Is this as rigorous an assessment as traditional exams?

A young woman steps up to the podium to give a presentation – so far, this could be any seminar in any high school. But this is a presentation with some real differences.

The first difference is content. This isn’t a presentation about a particular assignment or individual piece of work. This is a ‘Portfolio Defence’, a detailed and thorough presentation about the student’s final year of work at the school. She begins by talking openly about her personal development, outlining how she has changed as a person over the past year and over her time at the school.  

She then brings three ‘artefacts’ for consideration – detailed pieces of subject work from a variety of different disciplines, from persuasive writing in English literature to a look at the impact of Roe v Wade on abortion law in the US historically and in the present.

What matters about these ‘artefacts’ is that she is not showing off just her academic knowledge in these areas, but rather focusing on the specific skills that she has developed from these pieces of work. Taking it further, she demonstrates how she has transferred these skills not only from one subject to another, but from school to the other aspects of her life – for instance, using the persuasive writing she developed in English to support voluntary work with young people in custody.

She concludes by applying all of this to her plans for the future to set out how her knowledge and skills are helping her build towards her chosen career path.

The second difference is the audience. This is not just a presentation in class. These young people undertake their portfolio defence very much in public – in front of their peers yes, but also a panel of staff, their parents and external visitors. In this case there is a room full of national and international visitors keen to understand the process.

As we have seen time and again in other fantastic institutions like High Tech High, using this authentic audience really helps to raise the bar for young people in terms of their preparation, their confidence and their own sense of achievement.

The third difference is the level of interaction. After each section and ‘artefact’, the student pauses so that the panel can ask questions – not simple factual questions, but the kind of deep probing ones that they might face at a University or job interview. The student considers each question, adopting a highly reflective tone that is a signature of the whole process, before responding with thorough and well communicated answers.

We often talk about rigour in the education system and in England that has become synonymous in some circles of education debate with traditional exams, which require a high degree of knowledge, but do not really test or develop skills. It is difficult to see how this approach – a detailed presentation of learning, carefully constructed, argued and tested in front of an authentic audience – could not be described as rigorous.

If you have any doubts, you only need look at the forms used by the panel to test and grade the suitability of the presentation for a pass or merit, or to sit in on one of the detailed deliberation and feedback sessions following the presentation. Around 30% of students do not pass the first time and are required to set another date two to three weeks later to reflect and retry.  

What I love about this approach is that it really takes a holistic view of the young person, helping them to bring together the knowledge, skills and behaviours they have learned both in school, and outside it, and focusing on the person they want to become. It also fits closely with the new trend in education towards a focus on metacognition – helping young people to not just learn facts by rote, but to deeply understand how they learn and to develop patterns and techniques that can be applied in a whole variety of different scenarios.

The education system delivers what it is measured against and this is no exception. Using the portfolio defence as the end point of the students’ school careers has helped to shape the rest of the school towards that goal. Teachers focus on academic knowledge of course, but in the context of developing the rounded skills to understand and use that knowledge, and the habit of constant reflection to help students understand their own strengths and areas for development. 

As one of the students we watched concluded at the end of her portfolio defence, if it wasn’t for this process, I definitely wouldn’t have the skills to publically speak in front of 40 people.

You can find out more about Envision Education, located in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, at https://envisionschools.org/. Envision Learning Partners helps schools across the US implement Defences of Learning (https://envisionlearning.org).

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