If you change the way you teach, you change the way you assess, and if you change the way you assess, you change the way you teach.
Tammy Hartmann, Principal, Ocean Cliff Elementary School
Our district has been looking at and changing the way we communicate student learning for several years now. We recognized in an evolving societal context that our current reporting system was antiquated, not reflecting the realities of new research on assessment practices nor the possibilities offered in an expanding digital landscape. Our problem was multi-faceted: an antiquated report card platform, an archaic checklist approach to learning, misalignment with the BC Ministry of Education’s Redesigned Curriculum and changing understandings of quality assessment practices. Nor did our current system take advantage of a socially networked and connected world with new possibilities for sharing information.
Since 2012 we have been using digital portfolios in partnership with the company FreshGrade. In our first year we were part of their beta pilot, giving them our feedback as they developed the platform. In our second year, it became a pilot for teachers to use as an alternative form of communicating student learning. Last year, and this, we gave teacher’s the freedom to use it as one of three reporting options available in the district. We have a very exciting new non-digital template available as well so teachers have the opportunity to choose which new practice they want to try on. We made a commitment to not force change but to give teachers opportunities to learn more about assessment and reporting practices both digitally and non-digitally. The former, however, is the focus of this post.
As we explored sharing student learning through a digital window, we had key questions that drove our learning. In today’s context, we wondered if we could…
- communicate student learning in more powerful ways?
- communicate student learning to increase student success & engagement?
- use technology to highlight student learning & thinking?
- change “reporting” to fit with what we know about quality instruction, learning & assessment?
We wanted to consider, what are the possibilities in a new world?
- How can we leverage this digital tool to transform learning?
- How can we encourage & direct the conversation?
- Who is telling and shaping the story?
- Can we create a new story and a better way of “reporting?”
It is important to note that central to our thinking has been keeping the role of the teacher clear: We know that no web 2.0 tool, no program, no paper template transforms learning. Teachers transform learning.
As we engaged in our learning journey as a district, more and more questions would emerge to push our thinking. Are we making learning visible? What is the evidence of learning? Full stop. These latter two questions are perhaps most significant for those embarking on this journey.
Once you begin to look at digital portfolios, it creates the opportunity to examine student learning and explore what quality assessment looks like in a digital context. For us, it is not about posting cute pictures or entertaining videos, nor is it about overloading a portfolio with endless artifacts that fail to communicate the learning journey. The focus is on evidence of learning that demonstrates student growth and helps to guide both instruction and learning moving forward. We recognize that as teachers, we are learners on a continuum of understanding as well. There is the first step of accomplishment from uploading an artifact and conquering the technical piece of the platform to progressing to understanding how to gather artifacts that actually show student learning and incorporate important descriptive feedback. As teachers and students become more comfortable with using digital portfolios, students can actually learn to search for their own evidence of their learning, upload artifacts and provide their own reflections on their growth–signally the opportunity for them to have choice, voice and ownership. Student engagement quickly accelerates the motivation and interest in learning.
We have shared our journey with others internally, locally and abroad at evening sessions, workshops, and conferences as well as through social media. Our most recent event is at the Learning Forward Conference in Washington, DC. As part of sharing our journey—imperfect as it is—we wanted to include some of the learning that has taken place while growing in our understanding of this new form of digital reporting. To learn more about what it means to actually show the learning, we have several helpful blog posts that we reference in our district (click on the title to access):
Where is the learning? by Karen Fadum, a Communicating Student Learning Helping Teacher (Instructional Coach) with Education Services.
Moving Beyond the Glorified Scrapbook by co-authors Antonio Vendramin, Principal, and Kelli Vostad, Vice-Principal, Cambridge Elementary School.
Making the Learning Visible by author Kelli Vostad, Vice-Principal, Cambridge Elementary School.
e-Portfolios in Language Classes by author Shauna Nero, Modern Languages Helping Teacher (Instructional Coach) with Education Services.
For more information about e-portfolios for language teachers, you can read Le portfolio numérique et FreshGrade by Shaun Nero.
If you want to know more about how we started off when it was first a pilot, the description is found here: The Pilot: Communicating Student Learning.
A Window into Learning, is adapted from an Executive Briefing presented to the District Senior Team and co-authored by myself and with Dan Turner, Director, Information Management Systems, and describes our adventure and rationale for moving into digital portfolios.
Thanks to Kelli Vogstad for the helpful descriptions for ways to make learning visible using portfolios. Her document of Guiding Principles is an easy one pager for teacher reference. You can download it here: CSL Making Learning Visible Guiding Principles Vogstad.
This video uses the words of famous thinkers, leaders in the field of assessment and the words of those who have lived the experience in our district. We often use this at the end of a session as a way to encourage new thinking about assessment practices. (Music Credit: “Shadow by Lindsey Sterling).
We have a multitude of other documents that we have developed to support the scaling up of this project, everything from powerpoints to a planning tool for teachers and even a guide for parents. (Click here to download the Digital Portfolio Parent Guide). A big thank you to the #sd36learn educators in our district (many are mentioned above) who have been creating these documents “just in time.”
There are other educators across our province who are also doing significant work with Digital Portfolios. You can read more from Ian Landy, Principal of Sorrento Elementary, on his website. You can read more about Kindergarten/Grade 1 teacher Michelle Hiebert’s journey with e-portfolios on her website as well.
The more we can do to help travel this uncharted path together, the lighter the load for all.