The Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach to Racial Injustice
Erika Lorenzana Del Villar, Ph.D., Social Studies and Religious Studies Teacher

The academic programs at Forest Ridge are driven by a global, integrated and inclusive curriculum – one that represents diverse perspectives through course materials and learning experiences. Our academics immerse students in multiple ways of thinking and doing. As an educator in the social sciences and humanities, my goal is to design and teach courses with a social justice lens, so that students can critically examine the world with a social awareness that impels them to action. 

Determining how to address social issues is a challenging process that requires keen critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The need for such a skill set has become more salient in the face of current structural inequities in our society, particularly those that relate to race or structural racism. If we are to prepare Forest Ridge graduates to face and address these injustices, the salient question to ask then is, what might be an effective approach to develop social action competency among girls? My hypothesis is a collaborative problem-solving approach to examining solutions, and designing actionable projects to address racial justice issues within an integrated religious studies and social studies course.

International studies show that girls are generally reluctant to engage in problem-solving compared to boys (National Coalition of Girls’ Schools). However, data from an OECD study (PISA 2015) shows that girls have a strong inclination towards effective collaborative problem-solving. That study suggests that when it comes to collaborative problem-solving, girls appear to perform significantly better than boys in every country - regardless of economic status or when normalizing for prior schooling in science, reading and math. Porges (2020, pp.137-38) suggests that this “natural advantage” for collaborative problem-solving in girls might have something to do with the “approach girls take to communication, relationship building and teamwork that makes them considerably more effective at collaborating to creatively find solutions when presented with problems.” 

If this is the case, can collaborative problem-solving be applied to addressing social justice or racial justice issues? What would that look like in social studies, religious studies or humanities classrooms? Through a fellowship I received from the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools Global Action Research Collaborative, I have the privilege of exploring those questions and studying the impact of a collaborative problem-solving approach right here at Forest Ridge, through my Race and Religion in America course. 

The 11th and 12th graders in this course will engage in a “racial justice action project” to address a particular social issue related to racial justice in their communities. This will involve weeks of immersion in collaborative problem-solving with peer groups – from idea generation and dialogue to vetting and designing actionable project plans. Ultimately, I hope that my research will provide data on the impact of this approach on the development of social action competency skills among girls and will inform the design of social studies and humanities courses. As future global leaders and changemakers, I believe that our students at Forest Ridge – and all girls for that matter – would greatly benefit from intentionally crafted programs that lean into and develop girls’ inclination towards collaborative problem-solving, especially as they navigate differences around structural inequities and social injustice. I look forward to sharing the results of this study at the end of the fellowship in June 2022!


  • Porges, M. What Girls NeedHow to Raise Bold, Courageous, and Resilient Women. (2020). Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media LLC.
  • OECD (2017). “What is collaborative problem-solving?”, in PISA 2015 Results (Volume 5): Collaborative Problem Solving, OECD Publishing, Paris.