Why 21st century children need to excel at problem solving

Can I be a puzzle-maker when I grow up? Child with puzzle via Shutterstock

It’s no longer enough for children just to be able to read, count or multiply. With computers now doing many mundane repetitive tasks for us, many jobs in today’s world require analytical skills and the ability to solve unexpected problems.

For the first time, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has attempted to measure countries’ progress at teaching children how to do this.

The OECD hosts one of the major large-scale assessments of student competencies in the world, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). More than half a million 15-year-old students from across the globe are evaluated every three years on their performance in classical domains of education, such as reading, mathematics, and science literacy.

In 2012, the OECD extended its PISA test to include a section on creative problem-solving. Students across the globe were asked to apply their skills to problems not found within their everyday textbooks. You can have a go at the sample questions on the OECD site.

Brain in gear

The OECD creative problem solving test used a range of so-called “microproblems”: small computer simulations of problems that require the active exploration of the situation and the application of knowledge gained that way. Compared to the multiple-choice tests commonly used in large-scale assessments, they require the active acquisition of knowledge within a new situation and the subsequent application of that knowledge to a complex problem.

For example, in one of the problems, students have to find out how several controls of an air conditioner influence humidity and temperature. To do so, they have to systematically manipulate the controls of the air conditioner and then observe the changes that result from their manipulations.

There are several levels of proficiency students can achieve, rated from 1 (lowest) to 6 (highest). Whereas students rated in the lowest proficiency level have problems in dealing with all but the most straightforward problems, higher levels indicate an increasing level of competency to deal with ill-defined and more complex problems. The PISA report on problem solving found that across all OECD countries, 11.4% of the 15-year-olds tested got above level five. Singapore, Korea and Japan scored highest.

These high-performing students can be expected to be better prepared for the challenges awaiting them in our modern world. Ultimately we would expect educational policy to strive for a focus on these kinds of outcomes.

One of the key findings of PISA 2012 is that the highest-performing school systems allocate their resources more equitably across schools and offer autonomy to schools. When it comes to strengthening the problem-solving skills of students, the way teachers and students reflect different solutions or strategies to problems instead of teaching rules has been proven to be an important factor.

Based on the problem-solving results, citizens in the UK can be quite content with their students, teachers, and educators. UK-based 15-year-olds surpassed their performance in the PISA tests of reading, mathematics, and science. They also ranked favourably in a group with students from other high-performing Western economies, such as Estonia, Germany, and Finland, who showed above average problem solving performance.

These problem-solving tests also show children’s potential much more clearly. The impact of socio-economic status on a child’s ability to solve problems has been found to be weaker than it is on their ability to read, or perform maths or science tasks across the participating countries.

In the UK, the weaker relation between socio-economic status and performance in problem solving compared to the other subjects was even more pronounced. Disadvantaged students seem better able to show their cognitive potential when being evaluated on their problem-solving skills compared to the classical dimensions of reading, math, and science focused on by previous PISA rankings.

Outside the box

Inevitably, comparing the reading skills and schooling systems in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Korea and Qatar has its difficulties. Still, the PISA studies have had a tremendous impact on education, leading to efforts to reorganise education in several countries including Japan, Denmark, and Germany.

In today’s world, the routine operation of checking an essay for spelling mistakes are becoming increasingly automated. But handling new problems without pre-specified training or knowledge has become a major part of our working life. The daily work of an average employee nowadays includes more and more non-routine tasks that require novel solutions or at least some thinking outside of manuals and orders.

The question arises whether our education systems are keeping pace with these developments. Now the positive findings of the creative problem-solving tests give hope for generations of capable problem solvers coming out of our schools in the years to come.