Thursday / February 22

What’s the Difference Between Displaying and Documenting Learning?

Before I answer this question, I will ask another: Do you have a social media account that allows you to snap and share photos and/or videos, as well as send messages (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)?

Thinking Strategically

If you do, and you use the platform regularly, I bet a cognitive behavior has emerged over time. You think about what you want to post based on:

  • your known follower-friends
  • what kind of engagement and responses you desire (and even from whom)
  • new forms of engagement you discover that you did not initially plan

Let me explain what I mean using my puppy as an example. Snowball started her Instagram account (snowball.the.schnauzer) when she moved into our furever home. When I—I mean she—started, her goal was to post a photo a day to capture the first year of life with her furfamily and enjoy viewing photos of other Schnauzers.

Over time, by studying what others were posting, she began thinking often and deeply about photographs, videos, and textual messages she wanted to capture and share to increase her interactions with established and new furfriends.

Posting became an ongoing thinking and reflective process. She began pre-planning subject matter, shot angles, desired backgrounds and foregrounds, as well as how to best convey her desired textual messages (e.g., hashtags, handles, tagging) and visual messages (e.g., image collages, annotexting).

By studying and analyzing photos and messages of others, Snowball began to reach out and connect strategically with her growing Instagram community. Soon she was direct messaging and learning from her furfriends about fun play toys, virtually pawtys to attend, and how to raise awareness for a problem or provide money for a shelter.

Snowball is no longer simply posting. She is strategically and purposefully capturing and sharing with furfriends who are no longer just Schnauzers, as she interacts with a variety of breeds. Snowball is an engaged member of an active global community.

Her narrative that began with just posting and morphed into purposefully and strategically posting begins to answer the initial question: What is the difference between displaying learning and documenting learning?

Displaying learning is static. It is a photograph, sketch, or video that represents a moment-in-time snapshot focused on a product representing what happened versus what is happening. Most importantly, there is no purposeful reflection based on established focuses or goals that require strategic capturing of a photograph, doodling a sketch, or recording a video.

Documenting learning uses reflective interpretations of purposefully selected artifacts that meaningfully convey visible and audible evidence of what is taking place during, or because of, the learning process. Documenting learning is designed to raise cognitive and metacognitive awareness of a learner’s growth, including changes, trends, and patterns over time.

Conveying Reflective Thoughts

An important documenting skill is the capability to convey one’s reflections about what an artifact represents for three reasons:

  • causes the learner to become consciously selective when choosing an image or video clip that best represents the purpose for the captured learning
  • conveys what is invisible to the naked eye or ear by making what is important to notice visibly (annotexting) or audibly (voice over)
  • contributes to an historical context when a series of images or videos collectively tell a learner’s narrative when revisited over time

For some, moving from displaying learning to documenting learning can feel a bit overwhelming. When Silvia Tolisano and I wrote A Guide to Documenting Learning: Making Thinking Visible, Meaningful, Shareable, and Amplified (Corwin), we included a disclaimer:

  • We acknowledge that documenting is a process. There is a learning curve involved, and putting it into practice will help you and your students improve its use and application.

Here are two strategies to aid in transitioning from displaying to documenting that puts into practice a textual reflective component.

Annotexting Photographs

When students and teachers capture their learning moments, it is important for them to observe, study, and interpret these images in connection with the learning focus and goal. For example, in the photos below, a class is learning to “be” scientists. The left-side image’s white box provides a caption, but interpretation of the photograph is left up to the viewer to infer. The right-side image’s white box provides a bit more detailed caption, but more importantly, its annotexted photograph provides key details related to the learning. The annotexter (whether student or teacher) had to first reflect, contemplate, and decide what was important information to convey in a concise meaningful message.

Unpacking the Whats

Unpacking—analyzing media to determine and inform learners of current capabilities—is a metacognitive documenting strategy. Unpacking the whats is based on four questions from a framework by Rolfe, Freshwater, and Jasper (2017) and Kashin (2017):

  • What? – Objective question that asks you to describe what you saw or heard.
  • What about the What? – Reflective question that asks you to consider why you choose to record and document a particular situation.
  • So What? – Interpretive question. What are you learning about the student’s learning processes and/or what are you learning about your own teaching? Connections to the prior experience or knowledge?
  • Now What? – Decision question. Where will you/the student go next? How will this inform your instructional practice? Student’s choice for next steps?

Here is an example using a photograph of a kindergarten student working on a conservation concept— the ability to conserve a quantity of 10:

Note: The photograph in the whats example is actually a screenshot from a video clip that was saved as an image.

Summing Up

While it is easier to merely display, fight the urge to solely share snapshots of what was done or final products and convert display items into documentation artifacts by making the process of thinking and learning visible and meaningful. When doing so, remember to blur or pixelate your students’ faces to protect their identity, if using a school-based photograph that does not have permission to share on social media platforms.

It is Silvia’s and my desire to aid educators in establishing or expanding their understanding and application of documenting learning at a classroom, school, and district level. Our desire is to see our framework and documenting concepts gain added value by educators globally contributing their documentation artifacts and reflective practices. We invite you to share your documenting artifacts in social media spaces to connect with and learn from documenters around the world using the #documenting4learning hashtag on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram; or by mentioning @documenting4learning on Facebook and Instagram, and @doc4learning on Twitter. 


Kashin, D. (2017, January 7). What about the what? Finding the deeper meaning in pedagogical documentation [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Written by

Janet Hale has been a special education high school teacher and general education elementary teacher, as well as seminar/workshop creator, presenter, and trainer for Teacher Created Materials. She has been an independent curriculum consultant for 20+ years. She is the author of the bestselling book A Guide to Curriculum Mapping (Corwin), co-author of its companion, An Educational Leader’s Guide to Curriculum Mapping (Corwin), and co-author of Upgrade Your Curriculum (ASCD). Her passions include systemic curriculum design and curriculum mapping; standards literacy and alignment; modernizing curriculum, instruction, and assessment; and documenting learning. Visit Janet’s consulting website:; documenting learning website:; and blog:; and follow her on Twitter @janet_hale.



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