How PBL Builds Portrait of a Graduate Competencies Part 3: Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Innovation & Creativity

In my first post in this series, “Why PBL is Key to Meeting Portrait of a Graduate Goals” I argued that project-based learning is one of the most effective ways to build the student competencies commonly listed on graduate portraits. In the second post, I explained how PBL can help meet goals for Academic Knowledge and Skills and for Career Readiness, two goals that have to do with the “content” students learn.

In this post, we’ll look at three commonly-seen Portrait of a Graduate (POG) goals that have to do with using one’s mind well: Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Innovation & Creativity. These kinds of goals are not about learning content but how students use Academic Knowledge and Skills or technical expertise. In all the posts in this series, I’m using the indicators in Defined Learning’s Portrait of a Graduate as a framework. 



Finds or identifies problems and thinks critically to analyze them 

In some projects, students are presented with a problem designed by the teacher. In other projects (typically with students who are more experienced in PBL) students find and identify problems they want to solve, whether it’s a community concern, a personally relevant issue, or a national or global problem. In either case, students engage in a problem-solving process that starts with analyzing the problem, identifying what they know and need to know to solve it, and deciding what their next steps will be.

Persists in seeking solutions

A good project is focused on an “open-ended” problem, challenge, or question–it has no simple solution or single “right answer.” The teacher does not direct students in a predetermined process–they need to be flexible and find new pathways when necessary. It’s not always easy, but students find persistence leads to higher quality work–a good lesson for life!

Seeks and finds resources

In PBL, students are not “spoon-fed” by their teacher; they have to work independently to the extent possible. Identifying resources to help answer their “need to know” questions is part of the inquiry process.

Tests, evaluates, and reflects on procedures and solutions

Students often find themselves having to reevaluate their thinking during a project, testing and evaluating various solutions based on feedback in an iterative process. They might find they need to take a new approach or reflect on how they need to grow and gain more knowledge and skills.


Critical Thinking

Recognizes bias and varying perspectives

Many projects require students to conduct research as part of the inquiry process, where they need to evaluate the quality of their sources of information, including possible biases. In some projects, students may need to consider the perspectives of various stakeholders in an issue or who are affected by a problem.

Evaluates relevance of information

When engaged in inquiry during a project, students may find too many sources of information or go down online “rabbit holes”-- so sorting out which are most relevant is key to efficient work.

Justifies conclusions with evidence or logic

When students present their answer to a project’s driving question, a solution to a problem, or share their products with a public audience, they need to defend it. They should be asked to explain why they did what they did, demonstrating their reasoning skills.

Uses systems thinking to make connections between ideas and see the big picture

Many projects ask students to connect their work to a “big idea,” see how various disciplines might approach a problem, and understand how a specific project is part of a larger topic or issue.


Innovation & Creativity

Thinks unconventionally; comes up with new ideas

When creating products or deciding on their approach to a problem, students in PBL have opportunities to exercise their creativity. They learn that the process of innovation involves proposing and testing many ideas, some of which may be “out of the box” but wind up being valuable.

Willing to be flexible and try different ideas or approaches when one does not work

Like being persistent in solving a problem, students engaged in a creative process during a project find they need to be willing to discard old ideas and propose new ones. They see how the give-and-take among a team often leads to finding new and better approaches.

Is entrepreneurial; willing to ideate, create, and take risks

PBL often involves risk-taking. There’s intellectual risk-taking when there’s no clear-cut answer to a driving question, no obvious solution to a problem, and no recipe for creating a high-quality product. There’s risk involved in working with others, and in presenting your work to a public audience. 

Is inspired; motivated to use creativity and innovate

One of the most fundamental features of PBL is that it motivates students with an authentic, meaningful challenge. They’re not just completing an assignment for the teacher, or for a grade–they care about doing good work and appreciate the opportunity to use their creativity to meet project goals. Some projects may even be inspiring when they involve students in improving their community, helping their peers, or contributing to an important real-world issue.

In my next post, we’ll be discussing the four Portrait of a Graduate goals that have to do with working with or interacting with other people: Communication, Collaboration, and Citizenship.





Note: This article is part of a 4-part series on how Project-Based Learning builds Portrait of a Graduate competencies. For further reading, see the full series below:

  1. Why PBL is Key to Meeting Portrait of a Graduate Goals
  2. How PBL Builds Portrait of a Graduate Competencies Part 2: Academic Knowledge & Skills and Career Readiness
  3. How PBL Builds Portrait of a Graduate Competencies Part 3: Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, Innovation & Creativity
  4. How PBL Builds Portrait of a Graduate Competencies Part 4: Communication, Collaboration, Citizenship



About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog