Here’s a modest test result to bolster the argument of those who say the American educational system isn’t so terrible. On a new creative problem-solving test taken by students in 44 countries and regions, U.S. 15-year-olds scored above the international average and rank at number 18 in the world. That’s much better than the below-average performance of U.S. students on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) reading and math tests conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
“We think teaching through problem solving is already more developed in the US than in other countries,” said the OECD’s Pablo Zoido, in explaining why US students have higher problem-solving scores than expected.
Still, Asian countries and regions dominate the top 10 spots in creative problem solving, with Singapore, Korea and Japan taking first, second and third place. Canada, Australia and Finland were the only non-Asian nations to make it into the top 10. Shanghai, which topped the PISA charts in math and reading, was relatively weaker in problem solving at number 6.
This new problem-solving test, whose results were released April 1, 2014, is also a PISA exam run by the OECD. For the first time in 2012, a separate 40-minute test was given to 85,000 students on a computer, which allowed for more interactive and unconventional questions than paper and pencil. The questions were more like brainteasers than math word problems. Sample questions were about buying the cheapest train tickets and finding nearby spots for three people to meet. Here’s a link to sample questions.
Problem solving is important because more jobs in the future will require complex problem solving thinking skills. The accompanying report highlighted teaching strategies in Singapore, Japan and Alberta, Canada that may be helping to be develop these skills (see pp.119-124).
In the best-performing countries – Singapore and Korea – 15-year-old students, on average, are able to engage with moderately complex situations in a systematic way. For example, they can troubleshoot an unfamiliar device that is malfunctioning: they grasp the links among the elements of the problem situation, they can plan a few steps ahead and adjust their plans in light of feedback, and they can form a hypothesis about why a device is malfunctioning and describe how to test it
Top US students did surprisingly well on the problem-solving test, far better than their math scores would have predicted. Indeed the jump, or gap, from math to problem solving skills was one of the largest that the OECD found. That might be a clue as to why top US students fare so poorly on international tests, but still grow up to be creative engineers and designers.
Students in the United States perform better than expected on interactive items, based on their success on static (non-interactive) tasks. Interactive items require students to uncover useful information by exploring the problem situation and gathering feedback on the effect of their actions. To do so, students need to be open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuitions to initiate a solution.
On the other hand, US students trail the best-peforming countries on knowledge-acquisition and knowledge-utilisation tasks on the problem-solving test.