Metaphors for Portfolios
a series of quotes

A metaphor is defined as:

"An expression which describes a person or object in a literary way by referring to something that is considered to possess similar characteristics to the person or object you are trying to describe" (Cambridge Learner's Dictionary)

"A figure of speech in which a word or phrase which is not literally applicable is used in place of another to suggest an analogy." (A Word a Day Archives)

The more common meaning of metaphor is a figure of speech that is used to paint one concept with the attributes normally associated with another... Metaphors are seen as very powerful tools because they allow for the expression of abstract principles by reference to concretes. They can also be dangerous to understanding, in that people may fail to recognize the figurative nature of a metaphor, and come to take it literally. (Wikipedia)

Why metaphors for portfolios?

The purpose of this page is to share different metaphors that have been used to describe portfolios, for the purpose of helping to build a shared understanding about the multiple purposes of portfolios. Below are brief quotes from various authors and resources on portfolios, to help us understand their multiple perspectives and purposes.

Mary DiezLee ShulmanPearl & Leon PaulsonJudy Wilkerson & Steve LangHelen BarrettJoanne CarneyRay TolleyOthers

Dr. Mary Diez

"My fear is that too much attention may be paid to the form of the portfolio, without sufficient care given to its power for learning." (p.26)


"The mirror is a more obvious metaphor...fairly literally to ask the question how can the portfolio assist one to see oneself? (p.21)

"The developmental portfolio is the kind of portfolio I think of when I think of the portfolio as mirror....The impact of recognizing one's growth can also be present in the process of putting together a showcase portfolio, when students review their work to choose the pieces they want to include."(p.22)

"The process of looking at one's development through a portfolio process functions like a literal mirror--when one sees one's own image or performance--the literal reflection sparks internal reflection." (p.23)


"...the map image is linked to the mirror--focusing on what you see can spark the question about where you want to go next. In the image of the map, a portfolio provides a framework for one to look at where next to set goals for one's own progress. The combination of samples of work and a sense of developmental criteria make the portfolio a tool to talk about growth and opportunities to develop further." (p.23)

"Self assessment is the primary tool that makes the portfolio like a map. Using explicit criteria, the student develops the ability to look at her own work and determine the strengths and weaknesses evident in a particular performance or across a set of performances. She begins to set goals to address the areas she needs to develop and to deepen her areas of strength." (p.25)

"The power of seeing the portfolio as map is to see that reflection can bring together the inner self and the outer world. The portfolio...encourages reflection--helping me to see my self and my strengths and weaknesses, but also to look at the sources of my growth in the larger world, especially the world of professional practice." (p.25)

"The portfolio as map captures the sense of a process made a habit of mind, of a commitment to ongoing professional growth." (p.26)


"What constrains also frees" (Wordsworth).

"The portfolio, like the sonnet, is simply a form, a structure. Provided one puts quality work between the covers, the portfolio can be a structure to help an individual express meaning. But its quality depends [upon] what the individual does with it. Too often I hear teachers fall into the trap of expecting the form to do the work that only human discipline and creativity can do... form, whether for a poem or a portfolio, can be seen as a discipline that can be used to shape expression. It does not do the work of expression--that's the poet['s] and the student's role.

"The type of portfolio that the sonnet metaphore best describes is the showcase portfolio. A showcase portfolio puts together samples of one's work, with the purpose of, for example, showing the range of performance one has demonstrated, showing examples that one considers one's best efforts." (p. 19)

Source: Diez, Mary (1994) "The Portfolio: Sonnet, Mirror and Map" in Burke, Kay (1996) Professional Portfolios. Arlington Heights: IRI Skylight, pp. 17-26. Also available through ERIC ED376162

Dr. Lee Shulman

A Theoretical Act

"...a portfolio is a theoretical act. By this I mean that every time you design, organize, or create in your teacher education program a template, a framework, or a model for a teaching portfolio, you are engaged in an act of theory. Your theory of teaching will deternine a reasonable portfolio entry. What is declared worth documenting, worth reflecting on, what is deemed to be portfolio-worthy, is a theoretical act." (p.24)

" is important to keep in mind that the portfolio is a broad metaphor that comes alive as you begin to formulate the theoretical orientation to teaching that is most valuable to you." (p.25)

Source: Shulman, Lee (1998) "Teacher Portfolios: A Theoretical Activity" in Lyons, Nona (1998) With Portfolio in Hand: Validating the new teacher professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 23-37.

