A portfolio instead of a diploma

Teacher Mark Pullen wrote on his blog great thoughts on students leaving school with portfolios instead of just diplomas. The next day, he was reading What Would Google Do? and found that we agreed on this, I’m happy to say. Mark’s ideas:

After 13 years of work getting a K-12 education, why is it that all a student has to show for it is (if things go well) a diploma?

It seems to me like our goals should be so much different, such as:

In writing: students should have a very rich blog with hundreds of quality posts on it, as well as several major self-published pieces and several other items that were genuinely published by outside sources (editorials in the local paper, columns for a trade magazine, etc.)

In science: students should have at least one patent and/or at least one invention that they’ve actually created a prototype for (or, better, that has had copies of which have actually sold)

In math: students should be able to balance a checkbook, understand how to stay out of debt and avoid credit spending, and understand how to interpret biased statistics and advertisements correctly; they should also be able to solve any real-world math problem they may encounter in life (figuring out the reduced cost of having improved gas mileage, determining the amount of interest that would accrue on various home loans, figuring out which jar of peanut butter costs less per ounce, being able to make two-thirds of a batch of something, etc.).

In social studies: students should be able to read every article in the newspaper and understand (when applicable) the article’s significance and the historical events that have led up to the event being described. When applicable, students should also understand the geography of the location(s) being discussed, as well as the religious and political backgrounds of the people groups involved

Finally: students should be heading to their post-K-12 life with a plan for the future, rather than just heading to college because everyone is doing it. They should have an extensive understanding of a significant number of careers in their preferred field(s) of study as well.

Kind of cool: a patent instead of a sheepskin.

As a second 30 Days of WWGD? snippet for the day (because I’m a bit behind), here’s the bit from the book that Mark quoted:

* * *

Perhaps we need to separate youth from education. Education lasts forever. Youth is the time for exploration, maturation, socialization. We may want to create a preserve around youth—as Google does around its inventors—to nurture and challenge the young. What if we told students that, like Google engineers, they should take one day a week or one course a term or one year in college to create something: a company, a book, a song, a sculpture, an invention? School could act as an incubator, advising, pushing, and nurturing their ideas and effort. What would come of it? Great things and mediocre things. But it would force students to take greater responsibility for what they do and to break out of the straitjacket of uniformity. It would make them ask questions before they are told answers. It could reveal to them their own talents and needs. The skeptic will say that not every student is responsible enough or a self-starter. Perhaps. But how will we know students’ capabilities unless we put them in the position to try? And why structure education for everyone around the lowest denominator of the few? . . . .

The next role of the university is testing and certification: the granting of degrees and anointing of experts. The idea of a once-in-a-lifetime, one-size-fits-many certification of education—the diploma—looks more absurd as knowledge and needs change. Are there better measures of knowledge and thinking than a degree? Why should education stop at age 21? Diplomas become dated. Most of what I have done in my career has required me to learn new lessons—long past graduation—about technology, business, economics, sociology, science, education, law, and design. Lately I’ve learned many of these lessons in public, on my blog, with the help of my readers. That is why I urge other academics to blog and be challenged by their public. I believe that should count as publishing. Blog or perish, I say.

Our portfolios of work online, searchable by Google, become our new CVs. Neil McIntosh, an editor at the Guardian, blogged that when he interviews young candidates for online journalism jobs, he expects them to have a blog. “There’s no excuse for a student journalist who wants to work online not to have one,” he wrote. “Moreover, the quality of the blog really matters, because it lets me see how good someone is, unedited and entirely self-motivated.” Our work—our collection of creations, opinions, curiosities, and company—says volumes about us. Before a job interview, what employer doesn’t Google the candidate (a practice banned by law in Finland, by the way)? Our fear is that employers will find embarrassing, boozy pictures from spring break, but that’s all the more reason to make sure they also find our blogs and collected works. . . .

  • silento

    This blog is very rich.

