Looking Closely at Children

Core Item Portfolios

How do we demonstrate to others that children are learning what we think is essential for them — recognizing the reality that in order to see learning we need to be able to look at a specific ability over a period of time?

Here is a way to construct a portfolio that stays with each child from infancy onward, so it can be viewed and reflected upon over time by the child, the family, and educators, with a simple, explicit focus, so only a few key aspects of the child’s life are included.

A Core Item Portfolio, such as the one I describe here, IS NOT…

  • not academic—it is intellectual;
  • not linked to developmental stages—it celebrates uniqueness;
  • not perpetuating racial/class biases—it opens opportunity for all perspectives;
  • not measuring or judging—it offers the child and the family the opportunity to construct their own meaning over time.

Addressing the Focus of Assessment

Schools endeavor to create spaces for children to grow their unique capabilities, which gradually emerge in unique ways. Schools also endeavor to keep detrimental forces away. I think there is general agreement that schools cannot make children be a certain way; often they try, and often they fail. Schools cannot open children’s heads and pour knowledge and skills inside. Children do the learning, and all of them do it differently. Teachers don’ make children learn, just as farmers don’t make crops grow.

When we talk about the provision of educational experiences and spaces, I like referring to an agricultural model. Children are the carrots. Educators are the farmers. Carrots need carrot1rich, alive soil, moisture in the right amount, energy from the sun, and no glyphosate. If done well, a carrot seed can maximize — almost magically —all that its genetics can express.

The agricultural metaphor illuminates what really happens with assessment. Farmers do evaluate their work; their livelihood depends on a successful crop — bountiful, tasty, beautiful, and nutritious. The farmer can tell when the carrots are successfully grown, and if not, tweak the environment, enabling, hopefully, the next crop to be all it can be. Same goes for schools for children. Educators also focus on optimizing the conditions for young human beings to become fruitful, not only now but also throughout their lives.

Imposed Assessment Systems

Unfortunately (and unlike the farmer and any other profession), the social force that controls the resources for commonly funded schools requires educators to prove in strange, strangling ways children are learning, which they are, of course. Rather than trust teachers and provide resources for their continued, self-chosen professional growth, assessment systems are coercively attached to the provision of resources. No assessment? No money. These imposed systems don’t have to improve the lives of the children, they simply have to exist — numbers, checkmarks, forms in a drawer or in computers. These systems don’t display the children, or talk to them, or listen to them, and there is no evidence they make things better for anyone. It’s like asking farmers to fly a drone over their carrot field.

These systems eat resources and impose work, often dreaded, useless, and irrelevant to day-to-day practice. For most teachers of young children, assessment lacks meaning, joy, and heart. The children lose those misdirected resources, and the teachers feel distrusted. I don’t know why this is accepted by anyone. I think it is another bit of the post-1980, neoliberal agenda to diminish the commons in favor of profits for the already privileged. Whatever. At least I think we could agree that having the teachers working together to carefully examine the carrots would be all we really need.

The Carrot Taster

If the assessment of a carrot lies in its freshness and taste, we could clearly state that a taster must taste it to see. A taster would be assigned the task of being the one who cares, the one who has the responsibility for drawing conclusions about its qualities. To apply that idea to children’s learning, we would first have to answer the question: Who is the taster? Who cares if a child is doing well, being creative or compassionate, or even learning new stuff?

The Audience That Cares

I think most of us would agree: if whatever assessment we adopt is not useful to the people who care, it is irrelevant and unnecessary.

The people who really care whether a child is learning, growing, and happy are the child, the child’s family, the educators who are with him or her every day, the other children in that group, the other educators who know the child, and others in the community of the school. Since these are the audiences that care, how we assess a program or a school ought to be addressed to them, meet their interests and needs, and provide an opportunity for their participation and reflection. Simple. Why should it be any other way?

The people who know the child, who love the child, who value the child, and who are compassionate toward the child, have a direct interest in each new accomplishment and emergence of the abilities and dispositions that portend a fully realized life. The hopes and dreams they have for all children, their own and others, become refreshed and energized. They can feel confident that their child has a good school. Similarly, the educators can continue onward, refreshed and energized, loving the challenge of making spaces even better for the next crop. Natural. Why should it be any other way?

