Are 15-year-olds good at solving problems?

by Francesco Avvisati
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

As our economies and societies grow ever more complex, success in life and work is increasingly determined by our ability to adapt to new situations, learn from mistakes and try out new approaches. Are these the qualities that today’s 15-year-olds learn in school?

PISA 2012 investigated this question with a special set of assessments based around creative problem-solving. Students in 44 countries and economies took part in this computer-based assessment, tackling real-life, interactive problems, such as troubleshooting a malfunctioning MP3 player and planning a trip, available online through PISA 2012 Problem-Solving questions. aim was to assess how well they could resolve problems with no immediately obvious solutions, so demonstrating their openness to novelty, ability to tolerate uncertainty, and capacity to reason and learn outside of school contexts.

Results, published today, show that students in Singapore and Korea, followed by students in Japan, score higher in problem solving than students in all other participating countries and economies. Students in these countries are quick learners, highly inquisitive, and are able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts. Four more East Asian partner economies rank between 4th and 7th place: Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, Shanghai-China, and Chinese Taipei (in descending order of their mean scores). Canada, Australia, Finland, England (United Kingdom), Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States and Belgium (in descending order of their mean scores) all score above the OECD average, but below the former group of countries.

Just because a student performs well in core school subjects doesn’t mean he or she is proficient in problem solving. In Australia, Brazil, Italy, Japan, Korea, Macao-China, Serbia, England (United Kingdom) and the United States, students perform significantly better in problem solving, on average, than students in other countries who show similar performance in reading, mathematics and science. This indicates, for instance, that the best students in Australia or the United States not only learn the curriculum, they also learn how to enrich their knowledge and use that knowledge outside of school contexts. In some countries, however, it may also signal that schools do not always make the most of students’ potential when it comes to learning the core subjects.

Many of the best-performing countries and economies in problem solving are those with better-than-expected performance on knowledge-acquisition tasks, which require high levels of reasoning skills and self-directed learning. Meanwhile, compared to students of similar overall performance, students in Brazil, Ireland, Korea and the United States perform strongest on interactive problems, which require students to uncover useful information by exploring the problem situation and gathering feedback on the effect of their interventions. In order to solve interactive problems, students need to be open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution.

Today’s 15-year-olds are the Robinson Crusoes of a future that remains largely unknown to us. They will need to cope with a changing environment, work in jobs that do not exist today, using tools to which they had no introduction in school. 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.

What the results of the PISA assessment of problem-solving skills suggest is the important role of teachers and schools in preparing students to confront and solve the kinds of problems that are encountered almost daily in 21st century life. In countries and economies that rank at the top in problem‑solving proficiency, students not only learn the required curriculum, they also learn how to turn real-life problems into learning opportunities – creatively devising solutions and reasoning with a specific purpose outside of school contexts.

PISA 2012 Results
OECD Press release: Singapore and Korea top first OECD’s PISA problem-solving test
Creative Problem Solving: Students’ Skills in Tackling Real-Life Problems (Volume V)
PISA 2012 Problem-Solving questions
VIDEO: Alliance for Excellent Education interview with Andreas Schleicher
Pisa in Focus No. 38: Are 15-year-olds good at solving problems?

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