A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: For Graduate School

Teaching process, problem solving, and structured thinking. Should we?

Though I already spent some time working through my thinking about Ted McCain’s Teaching for Tomorrow, I wanted to return to the feeding trough for a couple moments because McCain’s book seems to bring out some things that I have perceived before but not necessarily interacted with formally. These things raise questions for me and I wanted to pose them here, and that will likely be the final time I’ll mention McCain’s book.

When we critique education, are we critiquing the reality or a caricature we’ve developed?

In reading McCain and others, I honestly feel like we fall into calling for reform of caricatures. Perhaps these terrible schools exist, where teachers stand in front of the room all day and demand that students memorize meaningless facts and never ask them to analyze or evaluate anything. Perhaps the school is out there that hires according to those standards, but I have yet to interact with it, and I didn’t get my education there, so I have a hard time buying it.

McCain pits teaching the process against teaching for product and holds up the process-focus as 21st century learning, the idea being that in a world of change and unknown future the most valuable skills and knowledge students can have are  problem solving skills and knowledge of those  processes. Yet he openly quotes the classic “teach a man to fish” metaphor, showing that this is not something new, that people have been trying to do this for . . . millennia?

When it comes to actual classrooms, it seems to me that the process has always been important, but that the product is more tangible, so it’s easy to get sidetracked by evaluating it alone. I take two broken cars to two mechanics and ask them to fix them. One fixes a car and gets it running, the other breaks a car into more pieces. The one who produced the working car (product) engaged in the better process. On the classroom side, we’ve got 10 million students (at least that’s what it seems like some days), it’s hard to examine each step of the process in a manner that is seriously worth a hill of beans, so we evaluate what we can—the product.

Now the product is not wholly unfit for judging process. Even these high stakes tests that we lambaste for focusing on product don’t always examine just product. I earned a 4 on my AP Calculus exam in high school even though I got the big problem on the test wrong—I got the decent score because the graders examined the process and apparently could see I was doing calculus at a high level but had botched something along the way. And that was the 20th Century :). As a teacher of writing, I see the process by examining the product. It’s a mentality I take with me when I construct feedback and grade papers, a mentality I share with my colleagues, a mentality that is not a rarity. Thus, I am convinced that we are attempting to teach process in classrooms, or at least, many of the folks I know are, and if we are going to claim no one is doing it, I’d like to see some empirical proof of the claim.

Is it always better to insist upon structured thinking?

I am aware I might be on my own on this one, but I tend to think that when we teach processes that we can accidentally teach students to do things a certain way when their way is perfectly adequate, and perfectly opposite.

I was on a team a few years ago where the folks wanted to take us constantly back to the process and explicitly point it out (I think with the idea that we would use similar techniques to teach the problem solving process to our students). We had this chart on the wall that was shaped like a stair case and there were words on each step reminding us of every step of the problem solving process. It was clearly based on solid research for problem solving and it was obviously something that folks high above our salary grade thought worthwhile.

It drove me absolutely bananas. It took something intuitive, like looking at a situation and figuring out what the heck to do, and made it oddly complex. Now I had to run my thinking, which could often be random and could jump in ways that were honestly beyond my understanding of exactly why it went the way it did, through some other format. Instead of engaging all my energy in solving the problem, I was engaged in a second problem–making the way I might discover a solution fit through the form given to me, even when it didn’t seem like it was the perfect form every time.

I was asked to use structured thinking—a formal process—but that’s not what I’d done before that. Even if my thinking actually progressed similar to that process but had just been so quick or jumbled that I didn’t realize it, it is hard for me to see how slowing me down and confusing me bears worthwhile fruit.

I had a math teacher in high school and she taught us what we needed to know and insisted that we show our work, like most all math teachers I’d ever had. I thought I did everything according to the rule, but one day while standing at the board explaining how I reached a solution to a problem, a classmate got confused. The teacher interrupted and basically said, “Ignore him. He skipped about three steps and didn’t show you.” That was the first time I was made aware that anything I’d done was unconventional. She’d never criticized me for the methods I’d used, apparently because they worked. I wish at times that we could do this more often with students. Perhaps a student writes an essay that blows off the traditional essay format—but perhaps that student’s essay is just as effective at communicating its message.

I suppose I can’t win this argument no matter how many anecdotes I produce. One can say that too many students don’t know how to engage a problem and how to begin working through it (that’s what McCain argues) and thus it is crucial to teach them a process to engage a problem. One can also say that if we teach the process well students will internalize it and follow it naturally, feeling like they are returing to an “intuitive” method but really following the structured method in a loose way.

Yet I am traditional enough at heart that I thought it was valuable to throw lots of problems at them through high school and force them to figure out their own process for encountering a problem, one that works for their own manner of thinking. I do think they should be made aware of their learning as they go, so they can reflectively decide whether their methods are the best . . . but it may be the poet’s heart in me that says you can’t tell a poet how to sit down and think of a good poem. He’s got to figure it out for himself.

Is teaching process explicitly going to make a difference in education?

