Portfolios: Making learning visible and accessible

Published on Tuesday, 12 May 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Parents love them and children spend hours revisiting their pages, marvelling at their own creations, but the portfolio is more than a keepsake of precious achievements, it’s a story of learning unfolding, of compelling observations that reveal the footsteps of a child’s development.

The portfolio has been a mainstay of the early childhood sector but over time has taken on a more critical role for assessment and reflection. And, as technology simplifies processes, questions on presentation have arisen: What type of portfolio is best, digital or paper-based?

Susan Stacey, author of Pedagogical Documentation in Early Childhood, says in her book,

“Documentation is not a simple process. Yet it has the power to sustain and inspire us to support the growth of everyone who is involved with it – the children who begin the process, their families who share in the work, and the teachers who work so hard and think so deeply in order to make it all happen.”

Before examining the format of a portfolio it’s important to note that the design and format is not prescriptive. The importance lies in the contents.

A child’s portfolio should be a carefully crafted collection, organised and purposeful. Each sample must have an intention, a purpose for being within the portfolio so that the result demonstrates and documents each child’s unique learning stories. The result is a showcase of skills, development and individual abilities such as communicating, problem solving and self-awareness. Put simply, a portfolio makes learning visible.

Guidelines for a collection would include kaiako observations, individual and group learning stories, photographs and video recordings – in the case of digital portfolios – and curated samples of a child’s work such as drawings or writing.

The portfolio is a celebration of a child’s achievements, linking to frameworks and providing meaningful assessments for the kaiako, parents, whānau and the individual child.

Benefits of a portfolio

  • They provide assessment information, gathered over time, allowing kaiako to monitor, support and reflect on a child’s development, interests and to consider pathways for learning
  • They provide opportunities for parents and whānau to engage with their child’s learning journey and contribute their own observations and suggestions
  • Narrative forms of assessment, such as learning stories, may make use of a formative assessment sequence: noticing, recognising, responding, recording and revisiting valued learning. These stories connect and engage parents and whānau
  • Opportunities for children to revisit items in their portfolios invite learning conversations. It also allows recognition of their learning process, taking into account the whole child, including their interests, skills and their family’s culture and activities
  • They capture valuable evidence of experiences of the child.

Digital or paper-based portfolios?

One of the most challenging aspects of the early childhood educator’s role is managing time. The ongoing process of capturing observations, experiences and content for illustrating a child’s story takes time to produce. So the solution is to implement a portfolio system that frees up resources and supports the best outcomes for the child.

The form of the portfolio is not rigid. While there are guidelines for what records are featured within the portfolio, its physical form is up to the early education centre.

Digital and traditional portfolios are both valuable but for different reasons so some services have opted for a model that makes use of both formats.

A digital portfolio offers a fast and multimedia method of collecting and sharing a child’s learning story. While a paper-based book is often more accessible for children and holds a special significance especially when valuable original works are included. By offering both formats an early childhood service maintains the convenience and versatility of the digital format but creates a paper-based book by printing significant highlights.

Each form of the portfolio has their pros and cons.

The paper-based portfolio

This is the original form of the early childcare portfolio and was handmade primarily by the educator. Here are just some of the positive considerations for this format:

  • A bound portfolio has a physical presence that evokes a ‘specialness’, making it a valuable illustrated record – or keepsake – of a child’s early years
  • It is accessible all the time and can be viewed without the need to turn on a computer or device
  • The book form allows children and adults to share and enjoy it, allowing it to be used as a prompt to discuss the experiences and learning, to re-read and re-visit
  • Children can personalise their portfolios by decorating them, allowing them to develop a strong sense of ownership
  • It contains authentic original works of drawings, activities or writing.

However, the book form can sometimes be difficult to store, cannot be immediately shared and can take time to produce.

The digital portfolio

The shift in how we communicate and share information digitally has seen the popularity of electronic portfolios increases. Here are some of the advantages of this format:

  • A digital solution allows educators to quickly upload content such as observations, photographic and video records, learning stories, conversations, reflections, descriptions, questions and analysis, and artwork samples
  • Instant and daily engagement with parents and whānau
  • Parents and whānau are included in the learning process especially when the sharing is in real-time via a digital platform
  • Learning stories can travel to family members outside the home. It can be shared immediately with extended family – sometimes living far away
  • Links to learning goals
  • Enables immediate access to content for mentor or peer collaboration and oversight

However, as young children don’t have easy access to a computer or device a digital portfolio can limit a child’s access to their learning stories, also for some parents screen time may be an issue.

A digital version also requires investing in software. This requires a review of confidentiality and safety issues, ensuring ease-of-use and efficiency for users. The platform needs to be quick and reliable, allowing educators to observe, plan and share with families. Ideally the software should be able to be customised to meet individual needs.

Software should provide tracking and reporting information to monitor parent interaction on your portfolio site and report on key performance indicators or learning goals.

Whether a portfolio is digital or traditional, the documentation of a child’s learning is central to planning, learning, process and communication. Both formats are valuable but for different reasons.

References and further reading

Educa: The Magic of Learning Stories

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