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The Meaning of Portfolios – Part 1

by in Schools and Youth
Posted on March 31, 2011 at 8:52 am

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Schools first think of converting portfolio material to electronic form for convenience – more stuff in less space, at lower cost and less maintenance. They soon discover an e-Portfolio is a very different thing. “Portfolios ” explode – in media, relevance, and flexibility. Their documents – now including words, video, graphics and games – are easier to edit, target, analyze and compare. Viewers are no longer just teachers; they now include other students, parents, employers, colleges, and – via the net – the world. As one observed, “If I’d been doing this from Freshman year, those colleges would be chasing me.”

More important for education than the explosive force of this technology is, perhaps, its intimacy. And this is why the language of “standards” depends so much on what we’ve come to call “soft skills” – like teamwork, creativity, listening and other work and career centered interpersonal skills. Students reflect on why and what they did in a project, a paper, a dance or theater, music or composition. They seek and find meaning and impact. They compare their own priorities with peers – since everybody is on a new “level playing field.” They make presentation decisions – using their own generations’ technology often well beyond their years – since they apply a media aesthetic that gives the viewer control of substance, sequence, timing, lighting and sound. They tune that presentation to get as much attention, as much engagement and potential dialog as possible, and to make that engagement flatter their view of “best practice.” While, superficially, that’s true for everything everybody does – in writing, the arts, or jobs – in fact, in schools teachers are usually the only target, and have a relatively narrow set of standards with which to judge, compare or comment on students’ work. The internet and computers change all of that, regardless of teacher or administrator intent.

The net also changes how we work together. Students frequently compare their choices and the sequence or structure they use to build those portfolios. The contrast between these comparisons and the competition of tests, grades, and other ways to measure achievement could not be more complete. When a student “appreciates” the layout or substance of another’s portfolio, they adapt their own. Copying a model does not flatter, but an inspired adaptation does. They seem to need no instruction about this distinction, and it often shows deeper knowledge and insight into each others’ work than they – or anyone – expects.

The effect of this change is both deep and superficial. Students shift to the center of the evaluation, and make the “test” of their product the measure of what the viewer finds, shifting their responsibility from answering questions to engaging their audience. Teachers shift from instruction to inspiration, since the “subject” is what the student learns, not only what the teacher intends. Schools become (again) laboratories: sites to test and explore ideas, and away from being depositories of knowledge. Curriculum shifts from a body of knowledge to a means of discovering meaning in subjects that may otherwise be less meaningful.

These are very big changes. They extend far beyond scanning a document into a flash drive. They often show high school students with deeper understanding than their college peers, yet, almost a often, with a kind of freshness and naiveté that those near peers might envy. Such change makes it critical that portfolios not be graded, as might an examination. Rather they merit awards, recognition and discussion.

In the next few weeks, with their permission and cooperation, I’ll post some public versions of some of our students’ work. Nothing proves the worth of this method better than the students who use it, and sharing that proof will help others do as well or improve on it. All posts are in process, as the entire process of a portfolio is open ended, and young people who build their message in this kind of a forum begin with the kind of respect we normally reserve for explorers, inventors, and others with the valor to sail uncharted waters. So they’ll merit, and I hope earn, your respect.

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