McCain presents four steps in the problem solving process through which he guides students: Define, Design, Do, and Debrief. They’re fine and nicely broad, and again, I realize engaging in these steps will helps students figure out what they don’t know about a problem and what they need to ask, but I am feeling rather pessimistic about it. There are many equivalent ideas in education that I have used as a teacher and as a student—for example, making students outline before they write—but when it comes to actual work in my actual classroom, most of my students want to skip these preparation steps and get through whatever it is I give them as fast as possible.

Here’s what I mean more particularly. Those first two D’s sound solid to me, but they also sound like work, and frankly, I always lose the most students at the point where concept turns to work. Ask a digital video teacher who’s tried to make students realize the importance of a storyboard, or a writing teacher who has attempted to convince students to outline before beginning an essay. The students don’t want to do it. Sure, most of mine will do it when I hold them accountable with serious points, but if there is ANY way to avoid what they see as an extra step (like, say, on a high stakes writing test when there are no points awarded for an outline), they’ll skip it.

What is the problem?

I suppose I broke with McCain somewhere earlier in the book, because I don’t think education is floundering as badly as he seems to think, and my hunch is that basic human laziness is responsible for a whole lot more than we care to admit. I LOVE my students, but I do have to trick 50% of them into working about 80% of the time. It seems to me that McCain’s role playing (a method he details midway through the book) is a ploy that works for him and is what has tricked his students into working–that seems more responsible for the success than the 4 D’s.

I imagine I am way off with many of these thoughts, but if anyone made it this far in the article, I’d love to hear how.

Thanks for reading.

Deadwood, brothels, call buttons, and my daughters

I’m spending today and tomorrow in Deadwood, South Dakota learning the history of the early days of Deadwood–1876-1890, before the train arrived, the rough and tumble days of gold camps and gambling and brothels. In Of Mice and Men George calls a brothel a “cat house” and today I discovered that the term apparently originates in Deadwood. A gentleman whose name I didn’t bother to write down Fatty Thompson was on the same cattle train from Cheyenne that brought Bill Hickock to Deadwood. He was returning home with a load of cats to sell to a local  madame. Apparently the brothel was infested with mice and rats and when the rodents would appear the customers had a habit of drawing their weapons and firing away–a dangerous situation for those on the floor below. Bringing in cats dramatically increased the safety of the first floor patrons even as it garnered a new reputation and name for the brothel.

My instructor teaches another class that spans the later years of Deadwood’s history, covering . . . the gold mines and gambling and brothels. I suppose the character of a town doesn’t change that much with the passing of time. I was surprised to learn that I was three years old when the last brothel in Deadwood was shut down (1980). One gentleman who grew up in Deadwood says that during hunting season his dad would go out and shoot deer and then sell them to men who, having never made it to the woods on their Northern Hills hunting expeditions, needed to bring home evidence of a more wholesome recreation. We learned that during hunting season the girls were barely allowed out of the house because business was so brisk. Joking about brothels is one thing when you’re talking about 1880, but–for me anyway–talking about 1980 seems to highlight the sad above the  silly.

A day touring a town of stories supplies me with more than I can tell in a day. Sitting down to dinner, Eldest peppered me for my tales. With a full page of notes listing details my children might like, I was prepared for the grilling. The tidbit they latched onto most tightly concerned the Adams House. You see, part of the Franklin family’s motives in building their house was to display ostentatiously their wealth and success. Thus, among features like electricity and an abundance of indoor sinks, the house was outfitted with a series of call-buttons for the servants. Press a button and a light goes on in the kitchen letting the servants know not only that they were needed, but where they were needed. The buttons were near the light-switches in most rooms, but in the dining room, the call-button was conspicuously absent. Wouldn’t this be the most important room for such a button?

In this room, the button was placed more strategically than on the wall. You see, like my family, members of the Franklin family always used the same seats at the table. This fact made it possible for special call-button arrangements. Under the rug in front of her chair, the lady of the house could press the call button with her foot, surreptitiously summoning the staff to address any needs at the table.

My girls liked this. Eldest asked somewhere around six million questions about it. When would the lady ring it? How would the servant know? What would the servant do when she arrived? What would the lady say when the servant came? The questions inevitably led to presentations and before long we had summoned our make believe servant to the table to fill Eldest’s water and to squeeze more syrup onto Smiles’s plate. The girls eagerly joined the make-believe, eventually clearing the entire table, one dish at a time, as I continuously stomped on my call button.

Tomorrow I return, my ears attuned for something as wonderful as a secret call-button.

Isn’t history great? Aren’t stories wonderful? I like to make things up for my children–I claim authorship over some half decent tales about a humble farmer name John–but reality usually fuels my imagination and those of my kids with more than I could concoct.

