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How to Teach Social Skills in a Connected World

We are living in times of connection. And it’s not just about networked information technologies. Today, cross-continental travel is easy. Economic interdependence among nations is a ubiquitous. Migrants and refugees move in greater numbers than ever before. Our lives depend on complex energy grids and sophisticated infrastructure. Around the planet, connections bind us together.

To live a productive and fulfilled life in a connected world, people must be prepared to work collaboratively, to care about collective success, to value teamwork. Yet schooling often focuses on individual achievement. It’s all about MY grades, MY success, MY ability to get ahead in the world (often by leaving others behind). In the long run, this could perspective could be problematic. Teaching students to aspire primarily toward individual wealth, status, and esteem, could prove counterproductive.

Today’s educators may need to re-evaluate the conventions of schooling. I’m not talking about Silicon Valley style disruption. Some things should absolutely stay the same. Most of the classic cannon of academic knowledge remains relevant even as we steamroll into a brave new world. But we need to consider whether or not the routines of the classroom—many of which were designed with a very different economic model in mind—can adequately condition young people to live and work in a globalized world. After all, tomorrow’s jobs may demand a very different kind of intellectual, social, and emotional constitution.

Fortunately, the OECD recently released “the world’s first international assessment of collaborative problem-solving skills.” The report, which evaluates and interprets data from the 2015 PISA test, is full of interesting findings. As soon as I read it, I reached out to Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the OECD.

Here’s the discussion he and I had:

Jordan Shapiro: A few things in this report stood out to me immediately. For instance, the findings around gender: in every country, girls outperformed boys. Also, I have some questions about the findings around video games: kids who played scored slightly lower, on average, across the board.

I’m sure you and I can come up with all sorts of guesses and speculations as to why these things might be true, but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

Let’s just start with some simple definitions. What is this skill you call “collaborative problem solving?” And how does the OECD measure it?

Andreas Schleicher: In schools, students typically learn individually; and at the end of the school year, schools certify their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators. Innovation is now rarely the product of individuals working in isolation; instead, it’s an outcome of how we mobilize, share and integrate knowledge.

Schools need to prepare students for a world in which people need to collaborate with others of diverse cultural origins and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people need to develop trust to work across such differences; and a world in which people’s lives will be affected by issues that transcend national boundaries.

This PISA assessment makes a first step towards assessing those kinds of collaborative skills. It looks at whether students can establish and maintain a shared understanding of a problem, the extent to which they can agree on and develop appropriate solution strategies, and how they follow through and maintain an effective team organization, even when they encounter difficulties and obstacles.

We used a simulated environment for this where students interacted with digital agents, and then validated with small scale pilots that this provided a reasonably accurate representation of human to human interactions.

Jordan: In the United States (and also in many of the other schools I’ve visited around the world), educators seem to be very intentional about cultivating and assessing collaborative skills when working with the youngest kids.

When my own children were still in primary school, the teacher constantly asked: Are they good at sharing? Do they play well with others? Are they respectful of their peers’ feelings? Can they complete a project in a group setting?

But what seems to happen, as students get older, is that quantitative assessments become more important than the qualitative assessments. School starts to look a lot like it’s all about the production of labor. Educators and administrators start to prioritize the value and worth of academic achievements, they start to measure attendance, they start to track punctuality and tardiness.

Part of that could be because these things feel more objective, and therefore easier to assess. It may also have to do with the fact that we tend to associate collaborative skills with ethics and morality. They go with traditional religious values like compassion, charity, kindness. Maybe there’s even some colonial baggage here—the idea that some people are just naturally more pious or civilized than others, that these things don’t need to, or can’t be taught.

Perhaps there’s even a sort of philosophical dissonance: quantitative reasoning tends to divide things into more precise units, whereas collaborative skills are often about transcending the boundaries between individuals, about getting closer. So, how can you measure what’s antithetical to division and interval?

The whole question of whether or not it is possible to bridge the gaps between these kinds of binaries makes me all the more fascinated by what you’re doing with this particular project.

Do you think this report will encourage educators and policy makers to pay more attention to collaborative problem-solving skills? It seems to me like the research is already there, plenty of psychologists, specialists, and scientists have identified how important these skills are, but we still seem to be wedded to a lot of old presumptions.

For example, we think that once students have the vocabulary—if they’ve grasped the educational content, if they’ve mastered the traditional languages of academia: math, science, language arts, social studies, etc.—then, they will be automatically prepared to work with others. Your data seems to suggest that it is a lot more complicated, right?

Andreas: I hope the assessment draws attention to the importance of developing collaborative skills, as these are not an automatic by-product of good individual skills.

As you would expect, the PISA study shows that students with stronger reading or math skills also tend to be better at collaborative problem solving, simply 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, or 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 you would predict from their performance in science, reading and math. For example, Japanese students do very well in those subjects, but they do even better in collaborative problem solving. In contrast, Chinese students do very well in math and science, but just average in their collaborative skills.

Obviously, there are many factors involved, but schools can certainly make a difference. Consider this: 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. The results show a clear relationship between these activities and positive attitudes towards collaboration. On average, the valuing of relationships and teamwork is more prevalent among students who reported that they participate in these activities more often.

Jordan: So, when teachers lead class discussions, it seems to make a huge difference?

