Teaching Opinion

Teaching Collaborative Problem-Solving Skills Through Career and Technical Education

By Heather Singmaster — November 22, 2017 5 min read
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Workforce readiness skills. Employability skills. Professional skills. Soft skills. 21st century skills.

It’s no secret that we are in a time where skills, whatever you want to call them, are at a premium. Look at almost any survey of what business people are looking for in their employees and you will see the same things repeated: problem solving, critical thinking, communication, team work.

According to Mick Normington, a workforce researcher at Lee College in Texas, the biggest HR trend right now is a demand for soft skills with oral and written communication skills the most desired, followed by problem solving, teamwork, and integrity.

Employer demand and the ever-growing skills gap make it clear that students must possess these skills if they are going to be successful working in the interconnected economy. Let’s not forget ‘global’ as a key word here—employees today are commonly functioning as part of international teams or working on projects with an international dimension. And even if they aren’t, they more than likely are working with people from different backgrounds as the U.S. grows increasingly diverse, so workforce readiness skills must be learned through a global lens as well.

But how do we ensure students graduate with these skills?

PISA Test Results for Collaborative Problem Solving

Newly released data from OECD‘s 2015 PISA exam shows that school systems across the globe are struggling to teach students what they are calling, “social skills” or “collaborative problem solving,” defined as solving complex problems as part of a team and taking initiative while being aware of group dynamics and working to overcome obstacles and disagreements. The data shows that only 8 percent of students across the countries administering the PISA exam scored in the top tier for these skills—meaning that all schools are struggling with how to teach them.

There were thought-provoking findings in the results of the collaborative problem solving section of the PISA exam. Girls outscored boys across the board. Students that value teamwork and relationships have better social skills. The more physical education a student had access too, the better their social skills—OECD posits this is because they must collaborate in many activities, including in team sports. Students who access the internet through online chat rooms or social media networks score slightly higher as well, whereas those who play video games score lower. And most interesting, students scored higher if they attended a school with higher numbers of immigrant students, leading OECD to recommend, “Education systems should investigate whether, in their own context, diversity and students’ contact with those who are different from them and who may hold different points of view can aid in developing collaboration skills.”

CTE and Project Based Learning

What can we extrapolate from this? One of the main strategies being used to promote the learning of these skills in U.S. classrooms today is project-based learning, as well as flipped classroom models, where teachers serve as mentors to students who take charge of their learning, often working in teams. In light of the results showing the collaborative approach of physical education having a positive effect on development of soft skills, this seems like a strategy worth pursuing.

While this may be a more recent tactic in “academic” school settings, career and technical education (CTE—formerly known as vocational education) classrooms have engaged in hands-on projects for decades. PISA unfortunately doesn’t provide us with any insight into the role of vocational education in the development of these skills. However, there has been a national spotlight on CTE programs and improving them to address the skills gap—which includes ensuring that students are learning these employability skills alongside technical skills and academics. Add to this the fact that students enrolled in even one CTE course are 13 percent more likely to graduate from high school and more than 75 percent of those who concentrate in CTE enroll in some form of higher education, and there is a strong argument to focus on CTE as the delivery vehicle for soft skills education.

Don‘t Forget Global

Global learning emphasizes interaction and working with people from different backgrounds—whether in person or online. Adding real-world problems and issues to curriculum engages students in their learning and helps them see how the content they are learning can be applied in the world of work. Using online technologies to connect students and classrooms in different countries so they can work together on projects exploits students’ natural curiosity about the world and their interest in connecting with others online. In Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network, where these activities are a regular occurrence, data proves this—ISSN schools have higher graduation rates compared to similar schools in their districts.

Combining global learning with CTE curriculum can be powerful. Project based learning is a critical component of global education. Around the world, employees work on projects with other people. By helping CTE students explore the global nature of the careers and the skills they will need to be successful, we are giving students a leg-up on their peers.

To assist CTE educators in teaching global employability skills, Asia Society, together with partners ACTE and Advance CTE, recently released the new free online professional development course and tools, “Global Competence Through Career and Technical Education.” Online, and interactive, the materials help CTE educators integrate global content and skills into what they are already teaching in their classrooms in order to prepare students for the global world of work. Importantly, the course also helps educators understand project management skills, noted by Mick Normington to be the 7th most in-demand soft skill. These skills can help students be more successful in completing projects by helping them understand timelines, budgets, and team dynamics. But they can also assist educators in organizing their classrooms while students are in the midst of completing projects.

We are on the precipice of a new working dynamic. One that eschews rote work for higher-level thinking skills like collaborative problem solving. Globally focused career and technical education programs can be the vehicle to prepare our students for success in this new world.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.