Inevitably, I come to thinking about teaching amidst all this. When we have to battle to make students enjoy this kind of thing, we must be missing something. What’s not to enjoy? If stories like this are not enjoyable, what is? If students are complaining about why they need this, perhaps it is because we have buried our leads, to steal a reporter’s terminology. Perhaps we have buried the fascinating information beneath dates or literature devices. Perhaps we have forgotten that the most interesting thing about the Adams House is not that an opulent seller of cigars built a house, but that he put in a little button for his wife to secretly call the servants.

I never thought once about the relevance of what I learned today; certainly neither did my daughters. I think when August rolls around and I begin to consider my school-year plans I’ll spend a bit of time reviewing the material I pass along. I’ll have to ask myself what kinds of call buttons and brothels I may have hidden under the rugs.

Thanks for reading.


The wiki as knowledge repository: Using a wiki in a community of practice to strengthen K-12 education

Note: The following article was published in the November/December 2008 issue of TechTrends (Volume 52, Number 6). The publication agreement allows me to publish it on my personal website, so here it is for you to enjoy.

The concept of managing an organization’s knowledge has caught on in recent years (Sallis & Jones, 2002). Dubbed knowledge management, the field has grown as it addresses key characteristics of knowledge, like the concept that knowledge cannot be separated from a knower (Hilsop, 2002; Sallis & Jones, 2002) and the idea that there are two types of knowledge: tacit, which is intangible know-how, and explicit, which is objective and formal knowledge that can be communicated easily (Sallis & Jones, 2002). One of the great challenges of the knowledge management field is sharing tacit knowledge in a way that passes it along to others or even converts it into something like explicit knowledge (Carroll et al., 2003; Santo, 2005).

Sallis and Jones (2002) and Santo (2005) note that education has not been quick to adopt techniques of knowledge management. While addressing the reason is well beyond the scope of this paper, it is worth mentioning that the slow adoption is not for lack of need. With high stakes testing and high pressure for improvement burdening schools-especially those in K-12 public education-educators have a need to use the knowledge that resides in their local communities as strategically as possible. They also have a need to create new knowledge that will launch innovative approaches to their local and specific concerns (Carroll et al., 2003; Coakes & Smith, 2007). Strategic use of knowledge management should ultimately help these schools improve in tangible ways. Santo (2005) suggests that an “accumulation of both explicit and tacit knowledge can contribute to data-driven decision making” and an organization’s effectiveness (p. 45), a characteristic few school administrators would overlook.

Attempting even a small knowledge management effort, however, needs to be an intentional effort. There is no reason to assume that employees will seek to share their knowledge (Hilsop, 2002), particularly teachers, who can be protective of their work (Parr & Ward, 2006). To succeed, an environment conducive to knowledge sharing is a must-a culture of trust where incentives and rewards exist for sharing knowledge instead of hoarding it (Hilsop, 2002; Foon Hew, & Hara, 2007; Parr & Ward, 2006).

Creating such an environment is a difficult task, and implementers of knowledge management must recognize characteristics of knowledge and of the individuals under their influence. If knowledge resides in people, knowledge management cannot be controlled or distributed by a few administrators or executives. An organization’s knowledge is spread throughout the organization, which means when one seeks to harness, distribute, and create knowledge and innovation, one must consider the entire scope of people in the organization-for a school, this means the staff as well as the faculty (Carroll et al., 2003; Santo, 2005).

Teachers share knowledge for various reasons in various contexts. Foon Hew and Hara (2007) found that teachers shared knowledge because they sensed they would gain something from it personally-whether it be a stronger understanding of an idea or a better reputation-and because they felt an obligation to their community-whether the obligation arose from a sense of principle or compassion. Schlager and Fusco (2003) observed that teachers also share this knowledge most often within their specific areas of work, with their immediate colleagues, or in response to the real difficulties of their working day-as opposed to sharing it within special in-services or professional development programs. Such a situation is not surprising when one considers that the very knowledge they are sharing is so intimately tied to the environment where it is used and the manner in which it is used (Hilsop, 2002).
Knowledge management efforts in education should therefore spread their fingers into all parts of the school and its existing organizational boundaries, growing an environment where sharing within the daily routine is encouraged and nurtured.

Communities of Practice

The most obvious strategy for managing knowledge in the educational context would be nurturing communities of practice. Communities of practice, as defined by Wenger (1998 ), are the communities in which there exists “the sustained pursuit of shared enterprise” (p. 45). In these communities, knowledge sharing is actually a by-product of the engagement that regularly exists (Carroll et al., 2003; Wenger, 1998 ). Hilsop (2002) points out that the community of practice attains such a high level of common language and assumptions that sharing knowledge becomes a “relatively straightforward” process (p. 173).

Straightforward maybe, but setting up the context for that exchange is not an easy task. Parr and Ward (2006) observed that a common state in schools is for teachers to engage in only a partial collaboration, where independence is respected so highly that members of a community do not probe deeply into professional issues with one another. Thus, the teacher is generally isolated from colleagues, working in a separate classroom with separate students teaching separate lessons, often totally unaware of what any other teacher is doing (Carroll et al., 2003). Where collaboration does occur, it occurs on a voluntary basis, which at best creates pockets of innovation that do not penetrate beyond the volunteers’ reach (Parr & Ward, 2006). Ironically, all the teachers-not just the pockets of collaborators-are working toward the same goal; but they work essentially separately from one another, creating a dynamic Weick (1976) dubbed “loose coupling” (as cited in Parr & Ward, 2006, p. 783).

