Are we being honest with ourselves?


I’ve realized that preparing for an Ignite (presentation consisting of 20 slides x 15 seconds each) can be quite the cathartic experience. Two days after our slides were due I had a moment.  What am I supposed to talk about? What am I supposed to do? Will my ignite be good enough? Will it make people mad? Will people understand where I’m coming from?


As I contemplate my self-centered criteria for the next 4 minutes and 45 seconds, my mind shifts to my friends and colleagues who have been asking similar sets of questions in light of curriculum transformation


What am I supposed to teach and assess? Am I doing this curriculum right? Do I have to use this digital tool? How do I mark all these portfolios? Am I supposed to mark portfolios? Aren’t we moving away from marks? How do we sell this to parents? When are the powers that be just going to tell me what to do?


When I think about what it means to do well, I go to my cultural roots, more specifically how I was trained to perceive success. I was born into an immigrant family that, since the late 70s, has been navigating what it means to live and learn in North America.


For my parents, it was imperative that my brother and I be able to navigate the education system well – there was a perspective that if you did well in school you would automatically get a good job, good money, good life, good future.


Frequent statements at the dinner table included: “Just do what your teacher tells you” “Just get along with people” “Just don’t make trouble” “Just be on your teachers’ good side” and probably most common: “Just get good marks.”


This led to my fascination with interpersonal dynamics as a teenager –  I spent most of my time observing –  seeking patterns – What and who did my teachers like? What did my teachers count for marks? What questions could I ask a teacher so I knew what I was doing was going to be good enough?


I spent more time focusing on what mattered to my teachers rather than focusing on how learning matters to me. Okay – so nothing mind-blowing here in terms of a typical high school experience, but let’s connect it to our experiences as educators navigating the world of digital assessment and portfolios.


For most of us teachers, our 13-years of compulsory schooling were spent training us to follow linear-quantifiable guidelines and pre-determined criteria. Consequently, when teachers raise needs regarding digital portfolios they talk at length about structure, guidelines, and checklists.


So let’s contemplate if we are falling into the same trap of monotony with digital portfolios. How do we ensure digital portfolios are not “done to” learners? My big wonder about all the work that we have been exploring with digital portfolios in our district and province-wide is this:


When we talk about digital portfolios (with each other, with tech companies, district-to-district) are we actually talking about the same thing? Are we acknowledging the change in mindset required to shift from “gradebooks” to “portfolios” or are we just putting lipstick on a pig?


Are our portfolios connected to what research tells us moves learning forward? (quality, formative assessment and communicating learning as being anything but a unidirectional reporting of marks and assignments)? Or are we trying to force what we usually do to fit into a digital platform?


Have we started masking spreadsheet gradebooks to appear to be digital repositories of what is being done in school? If we stripped what we call portfolios of all the photos, videos, and digital files, would these portfolios have essentially the same structure and values of a traditional gradebook? Where is the learning?


Has the conversation authentically shifted from “what did we do in school today” to “what did we learn in school today?” Are we approaching a time in our exploration with digital portfolios when we start to get wrapped up in whether or not we are “doing them” in the right way?


Are we getting stuck in: “How many posts is good enough?” …Check. “What are parents and administrators requiring us to put in a portfolio?” …Check. “Is there a comment for every learning standard” …Check?


How about this: What really matters? Our learners’ growth and love of learning. So how are we using digital assessment and portfolios tools in a way that actually empowers students to connect and choose learning experiences and communicate their growth over time?


Bringing it back home: I want you to take a gander at this –  on the left are a list of questions that we often say we want to move away from, questions that emerge from a marks and compliance – driven culture, and questions that we don’t necessarily associate with authentic learning.


On the right are a list of questions that fill my inbox on a daily basis – usually from my friends and colleagues in the complicated journey with not just digital portfolios but redesigned curriculum, redesigned assessment, new staffing structures, and new course offerings.


What do you notice about both columns? As I said, I like patterns. What I notice is that our students as learners is far from the focus of either column. Ultimately shifting towards communicating student learning through digital tools should not about our egos.


As professional learners, we have the responsibility to seek experiences that question our practices so we can feel intense moments of frustration, perhaps anger. Without intense emotions we can’t commit to being revolutionary and transformative. We owe it to our learners to get over ourselves, so that THEY can truly be our focus.

One thought on “Are we being honest with ourselves?

  1. Love… ❤
    We truly need to question why we are doing this on a regular basis. It’s all too easy for teachers to fall into the “what will people think of MY portfolios?” trap, which causes us anxiety and distances us from student learning. Thanks for the post, Joe.

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