Teachers for Teachers | Blog Tour: Digital Student Portfolios:  A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment 
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Blog Tour: Digital Student Portfolios:  A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Assessment 

Matt Renwick is someone we feel like we have known for years and yet we have never personally met him. Now that we have read his book, it is clear to us why we instantly connected with him via our virtual PLN.   We share some of the same professional values and beliefs about instruction, assessment and the process of change and these beliefs are the foundation of his new book, Digital Student Portfolios.


Although this book is about technology, a topic we are often uncomfortable with, we immediately felt connected to it. It was the idea of portfolios that we connected with and it brought us back to our pedagogical roots. We could not help but think about the Reggio Emilia approach and Howard Gardner’s Project Zero as we read his book. When we co-taught at Tufts University’s Center For Applied Child Development, our classroom was used as a research location to think about documenting learning in the Reggio approach and Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. As we read this book on digital portfolios we continually made connections between what Matt was doing in his school and what we did years ago in our classroom.

Reggio Emilia’s approach to education reflects the work of Piaget and Vygotsky. It is a constructivist approach to early education. In this approach, the child is viewed as being an active constructor of knowledge. Rather than being seen as the target of instruction, children are seen as having the active role of an apprentice. Documentation of the process of learning is an essential component to this method. “Using a variety of media, teachers give careful attention to the documentation and presentation of the thinking of the children. Rather than making judgments about the child, the teacher inquires and listens closely to the children. An example of documentation might be a book or panel with the student’s words, drawings, and photographs. By making learning visible, the teachers accomplish several things. They are able to study the thinking and feeling of the students in order to gain insight into their understanding. Also, the documentation serves to help the teacher and other educators to evaluate their own work and refine the curriculum accordingly. And finally, it gives parents information regarding their child’s learning experience while creating an archive for the class and school.”( Wien, C.A.; Guyevskey, V.; Berdoussis, N. (2011)

Digital portfolios are tools to make documenting the process of learning in just this manner easier. Digital portfolios are defined as “a multimedia collection of student work that provides evidence of a student’s skills and knowledge” (David Niguidula, Kindle Location 2347). Matt adds that, “A digital student portfolio can provide the learner with a pathway to meeting high academic expectations, as well as the autonomy to choose how they will get there.” (p.15) Similar to the Reggio approach students have an active role in creating digital portfolios. “Students should also be invested in the process of collecting, analyzing and reflecting upon the products they produce. It
 is their learning after all. We use the Optimal Learning Model (Routman, 2008) in our school, and through the gradual release of responsibility we have been able to demonstrate how to collect learning artifacts and then let our students do much of the curation work themselves.” (p.15)

Howard Gardner’s work, Frames of Mind, on the theory multiple intelligences suggests that humans learn and process information differently therefore we need an educational system that instructs and assesses in a differentiated manner. Gardner argues the importance of assessing in an “intelligence-fair” manner. While traditional paper-and-pen examinations favor linguistic and logical skills, there is a need for intelligence-fair measures that value the distinct modalities of thinking and learning that uniquely define each intelligence. (Gardner and Hatch, 1989) Digital portfolios give us so many options in terms of documenting student learning. The technology gives us new ways to capture students’ thinking, understanding and performance. “Digital student portfolios have the capacity to showcase our students as people with ideas, creativity, and passion. Numbers and graphs are not enough anymore. Technology’s capacity to naturally differentiate how learners can show what they know has put the right kind of pressure on schools and educators to grow as learners themselves, and not too slowly either.” (p.32)

We appreciated that Matt kept pedagogy and the purpose of technology at the forefront of his book. He does not “sell” one tool and, in fact, advocates for teachers and administrators to find a tool that works for them and their students. It is not the tool that matters it is how it is used to enhance teaching and learning. “Pedagogy is still our school’s driver. Technology is treated as an accelerator for change.”(p. 13) It is so easy to lose focus on pedagogy when technology is involved – especially with young learners. In Matt’s journey with his school they never lose site that, “the particular software and services used to create these portfolios is secondary to the ‘big idea’ itself: compiling a dynamic collection of information from many sources, in many forms and with many purposes, all aimed at presenting the most complete story possible of a student’s learning experience.” (p.14) This book will not only show you how to use technology to create digital portfolios it reminds us of the importance of purposeful, authentic, student-centered assessment.

From beginning to end, this book celebrates the process of learning and using technology to help enhance learning by engaging the learner in the journey. The book itself is a digital portfolio of sorts – it includes links, PDFs, Screencasts and examples of all the tools he refers to. He describes the step-by-step process (including the pitfalls and successes) that he and his staff experienced as they learned how to create and use digital portfolios to help students reflect on their own learning and set meaningful goals.  Matt’s thoughtful and reflective approach to collaborative learning comes through in every chapter.   This text is written as a reflective “journey of learning” because that is what learning is – a journey.

We used Evernote to capture and share our thoughts as we read. Here are some of the quotes and ideas we documented because we want to remember them in our future work:

  • “We write our own narrative as we work together – students, teachers, and parents – to realize our mission and vision.”(14) – Digital portfolios make student learning visible to everyone.   Now students and teachers can share what is happening in the classroom (print, audio and video) instantaneously with families.   Conversations about school and learning become more focused because learning goals and progress are clear to everyone.   What a powerful way to move beyond the conversations that happen in many households,

Parents ask, “What did you do at school today?”

