2 Feb 2015

Problem-Solving Education for a better future

Samira Saleh Usman

United Arab Emirates, 15 years old students who participated in the Programme for the International Students Assessment (PISA), scored poorly on math, reading and science in addition to the newly added section that tests students’ problem-solving abilities. The PISA test, administered in 2012 where more than 510,000 students from more than 65 countries participated, aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15 year old students. The tests developed by PISA are not directly linked to the school curriculum and are designed to assess students’ ability to apply their knowledge to real- life situations with the intent of equipping them for full participation in society. Asian countries dominate the top 10 spots in creative problem-solving, with Singapore, Korea and Japan taking first, second and third place respectively. Canada, Australia and Finland were the only non-Asian nations to make it into the top 10[i]. Mathematics and problem-solving questions were not just math word problems, they were also brainteasers that reflect ability to find reasonable solutions based on sound perception, reasoning and justification.

Mathematical literacy is defined in PISA as the capacity to identify, to understand, and to engage in mathematics and make well-founded judgments on the role mathematics plays; needed for an individual’s current and future private life, occupational life, social life with peers and relatives, and life as a constructive, concerned, and reflective citizen.[ii]

Problem-solving, as defined in literature, stands for the ability of an individual to engage in cognitive processing to understand and resolve problem situations where method of solution is a non-routine way. It includes the willingness to engage with such situations in order to achieve ones potential as a constructive and reflective citizen.

Why is problem solving important?

Children begin to acquire problem-solving skills in early childhood.  By age three, most children have the rudiments of some problem-solving strategies and can apply those skills in specific situations[iii]. Student’s ability to examine different situations, logically assessing their choices and the possible consequences of those choices, should be encouraged in the classroom and school setting.

Problem-solving and creative thinking in identifying and developing options is essential for academic and social success.

Socially: young kids can avoid conflicts with others at a school setting and have a source of positive attribution about the intensions of others if they are equipped with better problem- solving and decision-making skills.

Academic achievement: it is known that students who have these skills are capable of succeeding academically by extrapolating what they have learned to produce a creative solution instead of reproducing information, easily accessible through the worldwide web search engines.

As these young people start their careers, leadership ability becomes a factor in their success and it is closely linked to their creativity, anticipation and identification of problems. Good leaders are always willing to respond to a novel discovery or idea that arises.

What can be done to change outcomes?

According to many studies low problem-solving skills and critical thinking is due to a lack of analytical skills based on Bloom’s taxonomy cognitive levels:[iv]

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

Results reflect that students in the current education system have trouble applying current knowledge to unique situations or cases that are somewhat different from what they have experienced.  Students are able to memorize but have not been taught and trained to function very well on an analysis level, the fourth level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students should practice with analysis-level questions and problems.  In mathematics for example ‘educators should promote students’ conceptual understanding, foster their ability to reason and communicate mathematically, and capture their interests and curiosity’[v].

An education system that supports building problem-solving and critical thinking skills should invest in qualified teachers who are able to engage students in a classroom culture that supports building these skills at young age, encouraging students to be risk- takers and challenging them to create and produce alternative ideas and solutions. Teaching students to become independent thinkers will require learners to advance through stages of increasing self-direction. Teachers are in a position and can help or hinder that development as stated in Staged Self-Directed Learning Model[vi].

Greater national wealth or higher expenditure on education does not guarantee better student performance. Among high-income economies, the amount spent on education is less important than how those resources are used[vii]. Teacher quality is a priority, it requires improving teachers’ working conditions, improving pay scale, classroom size and working hours. It is crucial to recruit young and intelligent new generation of teachers who are well trained to be part of a curriculum and school environment capable of directing students to achieve levels of analysis and synthesis and beyond memorization.

To meet national goals of helping youth reach full potential and prepare them for future challenges, the UAE like any other developed country must invest in the education system in order to be economically competitive, Andreas Schleicher deems that “knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st century economies. But there is no central bank that prints this currency, you cannot inherit this currency and you cannot produce it through speculation, you can only develop it through sustained effort and investment by people and for people”[viii].

Education experts recommend adopting a curriculum that does not solely rely on rote learning and emphasises on standardized tests as a major evaluator for the classroom progress but empower learners by moving towards meaningful learning settings where students able to retain knowledge and transfer what they have learned to solve unique problems. Improving school environment that encourages collaborative learning in classroom with successful facilitation from knowledgeable educator giving the opportunity for students to participate without fear of submitting the perfect answer and encourages them to create reasonable and well thought  solutions to a given challenge and problem.

Education officials and experts should focus on the data generated from international organizations to evaluate the current education system and compare results in order to improve weaknesses in preparing today’s students for future job markets. Adequate resources are crucial for providing students with high-quality opportunities to learn. At the same time, those resources translate into better learning outcomes only if they are used efficiently[ix].

Parents are partners in education. They should effectively guide their children to become independent learners, coach them to become independent thinkers and problem-solvers.

Today’s creative problem-solving framework enables people to work in a natural, flexible way to select and use the tools they need to deal with a task or challenge and helps students to  better prepare for life and work in a world of constant and rapid change. Our focus should be on using our resources to find and implement the fundamental tools and strategies that can be used from the primary level classroom to the corporate boardroom to better prepare students in the UAE and the region compete in bringing innovation. Problem-solving and decision-making are inseparable, both require creativity in identifying and developing options, making them important skills for life and key factors for success in management and leadership.

[i] US students rank better internationally on new problem solving test than they do on conventional math and reading exams, http://educationbythenumbers.org/content/us-students-rank-better-internationally-new-problem-solving-test-conventional-math-reading-tests_1084/ (2014)

[ii] Preparing Students for PISA- Mathematical Literacy Teacher’s Handbook


[iii] Shaffer, 1999

[iv] Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

[v] Hiebert & Wearne, 1993; Marcus & Fey, 2003; NCTM, 1991; van de Walle, 2003

[vi]   Blanchard, 1988. K. Blanchard  Situational leadership II.Blanchard training and development (1988)

[vii] OECD(2012), “Does Money Buy Strong Performance in PISA?”, PISA in Focus, No. 13, PISA, OECD Publishing.


[viii] knowledge is infinite-oil is not, http://trendsinstitution.org/?p=959(2015)

[ix]   How Resources, Policies and Practices are Related to Education Outcomes http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/Vol4Ch1.pdf, (2014)

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