Can Documentation Help Schooling Be an Education?

I never let my schooling interfere with my education.

—Mark Twain

I’d like your opinion on something:  It seems the system in which we teach has changed over my 50 years in education—not for the better—and the big culprit is documentation. Do you agree? What’s your point of view?

[I’m hoping for a lot of responses, so I made a form with only two questions on it linked HERE.  Please let me know what you think.]

Bart Nourse’s “Passion to Teach” shows how teachers can lead great lives and make great lives for their students by doing what their integrity requires: bringing out the genius in their students. Systems don’t educate; people do.

However, a 30 year veteran teacher watched this and said to me, with some anger: “I know this. This is what I want to do, and I used to be able to teach this way. You have to understand. I can’t do this anymore. I have both hands tied behind my back. There are only three things anyone seems to care about anymore: Documentation. Documentation. Documentation.”

Another teacher kept me up late talking one evening about why he finally had to quit. At the end of his painful tale I asked: “So here’s my big take-away: When I was teaching everyone knew that 50% of teaching was what you do in the classroom and 50% is preparation. What I hear you saying is that now it’s 50% teaching, 50% preparation, and 50% documentation. Is that right?”

“Yes,” he said, “but it’s worse. Now it’s 50% teaching, 50% preparation, 50% documentation of student outcomes and 50% documentation of lessons. You can’t work 200% and survive.”


An veteran kindergarten teacher I met on a flight to Seattle told me: “I love my job, but I used to love it more. The principal used to pop into my class from time to time and over a cup of coffee we would talk about my work. She would give me useful feedback on what I could do better. Now,” she said as she put her two hands two feet apart in front of her face, “she just sits in front of the computer screen in her office entering and managing data. Thank God for the kids.”

Some people are trying to design software that allows teachers to document and share what they do more efficiently. Their goals are to decrease the time spent on documentation and increase its value to teachers and students.

I’m thinking this is a topic of interest to anyone who touches classrooms. What do you think?

  • What features of this software would make it useful to you?
  • If no documentation were required by your superiors, would you still do it on your own — just to be more effective as a teacher?
  • Here’s that form.  Please let me know what you think.  I promise not to give your email to anyone.



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10 Responses to Can Documentation Help Schooling Be an Education?

  1. Susan Porter says:

    If you think about documentation as a scientific way of collecting data; about what works and what doesn’t, about how well a student’s needs are being met, about how effective a lesson or a method of teaching is; documentation can be useful and necessary, but only if the data is analyzed, evaluated and shared. The question then becomes: Does the improvement resulting from the investigation merit the investment of the time required? It becomes an economic question of the distribution of a limited resource: in this case, a teacher’s time. If you use time in this manner, you have to consider what the teacher would have been doing with that time and is this a better choice? If a district or a school has a goal to accomplish or a problem to fix, targeted documentation is valuable, but broadly mandated documentation without a goal or without using the data gleaned, seems to be ineffective. Documentation is not an end, but a path. Unless, of course, you are using it only as insurance.

  2. Rick says:

    (and this from a real pro) Susan taught 6th grade for decades (I lost track). Thank you, Susan.

  3. Rick says:

    Brooke Ackerly sent me this brilliant TED talk: “3 Ways to plan for the (very) long term”

  4. Gary Gruber says:

    I would probably have asked they girls if they knew of any twins, either twin sisters or twin boys. That aside, it’s such a good story. With regard to documentation, if it’s required or expected then let it be holistic and document character development and the outcomes. Documentation needs to be comprehensive, integrated, developmentally appropriate and performance based. Those are my same requirements for a good curriculum; therefore, some real consistency between program and process. So much good interaction with kids, and adults, involves story telling and you, sir, are a great story teller. Thanks so much.

  5. Rick says:

    Thank you, Gary.

  6. Stephen Hawthorne says:

    The video is superb. It really touched me due to the message of “You can make a difference and you must” as well as how clearly it described how my best teachers taught and therefore how I have taught, at every level from preschool kids to psychiatry
    residents. I also liked the comment that said —in so many words— data gathering solely as insurance is a crime. I wish you luck and success dealing with the new Fed Dept of Ed. I no longer have any idea what’s going to occur anywhere at any moment in this country. The bizarre possibilities are legion and therefore scary.

  7. Helen LovellWayne says:

    I agree that documentation in this instance does not result in positive outcomes. I live in Florida and the common core is causing kindergartens to be taught 2nd grade level material. These 5 year old kids are constantly tested from the moment they walk in the door. This is to make sure that common core is being taught. The teachers have to document how far each student is coming along with the common core standards. Little subjects like history are not being taught because they are not on the common core tests.

    I do believe in public education but my son is in a Montessori school. They are the only schools in Florida that do not use the common core. So far he loves it and comes home smiling everyday. I want my kid to love learning and be exposed to many experiences not be a robot taking tests. If the tests and the documentation were removed I would gladly put my son in his local public school.

  8. Rick says:

    “comes home smiling everyday” how’s that for a metric? Parents actually know it’s a valid metric. They seem to know that if their child is happy, they are being appropriately challenged and optimal brain development will occur, and they will engage in work that is right for them and/or go to appropriate colleges, and make their way in the world okay.

  9. Rick says:

    This from Mary Anderson, Public School Principal in Decatur:
    Documentation is not the enemy. You have to set parameters and make sure if you are documenting or testing/universal screeners, formative assessments and more that they are useful. We all despise collecting data and then not using it to inform instruction so if you work somewhere that requires you to document performance, behaviors, scores and more, make it work for you and your students. Documentation is especially helpful on students outside of the curve. It is only with documented multi tiered systems of support and observations that these students will receive support services they so desperately need. These could be gifted education, cross cat IEP minutes, social work, speech or on site therapeutic services. If you find you are doing more testing and documenting then teaching, then it is your responsibility to bring it to the attention of those mandating it. They do not live in the trenches, we do.

  10. Rick says:

    Thank you. William Glasser’s first three laws for educators (and parents, and anyone):
    1) Ask: What are you doing?
    2) Ask: Is it working?
    3) If not, stop it.

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