What lies behind England’s PISA problem-solving prowess?

By Rebecca Wheater

Thursday 3 April 2014

NFER’s report on England’s performance in PISA 2012 problem solving was published yesterday to coincide with the release of the international results by OECD. This updates the report published in December on England’s performance in mathematics, science and reading.

This has provided a good news story for pupils in England, as the results reveal a particular strength in problem solving (above the OECD average) – especially when compared with performance in other PISA subjects. Indeed, they were only significantly outperformed by the high-flying East Asian countries and economies, with their results putting them on a par with their counterparts in Finland, the Netherlands, Canada and Germany.

Interestingly, the gap between high and low performers was similar to the OECD average. This contrasts with our performance in mathematics, science and reading, where the gap between the highest and lowest performers is particularly wide in England compared with other countries.

The PISA problem solving assessment is the first computer based aspect of PISA for England to participate in. Pupils were presented with novel real-life contexts and assessed on their general reasoning ability, their skills in approaching problem solving, and their willingness to do so. Some examples of the problem solving assessment are available online.

One of the interesting things that emerged from the analysis is that pupils in England had a different pattern of strengths in problem solving from that seen among their East Asian counterparts. English pupils had a particular strength in monitoring and reflecting tasks which required them to use knowledge, whereas pupils in high performing East Asian countries had particular strengths in knowledge acquisition tasks.

We could take this to mean that pupils in the high performing East Asian countries are particularly skilled at finding the information they need to solve problems – whereas pupils in England were particularly good at monitoring progress; reacting to feedback; and reflecting on the solution, the information provided with the problem, or the strategy adopted.

There is work for us to do to analyse all the PISA tasks that pupils complete to link these to the national curriculum in order to explore why our pupils perform comparatively well in problem solving and science, but averagely in mathematics and reading – and why there is such a large gap between our highest and lowest performers in mathematics, science and reading, but this is not the case in problem solving. This will help to identify whether there are aspects of our strengths in problem solving and science that can be built on to improve our young people’s skills in mathematics and reading.