Collaborative Problem Solving

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   So much of the work done by public school administrators, teachers, and support staff revolves around solving problems. The business of education is a complicated one, and problems arise frequently that need to be addressed collaboratively with school-based staff and often the parents and guardians of students. 

   The terms collective intelligence and social sensitivity have been recently coined in response to research related to how people work collaboratively to complete a variety of tasks. Social sensitivity can be described as a group member’s ability to read the emotions of others in the group and adjust their communication style accordingly. Collaborative groups, or groups in which all members are actively engaged in working towards a solution to a problem, whose members display higher levels of social sensitivity have been shown to complete tasks with greater ease and decreased conflict (Damon & Phelps, 1989).

   Collective intelligence can be described as the combined skills of a collaborative group related to a particular set of tasks. The individual skill-level of team members is not as crucial as the way in which team members negotiate these skills related to the task at hand, although increased prior experience and expertise of team members has been shown to have a positive impact on the outcomes for these types of meetings (Nokes-Malach, Meade, & Morrow, 2012). 

   The vast majority of this research has been performed in the fields of business and social psychology, and has not been adequately explored in the public schools despite many of the core principles being common between professional fields. However, U.S public schools would benefit from borrowing concepts from the research base from related fields to improve the fidelity of implementation in collaborative problem solving meetings with parents related to student issues such as attendance (Science Daily, 2010).

   Greene’s application of collaborative problem solving (CPS) to help children with behavioral problems at home and/or school was an important step for the process to gain credibility and to begin to be applied to other school-based problems (Greene, 2009, 2011; Greene & Ablon, 2005). Greene brought more awareness about collaborative problem solving as an effective technique for resolving ongoing issues with children, and support for this approach was already increasing in some schools in the U.S.. The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) developed a detailed process for creating collaborative problem solving teams to improve student success, and delineated the process into five stages:

   1. Getting started (defining the school community and planning first steps)
Mobilizing the team (building membership and building a common    understanding)
Setting direction (agreeing on a vision and setting team goals)
Taking action (developing strategies and establishing evaluation models)
Reviewing and refining  (assessing team effectiveness and celebrating successes) (Jordan, Averett, Elder, & Orozco, 2000).    

   The extensive manual developed by the SEDL highlights the complexity of establishing effective collaborative teams and laying the groundwork for sustainability of these teams. The labor-intensive nature of establishing collaborative teams in public schools is often what leads to their lack of prevalence. School administrators often are not willing or able to set aside the time required to establish these teams, and at times, shortcuts are taken in the development stages that can come back to haunt the team during later stages (e.g. setting direction or taking action), such as lack of team cohesion or trust or a general misunderstanding of how to effectively collaborate with families.

    It is crucially important that administrators, faculty, and staff in public schools work to refine their CPS efforts and develop their capacity at the school-level to collaboratively tackle problems as they arise to maintain the relationship between home and school and accelerate student achievement. 

© Brendan Keenan 2016