OECD Report Ranks Young Koreans #1 in Creative Problem Solving

Article from News1:

In OECD Report, Korean Middle School and High School Student Rank First in Creative Problem Solving

Korean middle school and high school students have ranked first in creative problem solving skills according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD).

The disparities within and across schools when it came to problem solving skills was lower than the OECD average. However, the report showed that male students had stronger problem solving skills than females.

On the first of April, the OECD also revealed results from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) comparing creative problem solving skills across various countries.

The PISA survey assessed the competencies of 15 year olds in math, reading and science, as well as their creative problem solving abilities. The PISA survey is conducted once every three years. Last December, PISA released the results of the portion of the 2012 survey dealing with math competencies, in which Korea ranked first.

In the assessment on creative problem solving skills, Korean students scored 561 points, putting them in first place among OECD economies.

In the OECD’s survey of 44 countries, including member countries of the OECD, Singaporean students scored 562 points, giving them a slight lead over Korean students. Japan came in third place, followed by Macao, and Hong Kong.

Korea’s average score was one point below Singapore’s average score, but considering the margin of error, both countries’ scores are considered between first and second place.

Korea and Singapore are both ranked between first and second place, with Korean students scoring an average of 561 points, and Singaporean students scoring one point higher.

Korean students led the OECD countries with 27.6% scoring a level five or six out of a possible six levels. Only 6.9% of Korean students scored below the second level, resulting in the lowest percentage of low performers among the countries.

In at least one of three areas assessed (reading, math and science), there were three times as many top scoring Korean students (20.9%) compared to students who only did well on the problem solving portion(6.7%).

The disparities within and across schools when it came to problem solving skills was lower than the OECD average.

There was a smaller disparity in Korean students’ problem solving abilities across schools compared to students in Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taiwan. This indicated a relatively equal quality of education across Korean schools.

The disparity in scores on problem solving across schools was 28.1%, less than a half of the disparity in scores across students in schools, which came out to be 60.2%.

The Ministry of Education explains the low disparity compared to other countries a result of Korea’s relatively equal quality of education across schools.

The report also showed that male students had stronger problem solving skills than females.

Male students scored on average 13 points higher than female students, and of the students who scored in the high range (a level 5 or 6 out of 6 possible levels), the rate of males was 7.1% percent higher than that of females.

Korea’s disparity in scores for problem solving questions related to society and economy was also lower than the OECD average. Korean students scored at the same level as those from Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, Finland, and Canada.

There was a positive correlation between scoring high on patience and persistence in problem solving, and higher overall scores on the problem solving portion. Males scored higher than females on patience and persistence in problem solving.

A representative from the Ministry of Education said, “Problem solving skills are not just one of four competencies (the other three being math, reading, science), but are a complex skill associated with multiple competencies.” The representative also noted, “This is an important resource that combines the knowledge of many subject areas, and promotes creativity that you can apply to real life situations.”

The 2012 PISA surveyed about 65 countries, (including 34 OECD member countries, and 31 non-member countries) and 510,000 students. In Korea, a total of 5201 students from 140 high schools and 16 middle schools participated in the survey.

Comments from Naver:

Yep, they ranked first due to forced education.

313c****: [Responding to above]

We have to comprehensively examine whether the expression “rote learning” is applicable and what the pros and cons of the current education system are. If you think it is always bad to practice something that you do not enjoy, you may think negatively of sketching practice to get better at drawing, running drills to get better at sports, or vocal exercises to get better at singing. But if the person chooses their own path, he or she doesn’t feel that way.

Considering the number of students who are thrown into secondary education for the university entrance exam, the negative connotations of “rote learning” are applicable to a certain degree. However, the criticism cannot simply be based on the fact that knowledge is being fed to the students. Innovation can come from a deep understanding of the existing knowledge. In fact, rote learning is inevitable at a fundamental level. Even the most talented soccer players have done numerous running exercises and weight training exercises.

No matter how good you are, you still need to learn by rote at the basic level to get a better understanding of an advanced topic. The question is whether the majority of Korean citizens need to receive such an education. Obviously, an abnormally large amount of people go through such education in Korea, but in a country where human resources are the largest assets, it’s essential to have an educated workforce. The real problem is that students do not have many options besides the academic path.

Results from international tests show that rote learning is quite effective. There are still many who keep bringing up the Nobel prize mantra, but students in China and Japan also undergo similar or even more intensive rote learning. They are still among the top ranked in the world for research outcomes. It is not that the creativity of top researchers is undermined by the education system. It depends on the national research environment and funding opportunities. In Korea, there is even academic discontinuity because of the military service.

