Learning Conversations: Tools for Documenting (Part 3)


“For many evidence of learning may be perceived as the result of a test, quiz, or final product… While there is a place and time for these examples of learning evidence, the foundation of the documenting process is perceiving evidence of learning as [an act] of learning. What is taking place that leads to a final outcome, whether product or performance? Is it a final, or just a moment in time to capture, reflect, share, and amplify where a learner is in his or her learning journey?” (Rosenthal Tolisano & Hale, 2018, p. 113)

How do we harness learning conversations in order to create a powerful artifact of thinking? It’s a conundrum! In Learning Conversations Part 1 (A Window into Thinking) and Part 2 (Conditions for Success) we argued the importance of conversations as a valid, and necessary, representation of student thinking. But inevitably educators state, “How do I document conversations? How do I track and manage the documentation? This seems overwhelming! Parents want to see black and white evidence of learning – like a test! I can’t listen to, or expect parents to watch, hours of recordings.”

These reactions are not new to this generation of educators. As first year teachers in the late ‘80s, we pondered these same questions. What has changed over the years is the advent of virtually (pun intended) ubiquitous technology creating possibilities to tackle the collection and management of data. In Ontario, several factors have contributed to a more intense focus on documentation (e.g. a shift in school improvement planning that includes analysis of student work samples; the implementation of the Full Day Kindergarten Program and the Student Work Study process, each with a focus on pedagogical documentation; and the release of the policy document, Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools, 2010.)

With a greater understanding of the value of assessment for and as learning, a realization grew that the definition of ‘learning conversations’ was no longer restricted to face-to-face conversations between educator and student but included interactions between peers, within a whole group and with global neighbours. For more than a decade, educators across Ontario have been working collaboratively to tackle this documentation conundrum.

Insights from Collaborative Inquiries

As we worked with educator inquiry groups, K to 12, focussed on gathering documentation using a variety of methods, we found a pattern developing.

Phase 1: A Focus on the Collection of Data

In the initial stage, educators documented everything using digital imagery and audio recordings. Perhaps the purpose was to learn how to use the digital tools with ease.  Often a pretty display of single ‘flashbulb’ moments in time became a product of this type of inquiry. We called this evidence of learning.

Phase 2: Reflection and Refinement

Although convinced of the value of documentation, educators still found the process of managing documentation overwhelming. More questions than answers came as a result of the initial phase: “Do we have to document everything? How do we decide what is important? How might we collect data differently?”

Phase 3: Making Connections – Harnessing the Power of Assessment

Working through the phases brings insights gained over time. Leveraging not only the power of technology but aligning changing mindsets related to assessment as well as our roles as educators fuels this evolving phase.

    • Not everything can be documented; not everything needs to be documented.
    • An intentional focus on learning goals and success criteria allows for a purposeful and efficient collection of data.
    • Including students in the assessment process creates a multiplicative effect by expanding the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of data collection.
    • Students, even young children, are capable of gathering data and interpreting documentation.Part 3 interpret documentation
    • Documentation is not evidence of learning until it is analyzed and interpreted against success criteria.
    • Documenting learning over time is a more powerful process than capturing singular moments.

“The reflection practice is an integral part of the documenting process as it opens by possibilities in making thinking visual and/or audible… this routine is a critical value-added practice that aids primary and secondary learning in making connections to previous learning, other learners, and outside perspectives.” (Rosenthal Tolisano & Hale, 2018, p. 115)

Tools for Documenting

Educators often feel the use of technology will help diminish the feeling of being overwhelmed when considering the collection and management of data. It might. Without purpose and intentionality, leveraging digital tools may simply become a distractor – the learning goals and success criteria hidden in the shadows of the new experience. Reflect back on the purpose of collecting data from an assessment lens:

    • making thinking visible and audible part 3 visible and audibleto support communication in a variety of formats,
    • sharing and extending ideas to create and mobilize understanding,
    • connecting with others,
    • creating opportunities for reflection and feedback (i.e. self, peer, educator, others),
    • analysis and interpretation of documentation to inform individual student goal setting  and instructional decision making,
    • witnessing the learning journey of each student, as well as the collective, in support of a reporting process.

Making intentional decisions about digital tools and instructional strategies requires considering the needs of students, the learning community and available resources. Listed below is a brief collection of digital tools as well as effective instructional strategies. Note: green font colour  indicates digital tools; blue font colour depicts low tech instructional strategies.

How might one, or several tools, be used to support the documentation of learning conversations?

Making thinking visible and audible:

Audio conversations:

  • AudioNote (captures audio; allows for notetaking and time stamping)
  • Anecdotal records
  • Checklists


Mind mapping/Concept mapping:


Sharing and extending ideas within a collaborative space:

  • Edmodo (educational collaboration)
  • Realtime Board/Miro  (shared space for docs, presentations, spreadsheets)
  • Google drive (docs, slides, spreadsheet, draw)
  • Microsoft OneNote (docs, slides, spreadsheet, draw)
  • Use of sticky notes; Whiteboards
  • Four Corners; Ink your Thinking
  • Collaborative placemat

Connecting with others:



Opportunities for reflection and feedback:

Back Channels:


  • VoiceThread (upload text, image, video; share and ask for feedback)
  • Kaizena (text, voice comments)
  • AnswerGarden (brainstorming, Q & A, feedback)
  • Feedback Logs
  • Word/concept walls
  • Gallery Walks
  • Inside Outside circles

Making Instructional Decisions:

Digital Exit/Entrance Cards:

  • Poll Everywhere (interactive survey)
  • Mentimeter (presentation; interactive survey)
  • Google Forms, OneNote Forms
  • Hard copy Exit/Entrance Cards
  • Red, yellow, green cards

Documenting learning over time (i.e Learning Management Systems):

Virtual portfolios:

Hard copy portfolios

runner 150One last thought – and
a call to action! Technology changes as fast as a flowing river. We have listed several apps and software that have endured the test of time but we know there are many more tools available to educators. Please share what you have tried in your classroom in the comment box below. Tell us how this intentional instructional move impacted students.  We’re hoping to hear from you!

Note of Caution: When deciding on which app or software to use, consider privacy issues. Who controls the data? Where is the data housed? These are important questions to consider to protect against the misuse of content and images.

Krechevsky, M., Mardell, B., Rivard, M., Wilson, D. (2013). Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-inspired approaches in all schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rosenthal Tolisano, S. Hale, J. (2018). A Guide to Documenting Learning: Making Visible, Meaningful, Shareable and Amplified. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.



One comment

  1. Hi. I was in the session on assessment at North Meadows PS. i am looking for templates of the checklists that were near the end of the slides in your presentation. I have looked through the blog and don’t see them. I’m starting a new unit in math on Monday and would like to use these checklists to document learning and demonstration of success criteria. My intention is to co-construct the success criteria with my students over the first few days of the unit and go from there. Only my second year teaching Grade 3 after many years in Kindergarten – looking forward to trying some of the things you talked about in your presentation. Looking forward to hearing from you.


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