#28daysofwriting Day 20: eportfolios & student centred learning

Last week, as I have already blogged about, I was fortunate to work with Dr Helen Barrett, the guru of portfolios.  Her wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm and excitement about the power of portfolios for deep learning and personal growth is infectious.  We had already decided that we would like to introduce portfolios with our Year 9 students as we implement a whole new cross-curricular junior programme.  As we are a GAFE school, it made sense to trial using Google Sites as our platform.

The English department have assumed responsibility for guiding the students as they create their sites.  I started off with my class asking them what they thought a portfolio was.

  • A place to put their best work
  • A folder with writing in
  • Somewhere to store paintings

I asked them where they thought the word “portfolio” came from and gave them 2 minutes to find out.  Google gave them an answer but did they really understand it?

dictionary definition of the word portfolio

No!  But are these definitions of “portfolio” what we mean in education?  Well, as Helen Barrett says, the purpose of a portfolio is many things to many people.  And as technology has developed so has the function, purpose and meaning of a portfolio.

The girls then looked to find out where the word “portfolio” came from.

the origins of the word "Portfolio"

But were we any further forwards?  Most of them had created portfolios of “best work” at Primary School, they had also “led” student parent conferences at Intermediate school where they explained to their parents, under the guidance of their teachers, what they had been learning.  So they had some understanding of what a portfolio might mean for them in terms of their learning.

To make it meaningful to them we really needed to explore what they could use a portfolio for, what it would mean for them, how they could have ownership of it.  So I asked them to brainstorm ideas of what they could put in a portfolio of their learning.

mind map showing what students considered were important components of a portfolio

Interestingly, they came up with the same things that Helen Barrett had suggested could be incorporated into a portfolio.  I started them off with the idea of a “Splash” page but after that it was all them.

We talked about the idea that their portfolio should be all about them, that they could choose what they put there and who they shared it with.  Although we also talked about how it may be helpful for their teachers and their parents if they felt they could share it with them for them to have an insight into what they were learning and how their learning identities were developing.

I think we have made a positive start.  The students in my class were very excited about creating their space.  They loved being able to make their sites their own by creating their own themes and colours and adding photos and quotes.  In the first few weeks of term we had created our “Mihi” and presented them to the class.  They were very keen to embed them into their “Splash” page.

I think, though, that we have only just started in our journey of portfolios and our challenge is going to be working out who has ownership of them and maintaining a sense of excitement about them.  I am convinced, after talking with Helen, that if they are to be meaningful for our students, if they are to really be a way of making their learning visible, and a way of expressing their identity, then we have to let them have total ownership of them.  We must not hijack them and make them a tool of assessment.  One of the questions I was asked was, “Will we get marked on what we put in our portfolios?”.  My answer was unequivocal, but I am not so sure about some of my colleagues.  I said that some of the work they may choose to put in the “showcase” part of their portfolio might have been graded and reported on, but the portfolio itself was theirs.  It is their journey, their learning, their identity.

It is clear that, increasingly, employers and universities will be looking more at a person’s ability to reflect on their learning, how the experiences they have had affect the way that they learn and the decisions they make, and the direction they go in rather than the qualifications they achieve.  I believe we have to encourage good practice and also model it as professionals.

I would be interested to hear from anyone who has used portfolios in secondary schools as to how they have worked and whether students have continued with them as they have moved through the school.

My classroom this term …

girls working together on acticity on smartboard in language classroom

This year I have three Spanish classes although two are timetabled together as a combined yr 10/11 class. That presents its own challenges; I can’t really use any of the materials I used last year for yr 10 with my current yr 10 as the yr 11 girls have already seen them.  Having girls of very different levels even within one year level is challenging but add in a few who have already done a whole year extra of the language and the problems multiply.  However, I am a firm believer that anything is possible if you are prepared to be flexible and think outside the box so we are working together to extend our language skills and competency. 

