Writing and keeping journals. A guide for educators and social practitioners

Travel journal by Luigi Anzivino. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

Writing and keeping journals. A guide for educators and social practitioners. Educators are often encouraged to write journals – especially when they are training – but what does journal writing entail, what benefits can it bring, and how can we go about writing one?

Contents: introduction · what is a journal? · the benefits of writing and keeping a journal · starting to write and keep a journal · ‘harvesting’ your journal · conclusion – evaluating writing and keeping a journal · further reading and bibliography · links · how to cite this article. See, also: research for practice.

The virtues of journal writing and keeping are often extolled by those concerned with creative, professional, personal and spiritual development. It is clear that many people have got a lot from journaling. This is Jennifer Moon (1999: 14-5):

A journal is a friend that is always there and is always a comfort. In bad moments I write, and usually end up feeling better. It reflects back to me things that I can learn about my world and myself. It represents a private space in my life, a beautiful solitude, the moments before I go to sleep just to stop and note what ‘there’ is about the day or about my life at the time. I think that it has enabled me to feel deeper and more established as a person, more in control and more trusting of life. On a less introverted note, I think that it contributes to my ability to write in general, and it underlies an interest in poetry and creative writing which awaits a quieter time in my life for fulfilment. In addition, I consider that journal writing is closely associated with the extensive counselling and hypnotherapy work that I have been doing over the years. It has been a support and a resource and a means of exploration, though I cannot say whether journal writing led to counselling or whether they both emerged as a result of particular traits in my personality.

However, it is also easy to see why many resist writing and keeping journals. We might not see ourselves as the sort of person who writes about our lives and experiences in the way that Jennifer Moon describes. We may not know how to start, or where we can find the time to engage in such writing. It might be that we resist journaling because it is something that others require or expect of us – such as when undertaking a course or working in particular fields. In this short piece we explore the benefits of writing and keeping journals – especially ‘learning journals’; why it is an important discipline for those called to educate; and some of the practical issues involved.

What is a journal?

To begin it is worth reflecting on what might constitute a journal. Physically, it could be a bound note book, a ring binder full of papers, a collection of electrical particles on computer disk or an audio tape. People journal in different ways. At heart, though, a journal is a day book. As Ron Klug (2002: 1) has put it – ‘a place to record daily happenings’. However, as he also says it is far more than that:

A journal is also a tool for self-discovery, an aid to concentration, a mirror for the soul, a place to generate and capture ideas, a safety valve for the emotions, a training ground for the writer, and a good friend and confidant. (op. cit.)

It shares some qualities with things like logs and diaries – it records experiences and events over a period of time. However, writing and keeping journals also entails conscious reflection and commentary. Mary Louise Holly (1989: 20) makes this point well:

It is a reconstruction of experience and, like the diary, has both objective and subjective dimensions, but unlike diaries, the writer is (or becomes) aware of the difference. The journal as a ‘service book’ is implicitly a book that someone returns to. It serves purposes beyond recording events and pouring out thoughts and feelings… Like the diary, the journal is a place to ‘let it all out’. But the journal is also a place for making sense of what is out… The journal is a working document.

All journal writing must involve learning at some level. Our interest here is to highlight the processes of reflection and deepening understanding involved when learning becomes a specific focus – as is the case in ‘learning journals’. For Jennifer Moon (1999: 4) such a journal is ‘an accumulation of material that is mainly based on the writer’s processes of reflection. It is written over a period of time, not in “one go”‘. Putting ‘learning’ in front of ‘journal’ implies ‘that there is an overall intention by the writer (or those who have set the task) that learning should be enhanced’ (op. cit.).

