What is a Portrait of a Graduate?

In this article, John Larmer delves into what a Portrait of a Graduate (PoG) is along with its key components. Learn about the challenges and solutions when implementing a PoG and the different ways in which schools and districts are helping students meet their goals.


A Portrait of a Graduate (POG) is a vision statement that schools and districts create, with input from students, educators, parents, and community members. It describes the desired outcomes of the K-12 system: the competencies and personal qualities students should possess when they graduate, in order to be successful in the world beyond school.

Sometimes also known as a “graduate profile” or “school-wide outcomes,” a POG is a broader set of goals than those found in traditional academic subject areas. When a school or district adopts a POG, it has significant implications for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. I’ll say more about this below, but first, let’s look at an example.

Defined has created its own POG, which has eight components that are similar to what’s commonly found in school or district POGs. We use it to show educators how well our performance tasks/projects are aligned with these kinds of goals and can be used to teach and assess them.


Defined’s Portrait of a Graduate:

  • 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 & 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
  • Citizenship
    • 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
  • Innovation & 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, evaluates, 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
  • Communication
    • 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
  • Collaboration
    • 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


How Districts Are Helping Students Meet POG Goals

Schools and districts that want to make their Portrait of Graduate a reality, not just a poster on the wall, are trying various approaches. The key is to embed POG goals deeply into the regular curriculum and instruction provided to all students. To accomplish this, districts are:

  • Providing professional development for teachers on how to include POG goals into their teaching practice. For example, they may learn how to include more opportunities for students to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving, as opposed to memorization of facts.
  • Writing rubrics for each POG competency, which are used by teachers to plan instruction and give feedback to students. Students may use the rubrics to self-assess their progress.
  • Creating new programs like maker spaces and “genius hours” where students can exercise creativity and gain problem-solving skills. Programs that encourage local, national, and global citizenship are also being offered to students.
  • Connecting students with their community through internships, mentorships, and partnerships with local businesses and organizations.
  • Developing assessment systems that include POG competencies, since traditional metrics like test scores and grades cannot fully capture the competencies. For example, students may collect evidence of their use of the competencies in a portfolio, which they use in a “capstone” presentation in their senior year. Some schools ask teachers to make a holistic assessment of how well students are meeting specific POG goals and report this on a scale of growth.

One of the most effective ways schools and districts are embedding POG goals into curriculum and instruction is the use of project-based learning (PBL). Projects can be explicitly designed to build and assess any of the POG competencies or a combination of them. PBL also is a great way to involve the community, enabling students to interact with professionals and experts and see how POG competencies are used in the world outside school.


Challenges in Implementing a POG

Making the Portrait of a Graduate a reality is not a simple task. Roadblocks may include resistance to change. Teachers may have been focused on narrower, subject-area goals their entire career and don’t see how they can add POG goals to their already crowded plates. Students are used to learning traditional content and skills and POG goals may sound vague or abstract. Parents may feel the same. Schools and districts need to spend considerable time on the “why?” of change. Involving local businesses in the process of building support for a POG  is a wise move, as they can point out the need for POG skills in the workplace.

Another roadblock is standardized testing and other traditional assessment methods. Most tests emphasize subject-area knowledge, not the kinds of skills and capacities that appear on a POG–nor do traditional grading systems. Schools and districts have not typically collected and reported data on POG competencies. (Defined is now developing customizable features in its platform that will help do this; schools and districts will be able to add POG competencies to its performance task product rubrics and collect achievement data over time for each student.

All of this takes time, effective change management practices, perhaps extra funding and resources–and leadership. But schools and districts that make the effort–and sustain it over time–will find it to be worthwhile. In an era defined by rapid change and increasing complexity, a Portrait of a Graduate offers a roadmap for schools, districts, and states to prepare students effectively for the challenges and opportunities they will encounter after graduation.



Note: For further reading, see our 4-part series on how Project-Based Learning builds Portrait of a Graduate competencies:

  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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