The biggest reason why there hasn’t been a Nobel prize winner from Korea is that as a latecomer, Korea is still lagging behind countries that are very robust in research output. These countries have a supportive research environment, resources, and funding opportunities.[The Korean government set up the Institute for Basic Science in 2011.] Even if the current youth is talented, isn’t it usually middle aged or older researchers who receive the Nobel prize? You have to wait for 3 or 4 more decades to see their results. I am personally optimistic. It is nonsense to expect the water to boil as soon as the burner gets hot. Anyway I just wanted to say that rote learning does not necessarily ruin genius.

So what about the cons? Ironically, [rote learning] is the most detrimental for average and below average students who have no academic motivation. They don’t find studying interesting and don’t understand why they need to learn. They get bad grades. They end up achieving nothing at school. Even if they could find another path that suits them better, it is too risky for them to try. The flexibility of the education system as well as individual assistance should be improved for them.

It is ironic that the level of comments written by high schoolers here shows why education is important. Even when I was a student, I had a higher level of critical thinking than these guys…


They are forced to study so much. No wonder they ranked first.

pabl****: [Responding to above]

Do you guys know what problem solving skills are? They thought Korean students scored high just because of private education. They created new types of problems that require creative thinking. These were introduced in the test around 2005. Korean students topped that one, so foreign educators realized that it’s not just because of private education. You guys are barking when you don’t know anything.


They get smarter by learning useless things they don’t even need to learn.

djki****: [Responding to above]

You could say they teach you what you won’t need for your future career but as a high school student, how would you be able to know exactly what you won’t need? When I was a high school student, I really hated some of my science classes, but they were necessary later when I was trying to change programs. If I hadn’t taken the chemistry and biology classes that I hated so much in high school, I doubt I could’ve changed my program. It would definitely have been impossible if I had only taken the physics and math subjects I liked. Think about it. Life is long and there are many things to do. If you only learn the minimum in high school, it won’t help you.

Ah, of course, if you are stressed out because you aren’t smart enough to follow along in class, it is better to quit. Studying isn’t the only way. But if that is not the case, it is good for you to try to enjoy learning each subject. In fact, any subject can be interesting if you are introduced to it in a context that is compatible with your cognitive learning style, but it’s hard because each student is different. What I regret is that I couldn’t learn French in high school because they only taught Japanese and Chinese. I loved watching French movies. Sigh, I was so disappointed. I even bought expensive French magazines and tried to study French on my own, but you know I had little time due to school work.


In Korea, students get worse once they enter university…

ange****: [Responding to above]

I studied harder in university… What was your major?


The outcome of rote learning.

whdg****: [Responding to above]

Rote learning? If you kids don’t know anything, just stay quiet. Korean education has emphasized the importance of problem solving skills since the 5th curriculum in 1987. We see the results in the article above. The 5th, 6th, 7th, 2007 and 2009 revised curricula have all focused on developing problem solving skills, tsk.

fkql****: [Responding to dyor****]

Have you even tried solving the PISA test questions? You wouldn’t parrot “rote learning” if you have actually tried solving them, ke ke. You cannot solve those PISA problems just through rote learning. Do you just want to bash Korean education no matter what?

chun****: [Responding to dyor****]

In fact, you cannot learn math completely by rote. The problems aren’t that simple. The hardest questions that differentiate the top students from the rest always require creative problem solving skills. However, you can see the negative outcomes of rote learning in subjects that stress memorization. You may do even better than some native English speakers on English tests. But when you have to hold a conversation with them, you will just repeat, “How are you? I’m fine. Thank you.” That is the problem.


Then why hasn’t there yet been a Nobel prize winner from Korea??! Now that’s one of the real seven wonders of the world.

quee****: [Responding to above]

I see many fellows here who go on about “rote learning,” which they superficially picked up from somewhere. If you consider the poor support for science, Korea is doing pretty well. Korea has achieved remarkable economic growth, but it is delusional to think Korea is on par with those top countries. Actual research for natural science began in Korea in the 1980’s. It hasn’t been long. You can’t win Nobel prizes that easily.

didt****: [Responding to valu****]

All the smart kids are attending specialized science high schools which have become schools that prepare students to become medical doctors. Students even complain that doctors these days don’t make much money, but they still attend medical school. The fact that science researchers are treated poorly in Korea is a problem. The students at foreign language high schools and international high schools try to become judges or prosecutors. Regular high schools have been standardized, so there are no more prestigious regular high schools. Students will go to some mediocre colleges and prepare for exams to become government employees. Only some top students from technical high schools will be able to become factory managers. The rest will depend on part-time jobs.

