Looking Closely at Children

Core Item Portfolios

How do we demonstrate to others that children are learning what we think is essential for them? What is essential? Deciding that, how can we capture its emergence over 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. It’s possible to do when it has a simple, explicit focus on selected aspects of the child’s life that remain significant for a lifetime.

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 might be more ideal if they were intended to create spaces for children to grow according to their unique capabilities which emerge at different rates, gradually, as determined by their genetics and their life experiences. As we see about us all the time, those life experiences can be wholesome or detrimental. Schools may picture themselves as having a wholesome intent, but we might agree that many schools are not: their systems often create a coercive climate and uniform experiences that are clearly not beneficial for all children. In the current discussion of school’s failures policy makers advocate increased assessment and high stakes testing. It’s supposed to make it better, but often it does not.

One thing we know for sure is that however much we demand and test, schools cannot make anyone learn. Interestingly, the same is true of farmers: no matter how much they demand or test, farmers cannot make crops grow..

I like to think about the provision of educational experiences and spaces using an agricultural metaphor. Farming or vegetable gardening seems to illuminate what is happening when we help others grow. The idea is to think of children as carrots and educators as farmers. Farmers look at seeds, then seedlings, and later at lacy leaves, while the carrots, the abilities and dispositions educators deem essential, always exist underground.

We know intellectually that carrots need carrot1rich, teeming soil, moisture, warm energy from the sun, and no toxins. When conditions are properly in place, a carrot seed does its genetic coding stuff to grow, over time, to be all it can possibly be. Like learning, carrots don’t grow in a day; we can’t even see them change.

I invite you to join me in using this agricultural metaphor to examine assessment to see where it leads. We know the job of farmers is grow the carrots for market. To be successful they have to evaluate their work; their livelihood depends on a crop that is bountiful, flawless, tasty, and nutritious. When farmers encounter a problem with their product, their responsibility is to do something about it as fast as they can. It goes without saying that the farmers are the only ones who can fix it: filing an environmental report isn’t needed, action is.

Through constant action, farmers tweak the environment in a beneficial way using the best information they have. If they can find a way to do something right away, they will; if not, they will figure out how to make the next crop more bountiful, flawless, tasty, and nutritious.

If we apply this idea to schools, educators would expect to have the responsibility to do the benficial tweaks using the best information they have. They naturally would alter both the immediate and long-term conditions for young human beings to become more fully whole, not only now but also through the rest of their lives.

Imposed Assessment Systems

Unfortunately, unlike the farmer (and unlike any other occupation, for that matter), the political forces that control the resources for commonly funded schools require educators to assess their effectiveness in ways that do not provide information needed to tweak their environments. Rather than trust teachers to do their own inquiry and correction, (and provide the resources they need), federal school policy in the United States and many other countries requires strict and costly assessment systems, coercively attached to the provision of money the school needs to function. It’s mandated. No assessment? No school.

These imposed systems do not have to prove they improve the lives of the children nor do they ensure all children do well; they simply have to be followed. Numbers, checkmarks or scores, artificially matter. It’s like requiring farmers to fly drones over their carrots and send the data to a satellite instead of letting them walk their fields and examine their own carrot plants. External systems don’t love the children, or talk to them, or listen to them. How can we have this kind of policy without evidence it makes anything better? These systems eat resources and impose work—dreaded, useless, and irrelevant work. The children lose resources, and the teachers—the only ones who can alter the conditions for growth—are overworked and distrusted.

Whatever your politics, I think we could agree that supporting the teachers with resources and time to work together to carefully grow the children—to love them, talk to them, and listen to them—would be profoundly wholesome.

Assessment Needs a Carrot Taster

If the assessment process for carrots is designed to provide information on how a carrot looks and tastes, we could expect that a taster actually has a carrot to examine and eat. This taster person would be assigned to the job of carrot examination, be expected to become attuned to the work, shoulder the responsibility for true conclusions, and be trusted in their judgment. To apply that metaphor to the assessment of children’s learning, the first step would be to decide who will be the taster. If a child is doing well, being creative or compassionate, or even learning new stuff, who would best be in a position of responsibility and trust? Who would know the child? Who really cares?

The Audience That Cares

I think most of us would agree that any assessment must be useful to the people who care. If it is not, it is irrelevant and unnecessary—and probably a drag on the system.

