Digital Portfolios … Moving Beyond The Glorified Scrapbook

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!

What I Notice…

IMG_7571The best part of the work I do in schools is visiting classrooms and participating in the learning taking place. I have previously written about my passion and belief about the kind of work students in schools should be engaged in. You can read more about this HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Something that has become evident to me is that students are just like adults: they thrive when doing work that is interesting and meaningful. As adults, we value our time and consider it precious. We don’t tolerate requests to do tasks that are irrelevant to us. We demand to know WHY we are doing what we are doing. BUT…

Do we treat students’ time the same way?

Do we ensure that students see the relevance of the work we ask them to do?

Is the work we ask students to do in fact relevant?

How do we react to students who express (in various ways) that the work they do in class is not personally meaningful?

Do we pay attention to these reactions and what do they mean?

When I speak to others about school, I always say that if I ever went back to classroom teaching, I would be far more effective than I ever was before I became an administrator. Why? Years of visiting classrooms and witnessing what does (and doesn’t) work has given me valuable perspective. Where I used to focus on the teaching, I now focus on the learning. Teachers jokingly  say that they get nervous when I visit their class. Of course, that is never my intention. I visit to experience the learning from a student perspective. I ask questions:

What are you learning?

Why are you doing this?

How will you know you’re done and that you’ve learned what you were supposed to learn?

Most of the time, students respond by explaining what they are DOING, rather than what they are LEARNING. Students always find it challenging to  articulate WHY they are learning something. Most of the time, there is value and a good rationale for the work teachers ask students to do. The missing link is that we often don’t share this information with students. What we are talking about is “Learning Intentions“: sharing with students WHAT we expect them to learn and WHY. Learning intentions are most effective when they are clear, visible , and in language students can understand.

This past week during class visits, I noticed students in several classes engaged in hands-on, meaningful, and interesting learning experiences.

My first learning story comes from a grade 5/6 class that participated in a hands-on activity whereby they learned to frame a wall – a REAL wall, with lumber, nails, screws, and carpentry tools. This activity was part of a larger project in which students design an actual home. The why of this work is obvious:  our students will one day be homeowners, they will be required to design and build, they will measure constantly throughout their life…

Before constructing their walls with power drills and hammers, the Learning Intention for this activity was made explicit for students:  they were doing this work because eventually, they will have to use tools to perform tasks in their own home. If we are skilled in taking care of small tasks on our own, we can be independent and not rely on others all the time. We also shared that there will be a huge demand for skilled trades people in the future and for students to consider trades the next time someone asks, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” The following images show students excited, engaged, proud, and fully understanding not only the WHAT of learning, by the WHY.

My second learning story comes from a Grade 3 class I visited. When I arrived, I was intrigued by what I saw: black tarp on a table, and four eggs standing lengthwise in bottle caps. This I had to stay for! Students were going to test the strength of these eggs by slowly stacking heavy textbooks on top of them.  All of this was part of a structures unit where students were learning how structures could be built to maximize their strength. As each textbook was placed on the egg, suspense grew. 25, 26, 27, 28 textbooks. Then the 29th textbook was placed on the stack and there was a slight movement. A moment later, the eggs began to crack and the stack toppled:

IMG_8120The students in this class were riveted, and so was I. Because we decided to record the event in slow motion, we had the opportunity to view the eggs cracking over and over again. Eventually, students identified the egg that cracked first, second, third, and last. They noticed that they cracked in sequence and in a clockwise direction.  The “wheels were turning” and the questions started.  What if we did this demonstration again? Would the eggs crack in a similar way? This is evidence that learning isn’t always about coming up with answers, but rather promoting curiosity and igniting passion!

1356452B-7D39-4CA0-A827-9A872EE9BE1E-2562-000002FAD15746F5My third learning story is about how we do our morning announcements. Students have ownership over this activity and take it very seriously. Very often, students arrive early to school to prepare, even though we don’t do announcements until 10:15 a.m. When it is time to do announcements, students arrive on time and prepared.  I think a large part of this ownership comes from the fact that not only do the 650+ students and staff hear what is said, but that the announcements are recorded, tweeted, and published on our school website and blog in real-time. In other words, their audience is the world. Listen to our morning announcements HERE. Students know they are doing real work!

