FullSizeRender 5
Surrey Schools Superintendent, Dr. Jordan Tinney, CNN Interview, 2014

Co-authored with Kelli Vogstad.

Inquiry is a dynamic and emergent process that can foster a culture of collaborative learning with teachers working together to consider, explore, and reflect on issues and approaches related to shared questions and intentions. It has been said that when educators make their own discoveries, they become energized by the desire to inquire more deeply and to learn more broadly. You actually get the opportunity to not only ask questions, but also to delve deeply into these questions.

We think it would be safe to say that in the culture of openness, sharing, and genuine curiosity fostered in Surrey Schools, the process of inquiry has led some teachers into a state of dissonance. Dissonance, results as teachers pause and take a step out of their practice and become increasingly reflective. Teachers have called into question much of what they have always done in schools, and careful reflection and discussion, has led them to make responsive changes in practice as they work to better meet the needs of their students. We suspect teachers throughout the district continue to experience this so-called dissonance, and the unrest it has caused has resulted in thoughtful exploration around many topics, one in particular, communicating student learning.

We began by asking . . .

  • What does exemplary communicating regarding student learning look like?
  • Do our current tools and strategies adequately communicate the rich learning taking place in our classrooms?
  • Do parents have the information they need to be the supporters of student learning that we want them to be?
  • Do we hear the voice of students?

For the first time, we were equipped with the tools to create digital portfolios with learning evidence in the form of descriptive feedback, images, audio and video. Imagine giving parents the opportunity to see and hear their children in class engaged in activities that demonstrate their learning in almost real time. Parents can now be invited to look into their children’s classrooms, access activities, and see what their children are learning on their own time and schedules. No longer do they have to wait for the parent-teacher interviews, products to be brought home, or report cards. Teachers now had the tools to make this all happen.

But learning is messy; inquiry is a journey, and most journeys have bumps in the road. With digital tools in hand, it became easy for teachers to collect artifacts…too easy! Many digital portfolios became “media dumping grounds” and “glorified scrapbooks”. In the beginning, it was new and exciting. Parents loved to see their children smiling into the cameras, a beautiful piece of artwork, or a polished published story. As teachers began to question their collections and reflect on the goal behind digital portfolios, they asked themselves: How are we communicating student learning? It became clear that parents didn’t need more, they needed better.

Transformation calls for us to move past simple replication with technology. As our inquiry into communicating student learning continued, teachers had to ask themselves: Were they using these tools to document, show, change, and improve student learning? We had to move beyond the technology, and focus on the pedagogy and what we were really communicating to parents. If you take a picture of a spelling test and send that to a parent does anything really change? Can we justify sending an image of a student simply posing with some artwork which he or she created? If anything, this is a recipe for infuriating parents. As parents ourselves we’d be asking some pointed questions:

  • Really, you spent $500 on an iPad for a teacher so that they could send me a photo of a spelling test?
  • The artwork is great, but can you tell me why they created it and what they were supposed to learn?
  • Why don’t I hear my son or daughter reflecting on what they learned?

It would be easy to be disappointed, to point the finger at technology, to make excuses, but the road forward is not paved with excuses. Rather, it is time to leverage the connections we have with teachers and to harness some of the exceptional exemplars we know exist. These exemplars are created and chosen by asking simple but serious questions whenever artifacts are collected and shared with parents.

Where is the learning?

If we describe learning as a change in behaviour (“I couldn’t do this before and now I can”, or “I used to do this but now I do this”, or “I used to think this but now I don’t because…”) we begin to think critically about what we capture and share. What we document should show what kids know, understand, and can do. What is captured and shared should show a child’s learning over time, changes and growth in his or her ability to communicate, think, and build his or her capacities of self as a learner.

Here are some examples of teachers and students talking about changes in behaviour:

Students making learning visible by explaining their thinking:

Students reflecting on their work over time:

IshanScreen Shot 2015-07-08 at 12.51.56 PM

Students engaged in conversations about their learning:

What is worth sharing?

Parents know their children best. Often times, parents are able to share with teachers, what their children can do. We believe parents want to know how their children are changing, both in how they act and how they think. Parents also want to support their children at home. We can help parents provide better support by showing and communicating to them not only WHAT their children are learning, but WHY. At the same time, if we provide the criteria behind what is shown in the portfolio so students and parents both know what “good” looks like we can help move parents to deeper understandings of the “whys” behind the learning tasks. And, to go further, if we include descriptive feedback prior to summative assessments we can provide parents with meaningful data they can use to assist in the intervention process.

