Making an impression with portfolios
Portfolios: the preferred form of documentation
In Germany (and also, incidentally, in many other countries), portfolios are THE method of process-oriented educational documentation. The particular appeal of this method of documentation lies in the fact that a wide range of documents can be collected in a portfolio, and different actors (children, teachers, parents) can contribute (Huhn and Schneider 2008). The portfolio can be maintained over a long period of time and can also support transitions (nursery to ECEC centre, ECEC centre to school). There are now numerous guidelines and templates which ECEC centres can use to organize portfolios; many facilities have developed their own forms and structures for the portfolios they create (Knauf 2015).
Portfolios as constructions of pedagogical reality
Ample reason, then, to take a closer look at portfolios. I have analysed a total of over 2000 pages from 25 portfolios from 23 different facilities (ECEC centres and nurseries). The portfolio does not reflect an objective truth, but is the result of certain perceptions and interpretations, and thus the result of a more or less conscious production process. This study sees portfolios as part of “impression management”. The term was coined by Erving Goffman, who interprets all human communication as an attempt to create a certain impression (Goffman 1999). There is nothing wrong with this; rather, Goffman sees this way of looking at communication as the basis for a more nuanced understanding. Portfolios are also a means of communication – but who is communicating with whom?
Communication through portfolios – but who is communicating with whom?
The process of producing a portfolio is largely controlled by the educational practitioners. Most portfolio entries (a good 60 %) are created by the teachers, just under 40 % come from the children themselves. And even among these 40 % contributed by the children, a large proportion consists of worksheets or drawings following a pre-defined scheme, so that – indirectly – the input of the teachers plays a crucial role here as well. The senders in this communication seem to be the teachers, even if this is sometimes indirect. The target audience is also not clearly defined. Krok and Lindewald (2007) identify the children themselves as the main target group of the portfolio; they argue that it is only secondarily aimed at the parents and teachers. The same target groups can be discerned in the portfolios which I examined. Sometimes the children are directly addressed in photo captions (“It’s never boring when you’re around”), but the comments are often neutral too (“Trip to the forest”). Other portfolio entries are directed at an outside reader (“The group room is divided into individual play areas. In this prepared environment I can choose from the materials and games on offer, and choose between playing alone and playing with others, and I myself determine how long I play with each thing”). Here it is clear – though not explicitly stated – that the parents are the target audience of the portfolio. This is further confirmation of an observation I have already made in earlier studies: many teachers use the portfolio (and documentation in general) as a sort of “accountability book” targeted at the parents. The portfolio functions as a message from the teachers to the parents, via the child.
What are portfolios about?
My analysis allowed me to identify several topoi which repeatedly feature in the portfolio entries. Topoi here does not refer to the actual subjects (e.g. excursion or nature), but to the messages underlying these subjects. The analysis of the material shows that it is especially important to the practitioners to convey the following five impressions to the parents:
- … have a lot of fun,
- … are connected to other children by friendships,
- … are being well prepared for school,
- … are offered high-quality care
- … are perceived and valued as individuals.
Expectations of expectations: doing education
According to Goffman, the impression a person wishes to create is guided by certain assumptions (Goffman, 1999): when producing the portfolios, the practitioners are clearly guided by their ideas about what expectations parents have of their child’s time in the ECEC centre. It seems obvious to assume that these imputed expectations also reflect the teacher’s expectations of their own work. An interesting question for another study would be to what extent the expectations imputed to the parents coincide with or diverge from the teacher’s own expectations.
The evaluation of the portfolios shows how the teachers want their work to be perceived, and what parts of their role they class as important. Here the different way the various topoi are addressed shows different priorities: while some of the portfolios contain mainly entries on preparation for school and high-quality provision, others have a larger number of entries concerned with fun and friendship. These varying priorities reflect different ideas about education in ECEC centres. These differing concepts of education should be understood in the light of changes in the way the role and function of ECEC centres are perceived. ECEC centres in Germany are not only a place for the care and socialization (Erziehung) of children, but also for their education (Bildung). In keeping with this, the portfolio entries analysed here share one important element: they all show children as learning and developing subjects, and are part of the constitution of an institutional process of “doing education“ (Schulz, 2013).
Different emphases in the self-image of ECEC centres as educational institutions
Nonetheless, the portfolios give different answers to the question of what exactly education in early childhood means. The portfolios dominated by worksheets preparing children for school seem to interpret education primarily as the acquisition of the cultural technologies of writing and arithmetic, while the portfolios documenting small developmental steps represent a social constructivist understanding of education, in which it is seen in the context of individual development. Other portfolios, through their emphasis on fun and friendship, make it clear that social and emotional integration is seen as the most important mandate of the centre.
Portfolios can play an important role in the impression management of ECEC centres. As the analysis of the portfolio entries shows, this is not so much a matter of whether they leave a “good” or “bad” impression. Instead, the portfolio entries show what is regarded as important and valuable, and are therefore indicators of the professional pedagogical beliefs prevailing in the ECEC centre.
Goffman, Erving (1999). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Gloucester: Peter Smith.
Huhn, Norbert, & Schneider, Kornelia (2008). Guck mal, was ich mache! – Schau dir an, was ich kann. In Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, N. Huhn & K. Schneider (eds.), Bildung sichtbar machen (pp. 25–51). Weimar; Berlin: Verlag das Netz.
Krok, Göran, & Lindewald, Maria (2007). Portfolios im Kindergarten. Mühlheim: Verlag an der Ruhr.
Knauf, Helen (2015). Styles of Documentation in German Early Childhood Education. Early Years, 35, 232–248. doi:10.1080/09575146.2015.1011066.
Schulz, Marc (2013). Frühpädagogische Konstituierung von kindlichen Bildungs- und Lernprozessen. Zeitschrift für Soziologie der Erziehung und Sozialisation, 33(1), 26–41.
The complete findings of the study can be found here:
Knauf, Helen (2016): Making an Impression: Portfolios as Instruments of Impression Management for Teachers in Early Childhood Education and Care Centres. In: Early Childhood Education Journal. DOI 10.1007/s10643-016-0791-0.