What if we used Portfolios of Impact to evidence learning, thinking, and action?

This article was published in Intrepid Ed News on 10 August 2021.

Our lives take different courses based on the decisions concerning us made by people we often don’t even know. This is because selection processes that are out of our control determine what will happen. Most people taste this process for the first time when they apply to a school, club, or program that accepts or excludes based on visible or invisible criteria. Some unknowingly go through this at a very young age in the office of the admissions director of a prestigious elementary school. Others do so at a sports or band tryout. By the time we leave high school, most of us will have experienced some form of high-stakes selection process, whether it be to enter university or secure our first job.

No matter how much we may want to change the education system, we have to keep in mind that our lives are determined by selection processes which we can try to influence, but cannot determine outcomes (legally).

Selection processes come in all shapes and colors. If you’re trying out for the track team, you’ll probably have to undergo a time trial to show the coaches how fast you can run over a set distance. If you want to be part of an orchestra, I imagine you will play a piece that you hope will wow the director. These performances are the culmination of many hours of practice juxtaposed with raw talent. If you’re applying for a job, you’ll have provided some form of curriculum vitae or resumé, whether your own creation or through a template. You’ll sit on an interview, at which point you’ll answer questions, which in theory help create a picture of how well you will fit in technically and culturally. Yet another form is university applications, which often rely on quantitative data that are said to reflect your levels of achievement and learning in specific disciplines.

While I won’t go into the absurdity of reducing learning and achievement to quantitative measurements here; I will posit that no matter what forms selection processes take or which doors they guard, they all have one thing in common: selection processes aren’t about what you have accomplished or can do now, they are about the potential you bring to the organization of the selecting body. Selection processes are future-driven.

Let’s take the case of a job application. The decision-makers in the hiring process won’t offer a candidate a job unless they are confident that the applicant will solve a set of problems the company faces or will face (e.g. we need someone to run the cash register, I need someone who can take care of our child when I go back to work, we need someone to open a new branch) and be a good cultural fit (e.g. is responsible, gets along with others, has a can-do attitude). For instance, during an interview, a teacher may provide examples of how he met learner needs over the past academic year, but these experiences only matter in the hiring decision if they can be transferred and applied to the new school’s context. How the teacher presents himself at an interview is data to inform how he will fit in. A decision is made on who to hire from the slate of short listed candidates. There is no absolute certainty that this will be the right decision. Hiring managers place what is effectively a bet on the offered candidate based on the information they have gathered.

University admissions officers care about grades and SAT/ACT scores because they believe these are indicators of an applicant’s potential to contribute to the university over the next four years and the future alumna’s potential to reflect well on the university after she graduates, either through a remarkable professional career or some other notable action. Grades and standardized tests aren’t the only data points in admissions decisions, and officers rely on complementary evidence to increase their odds to place a winning bet on a specific prospective student. The more information one has, in theory, the more confident one can be in whether to throw the file in the “accepted” or “rejected” pile. Quantitative data are useful because they are the threshold that justifies immediately rejecting any candidate who falls below. For overworked admissions officers, this is a handy time-saving device and it always helps to justify choices. The jury is still out on whether grades and standardized tests scores obtained in high school are indicators that adults will find meaning and fulfillment (both terms that are personally defined anyway) in their lives. Ok, it’s not really out, I’m being kind here. It’s more a question of whether grades provide any useful data at all.

In any case, and no matter which types of evidence we use in which combination, the important point to remember is that all selection processes are about prediction, future-looking rather than backward-looking. (This is why assessment is about how the present informs the future and not a snapshot of a moment taken in the past, or there is no point in assessment at all.) No one will accept anyone anywhere for anything without hope that this acceptance will contribute positively to the community that welcomes the new member.  

What if we embraced fully the idea that our past achievements are just data to bolster our odds of people placing bets on us to solve their future problems? What if we created portfolios showcasing not the work we have done, but how that work has solved problems for and had an impact on others? Many professionals do this on their resumés, but it’s seldom the case with student transcripts, portfolios, or mastery continuums. Even at the professional level, we can take the idea of resumés further.

LearnLife proposes we all have a Learning Vitae, which is a portfolio that captures, collates, and presents learning progressions in diverse ways suited to any future contexts (e.g. tertiary institutions or prospective employers) using Blockchain. This is a tremendous idea, but I think we can go beyond it, make it more informative and valuable.

I have touched on this idea before: instead of using Blockchain to recount what we have learned, why don’t we present a portfolio to showcase the impact we have had on ourselves, others, and the world?

Instead of focusing on what we can do, what we have done, or what we know, what if we shifted the emphasis on how we have made a difference to the world? What if we told the stories of how our learning, thinking, and actions have made the world a better place?

Measuring impact is the final step in assessment because it takes into account the effects of the application of our knowledge and skills, giving our thinking and actions purpose and connecting us to the outside (and ourselves). Impact allows us to think in terms of what we do. It also opens the door for a set of ethics to guide our actions. 

What would this look like for students? It would create the contexts in which we consider projects (as in, project-based learning) that have relevance to the community. It would force us to consider projects based on how they affected others. For instance, if we design a water filtration system, we measure the impact it has had and add it to our portfolio. If we re-write Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound for a contemporary context, we gather data on how much the audience enjoyed it and to what extent it moved their thinking. If we design a multimedia brochure for our school club, we measure its effectiveness and include that information in our portfolio of impact. 

If it doesn’t have a measurable impact, then it should not take place. “If it’s important, we can and have to measure it,” as Joanne McEachen writes.

Impact ensures everything we do is authentic and it turns the spotlight of our learning, thinking and actions away from us, taking us beyond student-centered, opening ourselves up to others.

Instead of using portfolios of work or mastery–which risk serving up polished snapshots of achievements—we could present our stories (in portfolios) in the most relevant form (also underpinned by Blockchain) for each particular audience. The centerpiece would then not be us but rather the contributions we (helped) make. It would be a step toward taking ourselves out of the center and placing others and the planet there instead.

The stories we would tell would be about how we have improved others’ lives and the planet, how we have connected with the world. It would be a step toward a bio-centric worldview, one that values all life equally rather than our own or our species’. 

This is not a question of throwing everything away… it is about going one step further with the tools we have. This is about applying our literacy skills, implementing our competencies, utilizing our creativity in action for the service of others. This is about measuring the impact of those actions.

This is like when you come back from that service trip, instead of showing people those pictures where you’re in the middle digging a trench, you show pictures of those who benefitted from your trip and provide supporting data about how you worked with others to improve the place, to make an impact. 

Data help us in our predictions for the future, they are useless if they don’t help us with our decision-making. Let’s embrace this by telling stories of how we can make a difference. Let’s make these predictions through ethical lenses, examining how we are connected to others and the world through the choices and the impact we make. 

Let’s tell the story of the impact we make through portfolios. This is how the selection process will place bets on us, through the evidence we provide on how our actions can solve problems.

Let’s take the focus away from ourselves and construct ways to show the world what we can do through what we have done, not by winning some award or writing some story or filling out some math worksheet. Let’s focus on what we have done for others and the planet. 

That is how we will start to think beyond ourselves and make the connections that we so desperately need to solve the climate, socio-economic, and interspecies issues that have brought us to the brink. 

*Sometimes they include a “learning journey,” but these more likely than not place the student at the center, a point I’ll get to in a moment.

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