Our Students are Our Greatest Teachers: Documenting and Learning From the Data that Matter Most

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“You observe an effect, then build a theory to fit the observation. It may be faster to memorize facts than to experience them, but I would argue that you don’t really own that fact. ‘Hot’ is a pretty abstract concept until you’ve burned yourself.” Mark Hatch, The Maker Movement Manifesto: Rules for Innovation in the New World of Crafters, Hackers, and Tinkerers

Teaching is all about learning, and learning is all about research. This reality fuels my curiosity and keeps me passionate about what I do, but over the years, I’ve become less and less satisfied with traditional research protocols. These approaches typically begin with the generation of question. The question is often influenced by my hunches. My hunches are often influenced by my assumptions. With question in hand, I typically turn to the thinking of selected experts in the field. I read their work. I study their experiences and their findings. Then, I use what I learn to construct and test theories.

This approach is rarely rewarding. It rarely surfaces anything surprising, unexpected, or meaningful, and the findings that emerge from implementation rarely transform my work. In fact, when I lift and drop theories and practices that others have developed into my classroom, they never function the way the experts intended them to—which would be fine if I hadn’t burned so much time and energy lifting and dropping to begin with.

I began wondering: If I wind up developing my own solutions any way, why not just dive in and learn as I go? This realization completely transformed how I think about learning and how I encourage writers to approach it as well. It also changed how I approach intervention work in the schools that I support, producing far better results.

Several years ago, I began to wonder what would happen if, rather than framing a question that I’ve already tucked my assumptions into, I simply began studying phenomenon. I wondered what would happen if I began looking for potential solutions inside of my own experiences.

This seemed a little audacious at the time, but I tried it, and I found myself learning more than I ever had before. I began teaching from the front of the room less and watching writers far more. This provided more time for documentation and meaningful conversation.

It was my students who helped me notice the connections between making and writing. And at the time, I didn’t know there was a movement going on. See that photo of Patrick and Andrew up there? It was taken in 2009. Back then, my greatest priority was letting kids write however they wanted to about whatever they wanted to while I tried to document as much of the experience as I could. I didn’t know what I was looking for. This was the first critical shift in my action research process: Rather than beginning with guiding questions, hunches, and a detailed review of professional literature, I took hundreds of photos, captured a ton of video, and curated other artifacts of learning. These were powerful data, and Grounded Theory helped me work with them in meaningful ways.

My students have taught me that making writing is about pursuing natural interests and looking forward to failure. It’s preparing ourselves to notice how the terrain changes the moment we slide off of the road. It’s anticipating that the landscape may change when we do and recognizing this as an opportunity to think and plan and respond differently. Better.

Making writing is about uncovering divergent paths and determining when its best to make a hard left and head in a new and unintended direction. This kind of learning depends on observing ourselves in process, reflecting as we go, and responding to what we notice. Developing knowledge and sharpening our skills are important, but understanding how we learn and noticing what sharpens and what dulls the saw is critical.

When we put this kind of thinking on display for others, they learn more about how we learn and how they learn as a result.

Making writing isn’t about the stuff.

It’s about the how.

It’s also about why.

This week, I’ll share my research process, which involved making learning visible, documenting for and AS learning (as Silvia so aptly puts it), and improving my analysis approach.

You can begin assessing, capturing data, and discovering incredible things about learning and teaching this way in your own classroom too. And none of it involves testing.

I’ll try to make the approach as practical as possible for you.

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