Pearl & Leon Paulson


"Portfolios tell a story...put in anything that helps to tell that story." (p.1)

"A portfolio tells a story. It is the story of knowing. Knowing about things... Knowing oneself... Knowing an audience... Portfolios are students' own stories of what they know, why they believe they know it, and why others should be of the same opinion. A portfolio is opinion backed by fact... Students prove what they know with samples of their work."

"There is a distinction to be made between folders and portfolios if students are to get maximum benefit from collecting their work. Much of what passes for portfolios we would call folders. Folders usually contain collections of student work, and may in addition contain checklists, worksheets, test scores and other things. Sometimes the students put them together, sometimes the teachers. Sometimes the students interact with their folders throughout the day, sometimes they are hardly aware of them until parent-teacher conference day.

"By portfolio, we mean a purposeful, interrelated collection of student work that shows the student's efforts, progress or achievements in one or more areas. The collection includes evidence of students' self-reflection and their participation in setting the focus, selecting the contents, and judging merit. Acrivities are guided by performance standards. A portfolio communicates what is learned and why it is important (Paulson, Paulson, & Meyer, 1992). According to this definition, a portfolio differs from the familiar student writing folder. A folder is a collection, which a portfolio is a purposeful and coherent collection that communicates what learnings have taken place. Finally, the student is the major participant in all phases of the portfolio's development.

"The purpose of the portfolio is communication. It is a story, a narrative, told from the student's perspective."(p.2)

"Throughout this paper we shall use storytelling as a metaphor to show what portfolios are and how they can be used to support learning...we ask three questions... What tells the story? Now we ask two more: Whose story is it? And how does the story end?? (p.3)

"Stories are a natural way to help portfolio-makers think about their thinking., The neurologist Oliver Sacks (1987) believes a sense of narrative is 'absolutely primal.' " (p.7)


"Finally, we suggest that students view their portfolios as a journey into knowing and that they write a narrative describing that journey. Our goal is to help students tell their story, a story that has a happy ending." (p.3)

"The development of the portfolio is like a journey. The story of that journey is a story about the story." (p.7)

"We get students ready to write the stories of their portfolios by joining them on the journey. Together on the journey we talk, learn, and assemble the portfolio. Along the way we predict what's ahead; we discuss problems as adventures and failures as false starts. We look together for new routes around mountains. An obstacle safely passed, we reflect on what 'magic' helped to slay the dragons, cross the rivers, and climb the glass hills. Finally, we hoin in the celebrations of knowing." (p.8)


"The portfolio is a laboratory where students construct meaning from their accumulated experience." (p.5)

Source: Paulson, P. & Paulson, F.L. (1991). Portfolios: Stories of knowing. In P.H. Dreyer (Ed.), Claremont Reading Conference 55th Yearbook 1991: Knowing the power of stories.Claremont, CA: Center for Developmental Studies of the Claremont Graduate School. ERIC Document Reproduction Service: ED377209

Dr. Judy Wilkerson & Dr. Steve Lang's "High Stakes" Portfolios


According to the definition of “tests” in the 1999 AERA/APA/NCME Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, forms of testing may include traditional multiple-choice tests, written essays, oral examinations, and more elaborate performance tasks. Hence, portfolios that are composed of written reflections (a form of an essay) and products representative of the candidate’s skills, and performance, fall under a professionally acceptable definition of “test”.

Mehrens and Popham (1992) define high-stakes tests as tests used for decisions, such as for employment, licensure, or a high school graduation.... Given the definition of a portfolio as a high-stakes test that serves, at least in part, to make a certification, licensure, or graduation decision, legal and psychometric issues apply. This is also true of any assessment device used in such decisions, regardless of whether it is authored by a test company, a state agency, or an SCDE.

