Portfolio culture and empowerment: some Brazilian challenges

By Clarissa Bezerra, Brasília, Brazil

EdConteXts facilitator Clarissa Bezerra shares her reflections on the value of portfolios as an assessment tool – and potential cultural challenges for implementation in her home country, Brazil.

Portfolios are a formative assessment tool which looks to place the student in the center of his own learning. Isabela Villas Boas cites a classical definition of portfolio in her very instructive post The Power of Portfolio Assessment. As cited by Isabela (highlights are mine):

“A portfolio is a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection” (Paulson et al., 1991, p. 60).

Reading in between the lines of this definition one may find that a powerful learning opportunity arises in the process of compiling a portfolio, for it presupposes the development of complex habits of mind, such as self-reflection and constructive self-critique, the application of which yields deeper learning experiences. Intellectual and academic self-knowledge will therefore be natural byproducts of the portfolio process.

Isabela also writes about her feeling that teachers might not embrace portfolio assessment because they think it to be too complex and difficult to implement. I share that feeling with her, and I would like to explore yet another level of such “resistance”, one that is cultural by nature, and which involves all agents in Brazilian education: teachers, students, parents, and educational leaders. It is my view that we Brazilians generally tend to avoid overvaluing ourselves in front of others, in the sense that it is not culturally desirable to showcase ourselves as unique individuals with unique talents. Let me make it clear that this is my personal view, and one which I would like to explore in an attempt to find possible ways by which such resistance might be overcome, so Brazilian students and teachers may come to enjoy the deep learning experiences offered by authentic assessment practices, such as portfolios.

Examining the definition above, we see that some key terms come to the fore, such as ‘student participation’, ‘judging merit’, and ‘student self-reflection’. How do each of those terms relate to the traditional educational culture in Brazil? I have shared my view of the Brazilian educational context in EdContexts before. Brazilian high school students are exhaustively trained for national standards exams, as well as college entrance exams, the latter being the ultimate goal in their getting an education in the first place. The college entrance process in Brazil does not entail student portfolio appraisal, as is common practice in the U.S., for example. To the contrary, all they need to do is get a certain score on a test, which will get them a spot in university, preferably a renowned federal or state university, such as UnB and USP to name a couple. Which is to say that the main goal of Brazilian high schools is to get as many of their students into university; therefore, there will certainly be lots of teaching to the test. With such an enormous amount of pressure on both teachers and students for high scores, where does ‘student participation’ or ‘student voice’ go in the process? Fortunately, there are a few Brazilian schools and a handful of educators pursuing authentic assessment practices, such as projects and portfolios with their students, but that is far from becoming a trend, in my view.

The terms ‘judging merit’ and ‘student self-reflection’ are closely connected, in that they depend on one another in the portfolio learning process. Again, students need to feel comfortable and confident in judging merit, which will ideally entail the adoption of authentic, collaborative assessment practices, such as peer revision. This is a behavior which is not culturally natural for us, Brazilians. We have a natural tendency of being complimentary to others and will normally react quite humbly to praising from others. In other words, Brazilians are very self-conscious about coming across as feeling any type of superiority. If there is something Brazilians dread it’s looking entitled in any context. Such behavior might partly have religious roots, but I don’t intend to pursue that here. These cultural behaviors will naturally favor a hierarchical order in the classroom, with teachers being the authority figures and students learning what they are told to learn, whichever way they are told to learn it. It reinforces the current discussion around the type of education our youth needs in the 21st century.

Which takes me to the role of teachers. Having been students in the same context, Brazilian teachers will need to become prepared to facilitate that process, overcoming this cultural barrier themselves first. That is no easy task. Teachers definitely need support and modelling from educational leaders. It is my view that once teachers become better acquainted and more comfortable with collaborative, networked professional development practices, as opposed to a top-down approach to teacher training, their self-confidence in adopting such collaborative and formative behaviors in the classroom will certainly increase. Once teachers feel empowered by a portfolio experience themselves, they might feel moved to encourage their students to pursue that path, encouraging their academic and personal growth by cultivating a portfolio. Anyone who blogs, or who has a digital portfolio of some kind knows the feeling of empowerment which comes from being read by an authentic audience, as well as from exploring their own voices on matters that they are passionate about.

What it all comes down to is this: if we ever hope for our students to enjoy the richness in learning that hinges on portfolio culture, we need to enable our teachers to feel the power that cultivating a personal portfolio may bring them in terms of self-knowledge, personal and professional development. It is the duty of teacher trainers and educational leaders in general to bring together the elements that will make up collaborative, teacher-driven professional development frameworks. In my recent experience, educational technology has been a potential catalyst for teacher engagement in their own professional development. Innovative teacher training practices will model innovative teaching and learning practices. We need to inspire teachers to take back their learning, to claim their own professional growth, and in the process, gain the pedagogical expertise, as well as develop the cultural behaviors and habits of mind which might enable this new learning culture to thrive in and out of the classroom.

How do you view portfolio culture in your context? How might we encourage teachers to engage in self-reflection by creating a portfolio of their own, and how might that impact our students’ learning experiences?

Share your reflections with us in the comments below.

One thought on “Portfolio culture and empowerment: some Brazilian challenges

  1. Clarissa I totally identify with you on this awkward position. As someone who teaches adult postgraduate diploma in Educational Technology students from African countries I observe many of the dynamics you report here. Students’ previous experiences of assessment are often that of being for compliance, testing, performance. Formative assessment for example is quite rare. This might be because of class sizes and obviously depends on the level of study. But in African contexts, perhaps this is one of the implications of large class sizes and limited resources like staff, tutors, etc (people who do the marking). Granted, I have not visited many African countries and going by what students share about their contexts and what comes up in their work. Many African universities are still quite traditional – didactic approaches are the norm and regulation is preferred. Innovation is hard, as it often means unsettling traditional power distances involved in the teaching and learning relationship. It is hard for educators and students alike to engage in socio-constructivist pedagogies in African contexts. In our courses we try really hard to teach students about being a critical friend, the purposes of peer assessment and so forth but like your situation, this is hard because there is a culture of not being critical of others. This also impacts on sometimes not being critical of research, not wanting to disagree with what an author is saying or feeling that a counter position could be equally valid.

    I think institutional culture plays a role with university teachers. Some individuals self-aggrandize (often male, more qualified) because it’s how they are taught to speak as part of their institutional culture. Others might be more humble sometimes because they feel they do not have a voice in particular spaces or fear they may get into trouble.

    We’ve moved away from public portfolios to private ones, so going from using tools like WordPress and Google Sites to a closed LMS. While it is counter to our philosophies where we encourage open practices, we are also mindful that for our students public spaces are scary spaces. Asking people to showcase or reflect in public spaces entails making themselves visible and available for judgement. It’s not that they are resisting the technology, but the pedagogy and public space means engaging in unfamiliar identity work.

    So do we continue using public spaces as those in the global north do and tell our students to ‘deal’ and embrace discomfort or do we adapt our approach to portfolios, such as choosing closed spaces instead? Might this may change the purpose and audience of a portfolio (eg. only for lecturers, peers and external examiners) and what a portfolio means in our contexts?

    I have co-authored a position piece on portfolios which may be of interest http://www.cilt.uct.ac.za/cilt/ciltpapers as well as a paper on vocational education teacher’s use of e-portfolios http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjet.12440/abstract The first one is creative commons and the second is a journal article. I think this discussion we’re interested in is also about constraints and enablements of context which impact on agency and how people choose or are able to represent themselves and their work.

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