'Collaborative problem solving must be placed at the heart of our curriculum'

The latest Pisa rankings prove that if our pupils are to thrive in future workplaces, the importance of collaborative problem-solving, creativity and teamwork must be emphasised in schools, writes one educationalist

Geoff Mulgan

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The OECD’s Pisa scores have had a huge influence on educators.  Their rankings for maths, science and reading showed countries such as Finland, Korea and Singapore – and cities such as Shanghai – excelling, and prompted the laggards to raise their game.

This week, they have published measurements of something very different: how well children can collaborate together to solve problems. This is not meant to displace maths or science. But it signals that the OECD believes that these need to be complemented with other skills if children are to thrive in the real worlds of life and work.

One reason is that children in school today will be entering a jobs market very different from the one previously encountered by most head teachers or ministers. Artificial intelligence programmes such as AlphaGo have been trouncing humans in tasks that were once thought impossible for computers.  Driverless cars are now taking to our streets. And every day we receive shopping despatched from warehouses full of robots working in what are called "human exclusion zones".

Changing skills

These shifts are dramatically changing what skills are likely to be needed to find and keep a job. Nesta – with Oxford and Pearson – recently did a detailed study of future jobs in the US and the UK, breaking down each job into a bundle of skills and analysing how trends such as automation, ageing population and climate change, could affect future demand. Some mainly repetitive jobs are likely to shrink. Others, ranging from teaching to hospitality, are likely to grow.  But within this picture, some skills are likely to be in growing demand – and these are generally ones that are harder to automate: creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork and understanding systems.

An obvious conclusion is that these skills should be at the heart of every school and university curriculum. Yet the sad fact is that many educational institutions are still locked in much more traditional methods and push the sort of skills now being measured by the OECD to the margins. One reason is that, although these skills complement traditional subjects, they are often best learned in very different ways: through working on real-life projects and working in teams rather than alone.

The UK has done relatively well in these first PISA rankings of collaborative problem solving, the result of strong traditions of rounded learning that have survived a fair amount of assault from on high.  This leaves us better placed than other countries – including many that excelled in the previous PISA tests – that have focused on a very narrow curriculum.

But as the rest of the world shifts, we can’t be complacent. Finland – which came top in previous PISA rankings – has radically overhauled its curriculum. Yet the UK’s policy moves in recent years have gone in precisely the opposite direction, with a narrow emphasis on GCSEs to the exclusion of everything else.   

A soluble problem

Worryingly, our survey this month shows that only around half of teachers understand what collaborative problem-solving is, while 79 per cent can’t remember ever having had training in how to include it in lessons – suggesting that the UK’s current position could deteriorate over time. Meanwhile, the new school models that fit most closely with future skills needs, such as Studio Schools and Univerity Technical Colleges, have had to cope with an odd mix of neglect and overt hostility from parts of government.

Luckily this is a soluble problem. Earlier this year, Nesta surveyed the state of evidence on collaborative problem-solving in schools and showcased examples of good practice. These now need to be recognised, celebrated and spread. 

The most basic duty of any educational system is to prepare young people for the real world they’ll encounter, not an imagined or past world.

The OECD survey provides a welcome push that will hopefully reinforce our schools’ ability to fulfil that duty.

Geoff Mulgan is the chief executive of Nesta

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Geoff Mulgan

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