`It's no longer what you know, it's what you can do with it'
East Asia's global educational superiority extends beyond academic learning to students' ability to think for themselves and solve problems, evidence published this week suggests.
Countries and cities from the region occupied the top seven places in the results table for the new Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) problem-solving tests. East Asia also swept the board in conventional maths, reading and science league tables published by Pisa in December.
The latest news appears to counter any suggestion that the region's academic success is down to the common Asian stereotype of regimented classes and rote learning. Francesco Avvisati, an analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs Pisa, said: "Asian countries are particularly good at those tasks that require knowledge acquisition, and those are the most abstract tasks that require higher levels of abstract reasoning and of self-directed learning on the part of students."
Although the seven territories with the highest results in maths also performed best in problem-solving, the order did change, with Singapore, South Korea and Japan some way ahead of the rest. Macao, Hong Kong and Shanghai - all Chinese territories - came next, followed by Taiwan.
Announcing the results in Singapore, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's acting director of education and skills, said: "A world economy no longer pays you for what you know - Google knows everything. The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know. That makes a very big difference."
The problem-solving results are the first from Pisa 2012 to pose any questions for Shanghai, which finished top in maths, science and reading. Dr Avvisati said that students in the city had been less able to "engage with problem situations that are interactive where the information is not given" than their counterparts in Singapore and South Korea.
Canada and Australia came eighth and ninth in the tests, followed by the two top-performing European countries: Finland and England.
The OECD said that students in England - the only UK country to enter the optional computer-based tests - performed "significantly better" than their counterparts in other nations with similar Pisa test scores in maths, science and reading. The results were also "significantly above" the average for the industrialised world.
But England finished below the most successful systems because of students' performance on knowledge acquisition. The questions required them to find and manipulate information needed to complete tasks.
In most countries, boys were better at problem-solving than girls. But the gender gap was relatively small, particularly among low-performing students, according to the study.
Pisa introduced problem-solving to its most recent 2012 tests to assess students' "general reasoning skills", and their ability and willingness to complete sometimes complex tasks that did not require expert knowledge. The test included problems such as working out how to buy the right train ticket from an unfamiliar vending machine and how to operate an air-conditioning system without an instruction manual.
The OECD said it was important to measure such abilities because of changes in the global labour market, which have led to a steady decline in jobs that require low and medium problem-solving skills. There has been an equivalent increase in demand for workers with a high level of such skills, it said.
A good performance in the conventional Pisa tests does not appear to guarantee the same for problem-solving. Poland was lauded for finishing ninth, 10th and joint 13th out of 66 in science, reading and maths respectively. But Dr Avvisati said the Eastern European country had performed "significantly below expectations" when it came to problem-solving, finishing 28th out of the 44 territories that took part.
New computer-based tests of students' collaborative problem-solving will be included in the next round of Pisa in 2015. Mr Schleicher has said that tests of foreign language skills were also being considered for the future. TES understands that creativity, writing and speaking, musical and visual skills, and curiosity are among a number of other potential new assessment areas that have been looked at.