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Last year I had the joy of working with a group of colleagues on a task force about portfolios in education, especially as we are finding that different groups at the university use different software packages. While our task was largely focused on providing advice on policy and practice in reviewing and selecting portfolio software options, we also took the time to revisit the different reasons people use portfolios. There are plenty of online resources that review and suggest different electronic portfolio solutions, but I’d like to step back and consider the why of portfolios in education. This is something that can apply to almost any level of education.
Use of portfolios in education has waxed and waned for decades. Yet, I see three persistent reasons why educators and schools keep coming back to them. While these three reasons are related in that they provide direct evidence of learning and accomplishments, they have three distinct ultimate ends.
Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, US K–12 and higher education institutions began looking at the potential benefits of portfolios, especially as a tool for nurturing writing. A portfolio of student writing is a way for students to demonstrate progress and development as a writer. It might include early drafts all the way to a refined essay. Add a series of essays, and a portfolio serves as a rich source of insight into one’s writing ability and development. The same thing is true for many crafts and skills that one might develop over time. It is helpful to know not only where a person’s skill is at the moment but also how and to what extent that skill has developed over days, weeks, months, and years.
At the same time, portfolios have been used in the art and design world, far beyond school settings. If you want a job as a designer, it is one thing to show up with a resume and evidence of some credentials. It is yet another to bring a portfolio of what you have actually designed. Such a portfolio provides direct evidence of your work, skips the middleman of a teacher’s assessment, and gives opportunity for your prospective client or employer to judge for themselves whether your work is a good fit for what they are seeking. Given this use of portfolios in the world, using them in school may be a helpful way to prepare students to demonstrate their knowledge, skill, and ability in future contexts.
As the role of licensure and standards has developed over the decades, there has been yet another interest in the role of portfolio. This interest is not really about progress or providing direct evidence for a future employer. Instead, the portfolio is about providing direct evidence that you met or meet a set of standards, often established by some outside body. A future teacher, for example, might take classes, do observations in schools, and gain direct teaching experience. To be a licensed teacher, this future teacher must show that he or she meets all the standards established for licensure in a given state. A portfolio has become one way that schools are getting at some of this. Students gather work from courses and teaching experiences to show how they are meeting the standards, often including a narrative with each artifact that explains or defends how the artifact is evidence of meeting a given standard.
The three paragraphs above give three distinct examples of portfolios in the past and present, and here’s how they can be useful in education today.
1. Portfolios show your work in progress.
This type of portfolio is about showing growth and progress. As such, they often include early drafts and the ensuing final project, perhaps including feedback from peers and teachers. It doesn’t just show where you are now; it also shows where you have been. This can help teachers see student progress, but it can also help students see their own progress. This can help students learn how to learn. It can motivate them to keep improving. It can also help them learn to be more self-reflective about the learning process.
This option is good for educators seeking to see and help learners see their growth over time.
2. Portfolios show your work.
Portfolios act as a showcase for what you can do. It is less for some assessor in a school and more about building a collection that you can share with others, demonstrating your knowledge, skill, and ability. In the digital age, this is often done online, even making it possible for people to discover your work. As we are seeing with LinkedIn and more broadly online, sometimes employers find and approach you instead of the other way around. And as Austin Kleon wrote, “Work, then put it where people can see it. . . . Show your work.” As we show our work to the public, people are more likely to discover it and discover us. This is part of preparing people to take advantage of life and work in a connected world. I contend that helping students learn how to show their work is helpful in school and beyond.
This type of portfolio is a great option for any school or educator interested in helping students prepare for life after school.
3. Portfolios show that you meet the standards.
Then there is that third type of portfolio—the one that shows how you meet a certain set of standards. You might take tests, write papers, complete projects, have experiences and reflect on them, learn through work and service, design something, or progress through some sort of educational adaptive learning software. You gather the evidence from these disparate sources and put them in a portfolio, demonstrating how the different “artifacts” show that you meet the various standards.
This is a good option for standards-based programs and anyone interested in helping the students own their learning and see how what they are doing aligns with the overall standards.
Each of these three uses have promise in the Lutheran school and classroom, providing teachers with another useful tool for their assessment toolbox.
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