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5 ways to help kids become collaborative problem-solvers

Alongside the launch of our report on collaborative problem-solving, we’re sharing five keys ways you can help support activities, in the classroom and at home, to help propel your kids forward on thier journey to becoming perfect problem-solvers.

1. Hint but don’t help

In order to get the most out of group work, adults need to support and encourage rather than direct the group’s attempts to do the task. One of the main aims of promoting collaborative problem-solving is to encourage more self-regulation of learning and to allow children to be less reliant on their teacher or parent.

We encourage adults to circulate and monitor groups offering guidance. Where possible adults should make suggestions and ask open-ended questions, which encourage children to think for themselves.

Adults must also model and reinforce social and communication skills, which are equally important, in order for successful group work to take place. This may include intervening when groups are being dominated by one or more member or reminding them to ask what one another thinks and to take turns.

2. Teach them to take turns

Teaching children effective group working skills take time. Children should be encouraged to take turns and share information and opinions.

Simple activities that require children to coordinate their actions by working on different aspects of the same task may be a good introduction. You can then move towards cooperative interaction, where pupils share information, opinions and explanations in order to instruct and help one another to reach a solution.

The end goal is collaborative interaction where pupils are able to work intellectually together to solve problems, make decisions, plan their work, analyse, synthesise and evaluate.

3. Give everyone a role

Research also suggests that collaborative problem-solving works best when everyone is given a role and feels individually accountable for their work. Where possible it is best to encourage students to assign their own roles but in some cases it may be necessary to allocate these for them.

However, roles should be carefully selected to ensure group members are equally involved. I.e. if someone is given a role such as chair, timekeeper or scribe they should also be able to be involved in the substantive aspects of the activity, such as group reasoning and discussion.

It is important that children have an understanding of what each role involves and are encouraged to work to their strengths where appropriate.

4. Think about the question

Studies have shown that tasks that are high in ambiguity are the most effective for collaborative group work. This is because they provide the need for shared reasoning and debate to solve problems and make decisions.

However, making a task too open too early on may leave children floundering. It therefore may be important, particularly early on, to structure tasks, splitting them into sub-activities.

It may be useful to begin by group brainstorming in order to collate and share ideas, in which each child has the chance to explain their viewpoint and understanding of the question. Setting time deadlines at the end of each sub-stage may be useful.

5. Reach a consensus

For a group to solve a problem, they must reach some kind of group consensus. This is easier said than done - it may take children time and practise to develop the social skills necessary to come to a resolution.

Some conflict can be advantageous as long as group members are encouraged to explore each other’s reasoning with a view to coming to a consensus or compromise.

It may be useful to introduce ground rules or make it part of a chair’s role to mediate or allow children to have some time out to reflect upon their thoughts and feelings. If particular children are finding it difficult to work together it may be useful to see how they operate in another group.

It is useful to make group consensus a formal stage at the end of the activity, like the beginning where every group member is able to express their opinion.

These tips have been adapted from: SPRinG handbook (Baines, E., Blatchford, P., and Kutnick, P. (2016) ‘Promoting effective group work in the primary classroom: A handbook for teachers and practitioners.’ (2nd Edition). London: Routledge.)


Maeve Croghan

Maeve Croghan

Maeve Croghan

Education Intern, Innovation Lab

Maeve was an education intern at Nesta in the Innovation Lab.

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Michael Mann

Michael Mann

Michael Mann

Senior Programme Manager

Michael was a Senior Programme Manager in the Education team in Nesta's Innovation Lab.

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