It's a sad but undeniable truth that, in education, what gets assessed tends to get prioritised. So maths, English and science are valued because they feature in Sats and Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment) and will be core to Progress 8. Subjects like music or design and technology will probably be less available as they become less central to the testing agenda.
But what about other important desirable outcomes of education – perseverance, self-control, resilience, empathy, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking? Things that are much needed for success both in school and out, but which the traditional model of schooling has not addressed well. Can these be part of the testing agenda, too? And, if they were, what might the impact on schooling be?
Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman (articles free to subscribers) have shown that grit and optimism can be measured. The Australian state of Victoria has committed to measuring capabilities such as ethical understanding, and creative and critical thinking. And, along with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we are currently exploring effective ways of cultivating and assessing creativity and critical thinking in 14 countries. Early indications are that it is indeed possible to measure the development of these capabilities, although it may require a number of different methods.
Improving life chances
In the book Educating Ruby: what our children really need to learn, we argue that there are some key capabilities that all children need if they are to thrive – confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship. The informal curriculum of the kitchen and living room is well-suited to providing opportunities for this to happen, just as the classroom and school grounds can explicitly foster them, too. Proponents of capabilities sometimes referred to as dispositions and habits of mind or, taken as a group, as "performance character", are much in the news. Seligman, Duckworth and Carol Dweck (article free to subscribers) are just three researchers whose work is influencing schools and policymakers across the world, for there is a growing body of evidence that show that developing certain capabilities improves both life chances and test scores. In 2012, Pisa introduced a new test of "creative problem-solving competency", which it describes as: "An individual’s capacity to engage in cognitive processing to understand and resolve problem situations where a method of solution is not immediately obvious. It includes the willingness to engage with such situations in order to achieve one’s potential as a constructive and reflective citizen."
In 2015, this evolved into "collaborative problem-solving" competency: "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."
Bridge into a different educational world
Importantly, as Pisa broadens its repertoire, it is giving an explicit boost to these kinds of outcomes. Its director, Andreas Schleicher, has predicted that governments will be watching with great interest when the latest Pisa results come out towards the end of this year. Will those countries scoring highly for maths and reading come out on top for collaborative problem-solving? The relationship might well be complex.
Pisa gives a well-referenced rationale for driving the collaborative problem-solving agenda, arguing that it allows for
- Division of labour.
- Incorporation of information from multiple sources, perspectives and experiences.
- Enhanced creativity and quality of solutions.
It also lists "civic contexts" requiring collaborative problem-solving, including: "Social networking, volunteering, participation in community life, and transactions with administration and public services". We wonder whether the newest Pisa test might be a bridge into a different educational world: one in which capabilities are valued on a par with knowledge and skills. If so, it will be a welcome broadening of a currently reductionist and limiting curriculum in England. Instead of tinkering with the system to give us such subject-focused initiatives as the English Baccalaureate or Progress 8, policymakers could think about how to orient learning around a more balanced set of measurable outcomes.
Some immediate benefits of Pisa’s influence might be:
- Reinforcing an important message about the need to develop capabilities. It is taken for granted globally that young people need the skills to be able to solve problems successfully, and with others. Yet as OECD’s Andreas Schleicher argues: "Very little is known about how the schools system is preparing students for them."
- A new language for teachers and pupils that is more precise about the specific aspects of collaborative problem-solving and, in time, other capabilities and real-world values. We have exciting opportunities to develop new formative assessment tools to help our young people learn to become more capable.
Two unintended consequences might be that:
- If translated into high-stakes national tests for the purposes of league tables, assessment could be unhelpfully crude (a level 3b in problem-solving comes to mind), both entrenching a sense of failure in lower-performing pupils and slipping into school’s accountability systems. Duckworth – lauded for her recognition of "grit" as a defining characteristic of successful individuals – baulked at the idea of measuring it, and actually resigned from the programme looking at implementing plans for its assessment in the US. For Duckworth, the incompleteness of assessment tools available makes it unfair to judge schools based on how students perform in high-stakes character assessments.
- Collaborative problem-solving becomes a subject in its own right, rather than being embedded in a context. It has been shown time and again that the best way to teach so-called transferable skills is to integrate them into the curriculum and not to teach them as stand-alone content.
Think, critique, focus
What remains to be seen is whether countries will take this opportunity to re-prioritise the goals of their education systems where subject-based schooling is the current paradigm.
We need experts in every field who can think, critique, solve problems, create, focus and hone their craft. These competences are important – and will look different – within each domain. This must not mean that it is left to individual faculty silos to think through what progression in collaborative problem-solving might look like. Within schools, a cohesive programme is needed across disciplines, one that allows progression in the development of capabilities. Such an approach can help to ensure that improvement in collaborative problem solving (and indeed other critical capabilities) is taken as seriously as disciplinary skill and knowledge.