PISA, we have a problem …

Any mystified adult trying to figure out the settings of a mobile phone knows there’s only one thing to do – find someone younger. Roused from their slumbers, even sleepy-eyed teens seem instinctively to know how to set up Wi-Fi, program the dishwasher (not that they ever would) and connect that cable whatsit to the TV’s thingamajig.

But are some teens better at these tasks than others? The most recent round of the OECD’s PISA student assessments set out to investigate how well the world’s 15-year-olds do when it comes to tackling real-life, interactive problems – “creative problem solving” – so demonstrating their capacity to reason outside the classroom. Results from the assessments are released today.

If you followed the first set of results from PISA 2012 late last year, you won’t be surprised to learn that, once again, youngsters in East Asia have done very well. Top of the heap is Singapore, followed by Korea and Japan. Chinese-speaking cities and economies fill out the other top seven places. (But note the usual health warnings with these country rankings. PISA is a survey, so there are margins of error in the results; country rankings may be based on differences that are not statistically significant.)

What sort of problems were the students asked to solve? Some weren’t too dissimilar from the challenges mentioned above. Among the tasks were figuring out the fastest route on a map, operating an air-conditioner and buying subway tickets from a vending machine (click on the links or here to take the tests yourself).

Students took the tests on computers, which meant that the problems could be designed to be interactive. That allowed students to receive feedback on their efforts, which, say the PISA people, meant they had to be “open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty and dare to use intuitions”. Those sorts of attitudes and skills, it’s generally agreed, are increasingly in demand in the workplace. According to the OECD’s adult skills survey, 10% of workers have to deal every day with complex problems that require at least 30 minutes to solve.

There are some interesting contrasts between these latest findings on creative problem-solving and the previous results from PISA released late last year. In general, and not too surprisingly, students who did well in problem solving also did well in mathematics, reading and science. But, in some countries, for example the Unites States, Italy and Australia, students did rather better than might have been expected from the earlier results. This may be evidence that schools are not making the most of students’ potential in core subjects.

Another group also did better than might have been expected: students from disadvantaged families. Although they didn’t match the performance of better-off students in problem solving, they weren’t as far behind as in the traditional PISA subjects. One reason for this may be that – regardless of family background – all young people have opportunities to use and develop practical, problem-solving skills outside the classroom.

As for differences between the sexes, boys generally did better than girls, especially among the top-performing students, where on average there were three boys for every two girls.

Useful links

PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving (Vol. V) (OECD, 2014)

PISA 2012

OECD educationtoday blog

Follow PISA on Twitter

Brian Keeley

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  1. Philip Hodkinson - 07/04/2014 Reply

    I am not surprised at the closeness of problem solving / decision making skills, exhibited by groups from both disadvantaged and better off young people.
    Having worked with both groups in countries around the world, the only real difference is, the type of problem they have to solve on a daily basis

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