Collaborative Problem Solving in the Classroom

The skills required for today’s workforce are changing dramatically. Increasingly, workers are being asked to deal with new information, solve unstructured problems, and have strong interpersonal skills (OECD, 2016). Schools have responded to this challenge by organizing around themes like 21st-century skills and introducing activities that require collaborative problem-solving. What are some of the challenges for schools and teachers as they adapt to the demands of a knowledge-based economy?

The emphasis on collaborative problem-solving has led many schools to adopt student-centered instructional strategies. These strategies often ask students to collaborate, work on contextualized problems, and exhibit learning through speaking and presenting, instead of answering questions via paper and pencil. Despite a school or an administrator’s desire to move instruction from teacher-centered to student-centered, teachers often do not deliver instruction in this manner. What causes the gap between the current reality in many schools and the vision of student-centered instruction? Teachers’ attitudes and beliefs often impede them from fully integrating student-centered instruction (Gilakjani, 2013). Many teachers feel that student-centered instruction can lead to an element of chaos in their classroom that is not conducive to learning. Additionally, many assessment types lend themselves to teacher-centered learning but do not transfer to student-centered classrooms. It is then left to teachers to find time to create and administer their own assessment materials.

Teachers also need support from the curriculum to successfully implement a student-centered classroom. Often, schools and administrators expect teachers to transform their students into “experts” and expect students to think deeply about problems and solutions as soon as the delivery of instruction has changed. However, expecting students to inquire, reason, and collaborate and having them actually do those things effectively, are two different things. Students require knowledge about a topic or problem to think deeply (Willingham, 2010). If the curriculum foregrounds target ideas and concepts, removes or places ancillary information in the background, and provides collaborative learning activities with targeted, narrow and precise learning outcomes, student-centered learning can be effectively implemented (Eli Silk, 2010).

Taking student-centered learning one step further, collaborative problem-solving requires that students externalize their individual problem-solving process and then learn how to apply them within a group setting. This requirement of interpersonal skills reflects the demands cited earlier of a participant in a knowledge-based economy. This requirement also places additional demands on the teacher. Processes and best-practices around these interactions need to be identified and shared with students. Not only have large and small corporations identified that workers need to engage and communicate with many different stakeholders, but they often institute a framework and structure to help with that communication. Many corporations additionally use human resource departments to facilitate communication. Teachers are often afforded none of these advantages.

Despite these challenges, many teachers deploy student-centered classrooms and collaborative problem-solving effectively and enthusiastically. Some teachers have even gone beyond changing their instructional delivery or the way they incorporate problem-solving to inspire change in the entire landscape of their classrooms. As with most examples of real educational reform, it will be these teachers that lead to positive educational change, from the ground-up.