Thursday, August 20, 2020

Make students the creators

One time I had a really great idea for an activity for students. I spent a lot of time and thought organizing it, writing up instructions, and setting up equipment in just the right way. By the time I finished I was completely in love with the activity and I was certain students would be too.

Students showed up. They did the activity. It went pretty well. A couple things needed adjustment which I didn't foresee, but that's normal and okay for new things in a classroom. Students seemed to be having fun while being challenged, which is a great combination. But in the end they didn't seem to get much more out of it than the previous activity I had for that topic, and they certainly did not love it anywhere near as much as I did.

Okay, I need to be honest here. That wasn't just one time. That has happened many times. I have dreamt up all kinds of great activities and ideas and then pushed my students through them over the years. And when it comes down to it, those activities only do a little bit better at getting results than the ones they replace.

At some point I began to realize that I was doing all of the meaning-making. I was the one doing the really deep learning as the creator. I was the one struggling through the creative design process. Even when it was an "inquiry-based" lab where we had a class discussion where students came up with testable variables, it was the same set of equipment on each table and it was fairly obvious what to do with it. Even when it was a "engineering design" project, if the task was so well defined that it pigeon-holed solutions to all of the same type of solution, then much of the meaning-making happened before student got ahold of it.

If we really want to students to get passionate about their work and learning then we need to maximize the meaning in what they do. Jumping through someone else's hoops can be fun, but fun doesn't necessarily mean passion and meaning, it might just mean they are entertained.

Scrap your plans, or at least open them up to modification

The solutions to the problem of the teacher taking on all of the creative design of a classroom experience involve two options:
  1. Involve student in the creative design process to determine what they do.
  2. Hand over the creative design process to them to determine what they do.
I think involving both in a class is important. The first models the process without leaving them stranded with no ideas, and the latter truly maximizes student creativity.

The next time you have a cool idea, stop yourself before you work out the details. Or at least don't share the details with your students. Present the idea as unworked, and work your way through what you might do with it with them. 

For example, I have an idea that it might be fun and useful to use golf balls and ping pong balls for all kinds of physics stuff for in-person socially distanced and possibly remote learning this year. But I am holding off on working anything out as to how that might play out. I am going to involve them in discussions like how we might track them, or how to make them move in different ways. I'm going to get a bunch of golf balls and ping pong balls and be ready to hand them over with some advice for measuring and data handling.

If you have a general concept problem you want them to sort out, instead of dreaming up a way for them to do it, let them do it. For example, take the NGSS HS-PS2-3 Motion and Stability: Forces and Interactions:
Apply science and engineering ideas to design, evaluate, and refine a device that minimizes the force on a macroscopic object during a collision.
Give them that and nothing else. No equipment, no ideas, and nothing to save in a collision. Watch how crazy awesome it turns out. You might be tempted to have them all do the egg drop for this, but hold on to that idea to share with groups in case they hit a creative roadblock. Instead, have them identify an object to save, a scenario for a collision, and establish a maximum for for collision and work their own project.

Give students freedom to show mastery how they see fit. Ask them to do just that -- create something that shows your understanding of this concept.

If you want them to focus more on a skills and less on a subtopic then give them that freedom. For example, if my students have just learned to define functions in Python, I might ask them to write a function that does something useful for the physics they have learned so far.

Project-based learning is this embodied, but it can be easy to accidentally narrow down solutions and stifle creativity. Take, for example, the mousetrap car project. Assign that to students and they already know they are making a mousetrap car, and you can bet that they are scouring the internet for solutions. There went to creative design part of solving. Intead, have them make a vehicle powered by stored elastic potential energy.

I like to do a spaghetti bridge project, which is pretty common in physics and engineering courses. But I added my own twist to make the solutions they could look up not so useful and to force them to get more creative. I asked them to make their bridge able to move out of the way for a certain sized object to pass through and then move back only under the influence of pulling cables (string). That might seem like a highly restrictive addition, but it actually forces all kinds of crazy creative solutions that are way more varied that just different truss designs like you get from static bridges. Trusses and all of the analyses of force components and balance will still be involved, but they won't be looking up solutions. In fact, they kind of have to invent their own problem to solve first, like, I need a bridge that lifts out of the way, or I need a bridge that swings out of the way.

These kind of adjustments involve letting go and relinquishing control to your students. It is definitely necessary to first build relationships, trust, and some expectations before you dive into complete freedom mode.

