Classroom conundrums, tackled together
2017 will see a future-focused rethink of mainstream education, with collaborative problem solving skills leading the charge, says Michael Mann.
The kids are coding. They’re making websites, programmes and apps. Slowly, but surely, we’re chipping away at the digital skills shortage. But what happens next? What’s the next skills gap crying out to be addressed?
Our research suggests skills more ancient and human - the ones harder to automate and therefore more valuable in the long-term - creativity, dexterity and social intelligence and the ability to solve non-routine problems. Those equipped with these skills will be most resilient to changes in the jobs market. I believe that in 2017 educators will sit up and take a hard look at the skills needed for a better economy and stronger society, and that collaborative problem solving (CPS) will top the list.
At its simplest level CPS is about solving problems together - a skill that is as useful in today’s workplace as it will be in tomorrow’s.
It’s the application of knowledge to real issues through discussion, debate and then deciding to move forward as a group.
What does this mean for the classroom?
Let’s use a classroom staple as an example. Times tables - they’re useful tools to learn but they’re predictable and routine. A ‘non-routine' problem requires us to use a range of skills to come up with a solution that is new and unknown to the solver. It forces us to discover, to understand, to make sense. Instead of answering ‘What’s 10 x 2?’ could students create their own questions, or apply their knowledge and tools to a series of problems relating to Noah and the animals on board the Ark?
Or getting more ambitious, we could look at a problem like climate change and pose students a challenge around developing sustainable energy for their community. Again this requires knowledge - how electricity is produced, details on the local area and some maths and economics comprehension, to develop a business model.
Our upcoming research finds that if structured well, these problems can reinforce knowledge and improve attainment, as well as prepare you for the future workplace. But it also tells us that the barriers for teachers are substantial, from curriculum coverage and behaviour management, to designing a task that both stretches and supports. For CPS to gain ground a concerted shift is needed, including teacher training, better resources and system-level support.
How will this happen?
The shot across the bow will come from the OECD’s PISA education rankings. At the end of 2016 the UK was shown to be languishing mid-table for maths and reading. In 2017 PISA will release the first country rankings for collaborative problem solving. Past maths scores in 2012, led to hand-wringing by politicians and multi-million pound initiatives. If we score low on this new measure, expect a new wave of rhetoric and whip-cracking. If we score high, it may be even more interesting, forcing us to reflect on what we need to do to maintain this.
This will gain momentum from several other trends.
There is a growing surge in frontline teacher innovation exemplified by growth in structures like TeachMeets and Innovate my School. Schools now are better equipped than ever to bypass government, test new approaches, and share what works on a practical level. Grass-roots initiatives like ‘the Daily Mile’ have spread from a single school in Scotland to across the country to other nations including Holland. This is all helped by the array of teacher networks, the strong community on Twitter, teachpreneurs like Colin Hegarty and larger organisations like the Teach First Innovation Unit or the TES marketplace and forum.
Lessons in motivation
At the other end of the spectrum are negative factors positioning the sector as ripe for change. Most apparent is the growing teacher recruitment and workload crisis, with teachers leaving the profession in droves. Though the causes are complex, the narrow curriculum, targets and marking pressures are all having an impact. With morale already low and systems at breaking point, a rethink of what we’re educating for might be just what teachers need to renew faith in the profession.
Then there is the burgeoning evidence in the education movement, with organisations like the EEF and ResearchEd paving the way. More evidence will help in two ways. Firstly, a number of robust, randomised trials, are showing how more rounded, collaborative and talk-based approaches to learning, from philosophical debate to talk and ‘doing’ in science, can raise attainment in maths and English. Alongside this the sector will receive a strong dose of realism, as practitioners also take to heart evidence about projects that haven’t worked.
Finally there’s the developments in assessment and technology. The schools assessment landscape is in flux. We’ve seen major changes and controversies in the last two years. There is a growing appetite for new approaches in assessment, like comparative judgement (take the colour test here) or tech-based innovations. With these two trends combining, we’ll see advances in how educators measure progress beyond attainment, from collaborative problem solving through to things like character and grit.
In 2017, the discussion will undoubtedly still be focused on raising attainment and tackling disadvantage, but we’ll begin to think hard about a more rounded curriculum of knowledge and skills, more nuanced assessment and use of evidence and more satisfying professional work and training. It’s no small problem, but we can solve it together.