Andreas: Yes. Even after considering gender as well as students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, in 46 of the 57 education systems that participated in the assessment, students who reported that they explain their ideas in most or all science lessons were more likely to agree that they are “a good listener”; and in 38 systems these students also agreed that they “enjoy considering different perspectives”. So, there is much that teachers can do to facilitate a climate that is conducive to collaboration.

Many schools can also do better in fostering a learning climate where students develop a sense of belonging, and where they are free of fear. Students who reported more positive student-student interactions score higher in collaborative problem solving, even after considering the socio-economic profile of students and schools. Students who don’t feel threatened by other students also score higher in collaborative problem solving. In contrast, students who reported that their teachers say something insulting to them in front of others at least a few times per year score 23 points lower in collaborative problem solving than students who reported that this didn’t happen to them during the previous year.

It is also 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 inter-relationships between social background, attitudes towards collaboration and performance in collaborative problem solving are even more interesting. The data show that exposure to diversity in the classroom tends to be associated with better collaboration skills. For example, in some countries students without an immigrant background perform better in the collaboration-specific aspects of the assessment when they attend schools with a larger proportion of immigrant students. So, diversity and students’ contact with those who are different from them and who may hold different points of view may aid in developing collaboration skills.

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.

Jordan: Any suggestions?

Andreas: Part of the answer might lie in giving students more ownership over the time, place, path, pace and interactions of their learning. Or 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, organize 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 responsibility lies with parents and society at large. It takes collaboration across a community to develop better skills for better lives.

Jordan: If I were to challenge anything about how this report interprets the data, it would be about the framing. You’re arguing that these collaborative skills are important for economic reasons: the workplace of the future demands a new skill set. No country or economy wants to lag behind.

But shouldn’t we also value relationships and teamwork for their own sake, not only as a means to an end? And if so, doesn’t the very idea of a ranking system betray that intention, encouraging competition over collaboration? I’m sure you know that a lot of teachers object to the PISA test on these grounds.

Andreas: Absolutely, social skills play a central role for life and well-being, economic aspects just reflect a subset of this. But I don’t see why this speaks against assessing countries on this basis. Such comparisons offer us insights on where social skills are best developed, so we can learn from those experiences.

Jordan: Can you say a bit about the part of the report that looks at “Students’ attitudes toward collaboration”? Specifically, you found an interesting gender disparity.

Girls tend to be “more interested in others’ opinions and want others to succeed.” Whereas boys “are more likely to see the instrumental benefits of teamwork and how collaboration can help them work more effectively and efficiently.”

I read this as a confirmation that education systems tend to reinforce stereotypical gendered attitudes. Girls are taught to value caring. Boys are taught to value productivity. I suppose someone else might read it as a confirmation that there are innate attitude characteristics which correlate to gender.

Can you say a bit about these findings and how you interpret them?

Andreas: All countries need to make headway in reducing gender disparities. 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, both before and after considering their performance in science, reading and mathematics. The relative size of the gender gap in collaborative problem-solving performance is even larger than it is in reading. But the gender gap varies hugely across countries, showing that we are not talking about innate attributes of gender.

These results are mirrored in students’ attitudes towards collaboration. Girls reported 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.

As positive attitudes towards collaboration are linked with the collaboration-related component of performance in the PISA assessment, this opens up one avenue for intervention: Even if the causal nature of the relationship is unclear, if schools foster boys’ appreciation of others and their interpersonal friendships and relationships, then they might also see better outcomes among boys in collaborative problem solving.

It is all very well for boys to understand that teamwork can bring benefits, but in order to work effectively in a team and achieve something in a collaborative fashion, boys must be able to listen to others and take their viewpoints into account. Only in this manner can teams make full use of the range of perspectives and experiences that team members offer.

Jordan: I want to deal with video game question now. And you know that I’m a big advocate for digital play, so I’m probably biased when it comes to this part of the report. Still, I’ll ask my question.

You looked at how activities outside of school influenced collaborative problem-solving skills. And the data suggests that students who play video games score slightly lower. But those who use the internet to chat or access social networks score slightly higher. What about online gaming, the kind that includes chat and social elements? I’m not sure the categories here are as clear cut as the report suggests.

Also, it seems to me that we need to think of information technologies less as the cause of certain behaviors and more as the tools or platforms on which kids demonstrate, or fail to demonstrate, their ability to collaborate. The big question this report asks is ultimately about whether or not students are prepared to participate in a changing world—one with new economic and technological paradigms. So, isn’t that ultimately a question about how we use the various tools-of-the-times to facilitate trade and communication, to construct meaning and culture?

Andreas: The results show consistently that students who frequently 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.

I should say so that this includes all sorts of video games and you might well find a more nuanced picture if you would take a more fine-grained look at different types of video games. Some of those games might indeed foster collaborative and social skills, but shooting at each other is unlikely to raise your empathy or social skills, nor your capacity to interact with humans. So again, keep in mind that these results pertain to the aggregate of video games.

Jordan: Okay, last question. I’ll make it an easy one. What was most surprising to you in this report? Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you think people should know?

Andreas: Most experts had predicted a closer relationship between individual and social skills, in school we somehow assume that they develop by themselves. But these results show they do not. We talk a lot about social skills these days, but then we put students behind individual desks and at the end of the school year we give them an individual test or exam. There is a lot more to do to align what we do in education with what our societies need.

FIND THE OECD's full report on collaborative problem solving skills here.