Source: Wilkerson, J.R., & Lang, W.S. (2003, December 3). Portfolios, the Pied Piper of teacher certification assessments: Legal and psychometric issues. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(45). Retrieved February 13, 2004 from

Also see discussion of two competing paradigms of portfolios (positivist and constructivist)

Dr. Helen Barrett

Celebration of Learning Across the Lifespan

"My Final Wish…
May all your electronic portfolios become dynamic celebrations of learning across the lifespan." (the last slide on all presentations)

"An electronic portfolio has the potential to become a dynamic celebration of learning that documents a teacher’s professional development across his or her career." (p.301)
Source: ISTE (2002) "Assessing Technology Preparation of Teachers" in Preparing Teachers to use Technology. ISTE, pp.283-301

Comparison with Financial Portfolios

A financial portfolio documents the accumulation of fiscal capital or monetary assets.
A learning portfolio documents the development of human capital or intellectual assets.

My Attic

At an ePortfolio forum at Boston University on September 26, 2008, the opening speaker referred to my website as an "attic" with a lot of history/artifacts of my journey through e-portfolios. A lot of houses don't have attics any more... my physical memorabilia is now stored in half of my garage. But the metaphor of a garage doesn't evoke the conceptual model of storing memories as an attic. Of course an e-portfolio is more than a collection of artifacts, but this metaphor evokes fond memories of grandparents' houses and the rich memories that are represented in the artifacts stored there.

Dr. Joanne Carney

Campfires around which we tell our stories

"Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories," says musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson. If that be so, what tales will be shared in the flickering glow of teachers' electronic portfolios? Will web and multimedia technologies be used to help teachers capture their knowledge of practice and share it in ways not possible with older technologies? Or will the audience gathered around electronic portfolios hear few meaningful stories because we have failed to see the dilemmas posed by these new technologies and made the complex decisions necessary to use our tools wisely?

Pearl and Leon Paulson have said, "Portfolios tell a story...put in anything that helps to tell the story" (1991, p. 294). I believe web and multimedia technologies offer us campfires around which we might gather to hear the stories of teachers. Electronic portfolios could be places where practitioners communicate who they are as teachers--revealing both their triumphs and their uncertainties. This will not happen without careful thought and planning, however. Will we have the wisdom to recognize the implications of our decisions and resolve the dilemmas inherent in them? Or will our decisions result in there being no interesting stories told in the glow of the electronic campfire? This article is intended as a spark to more conversation about these issues. Let us use technology's campfire to draw teachers together--giving them a place to sing their songs, find healing for their wounds, and be illumined by the wisdom of their peers.

Source: Carney, Joanne (in development) "Campfires Around Which We Tell Our Stories: Confronting the Dilemmas of Teacher Portfolios and New Technologies" in Barrett, H.C. and Carney, J.C. (in Development) Portfolios at the Crossroads: The Impact of Emerging Technologies and High Stakes Assessment.

Serge Ravet (Eife-l & EuroPortfolio)

My digital clone - A digital representation / extension of my self – my eSelf

My work companion - A tool blended into my learning / working environment

My butler - A service provider to one’s self

My dashboard - An informative display of the state of my skills and knowledge

My planner - A tool to plan my learning

My IPR management assistant - A tool to value and exploit my personal assets

Dr. Garry L. Allan (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia)

"Great to see your e-portfolio site and follow the learnings encapsulated within. I am responding specifically to the importance that you place on metaphor as a core element in how humans make meaning out of their reality. Indeed, the metaphors that we choose, both consciously and unconsciously, shape the meaning that we make of the world. Hence, the metaphoric labelling of e-portfolios is central to the meaning that users make of the construct.

"Giving students the freedom to choose their own metaphors for this 'thing' called an e-portfolio results in interesting and highly personal constructs, ranging from e-portfolio as a 'jungle', through to an e-portfolio as a 'kitchen' and beyond!

"If you want to explore more deeply the degree to which metaphors shape the reality that we bring forth for yourselves, I'd recommend the work of Charles Faulkner. e.g. " (source: personal e-mail communication, June 2, 2004)

Ray Tolley, ICT Education Consultant Maximise-ICT


"A place where the student can quietly and privately recount acts of commission and omission and confess such to a selected audience. It is a place of catharsis and refreshment. Upon leaving this sanctuary the student is inspired to new levels of enlightenment and endeavour."

