This week, I had the good fortune to meet with a small group of teachers, administrators, curriculum directors, and professional learning facilitators at Erie 2 BOCES. We spent the day discussing grounded theory, how to make learning visible, and how to use the evidence captured from documentation to formulate hunches and theories that serve learners well.

This is exciting work that enriches my own practice substantially, and I appreciated meeting others who were interested in the stories I had to share and the learning I’m doing along the way. When you’re an independent consultant, company can be hard to find.

I was in very good company this week.

We sank into interesting conversations, soaking in new information, connecting it to our own experiences, and sharing many questions and curiosities along the way. It was no surprise when participants found themselves overwhelmed with ideas and possibilities by day’s end. They wondered:

How do we know where to begin making learning visible?

It’s unrealistic to expect teachers or students to document every bit of learning that occurs in a single day, and even if that were possible, I find that those who are new to this work seem to learn far more by starting small. This also makes the process much more manageable, increasing the likelihood that teachers will sustain their efforts.

But where to start?

I know that if someone asked me what’s worthy of documentation and deep study in my own world right now, I’d be able to rattle off a fairly long list. Narrowing that list would be pretty tough, too. I know that Michele struggled with this at the start of her project.

This is the place that people were in at the end of this week’s session. Rather than leaving them to the struggle, I took the process below for a test drive. I think it was useful enough to share here, for others who might be interested.

Our Design Sprint

Invented by Google Ventures, a design sprint consists of five different phases that are intended to help people hit their intended goals creatively AND efficiently in order to bring innovative products to market as quickly as possible. It’s driven by the design thinking process. I’ve adapted it for my own purposes:

1. Empathy first:

Begin by seeing challenges and opportunities through the eyes of those you intend to serve. What are their needs? What are their interests? How should these factors influence what you document and how you document it?

2. Brainstorm collaboratively:

Begin spilling all of your ideas onto sticky notes: one idea per note. Invite others to contribute to your thinking as well. Seek those who have diverse perspectives.

3. Converge:

Now it’s time to review all of the ideas generated, and eliminate those that are completely unfeasible. The tool below can help you prioritize even further. I’ve used this matrix in other contexts, and I find it supports design sprinting as well.

Participants began by reviewing the stack of sticky notes generated in phase 2. Then, they arranged and rearranged  them on the board with intention, making adjustments as their thinking changed:

  • Across the top: Some ideas were ones that they alone were passionate about (self), and some ideas were ones that others were passionate about but that they were not (others). There were a handful that aligned to the passions of both groups (self and others). This helped inform selection.
  • Down the left side: Some ideas were relevant: the issues surrounding them were at play right now in their classrooms or systems. Other ideas were meaningful to many, but perhaps not pressing concerns. There were a handful that were both relevant and meaningful. This helped inform selection.
  • The sweet spot was the bottom right corner of the matrix. These were the ideas that were relevant and meaningful to the most people. They were also the ideas that most people were passionate about pursuing.

Once that sweet spot was populated with a handful of potential ideas, participants were asked to study the relationship between them. Often, some topics live inside others. Defining a focal point that allows you to attend to multiple issues at once can be very powerful. It can also water down the study. It’s important to think this through.


4. Prototype:

Once you know where you’ll begin your investigation, storyboard it. That’s right: create a series of simple illustrations that tells the story of your investigation. Storyboards aren’t works of art. They’re utilitarian. Craft them this way. Perfectionism will slow the flow of your ideas.

Here’s a quick example of storyboard created earlier this year. In this case, I was working with a teacher who planned to make learning visible during writer’s workshop. She intended to have students stop to reflect in their notebooks before, during, and after learning, using a wide variety of prompts. She planned to capture their thinking using her cell phone. Then, she would blog about her findings and curate everything on Pinterest boards.

She didn’t plan to start with a guiding question or topic. Rather, she intended to use the findings from her study to help her generate a powerful question that was closely connected to the needs and interests of her students.

As you storyboard, be sure to doodle:

  • Your plan for establishing habits of documentation
  • The learning you intend to make visible
  • The documentation tools and approaches you intend to use
  • Your plan for engaging others in your investigation: locally and globally
  • Your process for displaying and analyzing the evidence you collect
  • Your intended audience and how you might share your theories with them
  • Your guiding question, topic, or focal point, if you intend to begin with one


5. Test:

Before you dive in deep, take your prototype for a test drive. Devote just one day to making and documenting learning made visible, and then use your display and analysis plan to craft and share a few theories. This will help you identify potential challenges and make adjustments prior to investing tremendous time and energy in the full-blown process.

If this is work you’re doing or interested in wading into, I hope you’ll reach out and share your thinking and your experiences. Leave a comment, or come tap my shoulder on Twitter.



  1. I’m fascinated by the concept AND name: design sprint! The name fits perfectly: a nicely framed set of design steps addressed quickly to help organize brainstormed ideas. That organizing effort I believe will provide the mechanism both to build group trust and commitment as the important topic emerges. Adding the third column and row, with the sweet spot, truly sorts out the most appropriate topic(s) for additional effort.

    Not only do the design sprint and subsequent stroryboard efforts really provide useful and significant plans for moving forward; there is little doubt that the efforts will develop the cohesion that will sustain the group efforts during the almost certain rough spots / mistakes that will arise.

    Great concept and post introducing it!!!

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