Fourth in the whole world! Yet the government doesn’t care

By Daniel Harris

Since PISA released its first creative thinking test results last week, there has been a flurry of commentary both formal and informal among educators and education researchers. 

The report, called Creative Minds, Creative Schools, ranks Australia 4th out of a total 81 participating countries, with Singapore topping the list at number 1 in all areas including literacy, numeracy and creative thinking. That’s sweet revenge for the city-state Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak once called ‘uncreative’ .

In the decade since then, Singapore has shown itself to be a leader in both direct instruction and creative innovation, a trend now making global headlines due to PISA. But is Australia listening? And will we similarly be able to pivot from the 2023 juggernaut of ‘return to phonics’ and direct instruction, toward a more nuanced approach to education that incorporates both approaches?

How is this included in the curriculum

Broad findings of the test are widely available, including yesterday’s post here by Kylie Murphy. But the findings have not yet been sufficiently unpacked in relation to the ample amount of Australia-specific empirical data and scholarship already available. There are some familiar findings here: the PISA Executive Summary definition that “indices of imagination and adventurousness, openness to intellect, curiosity, perspective taking and persistence are positively associated with creative thinking performance” is something most ‘creative skills and capacities’ lists and studies (including mine) have identified over years. 

The more pointed question remains: where and how are these indices included in the Australian Curriculum in ways that are actionable by teachers overburdened with literacy, numeracy and a constant prioritising of STEM curriculum?

What’s creativity got to do with it

The PISA Creative Thinking test results not only provide scores in a range of task types, but also correlation against scores in reading, science and mathematics skills. Together, they provide an interesting relational snapshot between what has traditionally been considered ‘core’ content for learners, and creative thinking, now a recognised 21st century skill alongside critical thinking, collaboration and communication. These assessment results show that “academic excellence is not a prerequisite for excellence in creative thinking”. This will come as no surprise to most educators. While some students excel in ‘academic’ ways of thinking and doing, not all do – a difference long documented as a poor indicator of success in work and life.

What we do know – and what PISA results reinforce –  is that test results, including creative thinking here, often correlate to socio-economic status: “Students with higher socio-economic status performed better in creative thinking, with advantaged students scoring around 9.5 points higher than their disadvantaged peers on average across the OECD.” Where is the government attention to these statistics, in the constant rhetoric about falling test scores?

Interestingly though, “the strength of the association between socio-economic status and performance is weaker in creative thinking than it is for mathematics, reading and science,” a powerful rationale for the levelling power of giving more priority to skills and capacities like creative thinking. In Australia and just five other countries, “more than 88% of students demonstrated a baseline level of creative thinking proficiency (Level 3), meaning they can think of appropriate ideas for a range of tasks and begin to suggest original ideas for familiar problems (OECD average 78%)”. That’a result Australia should be proud of and keen to build upon in both social equity respects as well as the increasingly outmoded ATAR obsession.

Different types of creative thinking tasks show different aptitudes

While the rankings show which countries scored highly overall, the test also highlighted variations in types or applications of creativity. These results show what Australian students do well, in our unique creative contexts and cultural orientations. It also provides an opportunity for us to understand how we can make the most of them. The risk, of course, is that the data are used for blunt comparison, a deficit-approach that often drives ‘moral panic’ responses around fear of ‘slipping’ in international rankings, and short-term stop-gap solutions. For the 2022 results, students in Singapore were the most successful across several task types, especially social problem-solving tasks. Students in Korea were the most successful in scientific problem-solving contexts and evaluate and improve ideas tasks. Students in Portugal performed the most successfully in visual expression tasks.

Such results offer an exciting opportunity to reflect as a national education sector on how we might aspire to raising aptitude in multiple tasks, for example, rather than simply ‘beating’ other countries in overall results.

Gender and equity gaps

The report makes a point of how comprehensively those identified as girls outperformed those identified as boys in creative thinking. “In no country or economy did boys outperform girls in creative thinking, with girls scoring 3 points higher in creative thinking on average across the OECD,” and in all type of creative tasks. 

If participating nations were to use the data to fund “Get More Boys into Creativity” campaigns, as they do with girls in STEM, the utility of a binary gender analysis would be clearer. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t carry through university and workplace trends: A recent analysis of female-identified versus male-identified creative university graduates and early-career employees does not correlate to the strong performance by female-identified 15 year olds. It shows female-identified creatives at both adult stages consistently fall behind their male-identified counterparts.

A welcome measure

Overall, the PISA Creative Thinking test results are a welcome international measure to complement the literacy, numeracy and science tests. Thus far, there has been no comment from government on Australia’s fantastic 4th in the world result – in stark contrast to the ongoing failure narrative of falling test scores. Australian students need to be well-rounded and best prepared for the jobs of the future by the end of their secondary schooling. That’s why our teacher preparation programs at RMIT University’s School of Education, I’m sure like the vast majority of other schools, ensure that all students receive training in all the basics that our new teachers and students need to excel in 21st century life, at the centre of which is creativity. 

Daniel X. Harris is a professor at RMIT and a leading international scholar in creativity, diversity and social change. They were most recently an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, DECRA Fellow, RMIT Vice Chancellor’s Primary Research Fellow, and are currently research professor in the School of Education, RMIT University, and Director of Creative Agency research lab: www.creativeresearchhub.com.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

4 thoughts on “Fourth in the whole world! Yet the government doesn’t care

  1. Be careful what you wish for. Do you want the government to acknowledge Australian schools are doing exceptionally well at teaching creative thinking and decide this is an area where savings could be made? 😉

  2. Susan Mahar says:

    Or, worse still, mandate instructional material produced by cognitive scientists.

  3. Hi Tom and Susan, thanks for your comments. I’m a little bewildered by your connecting high performance with becoming a target for budget cuts. The failure narrative about our test results is erroneous, that’s #1. Number 2 is that we have come 4th in the world on a PISA test, far out-performing both the US and UK, and yet the government inexplicably remains silent on that success. #3, the government has not been pouring more funding into education because of supposed falling test scores, they have narrowed the curriculum and taken teacher agency out of the picture – a problem which corresponds to the current teacher shortage and job dissatisfaction among the profession. There is no precedent for what you are suggesting in cutting areas we are excelling at. And sadly, education sectors’ instructional materials production is, and overwhelming has in the past, been produced by those coming from a cognitive background.

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