For some, the word “documentation” evokes memories of insurmountable paperwork and feelings of impending boredom. For teachers studying the Making Learning Visible movement, documentation is simply part of the learning process.
Three University High School faculty members have studied Making Learning Visible for the past 13 weeks though an online course with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Jenny Cox, Shannon Swann, and Ellyn Walerstein enrolled in the course as a group.
The course included a one-week orientation and six two-week sessions that each focused on a specific aspect of Making Learning Visible, from designing learning groups to understanding the various forms of documentation. During each session, group members met to discuss the readings and to share their own experiences in the classroom.
“A lot of times in classes, you feel you’re being productive because the students are producing,” said Swann, a French teacher and Director of International Programs. “But is that really learning? This was a question posed in class that we all enjoyed talking about. Just because you have something you’ve produced or you’re busy, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re learning. It just means you’ve done something. That’s what the documentation part of Making Learning Visible is supposed to help you see.”
Documentation is a key component of Making Learning Visible, and Project Zero describes it as “a way to ‘make visible both what and how students learn.” The documentation process can include observation, collecting evidence, interpreting, or sharing information to produce a record of the learning process that students and teachers can reflect on.
“The way they refer to it, it could be presenting a final project as something parents can see – that’s a form of documentation, of pulling everything together,” said Cox, a math teacher. “It could be a video, it could be written responses, it could be you meeting with a student to say ‘Here’s where you are on this step, and here’s what you need to do over the weekend to get to this step.’ There are lots of ways to document.”
“It’s about highlighting not simply that we did this, but here’s where exactly the learning took place,” added Walerstein, Director of Learning Support Services.
Group members were expected to test out the concepts in their own classrooms along the way. Swann, in particular, incorporated documentation into one of her French units on the subjunctive tense. She took photos of students working through a group project as well as showing off their completed work, and she created a poster about the project and the learning that took place.
“I’ve never seen the students so engaged; they really cared about understanding the subjunctive,” said Swann. “Now not only do they have this project they’ve created together, but they also have the documentation about what they created.”
Cox examined ways to grab students’ attention and assigned a math project that had real-world implications. In a unit on probability, some of her students studied several different Las Vegas casino games. They looked at the actual likelihood of winning those games as well as the techniques casinos use to get people to spend more money there – like offering free drinks and having windowless rooms (so players lose track of time).
Documentation is one important element of Making Learning Visible, but group learning is perhaps even more important to the model. At its core, Making Learning Visible is about fostering a culture of learning in a classroom, and that can’t develop without students working together. How to form effective groups was a big focus of the class, and both Cox and Swann experimented with group formation in their classes.
“When Shannon created a group, she made sure the students were no more than one level apart in terms of their French skills,” said Cox. “What I tried was splitting my class into three groups – with the strongest math students together, the middle ability math students together, and the students who struggle together. I found that the strongest group could do the assignment and tackle some extra challenge problems together, the middle ability students could work together to do the assignment on their own, and I could really focus my attention on the weakest group.”
“We also talked about removing the teacher from the situation and letting the students work through problems themselves, and I feel like when I did step back, that’s when they kind of figured things out,” added Cox.
Swann and Walerstein examined other elements of effective group composition. Because of the student population she serves, Walerstein found it useful to group students by personality type. And after a discussion with her class, Swann discovered that her students prefer to choose their partner when working in groups of two but that they are more comfortable being assigned or randomly selected when there are three or more to a group.
While there are definite benefits to group work, all three acknowledged some difficulty in making space for group projects in a high school environment. They also agreed that there should be more intentionality from teachers when assigning group work.
“If you’re going to do group work, there’s a lot of setup that has to go into it,” said Swann. “You have to think about who the groups are, what your ultimate goal is, and how long it’s going to take. There are a lot of things to consider.”
From ways to design a group to techniques for giving feedback, each group member gained something from the Making Learning Visible class.
“One of the most useful things was that there were a lot of different techniques for feedback, like the Ladder of Feedback and Chalk Talk,” said Swann. “We actually did these in our own team meetings, and I thought those were really helpful.”
“I went into this thinking, ‘I’ve been teaching for 13 years. What am I really going to learn from this?’” said Cox. “But there are definitely things I will take away from this class, ways that I’ve learned to give feedback, and things that I will definitely change in my classroom in the future.”
“To sit down and have time carved out for talking and connecting was really helpful,” said Walerstein. “I think the biggest takeaway for me was the working and collaborating with my peers because that’s a piece we can do every day. We can talk about learning with our staff here, and I think we can grow as a faculty by having those discussions.”