Child responds, “Nothing”

Now that everyone can see and hear student learning, our conversations about school and goals become more specific and more meaningful.

  •  “It is not enough to have access to the tools and a purposeful reason to use them. When what we know and are able to do is broadcast for anyone to see, we are more likely to take extra time and make what we produce the best representation of our learning possible.” (42) – Matt explains the importance of audience when students use technology in the classroom.  He shows through his school’s own research that when students use technology they need a clear purpose for using it and an audience for sharing their work.  Learning becomes more meaningful when students have authentic ways to share their work beyond the classroom walls.
  • “Michael Fullan, in his book The Principal: Three 
Keys to Maximizing Impact (Jossey-Bass, 2014), identifies technology as one of the wrong drivers for moving schools and organizations forward as learning communities. Rather, pedagogy – the art and science of teaching – should be driving any improvement efforts. School leaders should “place primary emphasis on capacity building, collaborative effort, pedagogy, and systemness, and integrate accountability, human resource policies, technology, and specific policies as part of the overall strategies” (53).   – We love this quote.   It is clear throughout this book that a digital portfolio is a tool to help students and teachers reflect on learning and set goals.   Emphasis is placed on capturing students’ thinking and learning, not on the technology itself.
  • “Portfolios are more fine-grained; the contents collected in
 these portfolios show growth over time; the ups and downs, 
the struggles and breakthroughs, that are always part of the learning process. Although we consider progress portfolios as formative assessment, we do have an end goal in mind. They are also products that will be placed in the students’ performance portfolio and become part of his or her summative assessment.” (86) In this section, Matt explains how portfolios are more than a collection of student work.  They are a way that students and teachers can continually monitor progress and discuss learning.  Students can see for themselves how they are doing and get instant feedback.   This process engages learners and accelerates progress. Learners need to know their goals and how they are doing if we want to improve.
  • “But it is not just about how well collaboration is occurring in our school. Also important is the fact that we are all trying to get better at our practice.”   This is the fertile soil that grows meaningful collaboration and consensus: the shared attitude of not striving to be the best, but constantly trying to get better.” (96) –What an important idea about collaboration.   Collaboration isn’t only about getting along.  It is also about learning from each other and sometimes that means pushing each other’s thinking. Throughout this text Matt shares his own work (staff meeting agendas, student work, video clips) and reflects on his own learning.  He talks about his missteps as an administrator and how he learned from the teachers in his building.  This entire book is filled with ideas for making professional learning more meaningful for everyone.
  • “I am discovering that if we as leaders are comfortable with the idea of hard-to-predict potential outcomes, then all learners in our schools, teachers and students alike, can have access to the possibilities.” (118) This text in itself is a model for learning.  We see how everyone involved – administrators, teachers and students grew as this school learned about digital portfolios.  Everyone learned together by sharing successes, questions and frustrations along the way.

This book was truly a pleasure to read.   His reflective stance as a practitioner and easy tone make learning about technology and digital portfolios feel manageable and exciting.  With each chapter we read, we felt more and more comfortable exploring new digital tools and thinking about how we can integrate technology and digital portfolios into our work in classrooms. We appreciate Matt for sharing this journey with us.

If you have not read the previous entries on the blog tour, be sure to check them out:

Monday, 8/11: Jessica Johnson, http://www.principalj.net/

Tuesday, 8/12: Curt Rees, http://curtrees.com/
Wednesday, 8/13: Cathy Mere, http://reflectandrefine.blogspot.com/

Thursday, 8/14: Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, http://www.thedailycafe.com/

In addition to the blog tour, Powerful Learning Practice will be co-hosting a Twitter chat with me on Sunday, August 17 at 6 P.M. CST. Click here to sign up for this event.

And if you want to start chatting now about Digital Student Portfolios, request to join our Google+ Community on the topic: https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/107299147056550128738

Please comment for your chance to win a copy of Digital Student Portfolios.




  • Avatar
    Posted at 13:46h, 15 August Reply

    I have been following all of the posts this week for this book Digital Student Portfolios. I have been doing student portfolios in my room for a while and they are always so positive! My students love them, my parents love them, and I am slowly converting the rest of my teaching team to love them. I have been wanting to move my paper portfolios into an electronic form and this is the perfect resource to get me started! I am so excited to continue giving my students the empowerment of understanding their learning and showing it off. Thanks for putting this resources out there!!!

    • Avatar
      Matt Renwick
      Posted at 14:01h, 16 August Reply

      Congrats Christina – you are the winner of a free book! Connect with me so I can give you the ordering details.

  • Avatar
    Matt Renwick
    Posted at 02:56h, 16 August Reply

    Thank you so much Clare and Tammy for this post. You obviously took a lot of time to read my book and highlight the sections that resonated with you. Your work, which includes your book Assessment in Perspective, was foundational for our school as we explored these digital tools.

    It all comes back to what will best advance student learning. If the technology is getting in the way – don’t use it! However, if we can augment our practices using the innovations available, it is our responsibility to give our students every opportunity to show what they know, can do, and understand.

    Again, thank you for your thoughtful and thorough reflections regarding my book. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  • Do you want to develop digital portfolios with your students? Join our book club! | Reading By Example
    Posted at 02:13h, 09 June Reply

    […] Provide for a more comprehensive assessment system. […]

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