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Hong Kong pupils among world’s best group problem-solvers (but Singapore tops the chart)

Results from Pisa assessment of how well students work together for solutions show Japan in second

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 10:19pm

Hong Kong secondary school pupils placed third in a worldwide ranking on collaborative problem-solving skills, according to results announced on Tuesday.

The city came behind Singapore and Japan in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

The Pisa survey assesses the performance of 15-year-olds around the world in science, maths and reading, but included this year – for the first time – an assessment on how well pupils work with one another to solve problems. The tests were conducted in 2015.

Singapore’s pupils scored highest in collaborative problem-solving around the world with 561 points, beating Japan’s, who scored 552 points. Hong Kong ranked third with 541 points.

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The mean score was 500 for the more than 125,000 students in the 52 countries that participated in the assessment.

In Hong Kong, 1,600 pupils from 138 schools were randomly selected in 2015 to see how well they solved problems by pooling knowledge, skills and efforts with each other.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which conducts the assessment every three years, said it was important for pupils to develop social and collaborative skills in a more globalised environment.

The report authors said that “as the world becomes even more interconnected, it will need more people who know how to collaborate”.

Pupils are evaluated on their interactions and responses to computerised simulations in different scenarios.

In one scenario, teachers divided the class into three-person teams for a contest to answer 12 questions about a fictional country as quickly as possible.

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In a simulated chat, scores were given based on what multiple choice answers pupils chose in responding to conflicts among team members and how they delegated work.

The scores correlated to four proficiency levels in collaborative problem-solving.

Only 8 per cent of all pupils reached the highest proficiency level available. In Singapore, 21.4 per cent hit the top level, while in Hong Kong that figure was 13 per cent.

The top performers were able to handle tasks with high collaboration complexity, such as being aware of group dynamics, taking the initiative to overcome obstacles and to resolve disagreements and conflicts.

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In Hong Kong, pupils on average achieved the second-highest proficiency level, meaning they could complete tasks with complex problem-solving requirements, such as being able to orchestrate roles within a team, identify information needed to solve a problem and help team members negotiate a solution when conflicts arise.

The data showed a number of disparities in gender and how activities and school environments might be related to their performance. Girls performed significantly better than boys in every country and economy. The report said girls tend to value relationships more than boys, are more interested in others’ opinions and enjoy seeing other classmates be successful.

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Pupils who had stronger science, reading and maths skills performed better at problem-solving, as they were better at managing and interpreting information, according to the report.

Pupils who played video games tended to score slightly lower than those who did not, while those who used social networks and chatted on the internet generally had better collaborative problem-solving skills.

Education experts said the results were a sign that Hong Kong’s school curriculum had made progress in introducing more teamwork and group-based learning.

“I believe it shows that the city’s education reform in the past 20 years has been going in the right direction and that we’re not just teaching kids rote memorisation,” Esther Ho Sui-chu, director of Chinese University’s centre for international student assessment, said.

The centre has done Hong Kong’s Pisa assessments for the past six editions, since 2000.

There are still areas, especially in soft skills, where there could be great improvement
Professor Bob Adamson, Education University

Ho said the introduction of liberal studies as a core subject in schools meant pupils learn how to think critically from multiple perspectives and analyse controversial current affairs topics in groups and try to reach a consensus.

A statement from the Education Bureau said the results “reaffirmed the quality of [Hong Kong’s] education system” and were the result of “concerted efforts” of all concerned in pushing for education reform.

Professor Bob Adamson, director of Education University’s centre for lifelong learning research and development, agreed with Ho that the results reflected good progress, but warned against complacency.

“There are still areas, especially in soft skills, where there could be great improvement. Employers complain that our school graduates don’t have enough creativity, entrepreneurial skills and communication skills and are not internationalised enough. There’s still a lot of work to improve our education system,” Adamson said.

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Ho said more could be done to address the “serious” problem of bullying in Hong Kong schools, and to ensure a safer and more inclusive school environment, which is linked to a better collaborative score.

Hong Kong pupils reported being threatened and physically bullied at school more than the overall average reporting rate for all 52 countries, according to the report.

Some 20 per cent of those surveyed reported getting hit or pushed around by others in school, compared to the OECD average of 11.9 per cent. The rate was the fifth highest among all countries.

The report said that another way schools could foster collaboration skills included allowing pupils to participate in more team sports during physical education classes and using more e-learning platforms and tools for collaborative learning in class.