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 them 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, the assessment of a program or a school should, of necessity, be addressed to them. It must meet their desires for information and provide an opportunity for their participation and reflection. Why should it not be like that?

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 in the emergence over time of the abilities and dispositions that portend a fully realized life. For these audiences that care, seeing evidence of their hopes and dreams for children, their own and others, is joyful and energizing for their own lives. What a huge relief it is for a family to feel confident that their child is in a good school. Similarly, the educators become joyful and energetic, too. It is exciting to get to work to ensure opportunities are engaging for the children today and to imagine possibilities for growth in the future. Why should it not be like that?

Assessment That Matters

Portfolios are a way to accomplish all this in a simple replacement of effort. Educator’s assessment becomes focused on collecting events of interest to the audiences that care in order to create an opportunity for a conversation about learning. If the content of the portfolios is limited to a few streams of learning and change, 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 evolutionary history accumulating in an individual portfolio, when it includes a record of the reflections of the audiences that care, will ground fruitful conversations among educators and families, spark their participation, celebrate the uniqueness of each child, and support their strengths in the future.

A shelf of portfolios inhabits the classroom. It becomes a prominent feature accessible at any time. The set of named binders reminds the educators, the children, each child, and the family (and even the funders) that this school for children cares every day about its essential values and goals. Evolution and change are the focus of work in this school.

Only the Gems

It works best if it is kept simple. Often what goes into a portfolio is a disorganized scrapbook that is hard to look through and difficult to understand. The core Item portfolio collects only key products, events, and learning stories, with the special inclusion of a record of periodic reflection.

A focused portfolio of what deeply matters to children and families offers the possibility of evolving the common work. Only certain items—the gems that make the greatest impact—should be included. I have seen twelve continuous years of content-focused core item portfolios maintained and reflected upon by the children and families. I watched the fascination and excitement of portfolio share days as it gained interest year by year. As little as two years of gems and reflections can change the culture of the school. It gets thicker every year. The reflections become reflected upon. This object the families pour over together defines the common purpose: everyone knows that they gather together to participate in this community where people flourish.


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 see that a core item portfolio is a subdivision of all the kinds of documentation. Lots more can be going on. The core item portfolio has a narrow purpose of recording the strengths of this child over the years. Each year can’t be too thick: imagine 10 items over the course of one year. It is definitely not a disorganized dump containing every photo and every piece of artwork tossed in without purpose. The goal is to make it juicy.

—> Selecting Three Core Items

The challenge is to decide on the three categories of products, which can require many discussions and may take a year to dial it in. If it had four categories, the work rises exponentially, so I offer an example of three: Creativity (energy and courage), Language (expressive depth and breadth), and Relationships (compassion and cooperation). The categories become the handles on three suitcases of your choice. Each case contains a chronological record of this year of life representing that big idea. Since most of life is not gem-worthy, most things are not added to the portfolio—only highlights that are most significant for this child in this year of life and which might remain noteworthy for a lifetime.

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, the child uses a medium skillfully to represent or re-present personal meaning in a way that communicates powerfully to others.

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.

Each time educators face the decision to include or not include an item they evolve clearer understanding of the reason why the event is significant. That is the process of becoming a professional.

—> Selecting a Long-term Format

Instances noted, photographs of works, interviews, observations, and reflections are “cbinderaptured” and converted to a flat format which becomes a cumulative record of the flow of three rivers—not everything ever made or seen, but key things captured and transferred to paper. If one uses a 3-ring binder, each item is punched and added on top behind the category tab. Page by page, educators create a chronological record from infancy to school age. 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 gatherings together seeing a story of growth and change. At a portfolio sharing event, members of the family take a moment to write their thoughts voiced as if speaking to the child, using three reflection forms which are inserted into the chronology. Educators may add a page expressing their current thoughts to the child, too. The portfolio begins with an introductory explanation page, a file tab for each category, and a fourth tab to store the reflection forms. I expect someday we will have technology that could enable this to happen, but a book in hand is always an opportunity for a snuggle.

Creating a Democratic, Inclusive, Reflective Culture

This accumulating history of three rivers of growth, with periodic comments and reflections bringing back memories of the time, offers a unique view of learning in a culturally inclusive and celebratory way.

Making the effort to create a categorized space for repeated reflection upon learning and growing creates a shared culture of transformation and continuity.

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 the events in that portfolio become undeniable evidence of doing the right thing for children and childhood.

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