The independence and isolation is magnified by the touchy nature of the teaching business. Teaching is a deeply personal pursuit and when one critiques the teacher’s practice, one is critiquing that person (Santo, 2005). Thus, a teacher might not share with colleagues for fear of the vulnerability involved – what they share could be determined not good enough (Parr & Ward, 2006; Foon Hew & Hara, 2007) and admitted weaknesses or observed failures could be used against them by administrators (Carroll et al., 2003).

Despite the obstacles, the community of practice model can work in education for a number of reasons. For one, the bottom-up feel to the creation of knowledge eliminates some of the fear teachers may have when sharing knowledge under the direct observation of an administrator (Carroll et al., 2003; Parr & Ward, 2006; Santo, 2005; Schlager & Fusco, 2003).The bottom-up aspect asserts itself when the community of practice is encouraged to capitalize on social interactions. Social interactions cannot be overlooked. Though commonly dismissed as “water cooler talk,” these exchanges are necessary for building the trust required to express a genuine vulnerability-to admit that one needs new knowledge (Santo, 2005). When opportunities to build trust are supplied, it becomes easier, even for independent-minded teachers, – to submit to the interdependent nature of a community of practice and to adopt a collective responsibility for the actions of the group (Hartnell-Young, 2006; Wagner, 2006). In fact, Hilsop (2002) warns explicitly that if these social factors of knowledge-exchange and communities of practice are ignored, a knowledge management plan is at risk of collapse.

Additionally, the community of practice transfers the acquisition of knowledge to the point of need (Schlager & Fusco, 2003). Tacit knowledge is most often passed along through conversation (Wagner, 2006) and stories of personal experience (Yi, 2006), and these stories tend to surface when the subject is most appropriate-in conversation with those closest to the situation and most trusted by the seeker of knowledge (Hilsop, 2002; Schlager, Fusco, & Schank, 1998; Wagner, 2006). Granger, Morbey, Lotherington, Owston, and Wideman (2002) found this “just in time learning” to be the preferred method of knowledge acquisition for teachers, a finding that meshes well with the propositions of Schlager, Fusco, and Schank (1998 ) and Schlager and Fusco (2003) that teacher professional development is most effective when delivered in the context of practice instead of in separate professional development opportunities. Thus, key characteristics of a community of practice-its root at the point of practice and its dependence upon social interactions-specifically address some of the traditional obstacles of K-12 teachers’ practice.

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Using Portfolios: A Review of Literature Regarding the Use of Portfolios in K-12 Education

Benefits of portfolios – particularly electronic portfolios – are easy to list. They allow students to reflect on their learning experiences, tie their learning to their other learning experiences and to real world applications, gain practical computer experience, and assemble a compilation of their notable work (Holtzman & Dagavarian, 2007). But as Barrett (2007) points out in a review of existing research on portfolios, the body of research on portfolios for K-12 schools is slim. Most of the research instead focuses its attention on the training of teachers and the need for a professional portfolio (p. 436). A quick search through popular databases confirms the claim. The dearth of research means that a basis for researching portfolios generally has not been present, and Barrett (2007) notes that even as recently as 2004 researchers have been developing frameworks for researching electronic portfolios (p. 437). A further problem with the literature on portfolios is that though there is much of it (and most of that being favorable), little of it documents empirical, comparative research, leaving little evidence on what actual effect portfolios have on students’ performance (Struyven, Dochy, Janssens, Scheifhout, & Gielen, 2006).

Knowing this, the important question to an inquiring educator is fairly obvious: What does research say about the effects of using portfolios in K-12 education? The question carries with it a number of qualifying questions of interest. Can portfolios be used as a valid tool of assessment in place of high stakes tests? Would the process of creating a portfolio foster enough deep learning that students would perform better on high stakes testing than if teachers were to use methods more typically labeled “teaching to the test”? What are the benefits of portfolios upon students’ learning? Are there benefits in building portfolios that are not attached to students’ learning that make them worthwhile anyway?

Types of Portfolios

Though portfolios can be used in a variety of manners and fall under a number of definitions, there are three types of portfolios usually mentioned: assessment portfolios (also called documentation portfolios), learning portfolios (or process portfolios), and showcase portfolios (Barrett, 2004; Hewett, 2004). Since the showcase portfolio is a fairly straight-forward piece, conversations about portfolio implementations tend to sway between learning and assessment portfolios.

