Using Portfolios to Self-Assess


“We do not learn from experience …We learn from reflecting on experience.”

                                                                                                                 – John Dewey

Do you keep a teacher-professional development portfolio? If not, you should. It is a formal way of ensuring that we are continuously learning through critically self-assessing our performances and the performance of our students to be more skilful and strategic through self-reflection and self-learning, as we critically examine our own behaviour and the reactions of our students.

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Connecting To The Personal Intelligences
Personal portfolios match well with the two standouts of Gardner’s eight Multiple Intelligences.

The first of these is intrapersonal. To paraphrase from Gardner’s 1999 book, Intelligence Reframed, this is to have an effective working model of oneself. To understand oneself. including one’s own capacities (strengths, weaknesses and gaps or what we do not know) and to use such information effectively in regulating one’s own teaching and professional development.

The second is interpersonal. To understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people (your students and parents) and consequently to work well with them. Specifically for teachers, this is where attention is given to the individual differences of the students, using this information to enable both you, the teacher, and your students to become efficacious people through mutual rapport and empathy.

The Planning Stage
Allow time for this. Get the foundation right and the building will be substantial. Plan as a senior leader to work with your teachers. If grass roots teachers want to try it out, work with them for time to do this. To quote Voltaire: “Perfection is attained by slow degrees; it requires the hand of time.” It will be a slow continuous journey for all the faculty to become more skilful and strategic practitioners.

Rationale (Big Picture)
This starts with a question to the portfolio developer. What professional development do I want to gain from my portfolio? The rationale should provide a succinct answer, such as, “I want to gain personal, practical knowledge of the best questioning techniques through experimenting with different strategies and techniques.”

Essential Question (Purpose)
This is the catalyst for reflection, the organising question, the thesis for the portfolio, but NOT for judgment or measuring. It is the specific against which teacher and student development is discussed and reflected on. Therefore, avoid scoring rubrics. Allow time for several drafts, so that the final product is a quality statement.

Precision and accuracy using what Costa and Kallick label ‘thinking flexibly’ is required. That is enhanced by brainstorming and working in teams. When you think you have the right word, phrase or short sentence, put the favoured one or two to one side and review them with critical freshness a few days later.

Related Research Questions
Kaye Burke, in her 1997 book, Designing Professional Portfolios for Change, advocated five sub sections under each of the headings underneath. However, it is better to start with one or two to not overload yourself and then add one on for each new portfolio as your confidence and skill grows…avoid generalities – be specific!

The questions here can be related to the personal intelligences which will maintain consistency across the school, at the same time having an array of data from the grass root student and teacher level.

Individual Research Questions

• Intrapersonal: How successful is student teacher interaction?
• Interpersonal: How accurate is the listening of student to student and teacher to student?

Group Research Questions

• Intrapersonal: What aspects of emotional intelligence are you aware of?
• Interpersonal: What is body language telling me?

School Wide Research Questions

• Intrapersonal: What staff training needs are revealed?
• Interpersonal: Who are the obvious team leaders and do they need to be less intense?

Artifacts show what you are using as your evidence for proving your assertions under the sub-headings in the planning stage. Teacher or student metacognitive reflection provides grass roots authentic evidence which when analysed provides a road map of where the teacher and/or student is at, and where to go next to eventually get to mastery level. Such artifacts can be a single, short sentence or paragraph. Be careful of being too wordy.

Reflection is best done from the grass roots level. Our students wrote an hour or so piece on an incident of their choice that was successful or not, during the previous week, or added to a previous comment in the last hour on Friday. One teacher wrote in her portfolio how she would make a flask of coffee on Sunday afternoon, sit down and relax as she read with genuine pleasure from the level of content in the reflection and giving herself a lift for a the new week coming up. Another informed me that doing these portfolios was very difficult for some because it was close to pure research.

Four portfolios were required from all participants in the first year of introducing them. That meant dividing the year into four sections. Be prepared for teachers wanting longer periods but stand firm. In a sense, that first year was a practice field. Each new portfolio would increase the personal, practical level in keeping a portfolio. At the same time, we talked about the need to progress in small steps.

At the novice end, some were inadequate but as there was no competition, they qualified provided they had at least partially completed one. In the poorest cases, the syndicate leaders, or Heads of Department, would encourage them to link with a mentor or critical friend of their choice.

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Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is an educational consultant based in New Zealand. As a principal, he was known for his leadership role in thinking skills, including Habits of Mind, learning styles and multiple intelligences, information technology, and the development of the school as a learning community. Alan can be reached at: