Written By: Kelly Rizzo
"How do we give each student individual attention when our schools, districts and state departments are designed to think of students in large groups?" David Niguidula, founder of Ideas Consulting, and a pioneer in the use of digital portfolios, finds that this is one of the greatest challenges faced by educators today. Lack of time is an honest dilemma and learning to maximize the interaction and communication had with each student can be daunting. Capturing and celebrating individual goals met by students is essential to their personal growth. So how do we do this? How do we promote this essential communication in our classrooms? A number of Exemplars users have found that creating digital portfolios of students' work serves as a tremendous catalyst for communication. Many schools require their students to keep portfolios, typically done in paper form. But with technology becoming more and more prevalent in our schools, the idea of keeping students portfolios digitally is catching on.
Gino Sangiuliano is a fourth grade teacher and Exemplars user at Hampden Meadows School in Barrington, Rhode Island. Four years ago, Mr. Sangiuliano's school began offering the use of digital portfolios to their teachers in order to help students archive their math progress digitally. With the help of Ideas Consulting, an educational technology research and consulting firm, Hampden Meadows has been successful in bringing their students' appreciation for personal growth to the next level. Mr. Sangiuliano states:
Children are very positive about using the digital portfolios. They especially like looking back at previous year's examples and pieces. When they reflect on Exemplars, a reading sample, or a piece of writing, they are always amazed at their personal growth.
The Barrington Rhode Island School district brought Exemplars to their schools in order to improve their students' problem-solving skills. Dr. Betty Calise, the Assistant Superintendent, comments that they have been amazed at the success they have had. They use Exemplars as an assessment tool twice a year at the K-8 level. Since the implementation of Exemplars their students' scores have improved, and many are exceeding the standard. Dr. Calise acknowledges that Exemplars has been a challenge for some, and recalls a younger student stating, "My brain hurts", while working on an Exemplars problem. This proved success for Dr. Calise, as she realized that Exemplars was making her students think and communicate that thinking. This communication is then preserved through digital portfolios. Dr. Calise states that, "Digital portfolios allow our students to articulate their strengths and weaknesses."
Exemplars tasks and rubric stress the importance of teaching students to communicate their math thinking. The Barrington school district includes the Exemplars rubric in their digital portfolios. Mr. Sangiuliano states:
Exemplars certainly help my students communicate their thinking, be it graphically, pictorially or in words. Exemplars require students to first organize their thinking then apply math skills. Getting the correct answer is only part of the process and they know that, explaining their thinking is equally valued. It is important because the entire process stretches their thinking and deepens understanding.
Ideas Consulting's founder, David Niguidula, has designed the Richer Picture™ line of digital portfolio software. This system has created an opportunity for Barrington's students to show their use of communication develop over time. It also allows teachers, like Gino Sangiuliano, to share with parents their students' progress throughout the year.
We spent some time talking with both Gino Sangiuliano and David Niguidula on the importance of communication in the classroom and how that translates into real-world, practical applications. Below are our conversations with both of them.
Gino Sangiuliano received his undergraduate degree from Stonehill College in North Easton, MA and Masters Degree from Lesley College in Boston, MA. He has spent much of his 13-year career teaching in multiage and looping settings (three years in a grade 4-5 loop, six years in a 1-2-3 loop) and has been teaching fourth grade at Hampden Meadows School in Barrington, Rhode Island for the past four years. He resides in Barrington, RI with his wife and two children.
- Could you please share your thoughts on the importance of communication in the classroom?
GS: Communication in the classroom is an essential component to the learning process. Youngsters need the opportunity to not only express their own thoughts and reasoning but to hear others'. Simply getting the correct answer to a math problem is not enough. If we settle for that we are doing our students a great injustice, ignoring the entire stream of thought that led them to that answer. If their answer was incorrect we won't know why. Conversely, the many steps and the process used are dismissed when correct answers are achieved. To do this would be to miss a learning opportunity. Furthermore, in order to be held accountable for their learning, children need to be encouraged and given time to reflect personally on the quality of their work and share their thoughts with teachers and parents.
- Why did you begin using Exemplars?
GS: I began using Exemplars because they give me great insight to students' math thinking. It gives students an opportunity to apply the skills and concepts they are learning.
- How are you using Exemplars in your classroom? Assessment? Instruction?
GS: I mostly use them to teach problem-solving strategies and to review skills and concepts. They are also used to assess growth over time.
- How do your students respond to Exemplars?
GS: It has been my experience that most students find them challenging. Modeling and demonstration alleviates any feelings of anxiety. Children who are not intimidated by math look forward to them.
- How do your colleagues respond to Exemplars?
GS: For both me and my colleagues discussions about solutions and strategies to Exemplars are very helpful. They are accepted and valued as a part of math instruction. We recognize the higher-level thinking that is often required to solve them and that is what we want to promote in the classroom.
Using Digital Portfolios
- Why did you begin using the Richer Picture™ digital portfolio system?
GS: They offered a training session and I took advantage of it. What impressed me most was that they listened to my specific needs and helped me create templates that work best for me. The digital portfolio formats I've used have actually changed every year and they have helped me to fulfill my vision of what it needs to look like for me.
- How do you implement digital portfolios in your classroom?
GS: As children input pieces and reflections into their portfolios they are learning to use many of the skills required of them by our technology standards. The accessibility of the portfolios also makes it easy to share and self reflect.
- How do your students respond to digital portfolios? Does it help them with Exemplars in any way?
GS: Children are very positive about using the digital portfolios. They especially like looking back at previous years' examples and pieces. When they reflect on Exemplars, a reading sample or a piece of writing, they are always amazed at their personal growth.
- How do Exemplars and digital portfolios work together?
GS: An effective way we've used the two together is by including video clips of students explaining the process they went through to solve the (Exemplars) problem. They are interviewed by the teacher and respond by referring to examples of work. Doing it for their portfolio offers them an authentic reason to take the time and analyze their work more carefully. There is intrinsic motivation for doing it.
- What has been your greatest success in using digital portfolios?
GS: The greatest success of digital portfolios has been the integration of academic content, the use of technology in an authentic and meaningful way, and how it offers children a unique opportunity to look back and celebrate the growth they have made.
- What has been your greatest success in using Exemplars?
GS: Each year I feel the children are getting better and more comfortable at using Exemplars due to the fact that they are being exposed to them at earlier grades. I really like how Exemplars lend themselves to differentiated instruction.
David Niguidula is founder of Ideas Consulting, an educational technology, research and consulting firm based in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. Niguidula has been involved in educational research projects since 1983, focusing on issues of technology, assessment and school reform. Dr. Niguidula is best known for his pioneering work on digital portfolios. Dr. Niguidula has developed both technology tools and professional development activities around digital portfolios, and has created the Richer Picture™ line of elementary, secondary, professional and school portfolios. He received two bachelor's degrees (in computer science and education) at Brown University and his doctorate in Instructional Technology and Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.
- What was your motivation behind starting Ideas Consulting?
DN: Our philosophy is that the best educational technology projects are those driven by the education, not the technology.
DN: The digital portfolio emerged out of a research project I led while at the Coalition of Essential Schools at Brown University. The Coalition is an organization focused on school reform, and our project wasn't just looking at cool things we could do with computers - it was focused on how technology could help with new ideas in assessment.
DN: Through this research, we learned that it took much more than good software to make digital portfolios effective. Schools needed to address a set of "essential questions", ranging from "Who is our primary audience?" to "How do we assess the portfolio as a whole?". The technology has changed a great deal since we began that research project in 1993. However, these essential questions have remained an effective strategy for schools - they help schools focus on the process of assessment and the ideal for high standards, but also on using the digital portfolio in a way that makes sense for their specific community of teachers and learners.
DN: Ideas Consulting emerged as a way to continue this work on technology, assessment and school change. Our organization will continue to build technology tools that are useful for schools - but more importantly, we want to help teachers and students use technology for innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and to allow each student to grow as an individual learner.
- What are the advantages of having a digital portfolio?
DN: A digital portfolio provides a "richer picture" of student progress than traditional transcripts. The portfolio shows the progress that students are making towards a school's expectations or state's standards - yet also allows the student to show who they are as individuals.
