Teach Students To Treat Their Learning Like They’re Making a Documentary

Learning is a dynamic process that requires active engagement. Unfortunately, many students have gotten comfortable in their roles as passive observers or consumers in the classroom. Yes, that is a less cognitively and socially taxing role, but it is not nearly as interesting or engaging. This passive position also does not require that students think intentionally about their learning.

As we begin the new school year, students need to be at the center of learning and actively engaged in thinking, making, doing, discussing, and reflecting. An effective way to shift our students’ thinking about their role in the classroom is to teach them how to treat their learning like they are making a documentary. The beauty of this mindset is that it demands that students capture, reflect on, and share their learning.

The Subject: Students and Their Learning

The students and their individual learning journeys are the subjects of the documentary. They need to be curious to make a documentary. In this case, they direct that curiosity inward to explore the impact of their experiences on their thinking, feelings, and growth.

  • What am I learning? Why am I learning this? How is this relevant to my life?
  • What am I understanding? What is confusing? What resources do I have access to if I need support?
  • How am I learning? Which strategies or resources are working best for me?
  • In what areas am I demonstrating significant growth? In what areas am I struggling to make progress?
  • What “ah-has” or realizations am I having? How are those moments impacting my thinking?

Using Devices to Document Learning

Teach students to use their devices to capture visual media documenting their learning. Encourage your students to:

  • Take photos of work in progress, experiments, labs, art projects, etc.
  • Capture a progression or slow change with a timelapse.
  • Record videos of works in progress, presentations, or demonstrations.
  • Use audio capture to record notes, capture realizations, or document interviews.

They can use their phones, Chromebooks, tablets, or laptops. It’s helpful if they can save their media to the cloud where they can easily store, organize, and access it.

Organize and Save Documentation in a Digital Notebook

This documentation is best captured in a digital notebook or portfolio. The classic paper binder limits students to text and drawings. Yet, learning is rich and multidimensional. If you consider the experience of being a student in a lab conducting an experiment for science, it may be challenging for them to describe in words what they are seeing and noticing. If they can document the parts of the process with visual media, those images can support a more accurate and detailed reflection on their learning.

In addition to supporting the mentality of “treating learning like you’re making a documentary,” there are several benefits to a multimedia binder compared to a paper notebook. Students:

  • can incorporate media to bring their work to life.
  • access their work from anywhere with a device and wifi.
  • don’t have to carry around a heavy binder.
  • don’t have to worry about losing their work.
  • share their work with an authentic audience.

Depending on the collaborative suite (e.g., Google Sites or Microsoft OneNote) or learning management system (e.g., Canvas or Schoology) your school is using, there is an option for creating a digital notebook or portfolio.

When working with my students, I found it easier to allow them to self-pace through the process of setting up their digital notebooks. I created the following ; then, I was freed to move around the room supporting students as they worked.

Thinking About Learning and Capturing Those Reflections

A critical aspect of creating a documentary is thinking about the storyline. In this case, students have to know themselves well to tell the story of their learning. This demands that they regularly reflect on their learning. What is their documentation revealing about their learning? What are they noticing about their understandings, skills, and growth?

You can support this reflective process by dedicating class time to it. After a learning experience, ask students to pair their visual media with an audio, video, or text explanation of what they learned. This reflective practice will help them develop their metacognitive muscles and better understand themselves as learners.

Creating Their Documentary

As the end of the semester or trimester approaches, you can ask students to pull their documentation and reflections together to produce a documentary about their learning using video creation tools. Students can also share these multimedia artifacts of their learning with their families to celebrate their growth. This can provide the people in your students’ lives with a window into their learning and progress that isn’t normally available to them.

Ultimately, documenting learning encourages students to take a more active role in the learning process and emphasize that this is their individual journey. They cannot be silent observers in a classroom. They must be engaged, curious participants who strive to know themselves better, and technology can support them in assuming more responsibility for their learning.