The work of Aida Walqui and other advocates for effective teaching of English learners stresses the importance of providing scaffolds for English learners. When educators provide the right kind of scaffold at the right time, students acquire language (and, more generally, knowledge). This way of thinking about how understanding (and language proficiency) is developed comes from the Quality Teaching for English Learners (QTEL) initiative. The QTEL approach suggests that there are 6 kinds of scaffolds:
Bridging, in which students make a personal link between prior knowledge and new concepts
Contextualization, in which concepts are delivered via the senses (sounds, sights, smells, etc.)
Schema Building, in which students build on understanding to construct new knowledge
Metacognitive Development, in which learner autonomy is fostered by helping students assess and think about their own learning
Text Re-presentation, in which students are asked to display what they understand from one medium/mode of a text by re-presenting that understanding in another medium/mode (such as creating a visual based on what the student understood from a chapter in a science book)
Modeling, in which students get access to clear examples
Now, when I was at the QTEL Summer Institute in San Francisco a few months ago, I had digital portfolios on my mind. I was advocating that my school should implement digital portfolios on a wider scale. I am a big supporter of how digital portfolios can amplify student learning! It was pretty clear, though, that a significant portion of our school’s professional development time over the next couple of years was going to go toward helping staff members effectively teach English learners. We have over 800 English learners at my high school (and more every week!), so training in this area is incredibly appropriate. Still, I was looking for a way to link our school wide focus on English learners and my desire to tap into the learning benefits that digital portfolios can provide. As we reviewed the 6 types of scaffolds, I saw it clear as day: Digital portfolios can facilitate the implementation of the 6 types of scaffolds! I got so excited, I used a different color in my notes to remind me to come back to this idea in a blog post later:
After a little more thinking, I realized that if I tried to show a connection between all 6 scaffolds and digital portfolios, it might read a little like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I didn’t want to force the issue inauthentically, but I still saw a clear connection between some of the scaffolds to help English learners acquire language (scaffolds for learners in general to acquire concepts through language) and work educators could be doing with students through digital portfolios. I concluded that digital portfolios can facilitate the implementation of at least 3 types of scaffolds: Metacognitive Development, Text Re-presentation, and Modeling:
Thinking about thinking is vital to causing authentic, lasting learning for our students. I worry that teachers sometimes over emphasize “covering” or “getting through” content, rather than taking the time that learners need to clarify what they have learned, how they learned it, and determine where they need to go next with the concept. I understand the pressure that educators feel to get through content, but our primary goal should be to cause learning–and if that means we don’t cover everything we set out to cover then so be it.
One of the most valuable skills we can foster in our students is learning how to learn. When we have students document their learning process, demonstrate what they have learned, and assess what their digital portfolios actually show they know, then we are using digital portfolios to help students build metacognitive skills. Students creating pages on a website that are meant to prove how and what they learned is a metacognitive act.
I very much see this as the primary value of having students curate their own digital portfolios. Putting knowledge on display is great. Building digital communication skills is awesome. But the most important pedagogical value that digital portfolios provide is their ability to continuously facilitate metacognitive development among our learners.
When students are able to present their understanding of a concept using a medium that is different from the source medium, that is text re-presentation. Students are re-presenting ideas in another format.
Implementing this scaffold means to give students learning tasks that ask them to re-present their understanding. So, if a student has to re-present their understanding of a concept that they heard about in a class lecture, why not have them do so by creating and posting a video about the concept on a page of their digital portfolio?
Digital portfolios offer many other ways that students can re-present ideas from source material. Students can blog about their personal learning/understanding related to the text, create visuals, create videos, create presentations, embed images of the learning process–text re-presentation can take on many forms.
A focus on digital portfolios as the way to assess student learning can facilitate the implementation of text re-presentation.
Giving students clear examples of how to demonstrate learning on digital portfolios becomes much easier when you can refer them to other students’ digital portfolios. I’ve listed modeling last because it will probably come last in your own implementation of digital portfolios–at least as far as this kind of modeling is concerned. Sure teachers can create student mock-ups of what they would like students to do on digital portfolios, but the more authentic models will come when students can see how other students incorporated their learning onto their websites in creative and innovative ways.
Of course, we’ll continue to expect original meaning-making from students. Seeing how last year’s students demonstrated their understanding of meiosis and mitosis doesn’t give this year’s students license to copy and paste. This is why it’s so critical that students see their digital portfolios as representative of their own personal learning story. But if seeing an explanation from last year’s students helps this year’s students develop their understanding, all the better.
Scaffolding student learning and implementing digital portfolios are not mutually exclusive ventures. We don’t have to decide between one and the other. Just as with all technology integration in the classroom, it should never be about the technology. This isn’t a blog post about technology. It’s not really a blog post about digital portfolios. It’s a blog post about learning and using the tools at our disposal to help students learn more deeply. My argument is simply that digital portfolios can facilitate some of the work that is most vital to educators:
- Implement scaffolds as needed to help learners, especially English language learners
- Encourage students to focus on the value of learning and their own learning process
- Challenge students to assess for themselves what they really understand and what they might need more help with
Sources and References:
Couros, G. (2016, August 16). 7 Important Questions Before Implementing Digital Portfolios [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/6602
Ritchart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: how to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Walqui, A. & van Lier L. (2010). Scaffolding the academic success of adolescent English language learners: a pedagogy of promise. San Francisco: WestEd.