Learning Portfolios

Barrett (2007) cites the definition of Zubizarreta to explain learning portfolios. These provide “a structure for students to reflect systematically over time on the learning process and to develop the aptitudes, skills and habits that come from critical reflection” (as cited on p. 438). These learning portfolios are considered a type of constructivist assessment, where the standard is particular to the one constructing the portfolio, and where, generally, the material created does not lend itself to measurement (Paulson & Paulson, 1994, p. 7). Here, the items in the portfolio are selected by the learners for their ability to display what they have learned. Ultimately, the goal of a learning portfolio is to make its creator a better learner – a learner who can produce better work in the future after having reexamined the current work and him or herself as a learner (Zellers & Mudrey, 2007; Hewett, 2004).

In the constructivist classroom, reflection is a key element of the learning process. As Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) state,

Teaching practices congruent with a metacognitive approach to learning include those that focus on sense-making, self-assessment, and reflection on what worked and what needs improving. These practices have been shown to increase the degree to which students transfer their learning to new settings and events. (1)

The opportunities provided for reflection by the portfolio process can aid this goal, as portfolios have been shown to increase student metacognition (Zellers & Mudrey, 2007). For process portfolios, specifically intentional and separate reflection pieces are staples of the package. They are there to force students to review the learning process and the items included (Fernsten & Fernsten, 2005).

Assessment Portfolios

Stefanakis explains that the goal of an assessment portfolio is to “construct a comprehensive assessment system . . . to make visible what students do and what teachers teach” (as cited in Barrett, 2007, pp. 438-39). These portfolios might also be defined as a type of positivist assessment, where standards are set externally in advance and portfolios are crafted to measure themselves against those standards. In such an environment the organization of the portfolio and the expectations are typically clear and normed across the institution using them (Paulson & Paulson, 1994, p. 7).

In a sense, the assessment portfolio is the student’s attempt to reconstruct the ideal, whereas the learning portfolio is the students’ attempt to construct a picture of what has occurred. The biggest caution about the types, however, is that

more research is needed on examples of implementation that clearly differentiate between student-owned electronic portfolios and the assessment systems used to record evidence of students’ progress toward meeting standards. (Barrett, 2007, p. 439)

Concerns with Assessment Portfolios

Concerns exist about assessment portfolios. For one, Barrett (2004) expresses concern that the portfolio process often begins as an attempt to add a reflective and “deep learning” element to a student’s experience but is then lost beneath administrators’ needs for data to assess students’ learning (p. 2). For another, assessment portfolios tend to be designed with the institution’s needs in mind above the specific needs of the learner. The resulting portfolio then becomes a type of busy-work students are loathe to complete (Barrett, 2004).

The animosity to the assessment portfolio comes especially from the way assessment changes what the portfolio attempts to do. A primary need for assessment is reliability, which with portfolios is needed especially across evaluators. To attain that reliability, typically each element of a portfolio is evaluated separately and anonymously, which eliminates views of the holistic learning experience as portrayed by the learner. Maintaining the holistic element, however, produces “formidable challenges to reliability” (Paulson & Paulson, 1994, p. 9). Such challenges were publicly visible in Vermont when the RAND Corporation authored a study that called the results of the statewide portfolio assessment program unreliable. Among the issues the authors labeled as likely causes of the unreliability was the lack of standardization involved with portfolios. When students perform “the same tasks under the same conditions” (p. 24), rater reliability in particular becomes possible. But when the standardization is not present, it is difficult for raters to apply consistent criteria and interpretation (Koretz, McCaffrey, Klein, Bell, & Stecher, 1992).

In response, supporters of learning portfolios point out that the difficulty of using portfolios for assessment is part of their appeal. As Paulson and Paulson (1994) observe, they “are by nature complex and holistic pictures of a child’s learning” (p. 1).

Another View on the Confrontation

One possible perspective on using portfolios in the classroom is that the emphasis on assessment versus reflection is slightly misguided. It could be a situation where antithesis should not exist. The idea here is that the portfolio process that emerges out of a learner-centered classroom could prepare students for traditional assessment just as well as other methods of instruction. Struyven et al. (2006) hypothesized just this and though they were not able to show that alternate assessments and learner-centered classrooms were better than traditional lecture based or teacher-based classrooms at preparing students for traditional multiple choice tests, they were able to show that the learner-based methods and assessments drew similar or equal results. It is worth noting, however, that Struyven et al. (2006) cited studies in their literature survey that suggested a “deep learning” approach could prepare students for tests on equal levels with lecture-based instruction and then add the bonus of supplying them with a deeper learning than the lecture-based methods (p. 203). In their discussion they then explain the weaknesses of their own study and call for more research to re-test their hypothesis, to see if the learner and process based instruction could outstrip lecture methods. The possibility remains, then, that the portfolio need not be a high-stakes test substitution but could be the most proper preparation for the high-stakes test.

Implementation of Portfolios

When implementing portfolios, a number of considerations will help educators to utilize the tool well. For starters, going alone is a difficult process, and teachers who were alone in their pursuit of the portfolio method tended to struggle (Barrett, 2007, p. 446). For another, portfolios tend to flourish when the emphasis of instruction is on the learning and reflection rather than peripheral elements like the technology used to create the electronic portfolio. In all this, the teacher’s role is vital, as it is the teacher who communicates the goals of the portfolio’s development, instructs students in the creation of reflective writing, and guides the technological construction of the tool (Barrett, 2007).

