Mini-exhibitions – a first step on the journey

When you’re planning backwards, you start with a vision of what you want students to know and be able to do. Teachers and students should have a common view of where you’d like to be at the end.

Now that we have a destination in mind, we have to think about the journey. And as the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

The early weeks of a curriculum usually start with the preliminaries; reviews of what happened in past years, and laying out the fundamentals of the current course. The theory is that focusing on the fundamentals will establish the building blocks for the rest of the year.

What can be just as helpful in these early weeks is to think about the question from last time — what should a student be able to do in May or June that the student can’t do in August or Septemberi? —  and to start to envision what parts the students can do now.

If you want students to be able to have an exhibition, or a performance at the end, what about asking students to do a version of that exhibition now? Can students create a mini-version of their final exhibition in these early weeks of the year?

Many courses build towards independent projects at the end of the term. In many cases, students can have difficulty with the “independent” part — coming up with their own experiment or idea to pursue. At this stage, it can be helpful to ask students to come up with a small-scale version of the final project. The students may not have yet mastered the material that you expect them to demosntrate at the end – but they can start to get a feel for the type of brainstorming and idea generation that will be needed then.

A mini-version of the exhibition has many of the same trappings as the final exhibition. If you want students to be able to defend a point of view at the end, ask them to pair off and have a mini-debate now. If you want students to be able to transfer their math skills to other settings, ask them to start looking for situations where those skills will be useful.

Sports teams typically have pre-season scrimmages; actors will have “workshop” performances before going to fully-staged productions. The rules may not be fully enforced – actors in the workshop may still be reading from a script, but there should be enough engagement to start to feel like the real thing. Both the performers and the coaches / directors can see things in a walk-through that can be developed over time. An “early-season” exhibition can help your students and you better understand your vision of where you want to be at the end.

Starting at the End

It’s the beginning of the school year – and so it’s the best time to think about the end.

As you get to know the new faces in your classrooms, consider this essential question – what should a student be able to do in May or June that the student can’t do in August or September?

what do you want them to be able to do by the time the course is over? The idea of “planning backwards” has been around for quite a while and can be stated simply – we figure out where we want to be at the end, and then design the classroom experience to work towards that end.

Often, curricular goals are still listed as a set of topics to cover. Instead, by thinking about what a student should be able to do by the time the course is over, you can recast the course as a journey towards some ending achievement. The portfolio can represent the steps that students are taking towards that end.

For courses that already focus on performances, such as music or programming or physical education, it’s easy to envision an endpoint: students will perform in the concert or complete the code for the robot or improve their exercise routine. In other courses where content coverage has long ruled, the performances can still be found: maybe you can picture your students having a conversation in Spanish, making connections among historical eras, or completing an investigation.

Before we get too caught up in quarterly and yearly grade averages, it can help your students if you can share that vision of what you believe they can do. This helps students to think about the course as more than a set of grades.

In this age of personalization, it’s important to include your student’s voices in that planning. As you describe your vision of what you believe they can do, the students can also start to picture themselves doing it as well. Undoubtedly, some students will start to generate their own ideas, and with guidance, as you get to know your students, you can help them associate their own goals with this larger exhibition.

So as you start your work on digital badges and portfolios for the year, look to where you want to be at the end – and share what you’re thinking with your class.


Portfolios and Badges – A Guide Throughout the Year

Happy new school year! We’ll be adding notes to this blog throughout this year, highlighting what schools do as they work on their digital portfolios and badges.

We’ll be looking at issues of personalization, assessment, and curriculum. What we know is that every school is different – so we want to focus on the essential questions that you can think about and discuss with your colleagues.

If you have a story or a suggestion, please reach out!

A Guide for Transformation — “Bold Moves” by Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Alcock

There are lots of books on education out there. The good ones are helpful and tell you some ideas. The great ones give you some ideas – and help you generate even more.

Heidi and Marie’s new book — Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments (available from ASCD) — talks about curriculum and assessment and pedagogy and leadership. But more importantly, it talks about all of these things as interrelated. All too often, schools and districts put together initiatives that focus on one area of change. That’s understandable; we don’t want people to feel overwhelmed. The problem is that changes in one part of the system inevitably rub against other elements. When adding advisories, or a different schedule, or introducing a new technology, there are inevitably side effects. The reason many initiatives disappear is because the school hasn’t connected those initiatives to a larger vision of what we want school to look like.

One particularly nice description in Heidi and Marie’s book is in thinking about a school’s current practices. Are they contemporary? Or classical? Or antiquated? This framework provides a new, and useful, way of distinguishing among the activities at the school.

I’m pleased that they discuss our work on digital portfolios in the chapter on “Contemporary Assessment Systems.” Richer Picture, when used well, can support innovative approaches to assessment – and because things are interrelated, will naturallly support your innovations in curriculum, personalization and school transformation.



A Framework for Personalization – “Students at the Center” by Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda

Students At The CenterPersonalization is a trending word in education — but it’s clear that the word means very different things to different folks.

In their terrific new book, “Students At The Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind,” Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda outline the most important attributes of personalization. As they talk about these attributes (voice, co-creation, social construction and self-discovery), what’s clear is that true personalization requires increased levels of student engagement and teacher feedback.

