Girls' marks higher than boys' in secular and Arab communities

OECD study shows Israeli teens excel at ‘creative thinking’

Israel places 20th in international study conducted in 63 countries, but results illustrate huge gaps between Hebrew and Arabic speakers

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of Israeli high school students taking an exam, in Tel Aviv on June 29, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of Israeli high school students taking an exam, in Tel Aviv on June 29, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The percentage of Israeli 15-year-olds who excel at “creative thinking” is among the highest in the world, according to an international study released Tuesday.

The study also found deep gaps in creative thinking abilities between secular and religious students in Hebrew-speaking schools and between students in the Hebrew school system and the Arabic-language school system in general.

The study, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2022 Creative Thinking Assessment, was carried out in 2022 among 63 countries as a supplement to the main PISA study, which examined the mathematics, reading and science abilities of 15-year-olds in 81 countries.

The results of the 2022 main study, which saw Israeli students holding their own amid a general worldwide downturn in test results attributed to the effects of the COVID pandemic, were released in December.

The PISA studies are conducted every few years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and include both OECD and non-OECD states.

The 2022 Creative Thinking Assessment found that the overall percentage of Israeli students rated as “excellent” in creative thinking was 30 percent, as compared to the OECD average of 27%, putting Israel in 11th place out of the 63 participating countries.

However, the study found that among Hebrew speakers 35% were rated “excellent,” one of the highest rates in the study, but only 11% of Arabic speakers were similarly rated.

Illustrative photo of Arab high school girls at their school in Jerusalem. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A full 44% of girls in non-religious, Hebrew-speaking schools were rated as “excellent,” followed by 34% of girls in the state-religious system, 24% of girls in the ultra-Orthodox school system, and 13% of girls in Arabic-speaking schools.

For boys, 36% attending non-religious Hebrew-speaking schools were “excellent” in creative thinking, followed by 34% in the state-religious system and 9% in the Arabic schools.

Boys in the ultra-Orthodox school system, which traditionally has emphasized Torah study over secular subjects, did not participate in the PISA survey.

A majority of Arabic-speaking students, 61%, showed “difficulty” in creative thinking, more than four times the 15% of Hebrew speakers in the same category. For Arabic-speaking boys, a full 70% showed difficulty.

On average, 25% of Israeli students were defined as “having difficulty” with creative thinking, as compared to the OECD average of 22%.

Israel was ranked overall 20th out of 64 countries in the creative thinking study. Comparatively, Israeli students were more successful in tests for “evaluating and improving ideas” and “solving social and science problems” but found more difficulty in tasks requiring “written expression.”

First place was claimed by Singapore, followed by Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Latvia and Belgium. The Palestinian Authority school system, participating in the PISA study as a non-state, non-OECD entity, was ranked 59th in the assessment.

The PISA study results were released in Israel by the Education Ministry’s National Authority for Measurement and Evaluation in Education, known by its Hebrew acronym RAMA, which told The Times of Israel that some 1,750 Israeli students participated.

Each participating country received the same test, translated in Israel’s case to Hebrew and Arabic, which was then administered locally. All the data was then sent back to the OECD to be analyzed, RAMA said.

Schools throughout Israel were included in the PISA testing, including trade schools overseen by the Labor Ministry and private, Arabic-speaking Christian schools.

In assessing “creative thinking,” PISA devised a test that “measures students’ capacity to engage productively in the generation, evaluation and improvement of ideas that can result in original and effective solutions, advances in knowledge, and impactful expressions of imagination,” according to the PISA website.

The assessment examined four areas, “written expression, visual expression, social problem solving and scientific problem-solving,” the PISA literature noted.

In each area, “students engage with open tasks that have no single correct response. They are either asked to provide multiple, distinct responses, or to generate a response that is not conventional. These responses can take the form of a solution to a problem, a creative text, or a visual artifact.”

Parsing the results

It’s a common misconception that creativity is about “the arts and creating things, but that isn’t necessarily the definition of creativity. Creativity is the ability to bring up multiple ideas and solutions,” explained Prof. Anat Zohar, Besen Family Chair for Integrated Studies in Education at Hebrew University and former director of Pedagogy in the Education Ministry.

The high marks for Hebrew-speaking Israeli teens in the PISA creative thinking study are “not surprising, knowing Israeli culture,” Zohar said, speaking to The Times of Israel by phone.

Prof. Anat Zohar of the Hebrew University. (Studio Zohar/courtesy)

The results were “encouraging,” she said, because although the Education Ministry “has put creativity into the curriculum, I haven’t seen that it has been taught in such a robust way to explain such high marks, especially considering that in other areas of focus, we haven’t seen such tremendous results.”

In Israel “there is a tendency to think out of the box, to be creative about things, to look at different angles and look for different solutions. I think it’s something that’s built-in, a cultural tendency – the spirit of the ‘Startup Nation.’ There is something about Israeli culture that encourages wide, divergent creative thinking,” Zohar said.

The gaps between Hebrew speakers and Arabic speakers “isn’t really surprising,” Zohar said. “It mirrors the differences between the two sectors in other PISA or international tests. In general, the achievements of Hebrew speakers are higher, and in general, the Arab girls do better than the Arab boys in almost every measurement we take.”

“I am very sad and concerned about this,” she added. She said that over the years and under various governments, the Education Ministry has attempted to close the general educational gap between the sectors by implementing various projects and initiatives, seemingly with little result.

“It is possible to teach creativity, just as it is possible to teach any other thinking skill,” Zohar noted.

The best way to go about this is to “infuse thinking strategies into every topic in the curriculum… a curriculum not based on memorization and transmission of information, but on presenting informative, intellectually challenging problems and tests to students and have them solve and work on them in an active way.”

If her speculation that the generally high marks for Israeli teens in creative thinking are due to Israeli cultural background and not from the education system, then the results are “a great resource,” Zohar said.

If these are the achievements made without explicitly integrating creative thinking in the classroom, “what could we do to improve things even more and maybe to compensate for some of the disadvantages we know we have in our school system?” she asked.

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