para****: [Responding to valu****]

Talk about Nobel prizes after giving some support first. All the smart kids who attend science or foreign language high schools try to become medical doctors, judges or lawyers. Korea is not in the top 10 OECD countries in terms of its investment in fundamental science. Physics and chemistry are the main fields for Nobel prizes but who really studies pure physics in Korea? Everyone goes towards the IT, applied physics or engineering fields where they can make money. You will go hungry if you study natural science in Korea. Because the support is pitiful, Korean researchers always have to go to Japan or Europe to use their facilities. There are no domestic companies that make materials they need for experiments so they have to import everything from Japan. Ah, there is one thing they make nicely. They make awesome SiO2 PCBs, ke ke.


Highest youth suicide rates among the OECD countries.

dmsw****: [Responding to above]

What bullshit. How can a comment like this get so many up-votes? Korea’s youth suicide rates are about mid-level among OECD countries. What kind of rumor are you spreading? Korea’s suicide rates are among the highest because of the extremely high elderly suicide rates.


No. 1 in suicide, teenage smoking, divorce, aging, elderly poverty, work hours, gender gap in salaries, cancer, abortion. The worst at welfare for the disabled. 32nd on the happiness index, 29th in welfare expenditures. You know?

toto****: [Responding to above]

No. 1 at making inflammatory statements and your comment is one example.


They study for 15 hours a day. Of course, they should do well. Damn, it’s so hard. ㅠ

alca****: [Responding to above]

?? 15 hours a day??????????????? Stop bullshitting. Even those who entered Seoul National University couldn’t study that much.


The worst at community spirit.

xxxy****: [Responding to above]

What an asshat. You think Koreans lack freaking worthless collectivism? Bullshit, ke ke ke. Koreans need more individualism. We need to get past the goddamn society where people are nosing into others’ personal matters and measure their worth by comparing it to others. You primitive bastard.

Jay.h also contributed to this article.

Share This Article
Help us maintain a vibrant and dynamic discussion section that is accessible and enjoyable to the majority of our readers. Please review our Comment Policy »
  • punkpanda

    It doesn’t matter. Most of Korea’s brightest and smartest students end up becoming doctors. So no matter how creative they are it’s no use.

  • mei mei

    no suprise. but yeah korean kids (or Asian kids) are forced to study so much, that’s not even healthy

    • YourSupremeCommander

      Why do you have this deer caught in the headlights look?

      • Boris_Da_Bengal_Tiger

        Because she is a he…

        That’s what I was told…

        • Zappa Frank

          you can read in the post of mr. weiner and fauna on chinasmack, they clearly say that he’s nor chinese nor girl, i remember she/he never replyed when someone wrote to her(him) in chinese and apparently the ip is not from china while her/his english level makes difficult to believe she/he is a chinese living abroad..

          • CN

            That doesn’t mean anything. She could be American born Chinese who can’t speak Chinese.

          • Boris_Da_Bengal_Tiger

            She could be a thai ladyboy for all we know.

          • Zappa Frank

            he is not an ABC, his English level is by far not enough.. now he claims to live in SEA.. but sincerely since Mr weiner and Fauna confirmed he’s not a girl and apparently he can’t speak Chinese I think is more reasonable to believe that whatever he says is false..

      • mei mei

        to look pretty … jk

  • commander

    Many critics in and outside the nation claim that learning by rote eventually undermines academic potential for students, who are excellent in assessments at middle and high schools but lag behind others at foreign universities in research-based curricula.

    That criticism is partially right.

    Learning consists of three parts. Understanding, memorizing and application.

    The biggest problem with the present education system in the nation is the lack of teaching ability by teachers at middle and high schools, with students hardly getting galvanized to learn more.

    I think the problem is more about a mediocre level of teaching skills than about the learning way of memorization.

    Public education should be stepped up in quality especially for students whose parents cannot have their children get private tutoring for financial reasons.

    • chucky3176

      “Learning consists of three parts. Understanding, memorizing and application.”

      How did Korean kids score number one in problem solving? Obviously just memorizing answers wouldn’t help you with these tests, yet look at the scores.

      So obviously something happens to Korean students from age 15 to University age, to adulthood. My theory is that Korean students in elementary to highschool do very well, then they get burned out by the time they reach university. Instead of concentrating on tests of 15 year olds, I’d like to see a tests of 4th year university students and undergrads compared to their peers overseas. Perhaps that’s a more fitting study to find out if Korean students are prepared for workforce and what the true quality of manpower is.

      • commander

        Partial explanation for how 15 year old Korean students topped creative problem solving test is that many schools allow academically poor performing students to skip the test to get higher scores for each school in a move that the education ministry presumably gives a tacit approval to raise the nation’s international profile.