Such journal-keeping and writing has a long history. Explorative diaries were kept by ‘ladies of the royal court’ in Japan during the tenth century, for example (Rainer 2004: 5). In addition, journal writing has been a significant feature, for many centuries, of the search for religious and spiritual enlightenment (see, for example Brinton 1972). However, in the second half of the twentieth century, there was a growing interest in journal writing also as a means of enhancing creativity and deepening the capacities of practitioners (especially within psychotherapy, counselling and some areas of education). Various approaches to writing and keeping journals emerged. These included approaches emphasizing structured and detailed exploration such as the ‘Intensive Journals’advocated and explored by Ira Progoff (1975) and the more freeand organic forms examined under the heading of ‘new diaries’ by Tristine Rainer (1978, 2004). Rainer (2004: 2) talks about keeping a ‘natural diary’, ‘an active purposeful communication with the self’. People who do this:

write, sketch, doodle and play with their imaginations. They record whatever their immediate feelings, thoughts, interests, and intuitions dictate. They write whenever they wish – for pleasure and for self-guidance.

The possibilities of journal writing and keeping as an aid to the professional development of formal and informal educators was recognized by a number of academics and trainers. There was an emphasis on the use of explorative recordings by youth workers in the UK from the 1960s on (in significant part based on their use within psychotherapy) (see Goetschius and Tash 1967, for example). Mainstream teacher educators also began to pick up on the potential of personal-professional journal writing (see Holly 1989 in particular). In part this grew from the influence of Schön (1983) and others around reflection and the significance of reflective practice. To mix there was also growing attention to the role journal writing in personal growth. As a result, by the end of the century there was a significant ‘journaling industry’ with a range of books, websites, training programmes and retreats, and even specialist software. Journalling has also been firmly located within reflective practice (see, in particular, Bolton 2005).

The benefits of writing and keeping a journal

The first and obvious use of writing a journal is that helps us to remember something later; it is a record to look back on (Holly 1989: 8). It may be that we do not have time to work out what is going on right at this minute – keeping a note in a journal helps us to recapture the moment later so that we may look at it more deeply. It may also be that we need to remember to do something e.g. write a letter on behalf of someone we are working with. We jot the task down – and then when we have time we can look back at our journal or organizer and pick out the tasks we are left with.

Second, the act of putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) engages our brains. To write we have to think. Mary Louise Holly argues that when we ‘capture our stories while the action is fresh’, we are often provoked to wonder ‘Why do I do this?’ or ‘Why did this happen?’ (1989: xi). Patsie Little makes a similar point about recording:

By keeping records, I am able to monitor my practice. The act of writing something down often crystallises a particular problem or issue or enables me to see where a particular piece of work has not achieved its objective… Through this process I can identify my strengths and weakness’, and areas in which I could benefit from further training. (1995: 36)

Journal writing encourages engagement and reflection.

Third, it isn’t just that writing a journal stimulates thought – it allows us to look at ourselves, our feelings, and our actions in a different way. By writing things down in a journal the words are now ‘outside’ of us. They are there in black and white on the paper or on the screen. We can almost come to look at them as strangers – ‘Did I really think that?’, ‘How does this fit with that?’ In other words, our words may become more concrete – and in this way we can play with them, look at them in another light. (See Wood 2012: 13-15).

Fourth, if we allow ourselves freedom (freedom from judgements, and freedom to write as we wish) then the words we form can take us in new directions.

Without restrictions or censorship your mind can race—or slow down. It can step outside boxes or turn them sideways. It can make utterly fresh connections or simply pause, allowing you to see what is familiar with new eyes. It can train you to observe with subtlety all kinds of situations. And it can help you to learn something of value even from the unwelcome ones. (Dowrick 2009: 3)

Fifth, writing things down in a journal also allows us to ‘clear our minds’. Having made a note of something we can put them on one side for consideration or action at a later point. We can only handle so much at any one moment. Trying remember this or that, and deal with current situations, can sometimes mean that we are not focusing on what we need to. As Mary Louise Holly (1989: 9) again puts it, ‘The journal offers a way to sort out the multitude of demands and interactions and to highlight the most important ones’.

Last, and certainly not least, making journal writing part of our routine means that we do actually take time out to reflect on what might be happening in our practice and in our lives generally (Rainer 2004).

From this we can see that writing and keeping a journal holds the possibility of deepening our self-understanding, and to making added sense of our lives and what we believe. It can also help us to entertain, contain and channel troubling emotions and gain perspective. We may also develop a greater awareness of daily life; become more alive to what is happening to, and around, us in the daily round. At a practical level, writing and keeping a journal can both help us with administrative tasks (like reporting what happened, when and why) and with the process of setting goals and managing our time and priorities.

