April

My Take: Problem-Solving in the Real World

EP Editorial Staff | April 22, 2014

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By Jane Alexander, Deputy Editor

You go, Singapore and Korea! According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), recently released results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) creative problem-solving testing show your 15-year-olds outperformed those from 42 other countries and economies around the world. (2012 was the first year this assessment was part of the standard PISA testing that’s conducted every three years.)

Students from Japan, Macao‑China, Hong Kong-China, Shanghai-China and Chinese Taipei (in that order) weren’t far behind in terms of top performance. As for those from Canada, Australia, Finland, England, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United States and Belgium (again, in that order), they scored above the OECD average.

If you’re a parent or grandparent in the U.S.—or a manager desperate to fill critical, high-skilled jobs in your U.S. operations over the next few years—sit tight and remain calm. These scores may not carry as much weight in the real world as you might think.

Administered to 85,000 students, this first-ever PISA computer-based, interactive problem-solving assessment was designed to measure skills used to deal with everyday situations—like setting thermostats, programming personal electronics, planning quick routes to specified destinations, etc. As OECD’s Website explains, researchers wanted to determine how effective participants were at resolving problems “with no immediately obvious solutions,” thus demonstrating “their openness to novelty, their ability to tolerate uncertainty, and their capacity to reason in order to reach their goals.” (The 250-page report is available for download at oecd.org.)

The findings should be helpful for developers of educational curriculums—there’s certainly plenty for them to consider. For example: Not all countries that did well in subjects like mathematics or science excelled at problem-solving. Conversely, 15-year-olds in the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Japan did better on problem-solving than in key school subjects. Also, gender gaps were small. On average, there are three top-performing boys for every two top-performing girls across all OECD countries.  And while the impact of socio-economic status on problem-solving is significantly weaker than for mathematics, reading and science, disadvantaged students are twice as likely on average to score at the lowest level compared with their more advantaged peers.

On the other hand, despite the noble goals of this particular assessment, I, as a mother, wonder how accurate it can be for projecting a student’s success in life. Teens who demonstrate poor problem-solving skills could become adults who struggle to find and keep meaningful jobs, but most of us know from experience it’s not a done deal—nor is the opposite.

I tend to agree with Perry Tan Chik Choong, who argued in an April 9 opinion for Singapore’s Today OnlineWebsite (todayonline.com) that although high problem-solving scores may be commendable, they don’t always translate into job performance. Among other things, he pointed to the unreal (my term) nature of the 2012 PISA assessment. Here, students solved hypothetical problems alone, on computers—unencumbered by matters of real life that would require them to make sense of incomplete data and define problems, then collaborate and debate with others who have differing perspectives, cultures, styles and agendas. “The real world,” he wrote, “rarely requires IQ-smart people to decipher data and reports in silos, and solve pre-designed problems based purely on logic.” His cautionary note to parents of the world’s top 15-year-old problem-solvers should bring comfort to the parents, grandparents and future employers of those who didn’t perform as well.

What’s your take on the issue? More important, what are you and/or your organization doing to help develop the problem-solving abilities and mindsets of tomorrow’s workforce? Let me know. MT&AP

jalexander@atpnetwork.com

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