Growing a portfolio practice – get the marshmallow on top

August 17, 2015

Drew Schrader

This summer, I had the great fortune to co-present a session on portfolios at our New Tech Annual Conference with Jake Johanningsmeier from Scottsburg New Tech.  Across our network, there is a resurgence of enthusiasm around student portfolios as a way to collect authentic student work data and help students showcase themselves and their work. Jake and his team presented their early thinking inspired by a conference session from George Couros that pushed on the idea that part of the real value for students in creating a portfolio is helping them connect with people outside the walls of the school and to craft a strong digital identity.

I could not be more excited about this work. But hidden just below the surface of the potential we are seeing in reviving student portfolios is the trap of over-planning and under-testing.

Many of us have engaged in some form of “the Marshmallow Challenge.” Among several key insights from this experience is raising our awareness of how often we approach problems with a mindset of “create a great plan, collaborate on that plan, and build something great so that we can feel confident it will work when we roll it out.” Many adult teams do this in the Marshmallow Challenge. They spend time discussing a fantastic design, build out that design, and put their marshmallow on top only to find that it doesn’t hold.

Rather than seeing this as a failure of planning, the marshmallow challenge helps us see that it is a failure of process. The thing most adults do wrong in the challenge is wait until the end to “put the marshmallow on top” and see if their structure will actually hold. Kindergartners, incidentally, do this almost continually from the start when they try this and consequently are one of the highest performing demographics in the challenge.  On reflection we see that most of the time that the confidence of whether or not something will work or not only really comes when we actually try it out and that quite often our plan doesn’t actually work, or requires significant revision in light of what we learn when we try it out.

I would argue that creative, forward thinking educators are among the most guilty of this process gaff. We are creators and innovators, and when we come across an idea that really lights us up, it is hard not to want to work to build out all of the “yes and” implications and start to dream up the ultimate version of our idea. How often have you, or you and a colleague, spent hours dreaming up some big idea only to have it fall flat when you roll it out to students?

Potentially even more dangerous in these situation is that we begin to substitute “getting students to do our idea” with the outcomes the idea was deigned to deliver in the first place. In terms of portfolios, we might be excited to see students:

– Posting an idea in process for feedback or just to get clear for themselves

– Commenting and responding to each others ideas

– Connecting with a professional outside their school who works in a similar field

– Revising a piece of work to put into a showcase part of their portfolio to use to lobby for an internship

So we build an intricate set of tools and process to “make it easy” for students (and other teachers) to do something like portfolios and get all those good things we imagined, but the marshmallow doesn’t hold. Since we built it, WE see how everything fits together and the connection to the goals, so what we work on doing is figuring out how to get everyone else do do our great plan. If we accept that the plan will require ongoing modification as we go, maybe we could start by designing as little as possible to bring the learning and building together.

As we start on our portfolio exploration this fall, let’s keep asking ourselves:

What are we trying to do with portfolios, blogs as portfolios, etc? 

and then

How quickly and cheaply can I put the marshmallow on top to learn what is going to work and what isn’t?  

I would love to see a fall of sharing not just cool portfolio plans and ideas, but one of failed micro-tests and the adjustments that came out of that.