All too often, educational technology products claim to be personalized – but all they really mean is that a student can go through a pre-ordered sequence of lessons at their own pace.

Bena and Allison talk specifically about portfolios and exhibitions, and they note it isn’t enough for students to collect work or to “engage in superficial reflection.” Rather, portfolios can be powerful tools for personalization when students “play a much more prominent role in assessing their own work,” when they use the portfolio to set goals and “decide on next steps” and can “learn to describe themselves … in richer ways than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at something.”

If you’re looking to take steps to become more personalized, Bena and Allison provide a terrific framework. It also builds on earlier work on personalization like Joe DiMartino and Denise Wolk’s “The Personalized High School” and Allison’s own  Learning Personalized  – in both book and blog form.

Portfolios vs Scrapbooks

A portfolio should be more than a collection of student work. For a portfolio process to be useful, schools need to have a purpose for putting the work in place.

Simply putting student work into an online folder doesn’t do very much. Without a purpose, what you have is a digital scrapbook – a random collection of work that isn’t organized in any meaningful way.

There are many useful purposes for a portfolio, including:

  • Conferencing with parents about student achievements
  • Demonstrating how a student has grown over time
  • Demonstrating how student work is linked to standards
  • Connecting what students are doing in school with their college / career goals
  • Keeping track of all the steps in a student project (like a science fair exhibit or a capstone project)

Each of these purposes helps students figure out what they need to collect into the portfolio. For a parent conference, maybe we want to see show progress in reading and math – and any special skills the student has demonstrated. If we tie the portfolio to student goals, then the student can start making connections between classwork and what they want to do after high school.

As you explore the work with portfolios, having a purpose in mind can help focus what teachers and students are collecting.

Organizing Your Portfolio Around Competencies

What should a student know and be able to do? When you think about your students at the end of the school year, what do you hope they have learned?

Your expectations can help you organize your portfolios.

For example, in a typical language arts class, students should be able to demonstrate how well they can read, write, speak and listen. You may have specific expectations, based on the standards adopted by your school; you might also have expectations that make sense for your individual students.

Whether you call them expectations, or standards, or competencies, your vision of what students should know and be able to do can guide your work.

1. Start by listing your expectations: “every student in my class, by the end of this school year, will be able to:____”
2. Next, think about your assignments. What are some of the performance tasks that will allow students to demonstrate their skills?
3. Finally, link your assignments to the expectations. When the students complete the project, or essay, or report (or any other assignment) that you listed in question 2, what expectations will they demonstrate?

When you think about the assignments for the portfolio, this process can guarantee that your students will have enough opportunities to meet all the competencies. For example, the language arts teacher will want to make sure that students can show their skills in reading, writing, listening and speaking sometime during the year.

What Goes into a Portfolio?

One of the most common questions schools ask about portfolios is, “What goes into it?”
It helps to start with a couple more essential questions – “What is our purpose for the portfolio?” and “Who is our primary audience?”

  • Most of the time, schools want the portfolio to be a demonstration of a student’s best work. One simple way to start is to select 2 to 4 assignments for each subject. (That is, for elementary schools, you might have a couple of reading samples, a couple of writing samples, and a couple of math samples; for middle and high schools, you might ask students to include 2 to 4 assignments from each full-year class.)
  • Some schools focus on a certain subject area; in that case, you might want a sample of each of each type of assignment. For example, a student’s writing portfolio could include a narrative essay, an argumentative essay, and a response to literature; a technology portfolio could show students’ use of word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and Internet research.
  • A “growth over time” portfolio could include examples of the student doing something similar at different times of the year. For example, we could see a first grader’s ability to read independently at the beginning, middle and end of the year; we could also see a Spanish student’s ability to speak in the language at various points. Sometimes, the growth over time is around some deeper skill; by filming math students working through problems throughout the year, we can see how their problem solving skills grow, or science students could show how their ability to create a good hypothesis has improved from one quarter to the next.
  • Project-based learning allows us to see the process of building the project, from initial idea through to completed
    work. We can see the steps – and the mis-steps – along the way.
  • The key element when you are getting started is to build on what your teachers and students are already doing. Your students are undoubtedly doing interesting things; the portfolio should allow you to capture those moments.


    Welcome to the Richer Picture blog!

    This is a blog about both ideas and implementation. Since the 1990’s, we’ve learned a great deal about how schools effectively use digital portfolios and other proficiency tools. We’ll share stories of what has worked well for schools, and what might be useful for you.

    Ideas: From the beginning, we’ve said that the best educational technology projects start with the education, rather than the technology. How do you want your school to be better? What is it that your school community – students, teachers, parents, administrators – needs? What’s your dream for your school?

    Implementation: Turning a vision into a reality is the critical piece in any innovation.  We’ve seen schools come up with creative ways of using time, providing training, and communicating plans, and we’ll have posts that let you know what other schools have put in place.

    Just so you know, this blog is being written primarily by David Niguidula. If you have your own ideas that you would like to share, or questions you’d like to see addressed, just drop us a line!