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Solved!: Making the case for collaborative problem-solving

Every generation has to ask anew what skills and knowledge are most essential for children to learn. Some of the answers change little – like being able to read and write, or to master maths. Others go in cycles.

The evidence set out in this report confirms a great deal of research which has shown the rising importance of a cluster of skills that are both very ancient, and very relevant to the near future.

These are skills in solving complex problems, and working with other people as well as machines to solve them. Such skills, look set to be increasingly relevant not just to many of the jobs that will survive new waves of automation, but also to our ability to cope in everyday life.

This should be obvious. Yet public policy, and everyday practice in schools, has in some respects moved in an opposite direction.

That’s why at Nesta we commissioned research from UCL to find out what was known about teaching and learning collaborative problem-solving.

Collaborative problem-solving sits at the intersection of non-routine problem-solving and social intelligence. At its simplest level, it is about solving problems together, applying knowledge and discussing with others what will work best.

A simple example is times tables. These are useful tools for helping children become familiar with numbers. But they’re predictable and routine. A ‘non-routine’ problem requires us to use a range of skills to come up with a solution that is new and unknown to the solver. It forces us to discover, to understand and to make sense. Instead of asking “What’s 10 x 2?” you might ask a group of children to work out how much paint is needed to paint a classroom. A somewhat more complex example would ask students to work out how the school could cut its energy bill by 10 per cent, drawing on knowledge about how heat and light are produced, the characteristics of the school building, as well as basic maths and economics.

This report from UCL finds that if structured well, these problems can reinforce knowledge and improve attainment, as well as prepare children for the future workplace. But it also tells us that the barriers for teachers are substantial, from curriculum coverage and behaviour management, to designing a task that both stretches and supports. For collaborative problem-solving to gain ground a concerted shift is needed, including teacher training, better resources and system-level support.

Many of the most powerful decision-makers in education have been sceptical about this, and see it as a distraction from the more traditional transmission of knowledge. On the opposite end of the spectrum some have advocated that discovery and problem-solving can substitute for acquiring knowledge. Both positions are untenable, and increasingly unhelpful in a world where, for both life and work, we need both knowledge and skills.

This year attitudes are likely to start changing. In 2017 the OECD will publish its first country rankings for collaborative problem solving. PISA ratings for maths, reading and science have become a prominent feature of educational debate and media coverage. The OECD has recognised for some time that these subtler skills are becoming more important, and has been keen to ensure that the metrics keep up with the reality. National policymakers are likely to follow.