How to do this, in general

Pick an activity you have for your students and walk it back the the problem that it is designed to solve or the desired understanding outcome. Present the problem to the students and talk about it until it makes sense. Establish whatever common vocabulary and ideas you need. Be careful not to try to establish your understanding of what they are exploring. You want them constructing that themselves, not trying to confirm your understanding. Get them in groups brainstorming ways to solve the problem, and then turn them loose. Then your job becomes one of support, trying to help them with tools, relevance, and technical skills.

Things to try avoid as you do this:
  • Trying to force your understanding on them
  • Trying to steer them to all do the same thing by giving them all the same equipment and/or a pigeonholing task.
  • Giving them a highly restrictive template for summarizing and communicating their understanding.
The last one might require having established norms for technical commiunication and options for platforms, but those are much better than sheets to fill out.

After they are done exploring, celebrate their work as a class. Do a poster session (or whiteboard, forum post, etc). Have them look for patterns. At this point you can summarize and standardize their work and the idea as a class as much as needed. If you are bound to a crappy system like AP and you feel the need to make them solve the same problems then you can get them started on those. I you are not, then get the to start figuring out what kinds of problems they can solve with their new understanding. Have them identify, or better yet, invent their own problems.

Relinquishing control to students is not easy for most teachers. It feels like a high risk choice, but we have to remind ourselves that we are already content experts. We have our understanding, although it will probably get even better by being part of students building theirs. The real high risk choice is trying to give student our understanding and expecting them to work within it. It doesn’t work for many students, because it isn’t theirs.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Digital Learning Portfolios


Students creating and publishing digital portfolios allows them to personalize their learning. If they are used with self evaluation and reflective writing, portfolios can also get them focused on their growth and progress, developing metacognition.

The idea of a digital portfolio is that it shows student work, and, ideally, tells a story about process and growth. The portfolio would have some sort of organizational focus, either by topic, or standard or skill. I use a system I call skills-based grading, which is focused on a fairly short list of transferable skills. A portfolio for standards-based grading would have many entries because of the many standards, ideally grouped by topic.

Portfolios are something meaningful you can use to evaluate student progress without changing much of what you do in class. I still give scores on plenty of more traditional items, like reports and homework and quizzes, but they just serve as feedback and become artifacts for telling their story in their portfolios. The scores don't become a grade until they become part of their story of growth and reflection. Here is a great example of a student portfolio. The name has been changed and some photos removed.

This strip isn't that relevant, but I love Get Fuzzy and I don't have my drawing stuff set up to do my own yet.

Choosing platform(s)

I think the hardest part about setting up digital portfolios is choosing the platform. This decision is based on many factors -- ease of use, features, school subscriptions, end product, privacy, and more. The two basic platform needs are a place to publish and a repository to store potential artifacts of learning for them to choose from when making their portfolio. They can be the same platform, but they don’t have to be.

I like the portfolios to end up as a web site, so we use New Google Sites. It is easy for students to use and fairly robust in options for what they can create. I create a "template" and show them how to make a copy of it. With New Sites it is easy to change layouts by clicking and dragging and dropping. It is also set up for easy embedding, which works especially well with other Google services, but almost anything that exists on the web with an address can be embedded.

My students document everything they do by posting it to their SeeSaw journal. It serves as an organized repository for learning artifacts, and I can monitor what they post and give feedback. They don't necessarily want everything they do in their portfolios. When they post to their journals, which can include drawings, photos, videos, audio, links, and combinations of those things, they choose which folder(s) to put the journal post in. Our folders are skill categories, but they could also be standards or topics folders. Each journal post gets a unique URL, and SeeSaw will even give embed code for each, so they can be easily embedded in a web site or other places that allow it. 

Other ideas for a portfolio platform could include other web site creation tools, digital lab book tools, journaling sites (like SeeSaw), blogging sites (like Blogger), Google Docs, and even Google Classroom assignment(s), if you don't care about portfolio ending up as a published site. Any sort of digital journal, or lab book, or repository (Google Drive folders) could work to hold their work before it gets organized in their portfolio, but I have found that having it in a journal that I can monitor and give feedback helps.


Pushing out a template is not absolutely necessary, but if you have some idea of how you want them to be organized or how you want them to read, it can be quite helpful. Otherwise, setting them up and evaluating them can take forever. It's always nice to give student some creative freedom with layout and look, so it is good to try to balance that freedom with expectations.

