Education systems must focus on collaborative problem-solving to enhance employment opportunities and workplace efficiency

This year’s international evaluation of national education systems is likely to show the need to focus schooling on new skills needed for jobs in the 2030s.

When today’s five-year-olds, who are just starting school, eventually leave formal education, they can expect to enter a society dramatically different from the one we now know. We have to prepare many of them for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Equally worrying, we risk educating young people for jobs that may have disappeared by the time they leave school, or very soon after. This poses a huge challenge – how should education evolve with them and the society they will enter?

It’s a dilemma that springs largely out of the information revolution. Global economies are moving from an industrial base to one focussed on trade in information and communications. Demands for new skills will require an educational transformation as big as the one which accompanied the shift from an agrarian to an industrial era. Educational systems must adjust, emphasising information and technological skills, rather than – or certainly in addition to – production-based ones. The risks of failure are huge. Those without the skills to act as information producers, distributors and/or consumers may be severely disadvantaged.

“Will a country’s productivity and gross domestic product diminish if workers don’t have collaborative skills? The risks are enormous and ignoring them could imperil everyone’s economic future.”

These shifts in the skills required from the workforce have been taking place for some time and can go unnoticed. But we must monitor what is happening and be ready to respond to the changes in workplace, learning and life. Numerous studies from across developed economies show an increase in tasks that require non-routine skills and more abstract thinking. There has been a corresponding decrease in both routine and manual tasks. These developments have profound implications for education and training.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has led the way in rethinking education. It now examines educational achievement in terms of the skills that students acquire, rather than the number of years of formal education completed. It does this through its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of national education systems, which takes place every three years. 2015 marks a radical fresh development for PISA: it has changed the format of student assessment to include an additional skill, representative of the non-routine cognitive and social skills emerging as a part of a digital society. This year, ‘collaborative problem solving’ is also being assessed, ushering in a new era of education output measures.

A simple example of collaborative problem-solving would be to give several children a piece of a jigsaw and ask them to rebuild the puzzle. They can solve the problem only by collaborating, because no one person holds the solution. A focus on such skills is based on a view that, in the new information economies, collaboration will be essential because tasks will be too complex for a person to work through alone. The message from technology-based industry is that the workplace of the future will increasingly be a place of team working, where individuals are responsible for bringing specific resources that the team needs.

At the University of Melbourne, we have developed the Assessment of Teaching of 21st Century Skills (ATC21S) over the past five years to understand how students’ social and cognitive skills can be developed through working together and solving complex problems collaboratively. The ATC21S project team has defined collaborative problem solving as a composite skill arising from the links between critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and collaboration. The primary distinction between problem-solving by an individual and collaborative problem-solving is its social nature. There has to be communication, an exchange of ideas as well as shared identification of the problem and its elements. There also has to be negotiated agreement about the connection between problem elements and certain actions that will have an effect on them.

The nature of collaboration explains why a range of bodies, including the OECD, UNESCO and the Office of Education in the US all largely agree that 4 ‘C’s – critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration – should be merged with the 3 ‘R’s in school curricula. The hope is that if we teach collaborative thinking and metacognition – the capacity to reflect on what we know and how we learn – we will create a workforce that will be employable in 2032, when today’s five-year-olds finish higher education. We will maximise their chances in the still barely understood workplace that will emerge in the next 30 or 40 years.

Countries where education is not changing fast enough are already having problems. In Egypt, 55-68 per cent of university graduates are unemployed and fundamentally unemployable. They don’t have the skills for industry in that country, which has shifted from oil, agrarian and industrial production to a knowledge economy in banking, finance, tourism and consulting. These non-routine service industries are emerging as major opportunities, but university graduates are typically trained in facts and a drill-type curriculum that does not equip them for these roles. As Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, argued in “The Economic Way of Looking at Life”, new technological advances are of little value in countries that have few skilled workers who can use them. Economic growth depends on the synergy between new knowledge and human capital.

That’s why it will be important to learn the lessons about national education systems from this year’s novel approach by PISA. Will a country’s productivity and gross domestic product diminish if the workforce doesn’t have collaborative skills? The honest answer is that we don’t know. But the risks are enormous, and ignoring them could imperil everyone’s economic future.