Starting to write and keep a journal

One of the first decisions to make concerns the form that our journal will take. For most people the choice seems to be between three main forms – notebooks, loose leaf paper within ring binders, or digitally via a word processor or note taker. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The first two forms of journal have the benefit of not being dependent on high levels of technology and so can be quickly and easily used. However, they do not have the same powers with regard to search and to organization (and reorganization). The loose leaf journal can be reordered and added to – but things can also be taken away, and this can mean we lose important material. The notebook journal is less flexible – but does have more a feeling of permanence. It is worth taking a little time over making a decision (but not too long) as we have to live with the consequences for a time.

One of the next questions concerns when and where journal writing takes place? Is there somewhere where we will be relatively undisturbed? Is there a good time to write? For many practitioners, the answer is to grab time when it presents itself. In many respects there are distinct advantages to writing as close to the time of the experience as possible (Holly 1989: 92). Using something like a notebook or loose-leaf paper does mean that we can sometimes jot things down as we are working with an individual or a group as an aide-mémoire. We can then ‘fill-in’ details, feelings etc. after the encounter. One of the keys here is not to be too precious about journal writing – just do it. Ron Klug (2002: 34) talks about a college professor who gave the following salient advice to a student: ‘Go through the motions, and you’ll get the emotions‘.

A further decision is the form that the journal should initially take. Some people like to begin with the sort of free-writing advocated by Tristine Rainer. Here they just write about what comes into their mind for a certain period of time. This can get things flowing, and bring out thoughts and experiences that were not at the forefront of our minds. Others start by writing an autobiographical piece. However, for those of us starting a learning journal some sort of basic framework is probably useful. A good starting point is to use four basic elements:

  • Description of the situation/encounter/experience that includes some attention to feelings at the time.
  • Additional material – information that come to our notice or into our minds after the event.
  • Reflection – going back to the experiences, attending to feelings and evaluating experience (Boud et. al. 1985: 26-31). (See the page on reflection)
  • Things to do – the process of reflection may well lead to the need to look again at a situation or to explore some further area. It may highlight the need to take some concrete actions. In this ‘section’ of the entry we can make notes to pick-up later.

There is, however, no ‘right’ way. The test is whether it works for the writer.

Some people mix the sort of explorative journal we have been looking at here with other material. One approach is to include notes from meetings, and jottings from reading and reflection alongside more personal and developmental writing. This mixing can be annoying for some. One response is to write and keep a number of separate notebooks. However, there can be some advantages in mixing writing. The movement between can both set off new trains of thought, and provide a more holistic picture of our activities. C. Wright Mills captured the use to which such ‘mixed’ journals can be put. As practitioners we are, to extend his words, ‘intellectual craftsmen and craftswomen’. Our work demands systematic reflection – and such writing and keeping journals are a key means to achieving this. In them:

there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various work in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encourages you to capture ‘fringe thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience. (Mills 1959: 196)

A further consideration concerns what we are to write about in our journals? Here Ron Klug (2002: 54) has come up with a helpful set of starter questions for an ‘end of the day’ type of journal. We have amended these here slightly – they can be further amended so that they can be used at any point in the day:

  • As I look back on the day, what were the most significant events?
  • In what ways was this day unique, different from other days?
  • Did I have any particularly meaningful conversations?
  • Did I do any reading? What were my reactions to it?
  • How did I feel during the day? What were the emotional highs and lows? Why did I feel as I did? Is God or my spirit trying to tell me anything about these feelings?
  • Did I find myself worrying about anything today?
  • What were the chief joys of the day? What did I accomplish?
  • Did I fail at anything? What can I learn from this?
  • What did I learn today? When did I feel most alive?

Last, it is important to be honest when writing journals. ‘Write how you really feel and not how you think you should feel. Record what you really think, not what you believe you ought to think’ (Klug 2002: 56).

