21st Century Competencies – A Goal is Good No Matter Who Scores It

People who are especially talented in the Individualization theme are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

 – Individualisation: Shared Theme Description, Clifton Strengths Insights

 For the first time ever, an international assessment of CPS was conducted in 2015, with the results reported in December of 2017 by the OECD (2017a, 2017b) … Only 8% of students throughout the globe performed at the highest level of proficiency … whereas 29% of students scored at the lowest levels.

 – Advancing the Science of Collaborative Problem Solving


Working in a team can be fun. The sense of camaraderie and exuberance resulting from achieving team goals or scoring them in the case of football matches, can be very rewarding. It can also give rise to absurd outcomes as demonstrated in Mark Mylod’s thriller, The Menu. It is not always easy to be a team player.

In fact, it can be argued that the person who was the least agreeable in Hawthorne (researchers agree that agreeableness leads to better team work – it is less clear if agreeableness also leads to group success or just success) was also the wisest, being the only one who was neither on the reservation list nor the menu. On a philosophical level, which far from being an endeavour for renunciants is actually a key determinant of survivability, reasonable and crucially, wise, people disagree on whether it is better to be of use or no use to others and consequently to be with or without others. It should be stated at this point that like in all things, here too, context matters.

In the world of work, we must work together. In life, we must also work together. We must work together when we cannot achieve alone what can only be done with others. It may be observed that most people can work together if they wanted to or perhaps a more cynical person might say, needed to.

Working together has many benefits which include amplification and concepts associated with critical mass. For decades, researchers have been studying how people learn or make decisions when in a group. One area of study is brainstorming when people sit together. Dr Vincent Brown who worked at the Hofstra Computer Science Department, introduced to this field of study, the concept of lateral inhibitionwhere an active neuron or group of neurons … inhibits other neurons… (Doboli & Brown, 2009).

Applied to brainstorming, lateral inhibition refers to situations when the expression of ideas by one person could suppress the ability of other group members to express their ideas (Doboli & Brown, 2009). We teach children the benefits of brainstorming and may not prepare them adequately for the reality of brainstorming in adult settings when there are stakes, for example, an appraisal by someone who believes in the power of a sharp eye.

There are various reasons and implications to what is said by whom in a group setting. Whether brainstorming and indeed any kind of group meeting would be useful would depend on if the goals of the individuals comprising a group dovetail with the goals (stated and overt) of the group – more on this later.

Given the complexity of problems and the advance of communication technology, there has been a spotlight on teams. In 2015, the OECD decided to test students worldwide on their collaborative problem-solving (CPS) skills and found that the results called for urgent action to teach students how to work productively in teams to solve problems. Only 8% of “more than 500,000 15-year-olds from 52 countries” reached a proficiency level of 4 (the highest level of collaborative problem-solving proficiency).

According to an expert group which devised the PISA, CPS assessment, Collaborative problem-solving competency is the (1) capacity of an individual to (2) effectively engage in a process whereby (3) two or more agents (4) attempt to solve a problem (5) by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution, and (6) pooling their knowledge, skills and efforts to reach that solution (OECD, 2017a as cited in Grasser et al., 2018).

The relevant OECD publication (2017) includes explanatory remarks on each of these six elements. For example, on (6), the publication states: … there are potential differences in points of view, dissension/conflict among group members, errors committed by group members in need of repair, and other challenges in the problem that require cognitive effort to handle. This additional effort of justifying, defending, arguing and reformulating is a factor that may explain why groups sometimes achieve more or are more efficient than individuals.

Students who attempted the CPS assessment had to interact with computer-agents (as opposed to humans) with a view to collaborating for the purposes of solving problems in different scenarios. There are three points which are noteworthy about this test.

First, it tested an individual student’s ability to collaborate and not how a group could evolve through dynamic interactions to successfully achieve a goal. Second, the conversation between the student and the computer agent was very controlled and did not mirror real life conversations which could be wildly unpredictable because well, people have different goals and emotions at different stages. Thirdly, students were not hampered in any way by status dynamics. According to a relevant OECD publication released in 2017, PISA 2015 Collaborative-Problem Solving Framework, students in the assessment can vary in taking on different task roles, but are not assigned a social status (OECD, 2017). The OECD publication adds “in some cultures there are social customs where it is awkward for an employee to communicate with a boss by asking a question, making a request, or evaluating what the boss does. These differences are avoided in the contexts of the PISA 2015 assessment” (OECD, 2017).

It could be added that in some cultures it would be quite unwise to do anything other than agree especially about mundane things. Given that two cannot walk (or work) together unless they agree, agreement is an integral part of collaboration. Perhaps the first thing we should agree on is what disagreement actually means.

The way the PISA team constructed the 4 proficiency levels is very instructive.

At Level 1 … students can confirm actions or proposals made by others. They tend to focus on their individual roles within the group. Students near the top of level 2 can take the initiative to suggest a next logical stepAt level 3When conflicts arise, they can help team members negotiate a solution. At level 4, students take initiative and perform actions or make requests to overcome obstacles and to resolve disagreements and conflicts.

Proficiency in collaborative-problem solving, according to the PISA experts entails three things – (1) to have a sense of the bigger picture apart from one’s own role, (2) to take initiative, (3) to actively resolve conflicts and other obstacles.

According to Grasser and others (2018), CPS requires two things. The first is task-related expertise. The second is what can be loosely termed as people skills. In relation to people skills, students can be taught how to foster trust.

Grasser and others (2018) are calling for educators to train students explicitly in CPS. The OECD publication (p3, 2017) gives the example of Singapore’s third IT Masterplan which aims to train students in critical skills such as collaboration. Grasser and others (2018) suggest that problem-based learning is one way of training students’ CPS proficiency.

At The Brain Dojo, students get the opportunity to engage in problem-based learning, for example through coming up with solutions to what some consider over-population of a certain bird and through mediation role-plays.

Team sports are very instructive for collaborative problem-solving.

A goal for one is a goal for all.

The Brain Dojo

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