Teaching Collaborative Problem-Solving for 21st-Century Success

Tips on providing opportunities for students to apply problem-solving and collaboration skills. 

By David Reese, Ed.D.

As educators, it’s our job to prepare the students of today for the jobs of tomorrow.  Collaborative problem-solving is a critical part of the 21st-century workforce and essential to success.  In 2015, OECD and PISA defined collaborative problem solving as “the capacity of an individual to effectively engage in a process whereby two or more agents attempt to solve a problem by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution and pooling their knowledge, skills, and efforts to reach that solution”.

This definition of collaborative problem solving incorporates three competencies:

  • Establishing and maintaining shared understanding
  • Taking appropriate action to solve the problem
  • Maintaining team organization

After reading the research study, I was impressed by the connections to 21st century skills. As a presenter, I often reference the 21st Century Learning and Innovation Skills (Communication and Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Problem Solving, and Creativity and Innovation). The OECD and PISA definition incorporates these attributes within this competency.


  • Work effectively and respectfully
  • Exercise flexibility and willingness to compromise to achieve a common goal
  • Value individual contributions of team members
  • Assume shared responsibility for collaborative work

Problem Solving:

  • Reason effectively
  • Use systems thinking
  • Make judgments and decisions
  • Solve problems

The research supports consideration for including collaborative problem solving as an instructional priority. Teaching students how to work together is something done frequently in elementary schools. Continuing this process in secondary school and teaching students how to work together to solve a problem is important work for teachers. One application of this could be the use of performance tasks and project-based learning.

Project-based learning encourages student groups. Teachers can use a variety of grouping strategies during the school year to help students apply collaboration and problem-solving skills. As adults, we are very aware that we do not always work with people we like, but an important part of our job is working with these people to accomplish a task as part of our work. Research frequently occurs through this process and having students become consumers of the research is crucial. They will need to understand how perspective influences the research and findings. As the culmination of the work, the group will need to consider multiple solutions to the situation and make the best decision to address the goal of the task.

As you can see, through this process students can learn how to:

  • effectively divide the workload to complete the task
  • construct research and gather information from many perspectives
  • respectfully consider multiple solutions from group members accounting for creative and quality solutions to address the goal of the task

Reinforcing the value of working in groups is a critical understanding for educators. As schools and states consider individual testing and data it is vital that schools and teachers provide opportunities for students to have practice and learn strategies for working together and performing collaborative problem-solving. This competency is a vital workforce demand and as such NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) has undertaken a study for considerations of collaborative problem solving to determine possibilities for future inclusion on a national assessment.

In future posts, I will look at practical strategies that can be incorporated into the classroom to help students become competent in all aspects of collaborative problem-solving.


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