‘Harvesting’ your journal

The real benefits of learning and other journals flow from their sustained use over a period of time. It is, thus, important to work at making journal writing part of the everyday round. There can be obvious and immediate payoffs – especially with the sort of ‘mixed’ journal we have looked at. We can bring together ideas, pick-up tasks that we need to do, and use the notes we made of sessions, meetings and encounters to plan and report our work. We can also keep track of things that we want to discuss with colleagues or mentors.

In addition, the reflection and exploration that journal writing brings with it can open up new avenues of thought with regard to how we handle different situations or work with particular individuals or groups. There can be an immediate impact. These sorts of pay-off help to keep us journaling in the short term.

To gain real benefit over the longer term we have to, as Ron Klug (2002: 121-8) has put it, ‘harvest’ our journals. The most basic way of doing this is to read them. Here we might focus on troubling times and incidents, or read through the whole thing perhaps gaining some insights into the way we have developed or how our practice and those we work with changed. We may also begin to see some patterns.

It is also probably helpful to index the contents of the journal. Some people leave the first few pages of their notebooks empty just for this purpose.

Making sense of our journals takes time. It might well be, as Ken Plummer (2001: 152) has put it in the context of researching ‘life stories’, such analysis is the ‘truly creative part of the work’. He continues,

… it entails brooding and reflecting upon mounds of data for long periods of time until it ‘makes sense’ and ‘feels right’, and key ideas and themes flow from it . It is also the hardest process to describe: the standard technique is to read and make notes, leave and ponder, re-read without notes, make new notes, match notes up, ponder, re-read and so on.

There are some basic questions for us to be asking for starters:

  • Are there experiences, situations or understandings that stand out for us? What is it about them that is catching our attention?
  • Does what we have written in our journals still ‘ring true’? Have we been fully honest and do the interpretations we made at the time still stand up. From our present standpoint and understanding are there things to question in our writing?
  • What is missing? Has there been evasion?
  • Does what we are writing in our journals relate to what we know of other practitioners? Can we see any connection with any broader theories we have been exploring?

Some may well want to treat their journals as a full-blown research project and seek to code their contents and to develop theories out of the data (much like the grounded research of Glaser and Strauss 1967) – but for most of us it is the process of reading, pondering and re-reading that we rely on. Ideas and glimmerings of understandings emerge. We can deepen these in conversation with others or through reading relevant texts.

Conclusion – evaluating writing and keeping journals

Education involves more than gaining and exercising technical knowledge and skills. It depends on us also cultivating a kind of artistry. In this sense, educators are not engineers applying their skills to carry out a plan or drawing, they are artists who are able to improvise and devise new ways of looking at things. For Donald Schön (1987: 13) such artistry is an exercise of intelligence, a kind of knowing. Through engaging with our experiences we are able to develop maxims about, for example, group work or working with an individual. In other words, we learn to appreciate – to be aware and to understand – what we have experienced. We become what Elliot W. Eisner (1985; 1998) describes as ‘connoisseurs’.

Connoisseurship is the art of appreciation. It can be displayed in any realm in which the character, import, or value of objects, situations, and performances id distributed and variable, including educational practice. (Eisner 1998: 63)

Connoisseurship involves the ability to see, not merely to look (Eisner 1998: 6). To do this we have to develop the ability to name and appreciate the different dimensions of situations and experiences, and the way they relate one to another. We have to be able to draw upon, and make use of, a wide array of information. We also have to be able to place our experiences and understandings in a wider context, and connect them with our values and commitments. It is into this context that writing and keeping journals comes. Connoisseurship is something that needs to be worked at.

However, educators need to become something more than connoisseurs. We need to become critics.

If connoisseurship is the art of appreciation, criticism is the art of disclosure. Criticism, as Dewey pointed out in Art as Experience, has at is end the re-education of perception… The task of the critic is to help us to see.

Thus… connoisseurship provides criticism with its subject matter. Connoisseurship is private, but criticism is public. Connoisseurs simply need to appreciate what they encounter. Critics, however, must render these qualities vivid by the artful use of critical disclosure. (Eisner 1985: 92-93)

Criticism can be approached as the process of enabling others to see the qualities of something. As Eisner (1998: 6) puts it, ‘effective criticism functions as the midwife to perception. It helps it come into being, then later refines it and helps it to become more acute’.

