OECD: PISA on Problem-Solving

OECD has released the results of the first PISA assessment of creative problem solving this week. 85,000 students from 44 countries did a computer-based test to identify whether they could transfer their knowledge into solving real-life problems.

pisa pb solving

There’s some good news. England scored above the OECD average and better than all European counterparts other than Finland. This is interesting, and it complements the Pearson report that we referred to in November 2012, which questioned the low performance of England in the annual PISA tests.

Here are some key facts from the report.

• With a mean score of 517 points, students in England (United Kingdom) perform significantly above the OECD average in problem solving (500 points).
• England ranks below top-performers – Singapore, Korea and Japan.
• Strong performers in mathematics have access to learning opportunities that prepare them to handle complex, real-life situations (Well done, maths teachers in England).
• One in six students in England (16.4%) does not reach the baseline level of proficiency with problem solving.
• England’s ranking in these tests is approximately 11th (between 9 and 16 according to the datasheet).
• Average performances in England are not significantly different to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, USA etc.

PISA [1]

If you’d read the headlines in the papers, you would think this is massively significant and England isn’t lagging behind the rest of the world. However, there are cautionary notes in the report. Just look at those bullet points again. 16% of students didn’t reach the baseline proficiency. The statistical difference between England and other similar countries is negligible. It’s not all good news at all.

Here is a report specific to England.


Take a look at these quotes.

“The best performing countries in problem-solving often do particularly well on knowledge- acquisition tasks that require high levels of reasoning skills and self-directed learning.”

“The largest difference in performance between England and the Asian countries that are the highest performers in problem solving is found in tasks in which the student must select, organise and integrate the information and feedback received, in order to represent and formulate their knowledge about the problem. While students in England perform above the OECD average on these tasks, where information is turned into knowledge, there is significant room for improvement.”

Now this is the problem with league tables, tests and relatively small-scale assessments. They only tell you half the truth and they can be interpreted by either side of the education debate to support their argument.

Mr. Gove and his followers will undoubtedly say, “Look here, this proves that we need to continue with our pursuit of facts. That’s what our children need. We are right and the only way to improve is to get stuck into that new Anglo-fact based curriculum that we’ve developed.”

The “Blob” and the Promise Snatchers might have a different point and say, “Look, the report shows that we have been doing something right these last few years. So why do we need to change something that is evidently working? Also, it’s not just about acquisition of facts.”

There are a few issues with both of these fictional responses.


Firstly, we would proffer a significant word of warning. A league table of schools in an England borough tells a story, but it only tells you about one aspect of the schools. It doesn’t tell you much about the schools’ values, the pedagogy, the consideration of a child’s wellbeing and so on and so forth. Similarly, these PISA results only provide a generic view – often not reflecting the reality of the experiences of the children and young people. Statistics are open to interpretation, and interpreted they will be in pursuit of a politicised educational agenda.

Secondly, can we please sort out this issue about knowledge and what we do with it? It simply isn’t enough to feed children facts. They have to be given skills to use those facts. This is evidently something that we, as a country, haven’t got right yet. It is written there for all to see.
“Where information (i.e. facts) is turned into knowledge (i.e. use of facts -understanding – for a real situation), there is significant room for improvement.” Mr Gove and the likes of Toby Young in his recent essay on education continuously and falsely accuse the “enemies of promise” of not teaching or not wanting to teach “facts”. This is not true. What progressive educators are interested in is what we can do to enable young people to transfer facts into something meaningful to them, which is precisely what the outcomes of this assessment show that the English education system is lacking.


Thirdly, there is a very important issue about self-directed learning and personalised learning. The quote above says it all – “The best performing countries in problem-solving often do particularly well on knowledge- acquisition tasks that require high levels of reasoning skills and self-directed learning.” They acquire the knowledge that interests them and use it for a purpose that interests them. Therefore, the emphasis on identifying what an individual wants to learn is paramount. Once that has been identified, the support to encourage self-directed learning is the key to “success” as is a programme of meaningful and personalised learning.

Fourthly, we are significantly underperforming when England is compared with Singapore, Japan and Korea. Interestingly, this also shows that there are two ways to “skin a cat”. Singapore has a different attitude to learning than South Korea and Japan. They have recognised the need for a more personalised form of education and have adapted accordingly with no detrimental effect on their world-rankings. In fact, the Singapore government probably believes that this personalised learning and encouragement of self-directed learning is the very reason that they outperform both European and Asian counterparts, with a system of learning that is more sustainable too, as the young people have made the choice of what and how to learn for themselves. That is why they are so committed to the “Teach Less, Learn More” philosophy of education.

teach less learn more

The OECD says,

“The OECD’s PISA results reveal what is possible in education by showing what students in the highest-performing and most rapidly improving education systems can do. The findings allow policy makers around the world to gauge the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries, set policy targets against measurable goals achieved by other education systems, and learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere.”

This is true but we have to be very clear about the interpretation, misinterpretation and context of these results.

As far as we are concerned, the most interesting part of this dataset is that the ability to solve problems –  to think creatively and imaginatively and use factual information in a way that is relevant, to be self-directing in learning and to be mindful of wellbeing is the kind of education that we want to see , and can see in Finland; a country that consistently scores highly in such tests.

Finland v South Korea

The reason we pick this country out is because we don’t want the English education system to be like South Korea or any other country that uses cramming classes to supplement schooling. The Finnish education system is full of skilled teachers with an excellent understanding of pedagogy. They achieve, in the shortest school day of any country, what other countries only achieve through long school days, hours and hours of after school cramming sessions and on top of that excessive amounts of homework. Evidently, Finland considers the wellbeing of their young people and not just their test scores.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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