I used skills-based grading for 25 transferable skills last year, and I included their descriptions in the template I gave to them. Here is what it looked like published. It's got tabs for the five skill categories and one example entry. If I shared the unpublished editing link with you then anyone with the link could edit it, which is the one problem I have with New Google Sites. I have share my "template" with students with editing rights, and then I have to walk them through making a copy of it and finding it their Drive to make their own before the start editing mine. You cannot actually make a real template. Only Google makes those. It's not that big of a deal though. 

I made some organizational improvements for year's template, as well as updating it to be about our newly revised list of 15 transferable skills. I also reduced the freedom for design a little because of uncertainty of when we will be in the same space, to streamline things. I'm going to have students embed and maintain a SeeSaw multipage journal post (kind of like a slideshow) for each of the 15 skills we will focus on in their New Google Sites portfolio. The embedded SeeSaw slide shows will include their rubric with self evaluation and will be accompanied by reflective writing. 


Student tend to need a fair amount of help getting started. In the beginning, portfolios feel quite cumbersome, because of how much time it takes to get them established and to get students use to using them. There is a lot of front-end loading. Once you get in the the groove, though, it's as easy as, "Hey, folks, can we get the collaboration section of our our portfolios updated for evaluation by next Tuesday?" and students will know what to do.

I have found that student ability to reflect effectively varies wildly. There are some students for whom it clicks instantly and they thrive in the system. There are others who seem to never taken time to truly consider about their own abilities and behavior patterns, and the idea is confusing to them. I make a point to be patient with the latter group, and they usually come around. I like to work through an example of skill application and self assessment, once we have our rubrics established. Then I give my live example of what reflective writing might look like. I also provide this guide for reflective writing for skills growth I wrote to help them. So we basically walk through what a first entry in a portfolio would look like. This happens a couple weeks into class, as it takes time to establish rubrics together and wrap our heads around expectations and the class environment.

Expectations and grading

You need to decide what you want portfolios to be. Since I use them for 100% of my student's grades, I want them to be a robust story of their growth, and since I grade for growth, I want the portfolio to tell a growth story. This means I like having many artifacts related to each skill I assess, and that the reflective writing is going to tell a story about how a student got from early artifacts to the latest.

If you don't use skills-based grading, and I can't imagine you do because I can't find anyone who does, but maybe you use something like standards-based grading, that story of growth for each standard might be a bit overwhelming. You might just want to see their best work for each standard. If you use traditional grading systems, then arranging a portfolio by topic and telling a story of growth and experience can be robust.
I like to let students grade themselves before I do. It helps to have evaluation tools and expectations that are owned and understood by all parties. I make a point to grade for growth, replacing old grades with the latest. I have them turn in their portfolios and use rubrics on Google Classroom to grade them and give feedback.

You need to decide how often you want to grade and how much at a time. I found that requiring students completely updating all or most of a portfolio for all of the 25 skills we used last year was quite overwhelming. Collecting and grading sections of the portfolios at a time worked better. After they had something for each skill, updating them was not as intimidating, so they could handle multiple sections at  a time.

My advice

If you are considering portfolios I would recommend going all in and making them as much of the student overall grade as you are allowed. As previously mentioned, you can still do all of the stuff you might normally, like scored assignments, assessments, labs, etc, but just don't give students actual grades for those. Score them and let the score be feedback they can use as they discuss their growth and achievement in their portfolio.

I make a policy not to give students any grades until they have fully reflected and self evaluated. If I have done my job well they should have plenty of feedback from me to help them do that. Portfolios work great with this policy.

What did not work so well for us in the past was making portfolios one of many grades in the grade book. They were not taken seriously enough by most students, and I never saw the reflective writing I was hoping for from most students. They didn't have the regular practice with it. The portfolios simply became a summary piece that was one of many huge overwhelming projects they had at the end of term in their classes.

Having portfolios as the main avenue for earning a grade might seem like a huge change, but when you don't really change much else of what you do in class then it's not that big of a deal. I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked, and I got so much meaningful mature feedback about how much students valued thinking about their growth over such a long term. I anticipate I'll work with this system for a long time. 

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I am working with my office mate teacher friend to revise our system, so I am actively adjusting and open to working with others who are interested.