PISA says problem solving is important – and we’re good at it. Singapore thinks so too!

Toby Young is today off on one of his periodic rants against the Blob and all its works – it may be April 1st but it seems he really does mean it. His target is PISA’s decision to launch tests in collaborative problem solving. Apparently the unrelenting focus of English schools on stuff like this is the entire reason why no one can read or write and the rest of the world is passing us by.

It would seem, sadly, that he didn’t realise when writing the article that PISA has already undertaken testing in problem solving and has just published the results. The fact that England comes out well – 11th out of 44 and not statistically different from 8th place – will no doubt be dismissed by Young as proof of how wrong we’ve got everything.

It would be tiresome to catalogue again all the ways that Young’s argument is muddled and unconvincing. Just one example though – according to him, the reason class and wealth is such a strong determinant of educational outcomes is the persistent refusal of English schools to teach facts the way Young wants. The fact that we’re one of the most unequal of western societies is irrelevant. The fact that our schools are more selective than most others is also, to him, beside the point. If they could recite their kings and queens, all would be well.

This insistence in polarising skills and knowledge is of course nonsense. Everyone needs both. But it needs apparently to be repeated that knowing stuff is of limited use if you can’t do anything with it. To give one example from PISA:

“The rules of algebra are important but applying algebraic rules is just the second step of a two step problem solving process. The first step – that computers can’t do – involves examining the messy set of facts in a real-world problem in order to decide which set of algebraic rules to apply”

There is a lot of background material in the PISA report, more than can be usefully summarised here. And it is important not to allow oneself to be carried away into a world of cross curricular fluffiness. PISA is clear that problem solving is best developed in contexts and this will often be subjects. And there is a significant correlation between performance in problem solving and that in maths and reading. But it is weaker than the correlation between the subjects themselves.

All this will no doubt confirm those who want to believe it, that PISA has been captured by the Blob. Most scary of all though is the revelation that Singapore itself has been in the hands of the Blob – and has been since it launched a programme called “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation” way back in 1997.

“In 2009, Singapore undertook another review that identified the 21st centurycompetencies considered important: critical and inventive thinking; communication, collaboration and information skills; and civic literacy, global awareness and cross-cultural skills.”

Crucially these are not things to be pursued in the abstract. They are embedded in subject teaching. So, for example, “maths has an explicit focus on problem solving .. students are guided to apply mathematical models and thinking to real world contexts.” In science, “students engage with a scientific problem, collect and interpret the evidence, reason, conduct investigations and make inferences or decisions”.

The outcome is a clear first place in these problem solving assessments but of course continuing strength in all the other areas that PISA measures. Shanghai, interestingly, shows up some weaknesses. There, students are less good when having to deal with problems where not all the data needed is provided.

Young, like Gove, harks back to a reliance on Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said.” But as the PISA report says “in a rapidly changing world, individuals are constantly faced with novel situations and unexpected problems that they had never encountered at school … the ability to handle such situations and solve these problems is associated with greater opportunities for employment and with the ability to participate fully in society.”

There is, of course, a need for some caution. There is a natural tendency to cherry-pick research which fits one’s own established point of view. The flaws in other PISA programmes that many have pointed out are no doubt here too. And this programme confirms the message of all the others – social and economic factors do determine how well students in England do more than in many countries and we need to confront that directly.

But it remains a fact that most of the countries we are told to look up to are moving in this direction. Can we really believe that we’re the only people in step when we ignore such clear international developments?

You can find the PISA outcomes at http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results-volume-v.htm and at http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/pisa-2012-results-creative-problem-solving-volume-v/implications-of-the-problem_9789264208070-10-en#page1

2 Comments on “PISA says problem solving is important – and we’re good at it. Singapore thinks so too!”

  1. Richard Pring says:

    Dear John

    Many thanks once again. It reminds me of the conference I addressed in Singapore a few years ago to over a thousand f their teachers. I was preceded by the Prime Minister of Singapore who, far from showing pride at their being top of the international league tables, said severely that they now have to bring thinking onto the curriculum. He then proceeded to show what this meant in schools by showing films from the Plowden era with children playing in sand and water. Unfortunately the projector broke down , a thousand pair of eyes swivelled round to stare at the poor technician. I don’t know what happened to him.