Education International
Education International

OECD report highlights the importance of creative problem-solving skills

published 1 April 2014 updated 4 April 2014

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) argues that in modern societies, all of life is problem-solving. Changes in society, the environment, and in technology mean that the content of applicable knowledge evolves rapidly. Adapting, learning, daring to try out new things and always being ready to learn from mistakes are among the keys to resilience and success in an unpredictable world. Education International (EI) firmly supports the idea that students must acquire these skills, as part of a quality education.

The authors of the report ask: are today’s 15-year-olds acquiring the problem-solving skills needed in the 21st century? This volume reports the results from the PISA 2012 assessment of problem-solving, which was administered, on computer, to about 85,000 students in 44 countries.

As reflected in the general results of PISA 2012, students from East Asian countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Japan, scored higher in problem-solving than students in all other participating countries and economies. Across OECD countries, 11.4 per cent of 15-year-old students are top performers in problem-solving. Top performers attain proficiency levels in problem-solving, meaning that they can systematically explore a complex scenario, devise multi-step solutions, that take into account all constraints, and adjust their plans, in light of the feedback received.

OECD uses complex measurement criteria, dividing student performance into six levels and correlating with performance in mathematics, science and reading, as well as taking into account gender, socio-economic status and migration status.

“Education International welcomes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) findings, and this report, in particular, as valuable insights into learning processes well beyond simple numeracy and literacy,” said EI General Secretary, Fred van Leeuwen. “Although it may be questionable if computer based tasks, such as adjusting climate control, operating an MP3 player or finding the best travel route in an unknown city, capture the scope and meaning of creative problem- solving, this analysis nevertheless helps to situate education within a broader context and to highlight several important policy messages.”

One critical policy conclusion that emerges from the study is the need for students to be exposed to enhanced curricular diversity and creativity. The report finds that, even if there is a correlation between the overall strong performance in mathematics, reading and science and problem solving, when looking into more detail of various kinds of problem-solving skills and competences, it is clear that in some countries less successful students may demonstrate strong skills in dealing with everyday life situations and vice versa. It is clear that teaching to the standardized test is not a way towards building 21st century skills and competences, as outlined by OECD.

While there are no large differences overall between boys’ and girls’ average performance in problem-solving, some countries, which do show significant gender differences in problem-solving performance, may not be offering boys and girls equitable opportunities in education, particularly if these differences are also apparent in other subjects. Unless countries invest as much in the development of girls’ skills as they do in boys’ skills, they may lose out in the global competition for talent.

The study also highlights the importance of reducing inequities based on socio-economic background. Unequal access to high-quality education means that the risk of not reaching the baseline level of performance in problem-solving is, on average, about twice as high for disadvantaged students as it is for their more advantaged peers. The fact that inequities in education opportunities extend beyond the boundaries of individual school subjects to performance in problem-solving, underscores the importance of promoting equal learning opportunities for all.

Because current inequities have such significant consequences over the long term, the policies that aim to reduce socio-economic disparities in education can be expected to benefit the lives of students well beyond their school days.