This year our school professional develpopment focus is Blended Learning and as one of the team members leading the learning I was keen to “walk the talk”.  My students this year also have to create a portfolio of evidence of their learning for NCEA.  As part of my own learning I had signed up last November for the Elearning and Digital Cultures edcmooc which took place in the first few weeks of the term. All those things combined inspired me to think of ways that I could enable my students to learn.  There are so many options but my “Module” for the PD is based around using Google Docs so I decided to use Google Sites as my platform.

Our google site functions as our virtual classroom and is a hosting site for resources that I think may be useful for the students.  They each have their own page with full editing rights on all pages. These pages will hopefully serve as their portfolio for NCEA writing and speaking as NZQA have said that they will accept links from Google Docs and MyPortfolio as submissions for those standards. 

The site is a closed site so that the girls feel comfortable that their work is only seen by me and each other, although it is possible to make certain pages public for a fixed time period if necessary. However, they can see and edit each others’ pages so that they comment on each others’ work, peer assess and collaborate. So far they have responded well to their work being reviewed and commented on by me at regular intervals and they have started to look at each others’ and comment. 

We are also using Google Docs; I have used a document to share a resource and then ask for comments in the target language and set activities to do.  I have created a folder in which they can drop any work they want to share with me for comment and we have also started to use a Google Doc each lesson for shared notes and vocabulary lists.  Each lesson it is the responsibility of a different student to add vocabulary and grammar notes as we go through the lesson and then the rest of the girls are encouraged to review it that evening and add, amend or comment on what is there. 

This has worked well and the students are starting to realise the potential for powerful collaboration.  It works for us because the students can bring their own devices to school, but I also have 6 laptops in the classroom for those who do not have their own device.  This means that we have at least one device for every three students in the classroom which allows for them to work in groups for research, collaboration, co-construction and interaction. 

Of course, we also have paper dictionaries and other hard copy resources available for the students to use so that they are making the best use of a range of resources. 

Whilst we have used a variety of online tools for learning it is also important to acknowledge that some students either do not have the technological capability at home or a natural desire to use them.  Making different avenues available for them to submit work and time to explore them is key to keeping them all on board.  This can be difficult, especially when I am so keen to experiment and use technology. There is a great blog that was tweeted today which says “I won’t take away your pencil, if you don’t take away my computer”.  

I sometimes have to remind myself to be mindful that the learning is the most important aspect and that we do not require technology to learn.  The technology should support the learning and not the other way round. 

I was also reminded today how powerful for student learning it is to be a facilitator and to learn alongside our students. 

It is easy for us to stand at the front of a classroom, feel in control, and preach rather than teach.  But real learning happens when we forget that we know everything (or at least more than the students) and allow ourselves to explore and discover things alongside our students. Letting go is not easy but I believe it has to be part of our own development as professionals in the classroom.  I am trying not to say “teachers” but am not sure I really like the word “facilitator”.  Our job is to encourage learning, to open doors and provide opportunities for learning, enthuse and motivate. However, if our students aren’t ready to learn, they won’t truly learn.  They may memorise facts, they may churn out essays, they may pass exams, but they won’t truly learn until they are ready and willing!

Let your students own their learning!  Let yourself own your own learning! I like the ideas in this blog, which although it is about teacher professional development, inevitably is relevant for student learning too. The opening line of the blog says;

“I summarize my worse learning experiences as top-down, externally mandated, out-of-context, irrelevant to me and little to no purpose events that I am expected to play a passive role.”

I wonder how often we complain about being “talked at” or being the target of information that we either do not need or is not immediately relevant but that others feel we “need to know, just in case”?  And I wonder if we think about what we provide for our students and if that is any different? I hope that my classroom provides an environment for exploration, for learning “just in time”, in context and relevant to need. I know that it does sometimes but I also know that it is probably not often enough.  However, as George Couros suggests in his blog…


Group work serves some, where others excel working in isolation.  


Lecture isn’t bad; lecture all of the time is bad. Reflection time is essential.


Skills do not develop if you do not have the knowledge to build upon.


I won’t take away your pencil, if you don’t take away my computer.  Both work for the person that has chosen to use them. 

…. there is a place for “lectures” for “instruction” but there is also plenty of time for exploring, creating, owning.