How PBL Builds Profile of a Graduate Competencies Part 2: Academic Knowledge & Skills and Career Readiness

In my last post, “Why PBL is Key to Meeting Profile of a Graduate Goals” I made the case for using project-based learning to build the student competencies commonly listed on graduate profiles created by schools and districts. In this and two following posts, I’ll explain how PBL builds nine specific competencies. I’ll be using the indicators in Defined Learning’s Portrait of a Graduate as a framework. 


We’ll start with two Profile of a Graduate goals that have to do with “content”--what students learn in terms of Academic Knowledge and Skills and Career Readiness. You might think of these as among the more traditional goals typically held for high school graduates.


Academic Knowledge and Skills

Sometimes when schools and districts are in the process of generating ideas for their Portrait of a Graduate, gathering input from teachers, parents, community members, students, and other stakeholders, they forget about traditional academic goals. They get caught up in the excitement of talking about “21st century skills” or multicultural awareness, innovation, and technology. But then someone might say, “don’t we still want graduates to know how to read, write, use math, and know some science, history, and the arts?” Then everyone nods their head and says “of course!” So that’s why it’s the first on the list here.


Indicators of Academic Knowledge and Skills in Defined Learning’s Portrait of a Graduate are:

  • Demonstrates disciplinary understanding and use of competencies, practices, and processes 

Every good project has academic knowledge and skills at its heart–despite an old stereotype that PBL is not appropriate for teaching this (which the research debunks). When teachers select or design projects, they align it to content standards and skills that are important to the discipline they teach. Students learn and employ the disciplinary practices and processes used by people in the adult world when addressing issues and solving problems.

  • Applies learning to new and unfamiliar contexts

Every project is different and places students in a new situation that presents new problems to solve, topics to explore, and products to create. PBL is the opposite of “rote” learning which puts the emphasis on familiar problems or academic tasks.

  • Able to do research and engage in inquiry

PBL has always been regarded as a type of inquiry-based learning. Student-generated questions (aka “need to knows”) guide much of the work students do in a project. They conduct various forms of inquiry to find answers to their questions–from traditional research to interviews with experts or other people, surveys, experiments, text-based discussions, and finding out what end-users of a product want and need.

  • Pursues knowledge; eager to continue to learn

Experienced PBL teachers see this all the time; students get engaged by a topic, issue, or problem, and want to know more about it. They might even take a project in a new direction or go off on a tangent that interests them. In PBL, they come to realize that learning has an authentic purpose–the point is not merely to get a good grade or do well on a test.


Career Readiness

Like Academic Knowledge and Skills, being prepared for entering the workforce has always been seen as an important goal for high school graduation. Some students might decide to get a job right away, and others go to college or get technical training. Either way, it helps to know about what the possibilities are out there in the modern economy, and to have some of the skills and self-knowledge that will lead to satisfying employment.


Indicators of Career Readiness in Defined Learning’s Portrait of a Graduate are:

  • Connects academic knowledge and skills to careers

In PBL, students learn content and skills in order to apply them to a real-world situation or problem. Students might be asked to complete the kind of task people do in the world beyond school–design a playground, create a business plan, or propose solutions to traffic problems. In some projects, students might even work with adult professionals or people in their community who perform certain jobs–for example, they might work with school cafeteria staff to plan healthy and appealing menus. In some projects, students actually take on a career role, as they do in Defined Learning’s performance tasks.

  • Shows awareness of opportunities and needs

When students engage in the kinds of projects described above, they’re not only learning content and skills; they’re learning how to identify problems and figure out the best ways to address needs. By being exposed to real-world situations and working in a professional capacity, students are increasing their awareness of what’s possible for them out there in the community or wider world–and what they need to do to be prepared for life after school.

  • Uses project management processes

One of the most valuable on-the-job skills is the ability to manage a project. Many jobs are basically a series of projects, and employers want people who can determine needs and parameters, set benchmarks, monitor progress, and make a plan for reaching goals. In a well-managed project, the teacher teaches these skills and facilitates students’ use of project management tools (e.g., Trello, Asana,, etc.).

  • Understands their own values, dreams, strengths, and goals

Students are also learning a lot about themselves in PBL. “Reflection” is one of the six criteria for a good project in the Framework for High Quality PBL, and effective teachers build opportunities for students to reflect in every project. Students should reflect on the content they’re learning, the skills they’re building, and how the project is going–and also on themselves. What am I good at, and where do I need to grow? What issues do I care about and what kinds of problems do I like to solve? Where can I see myself in my future? 

In my next post, we’ll look at the Portrait of a Graduate competencies that have to do with using one’s mind well: Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, and Innovation and Creativity.




Career Readiness
  • Connects academic knowledge and skills to careers
  • Shows awareness of opportunities and needs
  • Uses project management processes
  • Understands their own values, dreams, strengths and goals
Academic Knowledge and Skills
  • Demonstrates disciplinary understanding and use of competencies, practices, and processes 
  • Applies learning to new and unfamiliar contexts
  • Able to do research and engage in inquiry
  • Pursues knowledge; eager to continue to learn
Social and Emotional Learning
  • Accurately recognizes their own emotions, thoughts, and values
  • Regulates emotions, thoughts, and behaviors
  • Makes constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions
  • Establishes and maintains healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups 
  • Takes the perspective of and empathizes with others
Innovation and Creativity
  • Thinks unconventionally; comes up with new ideas
  • Willing to be flexible and try different ideas or approaches when one does not work 
  • Is entrepreneurial; willing to ideate, create, and take risks
  • Is inspired; motivated to use creativity and innovate
Problem Solving
  • Finds or identifies problems and thinks critically to analyze them 
  • Persists in seeking solutions
  • Seeks and finds resources
  • Tests, evaluations, and reflects on procedures and solutions
Critical Thinking
  • Recognizes bias and varying perspectives
  • Evaluates relevance of information
  • Justifies conclusions with evidence or logic
  • Uses systems thinking to make connections between ideas and see the big picture
  • Accurately conveys and receives information to/from others
  • Demonstrates cultural competence
  • Understands the audience and communicates appropriately
  • Uses various modes of communication in order to make thinking visible
  • Contributes actively to shared goals, responsibilities, and decision-making 
  • Builds on others’ ideas; honors differences
  • Willing to compromise; can use conflict resolution skills
  • Able to provide and receive feedback
  • Open to learning about diverse cultures and traditions
  • Aware of and acts on local, national and global issues
  • Engages in and welcomes civil dialogue as an opportunity to understand perspectives
  • Understands how their actions connect to the wider world and takes responsibility for them



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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