Does the world need people who understand problems, or who can solve them?

by Dirk Van Damme, Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

The label “21st -century skills” is being increasingly used, and sometimes misused, to indicate that the rapidly changing economic, social and cultural environment of the current century demands a revision of what we think are crucial subjects for the next generations to learn. Examples include creativity, innovation, critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, cross-cultural understanding or global competence. Some people wonder whether these skills are truly new, or whether education has always been about fostering these capabilities. But stakeholders — not least employers and the business sector — continue to complain that they don’t find candidates leaving the education systems who have the skills they think matter for the jobs they have to offer. And they claim that this is the case because current education systems do not sufficiently prioritise the development of such skills.

Many countries have recently embarked on a fundamental revision of their national curricula or curricula frameworks that offer guidance to schools and teachers. As is evident from the OECD project, The Future of Education and Skills: Education 2030, the need to rethink the skills toolkit in light of what tomorrow’s economies and societies will need is what keeps education policy makers and practitioners awake at night.

In these debates, the skill referred to as “problem solving” takes a prominent place. It is probably one of the most frequently referenced 21st-century skills. When the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) started to explore the possibility to assess domains other than reading, mathematics and science, it almost naturally moved to the area of problem solving. The assessment included a problem-solving test in 2012, followed by one on collaborative problem solving in 2015. One of the remarkable results in 2012 was that the results of the assessments of reading, mathematics and science were not very well aligned with the results of the assessment of problem-solving, despite the fact that the PISA assessment frameworks themselves — in contrast to that for TIMMS, for example — already focus on solving real-world problems, rather than applying textbook knowledge. Problem solving thus seems to be a distinct competence.

A recently published OECD publication, The Nature of Problem Solving: Using Research to Inspire 21st Century Learning, explores the concept of problem solving in great depth. The book does not offer an extensive assessment framework as such; rather, it discusses the conceptual and empirical research that various members of the Problem-Solving Expert Group for PISA 2012 used to build the assessment. The title of the volume explicitly refers to the publication, The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice. The book also fits into work on ongoing exploration of 21st-century skills.

While the book does not fully define the competency of problem solving, some common characteristics emerge. Problem-solving clearly builds on strong cognitive capabilities, but mobilises them in different ways. In solving problems that are usually complex, humans have to apply knowledge — often incomplete knowledge — in contexts where the conditions are often uncertain in order to offer a practical solution to a real-world challenge. Problem-solving is often referred to as a cross-curricular competence in the sense that solving problems in the real world obliges people to draw on knowledge from different fields and disciplines. Because real-world problems in volatile contexts are different from one another, problem-solving skills are unlike routine skills and procedural methods.

In the current debate on 21st-century skills, sometimes naïve views on innovating curriculum frameworks are being contested by policy makers and activists who defend a purely knowledge-oriented view of education and oppose recent shifts towards competency-based approaches in education. But in the case of problem solving, the knowledge-versus-skills dualism is not very helpful. The book clearly demonstrates that excellent problem-solving skills very much depend on deep levels of knowledge and outstanding analytical capabilities. But while cognitive and analytical capabilities help in interpreting and understanding problems, effective problem solving requires an additional element of decision making, implementation and communication. The combination of these capabilities is what makes problem-solving skills unique.

Research and reflection on problem solving and the deep analysis of the PISA results on both students’ individual and collaborative problem-solving skills are indispensable for innovating teaching and learning, and for making education more relevant and future oriented. The VUCA world — a world characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — will demand only more problem-solving skills. It is not difficult to predict that tomorrow’s world will need more problem solvers.


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