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We live in a world where competencies in teamwork and collaborative problem-solving are increasingly in demand by employers, but there are hard questions behind these 'soft skills'. How can educators promote pedagogies that develop pupils' social skills while creating an inclusive environment for students who struggle with peer interaction?

A recent speech by education secretary Damian Hinds drew attention to ‘soft skills’, a set of capabilities increasingly valued by both employers and educators. These skills emerged from the education theory pioneered by the 21st Century Skills movement, creating an educational framework for the modern era based around the “Four Cs”: critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration. The concept of measuring pupils by the last of these “capabilities” – by how well they function as part of a team usually formed of their peers – has reached a high point with PISA’s recent publication of the results of their international tests on ‘collaborative problem-solving’ skills in students from around the world.

Andreas Schleicher, in his introduction to these results, argues that “in a world that places a growing premium on social skills, a lot more needs to be done to foster those skills systematically across the school curriculum.”  In this light, it’s no surprise, then, that collaborative or cooperative learning is drawing more attention from leading voices in education, such as the Education Endowment Foundation and Pearson.

‘Teaching’ social skills and collaboration alongside English and Maths has been a key part of the RSA’s work in education, particularly in the piloted Opening Minds curriculum. Some new schools, such as School 21 (which features as a study in the RSA’s Ideal Schools Exhibition released last year), have embedded this concept into their curriculum through ‘project-based learning’. Project-based learning in the model established by schools like School 21 assesses students by their ability to produce group “projects” that will eventually be presented to a real audience in a public exhibition.

Despite the disappointing findings of a recent study from the EEF, proponents of project-based learning argue, as noted in the Ideal School Exhibition, that:

“it provides for richer and more meaningful learning experiences that support deeper understanding; that by transferring a significant amount of control over the project to students, it provides them with the sense of ownership and responsibility that are the hallmarks of self-motivated, independent learners; that by forcing them to work in groups, as well as individually, it teaches them the social and emotional skills needed to collaborate and to lead; that by culminating in some kind of product or production, it teaches them the value of drafting and redrafting, of learning from their mistakes, of persevering in the face of difficulty and of taking real pride in the quality of their work; and that by creating a systematic process for documenting and reflecting on learning, it helps students learn how to learn, with teacher feedback and self- and peer-assessment a central feature.”

This collaborative, social form of learning may help students to develop well-rounded social skills, but what of the students who start out on an uneven social footing to begin with? Students who are victims of bullying by their peers, or students with disabilities or mental health issues which affect their social or communication skills will likely struggle with project-based learning in a way their peers will not. While PISA did not cover neurodivergence or mental health in their assessment of groups that excelled or lagged behind at collaborative problem-solving, they did report that students with less positive attitudes towards interpersonal relationships and students who reported fewer positive peer interactions overall tended to underperform at these tasks when their English and Maths results were taken into account. Ideally, in a school which systemically embeds collaborative problem-solving through project-based learning, these students may be given a unique opportunity to ‘catch up’ with their peers in terms of social development.

However, most schooling does not take place in an ‘ideal’ environment. While the social benefits of project-based learning may be particularly helpful for neurodivergent or otherwise socially-excluded students, I worry that without serious thought to inclusion and accessibility in designing these curricula, the students who need these benefits most will be the ones left behind. Given sufficient support, neurodivergent students are capable of participating in and even flourishing through collaborative learning exercises, but without this support, the pressure of enforced peer collaboration may pose another barrier to education rather than a doorway to improved social skills.

Students on the autistic spectrum seem particularly at risk of falling through the cracks of a project-based learning approach. Autistic children typically present difficulties with social communication and social interaction, and often find working in collaboration with their peers a difficult, stressful experience. These problems are not one-way, either: a recent study has shown that autistic individuals tend to be judged by unfamiliar observers as ‘awkward’ or ‘odd’, and generally receive less peer-initiated interaction, and less positive peer interactions overall, than their neurotypical peers. While many of these students, categorised as ‘high functioning’, may be highly intelligent, forming relationships and interacting with their peers is a stumbling-block in their educational experience, and introducing more collaboration-based activity to the classroom could be more of a hindrance than a help, as they may end up ‘socially excluded from part of the teaching and learning process’ if intense teacher support and facilitation is not in place from the start.

The environments most suitable for collaborative learning may also prove problematic for these students. Peter Hyman, the pioneer of project-based learning at School 21, calls for “a noisy education” in UK classrooms, in which oracy and verbal communication are as highly-prized as reading and writing. In his dialogic classroom, “talk aids thinking and understanding; through Socratic seminars and exploratory talk, children of a young age learn to wrestle with moral issues, explore difficult concepts and hone their arguments.” But for students with the auditory processing issues common to autism, developmental or learning delays, or attention deficit disorders (ADD or ADHD), who find the volume of an ordinary school difficult to cope with, a  dialogic classroom of overlapping voices may quickly become an inaccessible one, and teachers must be highly aware of these potential issues in order to make sure their classroom dialogue is open to all students.

While the new focus on teaching social skills and collaboration that drives project-based learning could prove enormously beneficial, it requires constant attention to providing an accessible, equitable classroom for students with special educational needs. Research shows that a key factor in creating positive, productive experiences of project-based learning for neurodivergent students is close attention to and facilitation in forming successful working partnerships between these students and their neurotypical peers. This requires both a high level of awareness about the potential complications surrounding an individual student’s condition and a willingness to create a classroom environment that accommodates for these complications without isolating the student from their peers.

This careful consideration is even more important in the context of falling school attendance and rising transfers to home education for autistic students. While there is help available to teachers who wish to make their collaborative learning more welcoming to these students, both in terms of technological tools and in recommendations for teaching practice from academic search, these may always be taken up when teachers already find themselves too overwhelmed to support their learning. This attitude, in combination with a form of learning particularly difficult for students with social or communication difficulties, may make an environment already unwelcoming to them even more inaccessible. Every child in this country is entitled to an education, and every school should utilise their pedagogical approaches to promote an inclusive, accessible learning environment.

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