  • Getting quoted on here is, first of all, a treat and an honor. But more important, it reminds me that our students should be having these same kinds of experiences, where they are contacting the authors of the books they’re reading and engaging them in dialogue about the author’s meaning and purpose. That, to me, is another more “Googley” form of education than having kids merely consume/absorb information.

  • Rebecca Harshbarger

    Loved the thoughts from Mark Pullen- brilliant.

  • Excellent post.

    I understand the intent behind “students should have at least one patent” – it would show a grasp of science by the process of describing an invention – but I wonder if patents are really all that WWGD these days. Patents are often now used as a legal bludgeon.

    I wonder what the “Googley” version of patents would be?

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  • Thomas — I’m fine with a different version of my patent idea. You get the gist: something students have created instead of merely studied. I, too, would love to know what a more Googley version of patents would be.

    • To get a patent, you need to come up with something both novel and useful. The closest equivalent concept in education is the Doctorate, which is supposed to require “original” research — but has no “utility” requirement :-) .

      It would be unfortunate if we pushed our students on a path that resulted in millions more patents — each of them limiting the use of some novel approach. It might be better to encourage students to file for the now seldom used “Statutory Invention Registration” (SIR). A SIR can be thought of as a “public domain” patent or “anti-patent”. By getting one of these, you recognize the original inventor while also preventing others from later patenting the same idea.
      See: http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/documents/1100_1101.htm

      bob wyman

      • Thanks, Bob. I knew an explosion of patents was a problem (but I liked Mark’s notion). And you have a solution.

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  • invitedmedia

    great idea.

    but as a tuition-paying father of two, i can see the christmas morning when my kids gift wrap me a t-shirt that reads… “my kids went to the university of chicago, uc berkeley and michigan state university and all i got was this lousy t-shirt” while they each trot off with a portfolio.

    such is life.

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  • I love the concept of a portfolio instead of a diploma, but the details make me chuckle. The third party publications and patents and “balance a checkbook” requirements sound like elitist versions of the curricula from the turn of the 20th century. I really smiled when I got to the “plan for the future” part. I come from a generation where preparing your plan for life was standard practice. Off all the people I know from that time, only one actually wound up doing what he or she planned. Life, somehow, doesn’t want to conform to plans made in adolescence.

  • This is a very valuable read. Education is critical and it goes way beyond diplomas and degrees. Instead we should build portfolios of our work – proof that education has no age attached and is essential to living. I’m working on my portfolio right now! Thanks for writing this.

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  • My son goes to a Waldorf School. What is interesting about this is that the way education is “taught” there is very much in line with the way it is being discussed here. The kids there DISCOVER and as a result LEARN. They are encouraged to learn via exploration and experience rather than memorization and tedious repetition. As a result they are inquisitive and interested in what they are doing and their experience is one of fun and enjoyment. Great post.

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  • I’ve been championing this position for a while now and it’s actually something my company’s building toward. Diplomas become obsolete the second their issued — and I’d argue further that they mean nothing in the first place — and the actual production of cold, hard work is a far better indication of someone’s worth. A diploma only indicates potential whereas a portfolio indicates immediate value.

  • While I agree that diversity in the school system is a good thing, I think that a broad education is still important, as much people will change jobs and even professions during their working lives. Focusing too much on the first few years after leaving school would be a mistake. Education is also about exploring one’s position in the world as an individual. We don’t want drones for workers, but rather well-rounded human beings with a sufficient skill set to quickly adjust themselves to their new workplace. My 2 cents.

  • Anyway, I don’t really know a great deal about this, yet it reminds me of a tale my supervisor at Intel once told us: evidently, this 13th century Scottish alchemist endeavored (in vain) to produce precious metal out of lead. He researched those ingredients so attentively, he had become an authority on the two, and became wealthy being an agent to the empress. Data was tricky to find back then, contrary to today with computer availability, and dedicated drivers etc. in those days, if you discovered something good, you could keep on advising forever. Yet I digress. What I am saying is that occasionally you find riches just by seeking (plus staying focused on) something different, and this is what happened to me after I accidentally got here. I was simply on the lookout for some technological records regarding driver updates when I started off surfing around, and got carried away….

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