        This means that the OECD survey may inflate the academic potential for Korean students.

        • bigmamat

          Well at least they just let them skip the test. In the U.S. we just put our slow learners on a fast track to prison.

          • chucky3176

            Here’s a good description on how PISA choose the schools. There are checks and balances put in place by PISA, so it’s not like any country can just choose freely which schools and students take the test.


            It’s always the Asian countries that come ahead on top consistently time after time, year after year, so unless all of them are successful manipulating the data for so long, I kinda doubt commander’s claim.

          • bigmamat

            I don’t doubt for a second that it’s probably a combination of both. The scores are very likely padded by a minor amount of manipulation. You see it in American schools too now that state and federal testing has become a matter of funding. Shitty scores 3 years in a row, lose your accreditation and your additional funding. I also know how hard Korean kids study and how well trained they are at taking tests. So I don’t think the ranking is entirely manipulated. I wouldn’t go that far as to discredit the ranking since I know how hard these kids work. But it’s entirely plausible to me that schools would be inclined to find a way to “weed out” bad students in order to boot their rankings. It’s just to tempting not to try. I’m pretty cynical about the fact that people will cheat if they can get away with it.

        • chucky3176

          This is the first time I’m hearing of this. Can you give me a source of where you’re getting this from? If true, why are PISA officials allowing this to go on? What’s the point of comparisons if the results are manipulated?

          • commander

            Letting high performing students to take international tests of academic performance for students is possible since relevant international organizations commission the South Korean government to administrate tests. And exams are not held for the entire students at targeted age range.

            Tests are made for sampled students and as far as I know, choosing the sample students falls into the discretion of the requested government as long as the selection does not hurt methodology fairness in survey.

            This clever tactic to boost internationally-gauged academic performance for Korean students is said to be an open secret though it is not publicly revealed or verified.

            Though a comparison may be inappropriate, it can be likened to China’s official announcement of its annual military spending.

            Many western experts consider the release as a conservative estimate, making them to predict a higher figure.

            In this case, test scores of students in S. Korea may be overestimated but nevertheless Korean students would rank high on the list of test results even if scores are adjusted for bias in test taker selection.

          • Jorts

            I’ve worked at schools in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and Korea. Every school I’ve ever worked at had some form of manipulation going on. It’s not as if it’s official policy everywhere, but omitting lowest scores, forcing consitently poor students in remedial classes that are outside the system so as to not effect school averages, teachers giving out the actual test/exam sheets ahead of time. I could go on and on. Have you ever worked in the education section? It’s par for the course. It’s pretty easy for schools to hide things if they want to.
            When funding is dependent upon attaining certain levels, fishy shit starts going down.

          • bigmamat

            That’s my point. Anytime money is involved the temptation to skew the results is just too great.

          • Su-bin

            Yup, I work at a hakwon. Most of my students are well to do. Their mid and high school teachers often given them test sheets to study from. The students then prepare at our hakwon. A little less than half of the same questions from the study sheets end up on the exams. The rest of the questions are so close they are nearly the same questions.

          • Cnetizen817

            Seriously? That’s not even learning, that’s just pure memorization…:/ the more important thing is to learn to APPLY the methods to new problems…not regurgitate answers to questions you’ve already done…:/

          • Sillian

            Many high schools intentionally inflate ‘naeshin’ grades so that their students don’t fall behind when they apply for university That’s why universities don’t take high school transcripts seriously. What matters the most is the national university entrance exam and essay writing.

          • Cnetizen817

            Same thing in Canada (grade inflation) but, the difference is that the universities accept them still but, weed them out in later years (that way they get the money from tuition).

            BUT, I’ve heard some universities here actually DO look at the school you’ve graduated from and weigh certain schools slightly more or less (depending on the reputation).

      • commander

        And I want to point out the ability for creative problem solving can be cultivated with intense training, propped by notoriously high private expenses, pushing students to solve a vast array of questions.

        Here in South Korea, many private cram schools have evolved to a point where students who are eager to attend prestigious private middle and high schools are provided tailored training to solve problems requiring creative thoughts for solution.

        The private institutes also teach students curriculum for higher schools, say, middle schoolers get high school education.

        This has led to another memorization of types of problems and problem-solving techniques.

        No wonder, with such money-fueled private tutoring in a fierce competition, South Korean students who took the test assumes the top in scores.

  • wrle

    If Korea was ranked 20 something here they would probably complain for not getting high enough. They come first in the world and still complain. Sometimes Koreans need to give themselves just a little bit of credit for the hard work. But personally I do think korea’s education system could be made more efficient.