Core Item Portfolios: Documentation That Matters

Portfolios recording accomplishment and emergence create an opportunity for a conversation about learning. Focused on a few core items, the individual portfolio can follow the child from infancy onward, gradually accumulating products, events, stories and reflections, becoming richer and more valuable year by year. The history contained in an individual portfolio, when it includes opportunities for reflection over time, too, will naturally encourage the kind of deep conversations a educators and families need to find meaning together, feel confident, and evolve in a positive direction. A shelf of individual portfolios documents to ourselves, to the child, and to the family (and even the funders) that this particular intentional space for children does indeed provide evidence that guiding values and goals evolve and are evident.

It is best to keep it simple. Too often what goes into a portfolio is a disorganized gathering place that is hard to look at and difficult to understand. I offer an example of how an individual portfolio system collects only key products, events, and stories, and establishes a means for ongoing reflection. 

Only the Gems

A focused portfolio that deeply matters to children and families offers the possibility of evolving the common work. In order to do that well, it must be both insightful and organic. Only certain items — the gems that make the greatest impact — should be included. I’ve seen focused core item portfolios created over a twelve-year period. I have watched fascination, interest, and significance accrue. After a few years of accumulated products and reflections, it changes the culture of the school. It alters the way a school thinks of itself.


Windows on Learning, Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, Kathy Steinheim (1998) slightly modified by Tom Drummond (2016)

In the upper left corner of the diagram you can see how a core item portfolios is a narrow choice in a big field. I am offering an example of only one kind of individual portfolio, one that has a narrow focus. It has to be as thin and juicy as we can make it, not a file called a “portfolio” that contains every photo and every piece of artwork in a fat, disorganized pile.

—> Selecting Three Core Items

I offer one way to create limited portfolio containing three separate kinds of products, events and stories. Three core items: Language — Relationships — Creativity. I liken these words as handles on three suitcases. Each case containing a chronological record of cool stuff that emerges sorted into only these categories.

Taking risks to try new things. Generating designs, theories and connections. Exploring new situations and physical challenges. Being a generative force. Acting with self-confidence at important times. Exploring unique strategies. Carrying intentions forward in time and complexity. Taking personal responsibility.

Expression in any of the Hundred Languages of Children, (dance, pretend, drawing, blocks, arrangements, clay, etc.), all the arts, oral language, written language, sign language, categorizing, sequencing, using symbols and signs. Roughly speaking, a medium (something to work with) becomes a “language” when it is used by the child to represent or re-present meaning. For example, pine needles and cones may be used to represent tea time.

Emerging events in the social world of relating to others. Acts of friendship, responsveness, invitations, parallel actions and cooperation. Courteous encounters with others as members of a classroom community, such as greeting, assisting, problem solving, conflict resolution, negotiation. Acts of compassion, altruism, listening, caring, and celebrating others.

—> Selecting a Long-term Format

Instances noted, photographs of works, interviews, and reflections are “cbinderaptured” and converted to a flat format which can become a cumulative record of selections in only three bunches — not everything ever made or seen, but key things captured and transferred to paper. If using a 3-ring binder, each item is punched and added on top behind the category tab. Page by page, all the child’s teachers, over time, create a chronological record from infancy to school age tracking three dimensions of development. The folio is portable, moving with the child in school and eventually residing with the family.

—> Including a Reflection Process

Periodically, say every six months, the child and their family formally review the file together seeing the contents of the entire portfolio as a story of growth and change. At that event, members of the family take a moment to write their thoughts on a dated reflection form and insert it into the chronology. Educators may add a page expressing their current thoughts to the child, too. For example, one-inch, three-ring binder with an introductory explanation and three file tabs could store the portfolio items, parent reflections, and the educator’s thoughts for each child. Technology is evolving. Soon, I expect, we will have apps that enable this to happen over time, but right now a bank of 1″ binders can work. It shouldn’t need to be bigger than that.

Over the years the portfolio takes on a deepening meaning for the child and the family. This accumulating history of three rivers of growth, with periodic comments and reflections that bring back memories of the time, offers a unique view of learning in a culturally inclusive and honoring way.

Creating a Democratic, Inclusive, Reflective Culture

Making the effort to create a categorized space for repeated reflection upon learning and growing creates a shared culture of transformation and continuity. It is a lot of work but worth the effort. Perhaps politicians might visit one day and read one or two of these portfolios and be able to grasp the benefit and vitality of this school for young children and their families. Later stories told of that portfolio become undeniable evidence of doing the right thing for children and childhood.

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