A Constant Companion

"People often work best at the strangest of times or places. We are not all constructed like robots to think only between the hours of 9 to 5 at our office desk. The e-Portfolio is a companion or familiar friend to whom we can turn at any hour of the day or night, anywhere, anywhen."

Digital Theatre

It is my digital theatre - where the audience is by invitation only.



A habit of mind, something you do every day. (from a discussion at the first International Conference on the ePortfolio, Poitiers, France, October 2003)

Caterpillar (or Acorn or Seed)

An emerging form... undergoing metamorphasis through personal growth... from a caterpillar to a butterfly; from an acorn to a tree; from a seed to a flower or plant. (students from Ball State University Teacher Education Program)


E-Portfolio as Kaleidoscopic Process: Reflective View from Self toGlobal Society
Just as a kaleidoscope needs light to view the endless possiblities of visual combinations of the colored glass, a e-portfolio provides the illumination for the learner to view the endless possibilities of the potential views and connections of her/his learning experience from self to global society. (Dr. Joan E. Dominick, Kennesaw State University -


"I'd been reading some work by Burke, Fogarty, and Belgrad. In it, they talked about portfolios being a window in a student's head. The idea of a window captured my imagination. I like that the window works two ways (ignoring police stations, of course). Not only can others look inside, but windows (and portfolios) offer the chance for the portfolio author to look outside as well. In the portfolio process, reflecting and conferencing help the portfolio author accomplish this external gaze.

"I've recently been creating my own electronic portfolio and had been struggling to choose a graphic element for the portfolio design. A window seemed like the perfect choice! I spent a couple of hours looking at stock photographs of windows. I selected the one I did because it has the perspective of someone on the inside looking out - much as the portfolio author does. In this photo, the person inside has pulled aside the curtains to allow others to look in and to allow sunlight to enter. One blue bottle is on display - just as the artifacts in the portfolio are available for closer examination. I chose this photo because it represents my view of my portfolio as I open up to share my work and my thoughts about my work." (contributed by Rebecca Fiedler, doctoral student at the University of Central Florida, who is doing a dissertation on electronic portfolios in Teacher Education)

My tree

My electronic portfolio is my tree. In building a portfolio I see a tree of many branches with each branch being an extension from the trunk which begins with ones self and goals. As we grow, our branches grow and spread out in many directions. We see our achievements, focus’s, strengths, weaknesses, and our progress growing upward toward the sunshine. The sunshine would reflect our ultimate goal. I see leaves on the branches which represent self assessment. (contributed by Sassee Ann Arnold)

A Teenager's Bedroom

There is probably a spectrum here, at one end is the protocol driven 'me' page that an organisation will seek to control, in the interests of child safety, personal data protection etc - and at the other end the 'vanity' page where everything is permitted and the entries are a mish mash of design, font, layout, with a lot of random (to us) material. some of which will be decidely not a good idea for data protection etc.

The problem is that any web presence that is purely prescribed by a bureaucracy will have no soul or personal 'declaration' and therefore especially for the teenage user, no interest whatsoever.

When we establish our own 'digital presence' we make choices as to what we put in the 'footprint' - there are probably some absolutes that need to be there, there will be some stuff that is very inadvisable to include - and there will be a lot of 'clutter' that for us will be very meaningful, but actually a waste of time for a reader.

A very necessary part of learning is to understand that we all have this digital footprint and that we need to manage it... so there has to be both guidance, and freedom to 'decorate it as they desire.

It's their teenage bedroom, we own the house and we can say there are key things that need to be in there, but we can only stand back and watch as they decorate it in a manner that they find wonderful, and we may find hideous. (contributed to the ePortfolios-and-PLTs Google Group by Roger Neilson in response to the EIFEL posting on Multiple ePortfolios)

What are your metaphors?

E-mail me the metaphor and a short paragraph explanation and I will add them to this list.

compiled by Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D.

updated June 3, 2009