heart of documenting. If reporting were to go the way of the dinosaurs, documenting learning would take on a more authentic life of its own.


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