Collaborative problem solving demanded by 21st century economies

If humans are to have well-paid jobs in a robotic world, education systems must teach students different skills
Steve Snodgras,, CC BY 2.0
Steve Snodgras,, CC BY 2.0

In December 2016, the world’s education systems will learn for the first time how well they teach a skill that’s considered crucial for economic prosperity. The verdicts on which countries are best at teaching “collaborative problem solving” will be delivered by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

The results of the recent PISA survey of 15 year olds in 53 countries will send tremors through national education ministries. Why? Because, in the global power struggle, particularly between China and the “West”, the collaborative capacities of workforces could prove vital to the productivity of rival economies. And there may be surprise changes in PISA’s national education rankings, which, until now, have mainly reflected proficiency in the traditional 3 ‘R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic.

Collaborative problem solving is where two or more people resolve a problem by making complementary contributions. The process involves mutual dependence, with each benefitting from what the others bring. Imagine, for example, a jigsaw where several people hold pieces. The jigsaw can be completed only if everyone works together and plays their role.

High skill, non-routine jobs are expanding fast

This way of working matters today because economies are switching from industrial to information production, distribution and consumption. Industrial societies thrived on repetitive work. But, in the information age, workforces are losing their labouring components, which are being replaced by cognitive, more creative components. “From Brawn to Brains”, a recent study by Deloitte on the impact of technology estimated that 3.5m higher skill, non-routine jobs have appeared in the last 15 years in Britain alone, associated with the knowledge economy. Meanwhile, more than 800,000 jobs were lost in low-skilled, routine roles.

Old-style industrial processes put a premium on people learning a great deal of knowledge. These processes also tended to be hierarchical, requiring compliance more than creativity. Schooling provided what was needed: teachers imparted and students regurgitated. But, today, almost any repetitive task can be replaced by robotic and digital technology. The internet is a massive store of knowledge, available to everyone. A more important skill now, and in the future, is the capacity to combine knowledge innovatively and creatively, at the individual level through critical thinking – and more broadly through working collaboratively.

Team work is vital for future economies

Modern information age production involves working much more in teams than in the past. “The team is so much more powerful than the individual alone,” explains Patrick Griffin, Emeritus Professor of Education (Assessment) at the University of Melbourne and a pioneer of ways to teach collaborative problem solving. “A champion team is better than a team of champions.” That’s why PISA, which is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, (OECD) is so concerned. Countries that are slow to build the four ‘Cs’ – critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration – will lag behind the rest in economic performance, says Professor Griffin.

He adds: “The major powers have all got the message. Recently the Russian government said it wanted to address concerns that its workforce is lacking capabilities. In China, organisations associated with the school system and employment are seeking to develop these skills. Next year, a national study of collaborative problem solving among 13-14 year olds begins in the US, involving Princeton University and the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington.”

Infants and teenagers already use collaborative problem solving

We should not be surprised that collaboration is now emerging as a key to accelerated learning and innovation across education and the economy. Collaboration is increasingly recognised as central to two astounding phenomena of childhood. The first is infant language learning where research shows that the acute responsiveness of the caregiver (usually a parent) to the baby establishes an extraordinarily successful collaboration that computer apps utterly fail to match. An infant watching Baby Einstein can’t compete with the Mom and Baby team, when it comes to working together on how to help a baby talk.

A second phenomenon is the speed at which children learn together when there is no teacher, as described by Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, UK. In his famous “Hole in the Wall” experiment, Professor Mitra left an Internet-connected computer in an Indian slum and hid a camera nearby. It recorded how uneducated children – who had no knowledge of computers – played with the device, worked out how to use it and then taught each other. Thanks to the work of researchers such as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, we are also beginning to recognise that adolescent risk-taking is also a mark of how adventurous teenagers can be in exploring new possibilities, particularly when they are together with their peers, such as in a car.

“Old-style industrial processes valued people learning a great deal of knowledge. These processes were hierarchical, requiring compliance more than creativity. A more important skill now is combining knowledge innovatively and creatively, through critical thinking and working collaboratively.”

It’s clear, however, that it’s going to be tough to measure the success of education systems in teaching collaborative problem solving. PISA’s first attempt, in its latest triennial survey, is laudable but flawed, according to Professor Griffin, who points out that it examined individuals, when it would be better to test teams. So it set students a series of questions related to dramas. A student was told how three others had acted and was then asked to choose from several actions that he/she could now take. The student scored well if he/she opted for choices that made most sense for completing the collective drama.

Professor Griffin’s research unit at the University of Melbourne uses more interactive models. “We set up situations for more sophisticated game-playing by teams. For example, in one exercise students have to get to the most profitable solution for a hot chocolate drinks manufacturer. They can’t see each other’s screens, but one person knows about different national preferences for sweetness, milk and chocolate. Others know about the cost of ingredients and sales. Success demands that they communicate and plan well together.”

Teaching the teachers

This is the type of exercise that schools may need to use to develop collaborative problem solving in their pupils. The University of Melbourne has just launched an online course to help train teachers. “Students will need to learn to see things from other people’s perspectives, to negotiate who is going to do what and when,” says Professor Griffin.

“Countries need these skills if they are going to be good at producing knowledge economy products that will have the highest value in the future. The future for those that fail could be quite bleak.”