One of the great difficulties of using portfolios is that they change the course of the classroom. The most significant and obvious change is the time spent on the portfolio process – time that used to be spent on something else. Zellers and Mudrey (2007) make this concept clear, pointing out that to use portfolios well, teachers will need to devote significant time for teaching the technology involved in hosting the portfolio as well as the reflective process that surrounds its creation. For a learning portfolio in particular to reach its goals, students must learn that reflective process early on (Zellers & Mudrey, 2007).

Paulson and Paulson (1994) point out that portfolios not only change the classroom environment, they change the learning being assessed, due to their emphasis on “integrative and reflective processes” (p. 9). It is not surprising, therefore, that some classes have emerged as better suited for the creation and use of portfolios (Zellers & Mudrey, 2007). Related to the idea that some classrooms are better fits for portfolios than others is the emphasis of many proponents of portfolios, like Fernsten and Fernsten (2005), that any classroom engaging in a reflective portfolio building process must build an atmosphere of trust. That trust can then engender honest and personally relevant reflection, as well as conversations about how students can become better learners.

This changed classroom is actually part of the goal of those seeking to implement portfolios – turning the classroom into more of a learner-centered environment rather than a teacher (or teaching)-centered one. In such a room, portfolios are used to provide students with “opportunities to become active learners as they set goals for learning, engage in self-reflections, review goals periodically and assume responsibility for their own learning” (Hewett, 2004, p. 27). The feel that one attempts to pass on to the learner in this context is that assessment is a process for the learner to engage in, not have imposed upon him (Hewett, 2004).

Supporting these goals further are ideas that have emerged about how to use and craft learning portfolios in a way that could motivate and appeal to students. Barrett (2004) suggests that the power of digital story-telling could involve students in an experience that could motivate them similar to the way games do. The story telling experience that emerges through that experience is often posited as a valid tool for expressing reflection and metacognition. In that sense, the portfolio becomes “a story of learning” (Barrett, 2004, p. 10).

That feel is likely part of why portfolios have become ubiquitous in teacher-training programs, as students claim to gain more knowledge in classes where portfolios are used (Hewett, 2004). As mentioned earlier, however, the positive support expressed by those involved in the creation and collection of portfolios has not been attached to empirical research. Though students like portfolios, little to no data exists to prove it is better than other methods of instruction or assessment (Struyven et al., 2006).


Research Questions Answered

Though many questions remain unaddressed in research, a few can be answered at least partially. Portfolios have been accepted as a strong tool for introducing reflective thinking into the classroom, and thus have been considered a driver of metacognitive learning. It has been shown, however, that when portfolios are used for assessment, much of the metacognitive and reflective dimensions are withdrawn from the process. This is because in that context portfolios are made standardized and are driven by the need for valid assessment data. Learning portfolios retain the metacognitive and reflective elements, but they do not produce valid results on large scale assessment, suggesting so far that they cannot adequately replace traditional testing formats.

The closely related question of whether portfolios can be used as a preparatory tool for high stakes tests has been explored more thoroughly by researchers than others questions posed, but no satisfactory answer has yet emerged. Struyven et al. (2006) have called for additional studies to answer this question, and as an educator who has built reflective practice into my classroom, I would echo that call.

Calls for Research

Researching whether building learning portfolios and engaging in the attached reflective process is a powerful preparation for testing is only a place to start in examining the effect of portfolios on students’ learning. As students give high marks to the use of the portfolio, studies should seek to find whether the effects on those students’ learning correspond with their favorable opinions. One might examine not only whether their learning improved within the course but how well that learning was retained long-term, compared to traditional lecture based or test-preparatory style classes.

The positive influence of reflection upon students learning seems to be an accepted fact in the literature surveyed here. It would be good practice to examine this claim itself to solidify the effect reflection has upon learning compared to other methods. Assuming that the practice of reflection would hold up to that examination, it would also be worthwhile for researchers to examine whether pieces called portfolios are truly the best methods of reflection, or whether other methods, like consistent upkeep of a learning journal, might compete with portfolios as a valid tool for conducting this practice.

As a teacher, I have long hoped to embed the building of a portfolio into my students’ experiences. Looking at the research has forced me to question the assumed outcomes of the process. Realizing that I already have students engage metacognitively through written reflections, I may be forced to admit this truth: the portfolio I would have them build appears to be little more than a well-organized keepsake for the future. For validity of creating that, however, I need no empirical research. Posterity and nostalgia are reasons enough.


Barrett, H. C. (2004). Digital Stories of Deep Learning. Electronic Portfolios. Retrieved April 15, 2008, from http://electronicportfolios.org/digistory/epstory.html.

Barrett, H. C. (2007). Researching electronic portfolios and learner engagement: The REFLECT initiative. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(6), 436-449.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. . Washington, D.C.: National Academy. Retrieved May 2, 2008, from http://www.nap.edu/html/howpeople1/notice.html.

