PISA results 2017: It takes collaboration across communities to develop better skills for better lives

The successes and failures in the classroom will increasingly shape the fortunes of countries. And yet, more of the same education will only produce more of the same strengths and weaknesses. In today’s schools, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, we certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators.                                   

Are schools living up to this? To find out, PISA carried out the world’s first global assessment of collaborative problem-solving skills.

As one would expect, students who have stronger reading or mathematics skills also tend to be better at collaborative problem solving, because managing and interpreting information, and complex reasoning are always required to solve problems.

The same holds across countries: top-performing countries in PISA, like Japan, Korea and Singapore in Asia, Estonia and Finland in Europe, and Canada in North America, also come out well in the PISA assessment of collaborative problem-solving.

But individual cognitive skills explain less than two-thirds of the variation in student performance on the PISA collaborative problem-solving scale. And there are countries where students do much better in collaborative problem-solving than what one would predict from their performance in the PISA science, reading and mathematics assessments. For example, Japanese students do very well in those subjects, but they do even better in collaborative problem-solving. To some extent, this also holds for the UK. In contrast, Chinese students do very well in maths and science, but just average in their collaborative skills.

When PISA assessed individual problem-solving skills in 2012, boys scored higher in most countries. By contrast, in the 2015 assessment of collaborative problem-solving, girls outperformed boys in in every country 

In the UK, this gender gap amounts to 34 points, one of the largest among countries.

These results are mirrored in students’ attitudes towards collaboration: girls show more positive attitudes towards relationships, meaning that they tend to be more interested in others’ opinions and want others to succeed. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to see the instrumental benefits of teamwork and how collaboration can help them work more effectively and efficiently.

The classroom environment, too, relates to those attitudes. PISA asked students how often they engage in communication-intensive activities, such as explaining their ideas in science class; spending time in the laboratory doing practical experiments; arguing about science questions; and taking part in class debates about investigations. All this relates clearly to positive attitudes towards collaboration. So there is much that teachers can do to facilitate a climate that is conducive to collaboration.

Students who reported more positive student-student interactions also score higher in collaborative problem-solving, even after considering the socio-economic profile of students and schools. In contrast, students who reported that their teachers say something insulting to them in front of others tend to perform lower.

It is interesting that disadvantaged students see the value of teamwork often more clearly than their advantaged peers. They tend to report more often that teamwork improves their own efficiency, that they prefer working as part of a team to working alone, and that they think teams make better decisions than individuals. Schools that succeed in building on those attitudes by designing collaborative learning environments might be able to engage disadvantaged students in new ways. The data also show that exposure to diversity in the classroom tends to be associated with better collaboration skills.

Finally, education does not end at the school gate when it comes to helping students develop their social skills. It is striking that only a fifth of the performance variation in collaborative problem-solving lies between schools in the UK, much less than is the case in the academic disciplines. For a start, parents need to play their part. For example, students score much higher in the collaborative problem-solving assessment when their parents said they were interested in their child’s school activities.

What happens outside school – using the Internet, playing video games, meeting friends or working in the household – can also have a social, or perhaps antisocial, component

PISA shows that students who play video games score much lower, on average, than students who do not play video games, and that gap remains significant even after considering social and economic factors as well as performance in science, reading and mathematics.

At the same time, accessing the Internet, chatting or social networking tends to be associated with better collaborative problem-solving performance, on average across OECD countries, all other things being equal.

In sum, in a world that places a growing premium on social skills, a lot more needs to be done to foster those skills far more systematically across the school curriculum. Strong academic skills will not automatically also lead to strong social skills. Part of the answer might lie in giving students more ownership over the time, place, path, pace and interactions of their learning. Another part of the answer can lie in fostering more positive relationships at school and designing learning environments that benefit students’ collaborative problem-solving skills and their attitudes towards collaboration.

Schools can identify those students who are socially isolated, organise social activities to foster constructive relationships and school attachment, provide teacher training on classroom management, and adopt a whole-of-school approach to prevent and address bullying. But part of the answer lies with parents and society at large. It takes collaboration across a community to develop better skills for better lives. 

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