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The Role of Digital Portfolios in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Part 2: SEL and Student Voice

Mike Lang
April 5, 2024

According to eminent paleontologist Richard Fortey, “A life accumulates a collection: of people, work, and perplexities. We are all our own curators.” As we explore ways to support social-emotional learning (SEL), our goal is to help students explore varied perspectives and value people and work so that they can traverse life in a way that is healthy and fulfilling. They must become curators. When we refer to curation, we are referring to the act of not only collecting created artifacts but also reflecting on the process of doing so. This blog explores how curating digital portfolios provides a powerful avenue for fostering SEL skills in students, equipping them with essential tools for personal growth, self-reflection, self-advocacy, and future success through student voice and choice.

Curating a Learning Journey through SEL

Regardless of the demographics of a school community, social-emotional learning has been shown to have benefits in terms of academic achievement, positive attitude toward school, and decreased emotional distress. In short, school becomes a place where learners want to be and where they excel. But how might they demonstrate what they’re learning, how they’re learning it, and how they feel about it?

When we consider strategies that allow young people to contribute to their journeys toward mastery, digital portfolios are one avenue that should be considered. Experts agree that having structures allows an SEL vision to flourish and a structured curation strategy will have an impact on how learners express themselves during the learning process. Student portfolios as a storytelling strategy can enhance an SEL strategy by providing an opportunity for learners to narrate their experiences in school.

Empowering Student Voice and Choice through Digital Portfolios

Fostering Student Choice

When referring to digital portfolio and curation strategies, the goal is to give space for learners to create artifacts, reflect on the process of creating the artifact, and present the artifact and reflection to a greater audience. Which artifacts are included and how they are presented are left up to the “artist.” Students have the choice of which pieces are included and shared. While student choice plays a key role in the curation and presentation of their digital portfolio, the process should be structured and designed intentionally so learners are thoughtful about which artifacts are included and how their reflections might be articulated.

Amplifying Student Voice

Due to the nature of digital portfolios, multimedia such as video, audio, images, and links can be used to demonstrate the learner’s point of view. This helps ensure that all learners, including those who may be more reserved and reluctant to present in front of others, can still express their thoughts and ideas. Students can use their “voice” and “vision” in different ways to accomplish the goal of presenting ideas. This is also an effective inclusion strategy for second language learners and exceptional students as it allows them to present their stories from their own perspectives and use any means they see fit.

Student voice can extend beyond just the classroom. Care should be taken to give students opportunities to share their portfolios with others in their learning environment as well as others in their community. Like visiting an art gallery, hearing the perspective of the student (or artist) as they explain their work, the media used to create it, and their frame of mind while doing so can have positive impacts on others. It might serve to spark an idea or challenge a previously held worldview. It might inspire a collaboration or partnership that might otherwise not have happened or garner attention for a group or issue that might have been overlooked.

Digital Portfolios and the SEL Competencies

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has a framework that features five competencies for SEL. These are helpful to keep in mind and refer to while considering any social-emotional learning strategy and digital portfolios can be a vehicle that allows learners to explore and express these competencies. Through self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making learners can express their voice and choice in even greater dimensions.

Self-awareness asks students to contend with their strengths and opportunities for growth. It’s an exploration of who they are and what is valued. Learners might use their digital portfolio to document self-awareness by choosing artifacts that reflect their evolution or progress on a given topic. Did they grow in appreciation of a perspective? Did they change their opinion after research and reflection?

Self-management is a reflection on one’s behaviors and emotions to be successful. It’s an exploration of how one might govern themselves to complete the tasks and objectives necessary to achieve the desired outcomes. Did they have a project plan? Did they persevere through a challenge? Digital portfolios might be utilized here to encourage students to reflect on how the use of a project management strategy like the Pomodoro method allowed them to exercise self-care as they worked.

Social awareness is an expression of empathy and endeavoring to be informed about how the world works. It’s an exploration of how others feel and how to appreciate their journeys. Did they consider someone else’s point of view? Did they learn something new about someone else? A socially aware learner might use their portfolio to document their progress on a project they’ve designed using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Relationship skills focus on how learners communicate with others positively and establish healthy relationships. Did they include everyone in their group in decision-making? Did they remain positive when given an opportunity not to? Learners working on relationship skills might use their digital portfolio to journal about how they designed a working agreement with a collaborative team for a project they have embarked on.

Responsible decision-making asks students to consider the outcomes of their actions and encourages them to be curious solution-finders. Were they problem solvers rather than complainers? Did they reflect on the consequences of their actions? A student might utilize a digital portfolio to illustrate how they designed a decision matrix to determine the ideal course of action for a project.

Digital portfolios can be an advantageous tool to support SEL competency development, reflection, and growth. The process of curating a student portfolio can help learners visualize how their voice and choice matter as well as how they can present their ideas to others. Digital portfolios like SpacesEDU can help express the five core competencies of SEL, provide voice and choice through multimedia capabilities, and some tools provide a collaborative space for group work and relationship skills to thrive, co-creating a portfolio alongside classmates.

Looking for a digital portfolio solution to support SEL? Download the K–12 Guide to Choosing a Digital Documentation Platform.

This is part two of a three-part series. Read parts one and three.

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