The following is the original letter of the one published in the TODAY newspaper on Wednesday, 9 April.
By Perry Tan
Singapore students recently came up tops in a PISA problem solving test and there was considerable celebration from certain quarters that this is a validation that we produce creative problem solvers, not rote learners.
It is all well and good that our students do well in solving unfamiliar problems, but this euphoria has to be checked against the common feedback from employers, especially MNCs, that local graduates tend not to be the most impressive workers.
The PISA test involves students solving pre-defined problems individually online.
How well does that translate to real world problem solving scenarios where you have to make sense of incomplete information and data; define the problem; collaborate and debate with others who have differing perspectives, cultures and styles; work with and around systems, processes and organisational dynamics; use intuition as much as logic to formulate a solution; market your solution to stakeholders to get buy-in; and finally drive relentlessly towards an outcome you want?
The real world rarely requires IQ-smart people to sit in silos, decipher data and reports, and solve pre-designed problems based on pure hard logic.
Our education system already does very well in imparting technical subjects like Math and Science, and developing our students’ “hard” skillsets for problem solving. The obvious gap is in the soft skills: articulation, communication, facilitation, leadership, and cultural-political-organisational acumen.
This gap can only be closed by placing due focus on areas like Literature, public speaking, group work and the social sciences. While it can be comparatively challenging to score A’s in these topics and some of them cannot even be objectively evaluated, we have to recognise that unless we acquire these soft skills to complement our traditionally strong hard skills, we cannot develop truly world class talent to compete in the globalised, knowledge economy.
Despite our longtime stellar academic achievements, we have not won any Nobel Prizes, not produced any world renowned experts in any areas, not innovated any world class products and not built any world class companies. In fact, today, our economy is suffering from productivity issues. Even our political leaders and senior civil servants, who are the cream of the cream of our system, are quite lacking in communication and people engagement capabilities, as was clearly demonstrated in face of policy lapses in several areas in recent years.
We have to understand that a lot of valuable skills in life and in the modern workplace cannot be objectively evaluated in standardised tests, and we should pay more attention to the input and needs of employers than blindly trumpet achievements in standardised tests, which does not necessarily translate to superior workplace performance.