IMG_0321My final learning story comes from Kindergarten. I love to visit Kindergarten classrooms because of how creative, carefree, and risk-taking our youngest learners are. I can witness students experimenting with language and developing an understand that language can be powerful and used to communicate their thoughts and feelings. During a recent visit, I received a detailed drawing so I asked the student to tell me about it. I had my iPad with me so I asked if the student wanted to send his story to someone. He said “Yes” and that he wanted the story to be sent to his teacher, our music teacher, and our teacher-librarian. Using the ShowMe app, I recorded the story. Hear Keaton’s story here. Once others knew they could record their stories and send it to others to hear, I soon had a line of students ready with pictures in hand. Again, I think this goes back to the inherit need students have to do work that is meaningful. The audience in this example made the learning meaningful!  Listen to a few other stories HERE and HERE.

All of these stories took place in the last week and all have a common thread: students actively engaged in interesting, hands-on, and meaningful learning experiences. As educators, it isn’t always possible to prepare “home-run” lessons that wow students. What is important is to ask good questions during planning:

Would I want to do this task?

Why are students learning this and how will I let them know?

How will I engage students? 

What do the learning stories in your school reveal about what people believe about the work we expect students to engage in?

Metrics

“The only journey is the journey within.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke

“Comparison is the death of joy.”
-Mark Twain

20121216-122439.jpg

How does one measure success? How does one assess how they’re really doing? What metrics should we use?

These are questions I ask of myself both personally and professionally, almost every day. About six months ago, I set a personal goal to become healthier and more fit. To accomplish this goal, I began going on a run every second day. It wasn’t something that I necessarily enjoyed, but I did get satisfaction in being able to run a set distance with greater ease every time I tried. Four kilometres turned to five, then to six. Each time I would get to a plateau, a place where I would say, “This is comfortable and I think I can go further,” I push myself to see the next distance I can get to. About three weeks ago, a thought popped into my head. Or rather, a number popped in to my head…the number 10…as in 10 kilometres. On that day, I ran 10 kilometres for the first time ever and was I ever proud of myself. This achievement represented personal success, not because I perhaps ran further than other people that day, but that I improved on a personal best. So now, 10 kilometres is my regular distance – my personal benchmark and success will be measured in my gaining greater comfort at this distance, until a time I can go farther.

Picture 10

While I am an intensely competitive person, I have come to realize that, not only is success relative, but that my only competition is myself. On my outings I see many other people on their own runs. Some I realize I could outrun without trying, while others I realize could run circles around me. Comparison, therefore, doesn’t really help me get the feedback I need. Nor does comparison with others make me feel good about how I am doing. I gauge my own success by comparing current runs with previous efforts.

Of course this relates to the world of education as well. It’s once again report card time, and for many parents, it’s a time of letter grades and questions:

“Did my child get as many A’s as…?”
“Is my child doing as well as …”
“How is my child doing compared with everyone else in the class?”
“What do these letters and numbers mean anyway?”

This isn’t to blame parents, because they grew up in the same education system that I did: an education system that associates symbols and numbers with levels of success and compares students to one another. These practices didn’t improve student learning then, and still don’t today. As a parent of three children who are very different from each other, and as a teacher/administrator who has the privilege to work with hundreds of children, I realize how very unique each child is and how using symbols, numbers, and comparisons as our key metric of learning not only moves focus away from the actual learning, but also disregards a person’s uniqueness. I believe we need to focus on delivering timely, specific, detailed, and meaningful feedback learners can actually use. I also believe we need to focus less on teaching specific content and comparing students based on how much of this content they can retain and then share back to us, and more on skills and “key competencies like self-reliance, critical thinking, inquiry, creativity, problem solving, innovation, teamwork and collaboration, cross-cultural understanding, and technological literacy.” (BC Education Plan, pg. 4)

But most importantly, we need to view each person’s learning as a personal journey, and to question the metrics we have used in the past to judge success.

How do you judge personal success? In what ways are schools working towards personalizing learning for students?