THE BLOG

Why the Smartest Children in the World Don't Belong to the Smartest Countries

27/11/2014 14:57 GMT | Updated 26/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The latest OECD PISA results tell us that the smartest children in the world belong to Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. All three cities ranked in the top 3 globally for math, science and reading in what is touted as a test of critical thinking. All three are Confucian heritage societies with a long history (since the 10th century) of being grade-orientated. But do these consistently admirable test scores result in superb critical, creative and agile thinkers able to solve humanities most pressing problems or at least drive innovation forward or are we working with outdated ideas of success?

Comparing apples and apple seeds

To help answer this let's compare apples to apple seeds as we look at the current scientific contributions of a nation's adults based on their H-Index (a ranking of the quality of scientific output) with the OECD (PISA) academic ranking for science from that country's teenagers in brackets next to it.

H-Ranking (PISA ranking)

1. USA (28th)

2. UK (20th)

3. Germany (12th)

4. France (26th)

5. Canada (10th)

6. Japan (4th)

7. Italy (32nd)

8. Netherlands (14th)

9. Switzerland (19th)

10. Sweden (38th)

As you can see high scores in math and science aren't necessarily correlated with an increase in scientific contributions from a nation's adults. Math and science are exceptionally important as building blocks of knowledge. But only building blocks. What a student creates with those building blocks is more important than what he or she knows about them. As a lecturer in critical thinking in Asia, I've learnt that a school system that teaches children what to think to get good grades in a bi-annual exam at the expense of how to think is missing a golden opportunity to create a nation of ground breakers, scientists and entrepreneurs.

Surely good grades lead to corporate success?

US school rankings in math, science and reading haven't changed significantly since 2006, despite reforms. Yet America's ability to drive innovation remains robust. The US contributes 6 of the top 10 and 23 of the top 50 on the Forbes list of Most Innovative Companies. The search engine giant Baidu is China's sole representative in the top 10 and part of only 5 Chinese companies in the top 50.

Schools get ranked on results that can be measured in any academic year for a specific cohort. So students and teachers work to maximise these results. Mental dexterity, abstract thinking, emotional intelligence and the ability to deal with failure are very difficult to measure and don't reflect in a school's rankings - hence they don't have a formal place in your child's syllabus, despite their importance to a nation and the companies that drive economic success.

Yes these are the very skills that some of the best employers to work for are hiring for today. In a company that produces some of the purest most valuable data available, it's no surprise that Google's recruitment process has benefitted from their analytics stockpile. Lazlo Block, their SVP of people ops and principal architect of their interview process made headlines when he revealed that academic success at college or one's GPA (grade point average) is the least important metric in their interview process. Their 16 years worth of data on recruitment have revealed that there is no link between formal academic success or technical ability and potential to add real value to a company that transacts in new technology. What their recruiters are looking for is the ability to learn, mental agility and someone who is not held hostage by years of deep specialisation in a particular area.

I don't know about you but my son's school report is still all about maths and science measured on traditional metrics. This is still how schools rank and grade pupils because its easier to do than set up a system to say, measure mental agility. Unless we as parents change the definition of success at school, academic children may not have the opportunity to develop these essential intangible talents that employers are after and children that aren't considered academic will continue to be labelled underachievers despite their valuable contribution, simply because these skills aren't defined and measured.

Tremaine du Preez is the author of Think Smart, Work Smarter and a lecturer in critical thinking based in Singapore. This blog series is based on her upcoming book, Raising Thinkers - Preparing Your Child For The Journey Of A Lifetime. She blogs at http://www.tremainedupreez.com/thoughts-on-thinking where this post first appeared.

Source: Lazlo Block in an interview on March 28, 2013 at The Economist's Ideas Economy: Innovation Forum in Berkeley, California. Available on YouTube.