Automation and technological advances are transforming the future of work. But it is hard to work out exactly how to transform education and training programmes to match the needs of that future workplace.

Soft skills such as communication, teamwork and problem solving, however, are likely to be highly valued by employers of the future.

In the first study of its kind, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has released a report which examines students’ ability to work in groups to solve problems. It ranks the findings by both nationality and gender, with Singaporean girls coming top of the class.

Girls outperform boys in collaborative problem solving in every country and economy that participated in the assessment. On average across OECD countries, girls score 29 points higher than boys. The largest gaps – of over 40 points – are observed in Australia, Finland, Latvia, New Zealand and Sweden, whereas the smallest gaps – of less than 10 points – are observed in Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru.

The findings stand in stark contrast to PISA’s assessment of individual problem solving, where boys generally performed better than girls. And analysts say the findings suggest girls are better equipped for the workplace and are more able to cope with modern ways of working.

Image: OECD

Girls performed strongly both before and after accounting for performance in science, reading and mathematics. The relative size of the gender gap in collaborative problem-solving performance is even larger than it is in reading, where girls also outperform boys in every education system, according to the study.

Of the 33 countries assessed, Singapore, Japan and Finland came top for students’ collaborative problem solving abilities, while Chile, Mexico and Turkey had the lowest scores.

In order to assess collaborative problem solving ability, the researchers analysed skills including maintaining an awareness of group dynamics, ensuring team members acted in accordance with their agreed-upon roles, resolving disagreements and monitoring progress towards a solution.

Collaborative problem solving is a skill that is often hard to teach and assess
Image: Reuters/Gabrielle Lurie

According to the report, girls show a more positive attitude to relationships, meaning they tend to be interested in the opinions of their peers, as well as wanting them to succeed. The report also notes that although girls outperform boys on average, there is a large overlap in their score distribution, with many girls only attaining low levels of proficiency in collaborative problem solving.

While most employers and teachers recognize the value of collaborative problem solving, it is still rarely deliberately and methodically taught in schools.

The global innovation foundation Nesta notes the significant barriers that teachers face when trying to introduce collaborative problem solving to the classroom. These include exam-driven education systems and having to stick to a curriculum, as well as the need to manage student behaviour.

Exam results are also tangible and comparable, making it much easier for employers to select the top performers, whereas collaborative problem solving skills are much harder to quantify and assess.

Perhaps the OECD’s study – the first attempt at assessing collaborative problem solving at an international level – is a step towards finding methods to teach and appraise some of the soft skills needed for the workplace of the future.

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