Singapore Students Best Problem Solvers

In much of the developed world, demand for workers who can perform routine tasks like bookkeeping or sorting has been declining for decades. Machines have eroded the need for such workers, and now humans are having to up their game, with a new emphasis on tasks that require complex problem-solving skills. But are schools teaching students the skills necessary to keep pace with these new demands?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) believes a lot is riding on our ability to improve the way we teach problem-solving skills. So much so that it has added problem solving to its Programme for International Assessment (PISA), a test of math, science and reading given every three years to half a million 15-year-old students in 65 countries and economies.

The problem-solving component, which was given to a subset of 85,000 students in 44 countries and economies, was included for the first time in PISA 2012, and results released in April 2014.

In the US Country Note, OECD had this to say: “Fifteen-year-olds who lack these [problem solving] skills today face a high risk of economic disadvantage as adults. They will compete for jobs that are becoming rare; and if they are unable to adapt to new circumstances and learn in unfamiliar contexts, they may find it particularly difficult to move to better jobs as economic and technological conditions evolve.”

The questions in this new section of the test are designed to measure an individual’s ability to understand and resolve problem situations. The test challenges involve real-life scenarios. For example:

  • Determining how an unfamiliar MP3 player works, and then finding a way to simplify its controls without losing any of the existing functionality
  • Figuring out how to purchase the least expensive train ticket for different scenarios using a vending machine (with a malfunction thrown in as an added challenge)
  • Using an interactive map of traffic and travel times to determine the best place for a group of friends in different suburbs to meet, when none of them can afford more than 15 minutes’ travel time

Problems like these don’t require expert knowledge to solve, so the results give insight into students’ general reasoning skills, their ability to regulate problem-solving processes, and their willingness to do so.

The test is given on computers so that questions can be interactive: Rather than providing all the information required to determine an answer upfront, students have to explore the problem situation to uncover useful facts, as they would have to do in real life. For example, in the questions that ask students to buy the least expensive train ticket for various scenarios, they must first learn how the digital ticket machine works, then press the appropriate buttons to determine the price of each ticket type.

The computers also make it possible to score students based on process: whether they explored the options systematically before answering as opposed to simply guessing.

So which countries have the best problem solvers? Students from Singapore and Korea were the top performers (mean scores of 562 and 561 points, respectively), and were described by the OECD as “quick learners, highly inquisitive and able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts.” The next-best performers were students in Japan, Macao-China, Hong Kong-China, Shanghai-China and Chinese Taipei.

American students, benchmarked against other developed nations performed about average in reading and science and below average in math. While they managed to score slightly above average on problem solving, U.S. students were still outperformed by their counterparts in Canada, Australia, Finland, Britain, Estonia, France, the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

“Today’s 15-year-olds with poor problem-solving skills will become tomorrow’s adults struggling to find or keep a good job,” says Andreas Schleicher, acting director of education and skills at the OECD. “Policy makers and educators should reshape their school systems and curricula to help students develop their problem-solving skills, which are increasingly needed in today’s economies.”

Project Lead the Way, the largest STEM-education provider in the U.S., offers programs to help schools do just that. This year, the company will be in 6000 U.S. elementary, middle and high schools with 7000 programs – 60 percent more than last year.

“Children have a natural curiosity,” says Vince Bertram, Ed.D., the company’s president and CEO. “They like to problem solve and play. Then they get to school and we teach them how to be compliant.

“Our programs are all problem based,” he continues. “Traditionally, school has been about content knowledge and teachers have been trained to convey information. In the real world, you must have the skills not only to solve problems, but to identify problems and opportunities as well. We allow students to capture problems and then come back and solve them using math and science.”

However, Bertram points out, problem-solving skills alone are not enough, workers need collaborative skills as well. “Collaboration is what brings breakthroughs in problem solving,” he says.

The OECD agrees. As part of the 2015 PISA, it’s developing a new set of computer-based challenges to assess the cognitive and social processes (such as communication, organization and consensus building) that underlie collaborative problem-solving skills.

To create uniform collaborative situations in which individuals can be fairly measured, other team members will be represented by the testing computer. As a student progresses through the problem-solving task, the computer will monitor the current states of a problem. With each state, it will provide a changing set of actions a student can take to converse with other team members (through, for example, menu-based chat interfaces) or to perform actions to help solve the problem. The computer’s record of all communications and actions will be used to score the assessment.

Though improving the way we teach young people to problem solve is a challenge that schools need to address, parents can also foster these skills.

Bertram suggests that parents expose children to a wide variety of activities that allow them to explore their full range of interests. He also points out that children with fewer toys are motivated to think of creative ways to use the toys they have.

“As parents, we can also think about questions we ask our children and they ask us,” Bertram says. In particular children often ask, Why? “Do we turn that question off by saying, ‘because I said so’ or ‘that’s just the way it is’? That’s not very motivating.”

The goal, says Bertram, is for children to understand how things are connected and to become good at reasoning, so it’s better to explore why. “Children don’t have the context we have as parents,” he says. “We need to expand their thinking. You may still make the same decision, but the child’s mind will be broadened by the explanation, and he’ll learn that it’s OK to explore.”

Do you think problem solving skills are critical to tomorrow’s workforce?

Photo credit: SIMIN WANG/AFP/Getty Images

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