In the light of this perhaps the most fundamental question we can ask when evaluating writing and keeping journals is whether they have allowed us to develop as connoisseurs and critics. A further question relates to the work we do with different individuals and groups. Has writing and keeping a journal had an impact on the direction that work has taken and on the appropriateness of our actions?

Further reading and references

Bolton. G. (2005) Reflective Practice. Writing and professional development. 2e. London: Sage. Popular text that explores how practitioners can critically engage with their actions and feelings.

Boud, David et al (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page. 170 pages. Good collection of readings which examine the nature of reflection. The early chapters make particular use of Dewey and Kolb.

Dowrick, S. (2009). Creative journal writing: The art and heart of reflection. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 259 pages. Rightly popular book that invites people to explore journal writing. Practical, easy to read and helpful. It includes exercises, stories and sound advice.

Holly, Mary Louise (1989) Writing to Grow. Keeping a personal-professional journal, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann. One of the best guide to journaling for professional growth. Written initially for teachers it explores reflective writing, understanding experience, gives practical suggestions for writing about experience and examines different dimensions of personal and professional inquiry.

Klug, Ron (2002) How to Keep a Spiritual Journal. A guide to journal keeping for inner growth and personal discovery (rev. edn.), Minneapolis: Augsburg. Now in its fourth edition, this rightly popular book is a good starting point for journaling as a spiritual practice.

Moon, Jennifer (1999) Learning Journals. A handbook for academics, students and professional development, London: Kogan Page. A helpful introduction to learning journals that not only looks at their possibilities and how they may be kept, but also reflects on their use within education and training programmes.

Rainer, Tristine (1978, 2004) The New Diary. How to use a journal for self-guidance and extended creativity, Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher Inc. Reissued with a new introduction in 2004, this book is rightly regarded as a classic. It provides a good introduction to the writing and keeping journals and opens up different approaches.

Wood, J. (2013). Transformation through journal writing: The art of self-reflection for the helping professions. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Specifically aimed at practitioners in the social professions, this book explores what can be gained from journaling, the different forms and approaches that can be taken – and reflection on different techniques.


Adams, K. (1990). Journal to the self: 22 paths to personal growth. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Brinton, Howard H. (1972) Quaker Journals. Varieties of religious experience among Friends, Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill Publications.

Casewit, Curtis W. (1982) The Diary. A complete guide to journal writing, Allen, Texas: Argus.

Dewey, John (1933) How We Think, New York: D. C. Heath.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1985) The art of educational evaluation: a personal view. London: Falmer Press.

Eisner, Elliot W. (1998) The enlightened eye : qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Merrill.

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory, New York: Putnam.

Goetschius, G. W. and Tash, M. J. (1967) Working with Unattached Youth. Problem, approach, method, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Little, Patsie (1995) ‘Recording’ in P. Carter (et. al.) (eds.) Social Working, London: Macmillan.

Mills, C. Wright (1959) The Sociological Imagination, New York: Oxford University Press.

Plummer, Ken (2001) Documents of Life 2. An invitation to a critical humanism, London: Sage.

Progoff, Ira (1975) At a Journal Workshop, New York: Dialogue House Library.

Rainer, Tristine (1978) The New Diary. How to use a journal for self-guidance and extended creativity, Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher Inc.

Rogers, Alan (1982) Recording and Reporting, Leicester: N.A.Y.C. Publications.

Schön, Donald (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

Acknowledgement: Photograph: Travel journal by Luigi Anzivino. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)  licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/48094050@N00/43496328/

How to cite this article: Smith, Mark (1999, 2006, 2013), ‘Keeping a learning journal. A guide for educators and social practitioners’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [https://infed.org/mobi/writing-and-keeping-journals-a-guide-for-educators-and-social-practitioners/. Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 1999, 2006, 2013

Last Updated on October 19, 2019 by infed.org