Fernsten, L., & Fernsten, J. (2005). Portfolio assessment and reflection: Enhancing learning through effective practice. Reflective Practice, 6(2), 303-309.

Hewett, S. M. (2004). Electronic Portfolios: Improving instructional practices. TechTrends, 48(5), 26-30.

Holtzman, D., & Dagavarian, D. A. (2007). The use of electronic portfolios in assessing student learning outcomes. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 55(1), 65-69.

Koretz, D., McCaffrey, D., Klein, S., Bell, R., & Stecher, B. (1992, December). The reliability of scores from the 1992 Vermont portfolio assessment. RAND Research. Retrieved May 1, 2008, from http://rand.org/pubs/drafts/DRU159/.

Paulson, F. L., & Paulson, P. R. (1994). Assessing portfolios using the constructivist paradigm. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans.

Struyven, K., Dochy, F., Janssens, S., Schelfhout, W., & Gielen, S. (2006). The overall effects of end-of-course assessment on student performance: A comparison between multiple choice testing, peer assessment, case-based assessment and portfolio assessment. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 32, 202-222.

Zellers, M., & Mudrey, R. R. (2007). Electronic portfolios and metacognition: A phenomenological examination of the implementation of e-portfolios from the instructors’ perspective. International Journal of Instructional Media, 34(4), 419-430.

A new stage approaches and a smile emerges

I am in the final stretches of requirements for finishing graduate school, and thankfully none of them involve writing a large paper.

Later this week I plan to post a survey of literature concerning portfolios. I discovered some intriguing bits of information — ironic bits to find as I polish up my own portfolio for defense before a panel of possibly-interested professors.

The celebration has yet to begin, but I have already sensed the transition into the next stage of life.

The first giveaway is that I am experiencing the same desires I had when I finished undergrad. At the time, I looked forward passionately to that day when I’d get to read what I wanted to read, not what had been assigned. I wasn’t eager to read candy-novels, but instead to read things I’d missed and never had time to cover — things like Great Expectations and a full biography of John Keats.

Once again, I have longed to read. I want a plot, something beautiful in artistry, and this weekend it began, at least in part. I cracked open The Kite Runner, and while I’m not finding that level of artistic beauty I’d like (I hope to comment more on that later), I have found a plot. And that feels good. I may read more tonight, which would make it three days in a row where I read something with a plot. Ah . . . and this is just the beginning.

The other note of transition is the big ballet recital this week. Eldest is across the street at the civic center practicing right now in her full ladybug costume, and I’ll head from this article straight over there to hang out with the rest of my family while she dances. This morning she was so excited about dressing up and rehearsing that she woke up at 5:55 — a solid hour and a half before her usual time.

When I entered this grad school program, I justified the timing and the quick pace (I will have finished all the credits in less than two years) by pointing out that I wanted to finish before our kids hit the activity-stage of their lives. How perfect, then, that one week after dotting my final major paper with its final period, we are spending the week heading to dress rehearsals for our family’s first big event.

That must mean I’m moving on, and I like it.

Thanks for reading.

Why I want no one to say of me, “What is his secret?”

A couple weeks back I set forth a plan for teachers to observe other teachers – a plan I will enact when I am king – and today I found a perfect example of why I need such a thing. A math teacher in our school was featured in on the front page of our local paper (online version not available) and lauded for his tremendous influence upon students. He is amazing, and year after year at a special event our top students choose him as the teacher who has influenced and inspired them the most.

Looking over the article, a few of my fellow English teachers commented how wonderful the article was and how amazing his influence on students has been. Then we admitted that none of us had any solid idea what he did that was so inspirational. This teacher is retiring this year and has taught in our building for 25 years (I think I have the numbers correct) – how have none of us been exposed to his skill?

At the end of the year, he retires, taking with him a wealth of tacit knowledge regarding teaching, our school, and our students. What a shame so many of us are unaware of his methods – methods we may as well call his secrets, since we don’t know them.

That we would be able to ask one another, “What’s his secret?” is a tragedy, if you ask me. That he or I or any teacher’s methods are secret or mysterious in any manner means we as a school are not using the knowledge base we possess in our community of practice. And I will admit here to the world – I could use some of that knowledge. My school isn’t exactly in the top of the class in terms of NCLB report cards. While I have never been one to tell others my grades, I will admit that we’ve never earned the good school discount on our driver’s insurance. We could use all the tips and tacit knowledge there is to offer, especially regarding our particular community and group of students.

To that end, I continue to plug away at the knowledge sharing wiki my department is building. This afternoon I spent my entire planning block (plus some) redesigning a handout that hasn’t worked that well. It’s a guide to inserting quotations into an essay, and it was fine the first time students used it, which was back in September when they wrote their first essay responding to a work of literature. When I taught it then it accompanied a separate presentation and explanation (Power Point), which means I made sense of it for students so they wouldn’t have to read all of it.

