How PBL Builds Portrait of a Graduate Competencies Part 4: Communication, Collaboration, Citizenship

This is Part 4 of a four-part series on “Portrait of a Graduate” goals that have been set by many schools and districts. My first post argued that project-based learning is one of the most effective ways to build the student competencies commonly listed on graduate profiles. In the second post, I explained how PBL can help meet the “content” goals for Academic Knowledge and Skills and for Career Readiness, and my third post focused on the “thinking” goals of Problem-Solving, Critical Thinking, and Innovation & Creativity. 

For Part 4, let’s look at the indicators for the remaining three Portrait of a Graduate goals in Defined Learning’s Portrait of a Graduate, shown at the end of this post, which are similar to those found in schools and districts. All three of these goals are about being or working with other people: Communication, Collaboration, and Citizenship.



  • Accurately conveys and receives information to/from others

This is a fundamental communication skill that is important in traditional teaching and in project-based learning. During a project, students gather information from traditional sources like the teacher, textbooks, and reference books, but also from online resources and adult experts, stakeholders in an issue or problem, community members, or organizations beyond the classroom–which requires extra attention to receive it accurately. The same goes for conveying information; for students to create and share a public product that meets expectations for quality or successfully meets a real-world need in a project, the need for accuracy is vital.

  • Demonstrates cultural competence

Many projects ask students to communicate with people beyond those in their familiar school and community. They may need to talk with or share their work with diverse groups in their community and the wider world. When students work in teams on a project, if some members come from diverse backgrounds, they learn how to negotiate cultural differences.

  • Understands the audience and communicates appropriately

One of the hallmarks of high-quality PBL is that students share their work publicly. They may present to an in-person or online audience, or display their work in a public place and explain it. When doing this, students pay particular attention to who their audience is and tailor their presentation accordingly.

  • Uses various modes of communication in order to make thinking visible

In some projects, students may share their work in an oral presentation and explain their thinking. In other projects, they may create a product such as a video, piece of writing, or a digital or physical artifact, which may communicate students’ thinking explicitly or be expressed in some additional explanation.



  • Contributes actively to shared goals, responsibilities, and decision-making

PBL can work for students working individually, but it is highly effective and appropriate for students to work in teams on projects, as they often will in future jobs–so learning how to collaborate is a vital skill. That means actively participating in setting team goals, meeting their responsibilities, and making shared decisions.

  • Builds on others’ ideas; honors differences

When students interact with teammates, they produce better ideas when they build on each other’s. It may not be a natural skill for all students, so teachers can provide modeling, scaffolding, and opportunities to practice. Students will also find that agreeing too quickly on ideas proposed by the most assertive members may not yield the best results. Divergent thinking often produces better ideas and experienced PBL students learn this.

  • Willing to compromise; can use conflict resolution skills

Almost every project team runs into disagreements, or even conflicts (like those in adult workplaces). Learning how to negotiate these situations is a skill that serves students well in the future.

  • Able to provide and receive feedback

The ability and willingness to improve the quality of one’s work by asking for and using feedback from others is another key on-the-job skill. Teachers in PBL classrooms build a culture where students welcome and are skilled at constructively critiquing each other’s work-in-progress.



  • Open to learning about diverse cultures and traditions

In an increasingly diverse, multicultural democratic republic like the United States, being open to (at least) learning about people from different backgrounds than your own is hugely important. Many projects focus on addressing the needs of others, so learning about them is key to student success.

  • Aware of and acts on local, national, and global issues

Many projects focus on real-world issues and problems, asking students to take a stand and take action as citizens. PBL, after all, is about learning by doing–not just by absorbing information.

  • Engages in and welcomes civil dialogue as an opportunity to understand perspectives

In a healthy democracy, citizens engage in civil dialogue–the respectful, honest exchange of ideas and opinions. Given how complex and challenging today’s problems are, understanding different perspectives is essential to solving them. Students learn and practice these skills and habits in almost every project when they work in teams or with people beyond the classroom.

  • Understands how their actions connect to the wider world and takes responsibility for them

In many projects, students are called upon to “think globally and act locally” by seeing how their work contributes to improving our society and the world. They’re not just learning about issues and problems–they’re learning how they can take responsibility for actively addressing them.

Project-based learning can help students gain other, additional competencies schools and districts might have on their portraits of a graduate: from “global awareness” to “cross-cultural skills" to social-emotional learning, personal responsibility, and lifelong learning. So how can you NOT use PBL as a key strategy in moving from poster to practice?






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.


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