Saturday, 13 September 2014 19:36

Three Spheres of the Portfolio Approach

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Three Spheres of the Portfolio Approach

3 spheres portfolio v2

Personal Sphere

One question we can ask about teaching and learning is,

“How can our forms of practice engender collaborative partnerships where diverse voices, competing ideologies, and opposing traditions can all be heard and respected” (McNamee, 2004, p. 406)?

How can a portfolio approach to learning can help individual practitioners begin to develop their own forms of practice that will eventually allow us to both actively and passively create partnerships in a community of inquiry where we can be a diverse voice among others and be respected? During this semester, we will explore how we can present ourselves and our competencies to others in a manner which helps us to further develop our potential along lines that we want, rather than along lines that others may guess or press upon us.

These questions and goals provide a clear focus from which to start on a personal journey of practicing a portfolio approach to one’s own learning. I argue that one form of practice for practitioners is to begin to wrestle with the myriad ill-structured domains of knowledge that they encounter in their daily professional life and employ what Jacobson and Spiro (1993) term, ‘cognitive flexibility’ to put their ideas into an accessible format that can be viewed and shared by other people. This practice will enable the practitioner to begin to both actively and passively share their ideas more readily and easily with their community of inquiry and, almost as a by-product, and with little tampering, provide a high-stakes showcase of competencies.

Additionally, I will argue that the use of a portfolio approach to one’s professional practice allows us to control parts of our life that we do not know we are already sharing. This may be part of Ismael’s (2007) non-reflexive “I”. From our passive representation, what can people tell from our ‘data’? How can that gleaned knowledge help us, or help others to help us, or help us to help others? Regardless of what we do, we are engaged in co-constructing our own self with those around us (Gergen, 2011). Through a portfolio approach, we can be more proactive in our own development.

This is the personal sphere of the portfolio approach and it requires sustained, individual effort. 

Community Sphere

Gergen (2009) asks the question,

“How could collaborative activities among teachers for example be used to enhance the relational process within classrooms, or between classrooms and the world outside? (p. 269)

How can a portfolio approach afford opportunities for practitioners to go among each other’s work and find their own knowledge and new learning from that collection? In order to participate in a community, the practitioner must be willing to share their ideas and be prepared to both explain them, and change them. In the process of epistemological curiosity, the practitioner can employ a portfolio approach that allows him or her opportunities to “assemble relevant abstract conceptual and case-specific knowledge components” (Jacobsen & Spiro, 1993, p. 3), better explain or organize those knowledge components, and then hold and examine them, almost as concrete objects, before putting them out into the world. This is the point where the personal sphere of the portfolio approach overlaps with and interjects into the community sphere.

When considering whether new forms of media can alter our ways of thinking, we can reflect on McLuhan’s (1964) argument that the “medium is the message”. How do the new possibilities of the social media and web 2.0 technologies influence our abilities to share ideas? As years’ worth of students have told this practitioner, “I am doing it in my head”, ‘it’ being planning, outlining, organizing, preparing for assessments, and otherwise being a student. This is certainly possible, but these same students have never been able to demonstrate how others can access those ideas that are in their heads. With 21st century tools, practitioners can now be much more efficient in sharing their ideas with their community and stakeholders and thus creating the possibilities for growth.

From my perspective working in an international community of inquiry, we must also consider how we can create a sense of community among practitioners who may come from a wide range of backgrounds (Cleveland-Innes & Garrison, 2010)? Similarly, Gergen (2001) asks, “What are the pragmatic potentials of the forms of life to which students are exposed in our schools?” In the school system of the UAE, and in international schools around the world, students are exposed to many different customs and beliefs even if implicitly or passively shared through the simple act of being with each other. Through the passive representation of oneself as will be explored, how can we positively influence those potentials to make the most of our time together?

time span of discretion

Competency Sphere

The question that links the community sphere to the competency sphere, and back to the personal sphere is,

How can we work with other educators and students to allow them to determine their own voice without abandoning the institutional voice that comes from learning outcomes, program outcomes and the demands of the professional workplace?

Or, in other words, how can the use of a portfolio approach allow principals and mentors work with faculty and mentees to direct and guide development and meet institutional needs while preserving the voice and individuality of the participants?

This section will explore the most common and perhaps more traditional use of a portfolio as a showcase for the demonstration of competency. Though the competency sphere may have a perhaps confusing overlap with the personal sphere and the community of inquiry sphere, the high stakes nature of being able to demonstrate that outcomes have been met, or that competencies are consistently delivered, makes the competency sphere an integral and necessary part of the portfolio approach. Herein lies the overlap with both the personal sphere and the community sphere. Within this sphere where the showcase portfolio might be viewed as a static collection of artefacts, there are processes and tools that permit ongoing demonstrations that can be updated regularly, and in some cases, automatically. 


Cleveland-Innes, M. F., & Garrison, D. R. (2010). (eds) An Introduction to Distance Education. New York: Routledge.

Gergen, K. (2001). Social Construction in Context. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. (UK). Retrieved 2012, from

Gergen, K. (2009). Relational Being. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gergen, K. (2011). Relation Being: A Brief Introduction. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 24(4), 280-282. Retrieved August 29, 2012, from

Ismael, J. (2007). The situated self. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jacobsen, M., & Spiro, R. (1993). Hypertext Learning Environments, Cognitive Flexibility, and the Transfer of Complex Knowledge: An Empirical Investigation. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Center for the Study of Reading. Champaign, Illinois: College of education. Retrieved September 7, 2014, from

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. Cornwall: Routledge.

McNamee, S. (2004). Imagine Chicago: a methodology for cultivating community social construction in practice. Journal Of Community & Applied Social Psychology, 14(5), 406-409. doi:10.1002/casp.799


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Dr. Paul Leslie

Associate of Taos Institute:

Education is a Community Affair. 

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