The seventh and eighth graders in my math class at O'Farrell Community School in San Diego work in groups of five or six. One student in each group presents a stamp designed by group members for the country of Guinea.
They had started the assignment by creating small versions of their designs, then rendered them as large posters -- learning math by calculating ratios as they increased their artwork in size. (Art was my college major, and I'm always looking for ways to link math and visuals.) The presenters in each group explain the decisions they made as they worked on the project, and ask their classmates for feedback on how they can revise and improve their work.
These sessions, called critique circles, are one of many innovative educational practices adopted at O'Farrell as part of a comprehensive restructuring effort. As a member of the school's curriculum and portfolio committees, I worked on devising ways to help students become more reflective and critical about their work.
We want them to be able to judge for themselves whether a piece of work is excellent or falls short of the school's standards. It may seem like a lot to ask of adolescents, but once we started using strategies such as critique circles and portfolios, students quickly showed they were willing and able to take more responsibility for the quality of their work.
Teachers clearly define their expectations, then give students feedback indicating whether the work does not meet, meets, or exceeds expectations. We find that this kind of feedback encourages students to reflect on their work and, when necessary, revise it to meet the standards.
O'Farrell's students regularly work in cooperative-learning groups, so they feel comfortable critiquing the work of their peers in constructive ways. Everyone understands that all work is subject to revision and that suggested changes don't mean a student failed the first time.
Teachers monitor these discussions and push them to become more substantive. When I supervised critique circles in my math classes, I wasn't just looking at whether students calculated correctly. I also evaluated factors such as how well they were communicating -- were they being clear, direct, and helpful?
A critical factor in getting students to assume responsibility for monitoring the quality of their work is to establish clear expectations ahead of time. When they begin to compile their portfolios, students first identify how their work addresses one or more of the school's six challenges, such as completing a research project or serving the community.
Then they create a "personal reflection" describing what they learned in completing the assignment, identifying the work's strong points, and detailing what they would improve with more time. Finally, they craft three questions that serve as prompts for discussion with others. For a science and math assignment, for example, a student might ask, "Are my calculations correct?" "Are they pertinent to the lab?" and "How could I have explained the procedures I used better?"
After a critique circle, students can choose to revise work for another round of evaluation or include it "as is" in their portfolios. (When students have the skills to observe and measure their own growth, they will often go the extra mile to improve their assignments.) At the end of each year, students use the contents of their portfolios for an exhibition that requires them to show how they have grown and that they are ready to move on. The presentations take place before a panel that may include parents, community members, teachers from other schools, school district officials, and businesspeople.
Students learn a lot from this portfolio process. By presenting their work to peers, they get a different perspective on it. They begin to understand how they learn (what educators call metacognition). They realize that revising a project -- sometimes even starting over -- and collaborating with others are natural parts of real-world work.
They feel a greater ownership of what they create and try harder to make it as good as possible because it will be seen by a larger audience. They learn to take responsibility for evaluating their own efforts rather than waiting for the teacher to pass judgment on them. And they know that their schoolwork is valuable because the teacher asks them to keep it rather than throw it away after it's graded. In addition, they can see their progress over time because they have a tangible record of their learning.
Letter grades, by contrast, stigmatize students by labeling work as "good" or "bad," often without giving them opportunities or support to improve it. Portfolios help students focus on bettering themselves rather than ranking their work in comparison with the achievement of others.
This system also benefits teachers. When one student says to another, "Oh, you solved the problem a different way. How'd you do it?" it shows educators that what we are actually doing is teaching children how to become better learners. The feedback students get on their work is also feedback on ours. And, as a teacher, I like to be able to show real examples of student work to my principal and my colleagues, and the parents of my students, as proof that these kids are learning.
As technology becomes pervasive, the power of portfolios to improve learning is bound to expand. Because almost any kind of work can be captured and stored digitally, schools will soon be able to keep an electronic archive showing a student's development over his entire K-12 career. Portfolios stored on digital media are portable and accessible. Employers and college admissions officers will be able to easily look at relevant examples of a candidate's school work.
I recently received a visit from a former student that reinforced my conviction that portfolios change how students view learning. "My new high school doesn't use portfolios," the student confided to me. "But you know what? I keep one anyway."