What the OECD Findings on Students’ Collaborative Problem-Solving Skills Tell Us … And What Not

PISA-CPS-Girls-vs-BoysCongratulations, Singapore!

As one of the pioneers that have championed Problem-Based learning (PBL) in Singapore, I was delighted to see Singapore on the No.1 spot in collaborative problem-solving when the OECD (OECD, 2017) presented its results on November 21, 2017. Many years of hard work by consultants like myself and government investment into a more student-centered pedagogy have, obviously, paid off.  Still, we need to be prudent on how to interpret the results since there is much more implied in the study than meets the eye.

Lesson No.1: Collaborate problem-solving is the exception to the rule, even among top performers

Graphs, like the one above, seldom tell us the overall picture. One remarkable key-finding of the study was  that (highlights by me) ‘(…) on average across OECD countries, not even one in ten students can handle problem-solving tasks that require them to maintain awareness of group dynamics, take initiative to overcome obstacles, and resolve disagreements and conflicts.’ (OECD, page 5). The study points out that even for top-performer Singapore only one in five students attain a high level among the cited criteria, while three-quarters of students are able to address problems of medium difficulty and can integrate diverse social perspectives. Collaboration as a key competence of the knowledge society (Moshman & Geil, 1998) appears rudimentary in practically all developed nations. The results reveal that there is much room for improvement across the board.

The unexplained gender gap

One of the central graphics and headline presented to the media by the OECD organisation (above) suggests that girls categorically outperform boys in collaborative problem-solving skills, which is not the case. Similarly, in a previous study, boys were found to outperform girls in individual problem-solving. Gender differences are statistically significant, but as in all statistics, this means that in reality there is still a large overlap between the better performing boys and the not so well performing girls (or vice versa, when looking at individual problem-solving skills). The authors of the study do no try to explain the international gender gap. They speculate that girls might simply be more receptive to interpreting nonverbal cues (Hall & Matsumoto, 2004; Rosip & Hall, 2004) since the gender gap cannot be explained sufficiently even after accounting for better reading literacy among girls.

Another reason might be found in different age-related competencies between boys and girls. Girls tend to mature faster than boys. This is how longitudinal analyses would be in a better position to explain underlying developmental factors. Judging from my experience with adolescent students, the gender gap diminishes as student populations grow older. In support of this hypothesis, the earlier maturation in girls has been associated with different neurological development (Lim et al., 2015). If varying neurological development could be identified to impact collaborative skills, the gender gap might not qualify as a solid predictor of collaborative skills in adulthood as data may suggest at first sight (see Figure V.4.4 below).

Looking at top-performers Singapore, Japan and Korea, the cultural influence on collaborative skills in interdependent Asian societies (Fiske et al., 1998) who also assign a high social value to education would be another worthwhile topic of investigation. As can be concluded from data, girls do slightly better than boys while some cultures do notably better than others. However, cultural differences clearly outweigh gender differences.

by gender

The big question: Is learning still enjoyable?

To facilitate lifelong learning, learning itself should be an enjoyable, motivating and insightful process. Learning should take place within a positive social environment and it needs to develop students’ personal resources. Although the significant effect of positive social relations for collaborative skills has been emphasised in the OECD study, there is no explicit connection drawn to problem-solving made in the classroom.

The generally stricter and more rigid learning environments in Singapore classrooms do not compare, by a wide stretch, to the more explorative and intrinsic motivation-based classrooms in Finland. This is how, to me, the psychological winner of the OECD study is Finland. Finland demonstrates that a nation can be a leader in collaborative problem-solving while advocating a student-centred, active learning pedagogy at the same time. This fact leads to another scientific blind spot, which is the issue of developing a sustainable intrinsic motivation to solve professional and personal problems throughout the lifetime. In the meantime, the successful alternative approach in Finland has been recognized in Singapore on a ministerial level (Sinnakruppan, 2017).

Lesson No.2: Problem-solvers are not necessarily innovators and entrepreneurs

With the promotion of collaborative problem-solving skills, Singapore had hoped to create an innovation hub reminiscent of an SE-Asian version of Silicon Valley. Although Singapore students fare well in problem-solving, innovation and entrepreneurship did not materialize to the extent it was anticipated by the government. Some factors inhibiting innovation appear to be the cultural habit of relying on a centralized administration, the unwillingness to take risks and to exchange ideas (Wan et al., 2005).

Although I am an ardent supporter of PBL myself, I had to learn over the years that problem-solving and entrepreneurship require different skillsets. Entrepreneurs display a high degree of frustration tolerance and are willing to take above-average risks. Entrepreneurs learn from failures, evolve advanced mental abilities to simulate future scenarios and develop high motivational levels in support of personal perseverance – all qualities that collaborative group processes do not necessarily imply. Innovators need to be brave: The truth is that more innovative ideas have also a higher probability of failure.


One of the key takeaways from the latest OECD study was that collaborative problem-solving is still in its infant stages, even among the top performers. Averages do not represent the stunning underdevelopment among practically all nations. We can agree with the authors of the OECD study that collaborating students only mature within collaborative schools. Beyond the mere measure of cognitive competencies, the development of personal resources and social skills seem to pave the way to succeed in the emerging knowledge societies.



Fiske, A. P., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (pp. 915-981). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hall J.A. & Matsumoto D. (2004), Gender differences in judgments of multiple emotions from facial expressions, Emotion, Vol. 4/2, pp. 201-206, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1528-3542.4.2.201.Lim

Lim S., Han C.E., Uhlhaas P.J. & Kaiser M. (2015). Preferential Detachment During Human Brain Development: Age- and Sex-Specific Structural Connectivity in Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) Data, Cerebral Cortex, Volume 25, Issue 6, 1 June 2015, Pages 1477–1489, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bht333

Moshman D. & Geil M. (1998), Collaborative reasoning: Evidence for collective rationality, Thinking and Reasoning, Vol. 4/3, 10. pp. 231-248, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/135467898394148

OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Rosip J.C. & Hall J.A. (2004). Knowledge of nonverbal cues, gender, and nonverbal decoding accuracy, Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, Vol. 28/4, pp. 267-286, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-004-4159-6.

Sinnakaruppan S. (Nov 26, 2017). Why Singapore’s education system needs an overhaul. In: Todayonline. Retrieved from: http://www.todayonline.com/daily-focus/education/why-spores-education-system-needs-overhaul

Wan D., Ong C.H. & Lee F. (2005). Determinants of firm innovation in Singapore, In: Technovation, Volume 25, Issue 3, 2005, Pages 261-268, ISSN 0166-4972. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0166-4972(03)00096-8.