DN: Digital portfolios have several advantages over paper portfolios. Here are just three: First, digital portfolios can contain student work in any media: text, images, audio, video, and so on. Second, digital portfolios are easily transferable; students, parents, and teachers can each view the portfolio on the computer, from home or from school, where with a paper portfolio, there is only one copy, and it can only be in one place at one time. Third, the data in the portfolio can be organized in multiple ways; we can look at the progress of a class as whole, or we can examine one student's growth over time.
DN: Digital portfolios can have many benefits for students, teachers and parents, depending on their purpose. One common technique is to use the portfolio as a way of making parent-teacher conferences more effective. A recording - even as short as 30 seconds - of a student reading can convey as much as pages and pages of explanatory notes or test results. The key, however, isn't just the fact that the work is recorded; the benefits are realized when the student, teacher and parent, are able to reflect on what the work means, where the child is doing well, and where he or she needs to go next.
- What is your interaction with schools once they have signed up for your product? Do they have access to support for the duration of their contract?
DN: Each school that works with us is assigned a "school coach". This person gets to know the school, and can help with everything from basic technical support to determining how the portfolio fits with the school's assessment needs.
DN: We recommend that most schools begin with a pilot project - say, with four to six teachers and about 100 students. With appropriate support from a school's administrators and technologists, we examine the purpose and audience for the digital portfolio - and then work with the school to provide the appropriate technical and professional support.
DN: We have software packages that can be set up immediately, and teachers and students can learn to use the software in a 45-minute class period. Inevitably, though, as schools begin to use the system, they ask for customizations: specific reports, or additional features for the software that make sense for that school and district. We assume a certain amount of customization will happen for any project.
DN: The school coach stays in regular contact with the school. Where the school coach is most helpful is in taking teachers through the process of collecting, selecting and reflecting on the student work. Sometimes the school coach's work is in the form of workshops, but often, our school coaches will meet with a few teachers to discuss a common rubric, a strategy for recording student work, or even being in the computer lab to help the teachers and students use the digital portfolio effectively.
- What do you see as the single greatest challenge that schools face today? How can Ideas Consulting help?
DN: The great challenge of schooling comes down to this: how do we give each student individual attention when our schools, districts, and state departments are designed to think of students in large groups? Good teachers face this dilemma every day: they try to figure out how to reach each student, but the constraints of the system and the ongoing pressure to do more and more in a set amount of time makes it very difficult to provide that personal touch.
DN: When we work with schools, our approach is to focus on what teachers are already doing, and look at how we can capture that. We work with teachers on the kinds of assignments they give, and the interactions they have with students already. The digital portfolio then becomes a place to collect and select this work.
DN: Often, the most compelling component of a digital portfolio project comes after the portfolio has been assembled. Students look at the work as a whole, and select their best work, or reflect on where they could improve. Teachers can then provide feedback on the individual pieces, and on the portfolio as a whole. In this way, we begin to look at the student beyond just the individual components of reading, writing, math and so on, but instead discuss the student's strategies as a learner.
- Do different schools enter the process of using digital portfolios at different levels? Who is your average customer? What is your average customer looking for?
DN: All schools are dealing with issues of assessment. In the last four or five years, just about every state has revised its assessment policies, and districts are doing their best to determine how their students are progressing against the standards.
DN: We work with schools in a variety of settings: urban, suburban and rural, large and small, mainstream and alternative. But, no matter what the setting, schools are primarily looking for a way to examine student work in the classroom, connect that work to standards, while gaining a better understanding of individual students.
DN: Initially, many schools are just looking for a way to have all of the work in one place - a storage space for the portfolio. To be effective, however, the portfolio needs to have a larger purpose. Whether that is to help young teachers expand their repertoire, help with new ways to communicate with parents, or help students reflect on their progress towards the standards (and ultimately, graduation), there has to be a reason for assembling the portfolio.
- Can you elaborate on "portfolio-worthy tasks", and why they are important?