But I had wanted them to be able to reuse it later as a reference and building block for when I throw the MLA research paper formatting in their faces, which happens to be now. In that way, it failed – students have balked at all the writing and never actually re-read the content when doing the review exercises I’ve created for them. I can understand their hesitancy, and I therefore attempted to revive it with charts and arrows and purposeful visual stimuli.

Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t, but I’ve made it available to my colleagues through the wiki, and through that page we can work through its success, failure, and even make it better.

Or maybe no one else will look at it, but at least an opportunity is there in case anyone wanted to know any of my “secrets.” The idea is that when I go wherever I go next, whenever I go there, no one will say of me, “I wonder what his secret was?”

Well, they might say that, but the answer should be, “Why don’t you go to the wiki and find out?”

Thanks for reading.

Stop talking, start looking, and share what you know

This afternoon I was crafting the opening activity to my juniors’ unit on The Crucible – a process that in itself is always a bit amusing. I always begin by thinking, “What would I like to tell my students about this author?” And then when the reality of talking to my students for more than three minutes in a row hits me – three minutes where I’m not giving instructions for an activity – I change my mind and invent a new beginning to the unit. I love speaking in front of groups, possibly because I’m fairly good at it, but I have to admit it’s not the speaking that I love, it’s the communication. So when I talk to students who aren’t listening, the communication dynamic doesn’t exist; the only thing is me speaking. What’s the fun in that?

Take last week. At one point during an interactive activity concerning Faulkner’s story, “A Rose for Emily,” I was trying to explain the symbolism of the character Emily. My comments came as an answer to a student’s question. I was sitting in the desks with my students – a tiny class of juniors, and my comment was conversational, a “just one of the group” moment. The problem was that halfway through my explanation, I noticed that a few students had begun a silent bickering with one another – the one at the board serving as our recorder and a couple students in the seats were the perpetrators. I stopped talking mid-sentence . . . and no one noticed.

Now I am capable of controlling the room and insisting upon silence, but this activity was not the place. This was a conversation, and since no one was interested in listening, I stopped talking. Why fill the air with more carbon dioxide?

I was not offended particularly – if I could be damaged by such an incident I would be in another profession – but such incidents and other less dramatic moments are ones I do recall and are why I don’t seek to talk much to my students, as a group. Even if I rule over them and insist on rigid attention, the product is more like the image of Jack Sparrow in the cannibal kingdom – back ramrod straight, eyes apparently open, but in reality, sound asleep. I can’t find the learning in that, and so I don’t look.

With such thoughts in my head I explored the web for resources on The Crucible and Arthur Miller, determining to make students read through them and tell me what they should know about Arthur Miller – after all, I’m the good listener, why shouldn’t I put myself in the spot where I’m good and put them in the spot where they’re good? They talk, I listen.

Even when I don’t use that teaching strategy I like to assemble a resource page for authors and works as we read them, so I tend to burn at least two hours at the beginning of each unit of this type looking for some ripe fruit. I’m not ashamed of the way I spend those two hours, even though I know it’s a long time, because I am usually rewarded by the search.

How can’t I find some fruit? This web is so overwhelmingly big that if you look long enough, you’ll probably find just what you need. I found what I needed today at the one hour mark. I had been rummaging through National Public Radio’s stories on Arthur Miller and I discovered a link to web resources on his plays.

I need to interrupt myself here to say that teachers of high school students should pay serious attention to NPR.org – every story they do is archived there, and no matter what author I’m studying I almost always find something interesting – the kind of resource that can break the flow of typical presentation style. Plus, the information is what you’d expect from a multi-million dollar, classy news organization.

Returning to the web discovery, one subtle link on this unexciting looking page referenced a handout/guide produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company. This handout is a gorgeous 14 page guide to the play and Arthur Miller, complete with a picture-driven character guide.

Sure, I had spent an hour clicking around on random stuff, but when I found this guide, I had found something that will likely benefit me and my colleagues for years. That’s time I’ll spend. I quickly announced my discovery to anyone nearby and when one fellow American Literature teacher asked to see it, I ran to our department wiki, described the guide, and provided a link to download it. I then emailed my colleague a link to the wiki, building the use of that collaborative tool into our normal exchange. Hopefully she can add some of the resources she has to the same page – and then next year neither of us will have to spend two hours searching for basic resources. Or, then again, maybe we will; I didn’t have to do it this year. Either way, we’ll begin with more knowledge than each of us possessed alone at the beginning of the unit this year.

That’s the layout of the planning period, but here’s what it contained: a fairly talented presenter has quit lecturing because it doesn’t seem to engender learning in the subjects; a seemingly pointless search across the web to assemble resources for students led to the discovery of a wonderful resource; a simple exchange between colleagues was formalized and recorded in a way that provides better exchange and building of knowledge.

It’s not how I expected teaching to be. But it’s better.

Thanks for reading.


  • Original image: ‘listen closely‘ by: Laura Billings
  • Original image: ‘bicycle‘ by: Brian Yap (葉)