Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Portfolios?

One way I know I will have done a good job in my role as a tech integration specialist is if I can help my school adopt electronic portfolios. Electronic (or digital) Portfolios are today's versions of a traditional artist's portfolio. Fundamentally, an electronic portfolio is a digital platform upon which students can place text, video, and audio.  It is important to note that all student work does not go into a portfolio. It is important that students curate their own work. Thus, it is up to a student to decide which assignments to showcase.

Portfolios are particularly effective tool for fostering metacognitive reflection. To curate their own work, students have to think about what makes it good work. Now, if too dependent upon grading and others' evaluation of their work, students might simply place in their portfolio their work with the highest grades. At one level, this is natural and appropriate. But at a deeper level, if we want students to reflect upon what is quality and what is the fundamental purpose of learning, perhaps portfolios can begin to move us away from the way we currently assess students. However, even if portfolios do nothing to change the way we grade students, we would still foster metacognitive thinking when we ask students to curate their own work. By my way of thinking, schools don't do enough to foster this type of thinking.

What's in it for the teacher?
It would be so powerful to see the arc of a student's growth over a year and, more importantly, over several years.  A portfolios utility in this area is almost self-evident. When looking at the work of a student we haven't taught before, we are "flying blind" to a certain extent. We wonder about a student's effort, ability, and understanding.  However, a portfolio would allow us to place a student's work in a broader context. We could know if it is a strong effort. We'd have a better understanding of a student's ability.  

Imagine the powerful conversations one could have with a student after you asked them to curate their work for a trimester, term,  or month. Think about the conversation an advisor could have with an advisee. Ideally, this teacher thinks it would be awesome to have a portfolio conference in which a student shares a portfolio with parents- talk about taking ownership of learning!

Now, I have an agenda here (don't we all?). Discussions at this level could and would challenge the whole enterprise of assessment — and specifically why we are evaluating students as opposed to how we are doing so. I strongly feel we have to move past William Farish's factory model of assessment.
For all of human history until the Industrial Revolution, human beings learned without being graded. In this post-industrial era, shouldn't we rethink what it means to assess students?

I am excited that some 6th-grade teachers will use the portfolios my students created last year. I also excited that my colleagues teaching 9th-grade history with me are also excited by the possibilities of portfolios. Evernote and Google sites are two possible platforms for portfolios. Of course, there are many others. Since we are a google drive school, we are going to first try google sites for portfolios here at our school.

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