Here are some examples of teachers sharing this kind of valuable information:

Explaining to parents how they can support their children’s learning:

Sharing criteria and exemplars with parents:

f04891909a0111e489c76d79d5b99163-rotated-Screen-Shot-2015-01-11-at-4.34.51-PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.35.50 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.36.04 PM

Explaining to parents WHAT students are learning and WHY:

c2997d509de811e48ca5afeb2449ad77-rotated-yThRG_16-01-2015-05-32-55

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.44.40 PM

How much should we share?

When teachers suddenly found themselves with the ability to easily capture evidence with their devices, they thought they had to capture everything. Not only did this inundate parents, it overwhelmed teachers. We didn’t collect and share everything before; why start now? How much we collect and share is a discussion we are currently engaged in. For us, it comes back to Jordan Tinney’s quote cited at the start of our post, “We’re trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know…”

True, different parents want different things, but we believe all parents want to know if their children are learning and progressing. They want to know if their children are having difficulty and struggling in their learning. They want to know what the teacher is doing and what they as parents can do at home to help their children be more successful. And mostly, parents want to know that their children are cared for, safe and respected, and liked by others. Through thoughtful digital portfolio collections, parents can be reassured that the teacher really understands and knows their child and is helping them learn and succeed.

As we continue this journey of inquiry into communicating student learning, we have become connected in our desire to improve our understandings and practices and to continue to reflect on what we know, what we do, and how this relates to student learning. We are ready for more dissonance and more questions as we develop better and more meaningful ways to help students learn so we indeed have the data and documents to capture and collect and share with parents. This is our challenge!

7 thoughts on “Digital Portfolios … Moving Beyond The Glorified Scrapbook

  1. Thank you for sharing the inquiry process that you and your staff have gone through as many of us work through this new digital portfolio. Even though our grade 6/7 team used Fresh Grade only for the third term we quickly realized what we did and did not want this tool to become. I was impressed with the self-assessment component students completed after uploading assignments, projects, etc. as it shed a light into where they felt they had grown and where they still needed to improve. We also liked that parents were informed regularly and information was not getting “lost” as students transferred it tom school to home.
    One of the pieces we are grappling with is finding out what parents truly want with communicating student learning. We have talked about asking parents for their input and their feedback. Have you used a survey with your parents to ask them for feedback on the digital portfolio? I would be interested to look at the survey if you did one and are willing to share it out.
    Thanks Antonio.

    1. Anne-Marie,
      Thanks for this great feedback! We have not used a formal survey. Rather, I have spent a great deal of time talking with parents about their experience, what they need more of, and less of. I know which teachers are using the tool and as an invited colleague, I get a window into how each teacher communicates with parents. We will continue on the journey and for sure, if we develop a more formal tool, we will share 🙂 Take care!
      Antonio

  2. Great post Antonio and Kelly. I was excitedand impressed when conversations at JA shifted from documenting student learning to what is good evidence of student learning!

  3. Thank you for this, Antonio and Kelli.
    I think this is very helpful as the examples are concrete. I particularly liked the section on Where is the Learning – I like the phrases given. This is what we need – directions. The expectations are there, but how to meet them needs to be laid out in a way people understand. It is too easy to do a lot of work, but not do the right stuff. My principal asked me to present it at tomorrow’s staff meeting to our staff. Our staff is willing/ some eager, but we do need a road map to get there. How could this info. be spread farther? I retweeted it, but no everyone looks at Twitter, ya know! 🙂

    1. Hi Jane,

      It will take continued support from teachers on the ground, in schools, working with their colleagues. Formal pro-d might jumpstart things, but it is the ongoing work of teachers like you that sustain momentum.

      Central to all of this work is a focus on pedagogy and quality assessment. Our work is making this assessment student centred and transparent. The question, “Where is the learning” forces us to be accountable regarding the activities we design and the ways we document, assess, and share what we see.

      If it was all easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing:-)

      Thanks for sharing and thanks for all you do!!!

      Antonio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s