Working it out together

Ruth Johnson thinks about how to assess collaborative problem solving in the classroom

Anyone who has even a passing interest in the realm of education is probably familiar with the international PISA survey, administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Students from around the world are tested in reading, maths and science in a way that allows the performance of different jurisdictions to be compared and ranked. The influence of the results on national education policies is so strong that the term ‘PISA effect’ has been coined. But it’s not just knowledge that PISA assesses. In 2015, students were also tested on collaborative problem solving, which highlights the growing importance of such skills.

In the 21st century, the ability to work with others to overcome obstacles is increasingly central to success in the workplace. However, you only have to watch an episode of The Apprentice to get a taste of how people can behave when asked to collaborate. In general, we are much more familiar with being in competition with others than in collaboration. At best, we end up cooperating: breaking a problem down into separate components to be tackled by individuals, rather than working as a group to solve it.

This isn’t entirely surprising as, for the most part, people aren’t taught how to work collaboratively – little attention is paid to it at any stage of compulsory education. Like many essential workplace skills, effective collaboration often seems to rely on an individual having an instinctive ‘feel’ for what works rather than being taught explicitly what behaviours lead to a successful outcome.

Part of the difficulty is that these behaviours are rarely defined and are poorly understood. Without a firm grasp of the elements of collaborative problem-solving skills, how can teachers support their students to develop them? Ongoing research, led by Ayesha Ahmed at the University of Cambridge, aims to address this issue. I’ve been working with Ayesha to identify precisely what skills are associated with successful collaborative problem solving – putting my own team-working abilities to the test in the process!

Over the last year we’ve been filming groups of students as they face a robotics problem. Our analysis of individual contributions that lead to the whole group moving towards a successful solution has provided us with some useful insights. For example, we’ve seen that students who focus too much on their own ideas, or race to a solution without considering alternative approaches, can prevent a group from reaching a successful resolution. On the other hand, students who challenge others’ suggestions in a constructive way, or deal positively with disagreement, help to encourage collaboration. The balance of contributions in a group is also important and students who seem to actively pay attention to this aspect can make an important individual contribution to a group’s success.

Our next step is to create an assessment tool that can be used in the classroom. The tool is intended to be used formatively to help teachers identify the skills students already have and what they need to develop further. We hope to empower teachers, enabling them to support their students in developing the skills that will help them to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Ruth Johnson

Read more on the importance of collaborative problem-solving skills in Ayesha Ahmed’s blog ‘Assessing Collaboration’

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