As I’ve begun supporting teachers’ first efforts to document for learning, this question continues winding its way through nearly every conversation:

How do we distinguish learning from its products?

This seems like a simple distinction, but experience is demonstrating otherwise. As it turns out, making learning visible rather its products is no easy task. It’s also no surprise when our initial efforts to document learning fall short of our expectations.

Here’s what I’ve been talking about with western New York teachers lately: 

1. It‘s important to establish habits of documentation prior to beginning this work. These six considerations seem to be insuring a more satisfying process so far.

2. It also helps to know what students are striving to learn about, know, and do. For example, students may be striving to learn about improving story dialogue, in order to gain knowledge of specific strategies that will help them improve dialogue in their own writing.  This seems like a nit-picky step in the process, but I’m noticing that when we don’t define what students are striving to learn, know, and do, the documentation process becomes very overwhelming. We try to document everything, the evidence we gather around any single topic are thin at best, and this results in findings that are hard to take any sort of action on.

3. Distinguishing learning from its products involves documenting the “how” and not merely the “what.” It’s easy to commit to documenting learning made visible, but when we’re on our feet guiding that learning and trying to capture it as it happens, questions begin bubbling up very quickly, often giving us pause. “What should I document?” is a typical first question. In addition to looking for evidence of what students are learning, what they know, and what they can do, we need to invite students to show us how that learning happened, how the knowledge was gained, how they worked through the process of applying it, and how it matters to them or the product they are creating.

I’m finding it critical to make room for reflection, but as we do, even more questions come up. For instance: When should learners reflect, and what should they reflect on in order to make the learning that we hope to study visible? I find that teachers and students learn an awful lot together when students make these three specific moves visible and discuss their findings.

4. Efficiency often compromises quality, and so does our desire to quickly name things. It’s tempting to want to tighten the research process or limit the topics under investigation, but I embrace grounded theory methodology for its power to help teachers discover the unexpected and craft uncommon theories and interventions. This is important, because in my experience, nearly all best practices require next practices.  When we simply lift the recommendations and strategies that others give us and drop them into our classrooms without engaging in our own study, it’s hard to be certain about what works. This practice also narrows our vision and limits our access to what might be a far better solution.

This post is part of a series that I’m creating relevant to documenting for learning. Please jump into the comments whenever your compelled to and connect with me on Twitter through the #document4learning or #makelearning hashtags too. Grateful to Silvia Tolisano for starting this conversation and inviting me to the table. I hope to see you there.



  1. Your posts are so very valuable; they should be required foundations for PLNs seeking to hack a particular problem in effective learning. What has become increasingly important in my scholarship of effective learning jumped out to me in Considering this particular post and its links (a great advantage of digital media) is your discussion of ‘best practices and next practices’ – along yet another book added to my wish list. My experiences working with both students and teachers is their all-too-frequent desire for my response to “Just tell me what to do!” Indeed, many times, they don’t bring it up; they simply assume whatever I’m noting must be ‘all they need to do’ to be successful! They are lifting MY Considered best practices with the blind faith in them – that require no further Considerations! They must always work – just carefully follow the procedure!!! No ‘next practices’ and certainly no ‘alternate / refined practices’ to address the certain differences that make this NEW situation important …

    And of course, as you and many others have confirmed as well, very often ‘best practices’ become ‘even better practices’ and/or those ‘alternate / refined practices’ by considering materials from seemingly unrelated fields!!! It might be a result of a comment in social media or print media; it might be from a chance conversation with others… The light bulb goes on and the Considerations necessary to investigate appropriateness to our particular situation(s) begins! And the chorus of “I never would have thought THAT would have worked / been helpful!!!”

    AND, finally, there’s the ‘elephant in the room,’ namely the important component creativity plays in these efforts. With the rapid changes happening everywhere, it is not enough to transfer or even tweak as the all too near future is so very undefined. The skill of creativity absolutely must be facilitated by teachers in students’ development!

    Repeating, for my emphasis as to importance, success comes from understanding the situation, understanding the current ‘best practices,’ and then seeking (and applying) sound, creative approaches for address the situation. Status quo rarely has value in and of itself!!!

    • Thanks for sharing, John. I’m finding that so often, we lift and drop practices, ideas, and even opinions on people without stepping back and studying how they work and then adjusting. It’s really not rocket science and yet, I think that perhaps one of the unintended consequences of becoming an educator is inheriting a history of certainty and battling the expectations that some expect us to be expert on our first try. It’s never like this. We need to start celebrating those who experiment more than experts, perhaps?

  2. Pingback: Moving at the Speed of Creativity | Fantastic Questions for Student Learning Reflections

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