DN: Not every piece that a student completes needs to go into a portfolio. The entries in a portfolio should show a student's path towards meeting expectations - whether those are a school's or state's standards, or a student's individual learning plan.
DN: We work with teachers on developing tasks that will show evidence that a student is meeting standards. Tasks such as the Exemplars series are a great model; rather than seeing a worksheet of division problems, we can see the student taking that skill and applying it. The student work in the portfolio needs to come from assignments - tasks - that both the student and teacher find worthwhile.
- Do you ever feel resistance from teachers that are worried it will be too time consuming to develop digital portfolios for their students? How do you help those teachers?
DN: Teachers have many demands placed on their time. Our focus is on enhancing what teachers are already doing. When we start, we look at, say, the reading and writing assessments which teachers are already conducting - and then we figure out the best way to capture that work digitally. Typically, a portfolio only contains a few samples per year; an elementary portfolio might have two-three reading, writing and math samples, while a high school portfolio might have two-four pieces from each class. It's not a matter of putting everything in the portfolio, but rather selecting items that will be useful to review.
DN: The actual process of adding entries to the portfolio can be made very efficient. Many teachers get help from parents, volunteers, and even other students with the actual videotaping or scanning of student work. (Starting at about 4th grade, most students are responsible for maintaining their own digital portfolios.) We help teachers and schools come up with ways to capture the work easily and effectively.
DN: The focus of teacher's time with the portfolio shouldn't be on using the software - it should be on the process of reflection. One of the biggest determinants of success of a portfolio system - electronic or paper - is the quality of feedback. When students and teachers are able to look at the body of evidence in a portfolio, and determine what the student has done well, and where the student needs to move forward, the portfolio holds great power; the Richer Picture™ portfolio makes it that much easier for this reflection to occur.
- Why is communication so important in learning?
DN: There are two types of communication that are particularly important in learning: feedback and coaching.
DN: Coaching is the type of communication that helps the student perform. There's a big difference between teachers who "tell" and teachers who "coach". The assumption in coaching is that the student is going to have to do something on his or her own; the teacher's job is to prepare them for that performance.
DN: Feedback helps the student look at what he or she has done in a performance, and provides specific suggestions for improvement. A letter grade, by itself, or a "nice job!" doesn't tell the student that much; good feedback offers insight into what the student did well or where the student needs more work.
DN: The Richer Picture™ portfolios create an opportunity to show the communication over time. A third grade teacher can look at the comments made by the teacher and students in second grade; students and parents can look for growth that is made from year to year.
DN: Exemplars offers rich problems where we can see the process of student achievement unfold. The open-ended nature of Exemplars tasks allow teachers plenty of coaching moments, such as allowing the teachers to focus on strategies rather than specific content. Exemplars also helps provide useful feedback; when used regularly, students can take the feedback from one Exemplars task and apply it to the next one.
- Could you please share a specific success story? Describe a certain school that has been successful in using digital portfolios in conjunction with Exemplars.
DN: Teachers in Barrington, Rhode Island, have used Exemplars for many years, and were also the first schools to use the elementary version of our Richer Picture™ digital portfolio.
DN: In Barrington, the digital portfolios are used to communicate to parents and students about student progress. Twice a year, teachers select samples of work in math, reading and writing and include them as part of the portfolio.
DN: Exemplars can often be used as samples of the best work. In Gino Sangiuliano's and Kevin Farley's 4th grade classrooms, for example, students use math Exemplars several times a month. Prior to the parent-teacher conferences, the teachers ask the students to review the Exemplars that they have completed during the past couple of months, and choose one sample that they think demonstrates their problem-solving abilities.
DN: Then, the students sit with their teacher, and, on camera, explain how they solved the problem. This video only takes a couple of minutes to record, but it captures a great deal. We can see how the student retells the problem, decides on a strategy, and details the mathematical skills used to find the answer. The videos shed a great deal of light on the student's problem-solving techniques. Repeating this process allows teachers and students to see the growth in applying these techniques - no matter whether the specific content requires arithmetic, geometry or fractions.
DN: The rubrics from Exemplars also allow teachers to see growth over time; we can see how the same student does on the rubric throughout a school year - and even beyond.