Israeli teens lag behind Asian peers in problem-solving

Israeli teens lag behind Asian peers in problem-solving

Report shows high school students are much weaker at handling everyday situations than in Singapore, Japan, South Korea

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Students in Kiryat Sharet high school in Holon take their matriculation exams in mathematics, on May 21 2013. (illustrative photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Students in Kiryat Sharet high school in Holon take their matriculation exams in mathematics, on May 21 2013. (illustrative photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Israeli teens lag behind their Asian peers in problem solving, a new report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed Wednesday.

Of the 44 countries surveyed and mentioned in the report, among them regions and states in Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, Israel was listed 32nd – ahead of Chile, Cyprus, Brazil, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Montenegro, Uruguay, Bulgaria, and Colombia, but behind Turkey, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Poland, and Russia.

More than 85,000 15-year olds in 44 countries participated in the testing, which took place in 2012. The tests checked the students’ problem-solving skills, their ability to handle obstacles and adapt to unfamiliar technology, their decision-making skills, their logistical capabilities and their level of comprehension of information given to them – problems faced by one in ten workers every day, according to the report.

Israel lagged further behind the East Asian and European states that topped the charts, such as Singapore, which placed first, Japan, which placed second, South Korea, China, Canada, Australia, Finland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which placed fifteenth – just above the OECD average.

The report found that in Israel, as in the UAE, Montenegro, Malaysia and Brazil, more than one in five students was unable to reach an elementary level of problem-solving proficiency, making “below Level 1” the “most common level of proficiency” in the country. The organization recommended that Israel implement “more targeted measures” for students who perform below Level 1.

At this level, students can solve problems only in a limited way, doing so only when they have encountered very similar situations in the past. They are also only partially able to describe the behavior of a “simple, everyday device.”

However, Israel was found to have a higher proportion of top performers than countries of similar average performance — for example, the percentage of top performers in Israel was found to be 8.8%, compared to 2.2% of students in Turkey, indicating large variations in the problem-solving proficiency of Israel’s students and a wide gap between the top and bottom performers.

Immigrants to Israel were also found to have better problem-solving skills than non-immigrant participants, as did students who did not use computers in school, compared to students who did.

“Today’s 15-year-olds with poor problem-solving skills will become tomorrow’s adults struggling to find or keep a good job,” said Andreas Schleicher, acting director of education and skills at the OECD.

According to the report, “problem-solving competence is an essential component of the skills required to perform interpersonal and routine analytic tasks successfully. In both kinds of tasks, workers need to think about how to engage with the situation, monitor the effect of their actions systematically, and adjust to feedback.”

The report revealed that Israeli teens lagged behind their Asian and European peers in these areas. Overall, it showed that one in five participants in the OECD studies can solve just “very straightforward problems — if any — provided they refer to familiar situations, such as choosing from a catalog of furniture, showing different brands and prices, the cheapest models to furnish a room.”

The report suggested this could be a consequence of rule-based education, which demands that pupils memorize sets of rules in order to solve problems – for example, in algebra. In real-world situations, however, problems arise that can’t be solved by applying a fixed set of rules. Even in the school environment, students can encounter problems that differ slightly from those with which they are familiar, and find themselves unable to solve them. Therefore, urged the report, good educators must foster “skills needed to perform non-routine tasks” – in other words, “teach for life, not for school.”

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