I am currently taking part in a MOOC, Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills, by Esther Care and Patrick Griffin at The University of Melbourne. One of the major elements in the course is exploring collaborative problem solving.
The primary distinction between problem-solving by an individual and collaborative problem solving is its social nature – the need for communication, exchange of ideas, shared identification of the problem and its elements, and negotiated agreement on connections between problem elements and relationships between actions and their effects. (from MODULE 2: DEFINING AND ASSESSING 21ST CENTURY SKILLS)
As you read through that definition can you make the connection to PLC’s and can you identify indicators of successful PLCs? Teachers who are use to working as individuals frequently find that “working” in the social structure of the PLC is unnecessarily time consuming. “This is my time: I should be doing my work.”
Consider these comments in a draft report from PISA regarding collaborative problem solving (CPS). PISA will be assessing students’ CPS skills this year.
“The requirements for teaching and assessing collaborative problem solving skills are strongly driven by the need for students to prepare for careers that require abilities to work effectively in groups and to apply their problem solving skills in these social situations. Much of the problem solving work carried out in the world today is performed by teams in an increasingly global and computerized economy. There has been a marked shift from manufacturing to a greater emphasis on information and knowledge services. However, even in manufacturing, work is seldom conducted by individuals without working with others. Moreover, with greater availability of networked computers, individuals are increasingly expected to work with diverse teams spread across different locations using collaborative technology.”
It is the complexity of the problems, where solutions require more knowledge, information, skills, and resources than an individual possesses, that requires the collaborative problem solving process. That complexity is how I describe the increasing outcomes that teachers and schools are being asked to accomplish. Teachers must work in collaborative problem solving across a staff and outside the school.
In the course there were two skill sets discussed in building effective collaborative problem solvers that struck me as often missing with teachers working in PLCs:
Ambiguity and Flexibility– Quite often the problems addressed in PLCs as teachers explore gaps in student achievement have no single solution or right answer. Yet there is a need for the team to decide on a direction to take. Plans often require flexibility for changes midstream as new information emerges or resources become available or disappear. Continuous progress with plans can often require teachers to understand the perspective of others and to negotiate.
What if…hypothesis– Teams forming and testing hypothesis is critical to CPS work. PLCs should be exploring multiple pathways to solutions for problems they have identified. PLC members should be sharing their observational findings and generalizing to form hypothesis.
“What do you think would happen if we.…?”
“What if we took a completely different approach?”
“How would things change if we ….?”
The elements of ambiguity, flexibility, and what-if thinking combine as PLCs form initial hunches, take action, observe the results, consider cause and effect, and modify or change the hypothesis.
My observation is that too often PLCs are in a hurry to “get work done.” I think school leaders need to consider how they encourage collaborative problem solving with a focus on creating comfort with ambiguity, what-if thinking and flexibility. Solutions generated by the PLC members are likely to have the greatest impact on their students and their own professional development.