    • Doge Wallace

      And no matter what happens, a westerner will take a dig at Koreans.

      • bigmamat


      • wrle

        How do you know that? you are a dog!

        • Doge Wallace

          A dog that can also type. wow.

          • harvz

            Wow. Such smart

          • Guest


  • Truck Furniture Maker

    If you believe any of these tests I have a bridge I could sell you… The fact is we are living in a test obsessed world where we think we can monitor things using tests when we aren’t even nearing the ability to do so and yes I used to do research myself.

    • Truck Furniture Maker

      If you want to know where education is producing creativity look at the number of new inventions/patents by country. Still not a perfect measure, but significantly better.

      • Truck Furniture Maker

        Looked it up.
        Japan, U.S., China, S.K. and Germany are the top 5

        • Jahar

          Are you talking to yourself?

          • Truck Furniture Maker

            You clearly responded ;)

          • Jahar

            to your response to your response to your own post… and i had nothign to say about your comment haha

          • chucky3176

            He probably forgot to change his identity while talking to himself. lol

          • Truck Furniture Maker

            No I was just elaborating. If you don’t like what I said feel free to comment on that or just try to make fun of me. Have fun ;)

          • WFH

            ahaha…..that’s hilarious…

          • firebert5

            He’s just trying to warm up the conversation. It’s cold way up there after all!

        • piratariaazul

          National patent systems are not the same. On the one hand, it’s lot more expensive (and more laborious) to get issued patents in some countries than others – I would put US up there in relation to Korea and possibly Japan. China is cheaper but prosecution standards are more erratic, but getting better. I am not as familiar with Germany. Also, patent quality varies quite a bit from country to country – I would put US and Germany ahead of Korea and Japan.

          On the other hand, the presence of large businesses with well funded R&D depts. & patent budgets will probably skew the numbers, in favor of US, Japan, and Germany.

          Bottom line: Number of patents filed/issued alone is probably not a great proxy for inventiveness.

          There are patent valuation tools out there though – for example, some of them rank patents by the number of times they have been cited as prior art in subsequent 3rd party applications.

          • piratariaazul

            It would be interesting to see which countries generate the most “influential” patents.

          • Truck Furniture Maker

            Both good points and I would be curious to see the answer to both of them.

  • bang2tang
  • linette lee

    I bet you Hong Kongese have the best language skills among East Asians. Many of them can read, write, and speak at least two or three languages including English. And we only study traditional Hanzi 漢字. None of those cheap simplified Hanzi.
    None of these bullshxt test matter anyway. The Asian education needs to focus more on free thinking and less dead memorization. Enough with that text book style studying. Why do students need to study from a 500 pages text book for exam? How much data can our brain store any? Each subject like history, reading , math, etc…should be just review book style. That’s all you need. School should be just 6 hours and no more. School should be a place for children to discover their strength and learn how to maximize their potentials at young age. Focus more on creativity to produce creative individuals. Have more elective classes like advance science, journalism, music instruments, computer programming etc..

    • YourSupremeCommander

      I eat Hong Kongeese.

  • Su-bin

    I’ve worked in rural towns and the Seoul area. Education here is not equal. It is just like any other nation; the poorer the region the lower the education. There is a vast difference between the big cities and outer areas in SK.
    I would also like to know what schools and locations they conducted this test in… Most of my mid and high school students have difficulty with problem solving with some exceptions of course. They are champs at multiple choice and questions involving information that can be memorized. I’m not trying to knock Korea, it is my home after all, but these findings conflict with my experiences and the experiences of my coworkers.

    • Gerhana

      i think this trend exist around the world. The students in rural area tend to do worse than those in urban area and the variables that separate the high and low performer are many, from environmental to genetic. Based on many journal I read, it seems that at a young age the environment plays higher influence on cognitive performance and as children grow older the influence change from environment to genetic. There is a little bit more to it, the interplay of environment and genetic etc. So those born in rural area and live there majority of their life will perform worse than those in urban area. But if an adult student from urban area were to move to rural area, it wont affect them.

    • Alex _


  • Confucius say…if Koreans are good at problem solving…why was GANGNAM STYLE allowed to flourish?

  • Guy Forget

    Koreans are only creative at coming up with sexy slutty cheap sleazy kpop dances to feed the CWGs of the world and SE asians who have no life but to make fake korean celebrity facebook accounts and pretend to be them posting stuff up speaking in tagalog or indonesian, then claim to be muslims.

Personals @ chinaSMACK - Meet people, make friends, find lovers? Don't be so serious!»