Why PBL is Key to Meeting Portrait of a Graduate Goals

Does your school or district have a “portrait of a graduate”? They’re also called “ideal graduate” descriptions, and you might have heard of a “learner profile” and the older term “school-wide outcomes.” It’s a vision of what a school or district wants for all its students when they graduate high school. The portrait typically includes things like critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, metacognition, cross-cultural skills… you’ve seen the lists. 

Was your portrait of a graduate created through an inclusive process that involved many diverse stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, other staff, parents, community members, local businesses, and (I hope) students? If so, great! That’s step one.

Have you decided on the success metrics–what data do you gather from an assessment system to determine whether students have met the outcomes in your portrait of a graduate? If so, that’s step two for many schools and districts–and it’s a big step, which includes writing rubrics, collecting data from teachers, and perhaps even creating a student portfolio system (I’ll say more about assessment in a future post). Unfortunately, that’s often the last step they take.

The bigger question is: How will students actually achieve the goals you’ve so carefully described? Does your portrait of a graduate live in the daily teaching and learning at your school? Or is it only a poster on the wall, or a document gathering dust somewhere, buried alongside mission statements and other grand visions? Making it part of what happens in every classroom is step three, and it’s the most important.

As Justin Wells of Envision Learning Partners puts in From Poster to Practice, “If we don’t see graduate portraits made visible in actual student work and student voice…then we’re destined to look back on grad portraits as another edu-trend that came to nothing. In my estimation, every grad portrait is promising, but it remains a promise unfulfilled.”


A Vital Role for Project-Based Learning

To answer the “how will students achieve it?” question, some schools and districts have tried to:

  • Encourage (or require, in some way) teachers to include the graduate portrait competencies in their lessons, or document how they already do. 

  • Provide professional development workshops (we know how effective those usually are) on “infusing creativity into your lessons” or using collaborative learning strategies.

  • Buy some curricular add-on from a vendor that promises to “boost critical thinking skills”. 

  • Create new programs like maker spaces and “genius hours” where students can exercise their creativity and problem-solving skills.

I’d argue that the above strategies are only marginally effective unless teachers make a concerted, sustained effort to infuse graduate portrait goals explicitly into their classroom instruction, which is hard to do and rarely seen. And the above strategies might not reach all students–only those who get certain teachers or have access to special programs.

The overarching problem is that traditional teaching methods don’t typically build graduate portrait competencies consistently. The focus of the system (including high-stakes assessments) is on “covering” standards, and on moving through a curriculum that emphasizes memorizing information. Some teachers may ask students to think critically, but they might be few and far between. Some teachers, or whole subject areas, may involve student collaboration or innovation more than others. Definitions of the competencies may be narrowly discipline-based; art teachers have their view of creativity (abstract painting or sculpture), or English teachers of communication (writing essays). And so it goes, on down the list of competencies; the bottom line is, they often fall between the cracks of a traditional program.

What teaching method does explicitly and effectively build graduate portrait competencies, and can do so across a whole school or district? Project-based learning.

In three posts to come in this series on graduate portraits, I’ll explain how, specifically, PBL does this, and in a fourth post, I’ll discuss the role of PBL in a Portrait of Graduate assessment system. 

As a framework, I’ll be using a Portrait of a Graduate created recently by Defined Learning, shown below. This is not meant to be adopted by schools and districts, btw. It’s meant to show that Defined’s performance tasks/projects can support a wide range of commonly seen competencies, whatever your particular school or district has. I’ll explain what each competency includes, with specific indicators, and how they “come alive” in project-based learning.


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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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