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Collaborative problem-solving and why it matters for learning

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 November 2017

Rose Luckin. 
The results of the 2015 PISA collaborative problem solving assessments are published in Paris this morning.[1] I was delighted to read 
In Andreas Schleicher’s editorial, his confirmation that solving problems with others (collaborative problem-solving) is a key skill for the workplace, and its importance is only likely to grow as further automation takes place.  He urged educational systems to do better in helping their students to develop these skills.
The necessity to attend to the future needs of our students, including their ability to solve problems collaboratively, was also prevalent in discussions at a recent symposium for educators in Sydney about education in a changing world. The PISA report published today, whilst giving cause to celebrate the excellent performance from many students across the world, also gives cause for concern about the lack of high-level collaborative problem-solving skills amongst students from all countries, including those who performed the best. This is something that all societies need to address with some urgency.
Bearing in mind that the OECD assessment only considers collaborative problem-solving from an individual capacity perspective, it is not surprising, that the results published today illustrate that those who perform most strongly in other PISA assessments in science, reading and mathematics also tend to perform well in the collaborative problem-solving assessment. This is true at the individual student level and at the country level. Singapore in Asia, Finland in Europe and Canada in North America as one might anticipate perform extremely well. However, even students in Singapore struggled with the more advanced demands of collaborative problem-solving with little more than 20% able to attain the advanced level 4 in their PISA assessment. This suggests that everyone needs to put more effort into developing collaborative problem-solving skills amongst the population.
One area where the PISA findings are perhaps more surprising, can be found in the gender differences and attitudinal findings. Girls performed significantly better than boys, and the extent of the gap between boys and girls is greater than it is for PISA reading assessments. Girls also had a more positive attitude towards collaboration. Attitude was also found to be a factor that affected performance in the collaborative problem-solving assessment. These attitudinal differences were also illustrated in country differences, and Singapore was once again amongst the countries whose students valued relationships most highly and enjoyed working collaboratively.
However, the most interesting findings from my perspective were those relating to students’ socio-economics background and context. Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to value being able to work collaboratively and diversity amongst the school population was also found to be an important positive factor in collaborative problem-solving performance. Students who met others different from themselves and from different backgrounds were more likely to perform well. In addition to which, as any teacher knows, everything does not stop at the school gates. Home background, as always, has a substantial impact. Opportunities for discussions with parents and social interactions with family and peers, including that involving social media, are associated with better collaborative problem-solving performance.
Effective collaborative problem-solving does not, however, take place spontaneously but requires design, monitoring and management. Otherwise, this is neither preparing students for university nor the workplace. The PISA report also provides evidence that the classroom environment has an important role to play in developing students’ collaborative problem-solving skills. Those classrooms where students are encouraged to explain their ideas, argue about their beliefs and debate about their investigations foster more positive attitudes towards collaboration in their students. In addition, it is important that’s students feel “a sense of belonging” and a freedom from fear. Students who reported negative insulting feedback performed less well in the collaborative problem-solving assessment.
In our report, into collaborative problem-solving published by Nesta in March this year, we found much research evidence to support the value of collaborative problem-solving both to improve student outcomes  and to increase the level of student achievement.  However, we also found that evidence of structured collaborative problem-solving activities in schools are rare. Barriers to the uptake include a lack confidence and relevant experience among educators, a lack of training and resources, a level of scepticism and concern, the prevalence of individually driven pupil assessments and competing curriculum priorities. The following were included in our recommendations

  1. The teaching and training of students now and in the future will need to deliver high quality subject knowledge and, in addition, the so-called 21st century skills, such as collaborative problem-solving, negotiation, socio-emotional intelligence, knowledge synthesis and probably AI. The nature of these skills will change as the needs of the workplace do, meaning that people will need to undertake lifelong learning if they are to maintain their employability and their contribution to the country’s productivity.
  2. The education system will need to move away from its emphasis on a stop and test approach that can only assess the routine cognitive skills that are easy to automate and are likely to be the least in demand in the workplace. New forms of assessment that target skills, such as collaborative problem-solving will need to be developed and this is likely to involve the use of data harvested from teaching and learning interactions through and with technology, and the use of increasingly sophisticated and artificially intelligent learning analytics.

There are of course some important limitations that we must bear in mind as we thumb through the 300 page PISA report with our morning coffee. Firstly, it has taken two years for the OECD to analyse the data they collected and this must, at least in part, reflect the complexity of the collaborative problems solving process. Secondly, we need to acknowledge the definition used for this assessment: The capacity of an individual to effectively engage in a process whereby two or more agents attempt to solve a problem by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution and pooling their knowledge, skills and efforts to reach that solution. Nevertheless, the report published today has a great deal of interest to be studied.
Photo credit: Lawrence Berkeley Nat’l Lab – Roy Kaltschmidt, photographer via Creative Commons
[1] OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving, OECD Publishing, Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264285521-en,

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