Starting with Documentation

The idea of documentation is closely linked with the idea of making thinking visible. Through documentation of students' thinking and learning, we develop our own understanding of how thinking processes develop and how we can best support them. In this sense, documentation is not just a reflective examination but also a prospective one as it shapes the design of future learning situations.

What does it mean to get started with Visible Thinking by focusing on documentation? You focus your attention on how to capture, record, and reflect on the thinking students are doing in your classroom. While you might be using the routines from any of the ideals, the focus will be on learning to document and discuss students’ thinking. For instance, in planning a lesson you might well choose to use a thinking routine—such as, Think-Puzzle-Explore—and then focus your energy on trying to capture students’ ideas and thoughts. Afterwards, you review the documentation to make sense of students’ ideas and thinking: What patterns emerge? What lines of thinking are evident? What lines of inquiry and interest appear? Having come to some tentative conclusions, you would then plan your next lesson on what you discovered.

The question of what to document can be perplexing at first. There are student conversations, class discussions, small group work, the actions as well as the speech of students, and so on. Documentation is often linked to the practice of teacher as researcher, and you may find it useful to form a question about students’ thinking that you want to pursue in your work. Therefore, one way to answer the question is to try and set a specific focus or direction, to find something you wish to investigate. Alternatively, you can set the goal of “capturing students’ emerging thoughts and ideas” as a good overarching focus.

Once “the what” has been established, the question that follows is how to document? Documentation can take many forms. It might be a visual representation, chart, or table that captures a particular conversation. It can be a set of students' responses to an assignment. It might take the form of an audio or videotape of a class session. It can be digital photos that capture a process. In short, anything that will help to illuminate the thinking students are doing.

The documentation process doesn't stop with the collection or generation of artifacts, however. What makes documentation powerful is the analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of these materials. This work is often best done by groups of teachers working together so that multiple perspectives on the meaning of the documents can be expressed and explored. Furthermore, the documents and their analysis are not kept private, but are returned to the arena of the school and the context so that students, parents, and colleagues may all learn from the documentation work. You might want to look at the Study Group Materials and the Looking at Students’ Thinking (LAST) protocol for suggestions on how you can discuss and share documentation with colleagues.

Starting with documentation does not mean that you will not use or focus on the other aspects of Visible Thinking. Indeed, you will probably use many of the thinking routines and may even find you want to use the routines from one particular Ideal as you begin. Starting with documentation merely means that this will be where you place your initial energies and focus.