The global assessment – which analysed results from more than 80 countries and economies around the world – placed Australian students fourth in overall country performance in creative thinking, behind only Singapore, South Korea and Canada.

The results continue Australian students’ slightly improved performance in maths, science and reading since the previous PISA cycle.

In maths, Australia now ranks 10th, compared to 23rd in 2018, which puts the country back above the OECD average in proficiency after falling level with it in 2018, while just eight countries outperformed Australia in reading and science in 2022. 

ACER’s Dr Claire Scoular directs a program that researches the high impact five essential skills required for learning and life, one of which is creative thinking.

While teachers globally are clearly embracing the importance of creativity, particularly given more and more human jobs in the future will be based around an ability to think creatively, she says that without further research, it’s hard to draw any obvious conclusions from Australia’s lofty creative thinking ranking.

“But most of what we’ve been advocating for, and most of the research that we’ve been doing on our projects, more broadly around particularly critical and creative thinking, not just Australia, but across a number of countries, is that the skills tend to already be present to some extent in the curriculum and in the classroom, but they’re not emphasised nearly enough,” Scoular, who has co-authored a framework to address the challenges associated with teaching and assessing creative thinking, tells EducationHQ.

“And so there’s been this ongoing battle about ‘do we teach skills? Do we teach content?’ but there’s harmonious ways to do both - and in fact, it’s necessary that we do both.”

Scoular says she suspects the countries that are coming out on top in the PISA results, probably have that emphasis already and are having system and school-level discussions around the fact that critical and creative thinking are important, which is raising the awareness of it.

She explains that many countries, including Australia, have really struggled to teach creativity, however, even with the current lack of space in the curriculum, room needs to be made for it, even if it is just to emphasise it a little more.

“So what we’re finding is that the most effective ways of teaching creative thinking is through just alternative pedagogical strategies - handing over the classroom to the students to be creative and explore problem-based learning activities as a really good sort of vehicle, if you like, for allowing students to explore and really tackle complex problems in the classroom, and do so creatively,” Scoular says.

“So having the space to do some of that literally and conceptually, in the curriculum is going to be important.”

And yet, despite the agenda to teach students how to think critically and creatively, an influential educational psychologist has argued there's no evidence of any instructional strategy that can do so.

Here and overseas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds scored significantly lower than other students in creative thinking, attributed to both the challenging environment many of these students live in, as well as curriculums in under-resourced schools, which are often sidelining creative activities and practices.

Interestingly, the 2022 results highlight that worldwide a large gender disparity continues to exist in the relative performance of creative differences, with high school-aged girls having stronger creative thinking skills than boys of the same age around the world.

Scoular says that while her research hasn’t shown any gender-based differences, her interest lies in what we do with this information moving forward.

“And I think this is sometimes lacking from the outcomes of PISA anyway, and what we’re trying to encourage more countries to do, is not just go ‘Oh, OK, we’re eighth, great, off we go.’ It’s, ‘let’s get the data back and let’s actually work out what do we do from here.’

“Even if we’re not measuring creative thinking in the next cycle, how can we adopt a measurement tool of this skill if we think it’s important, so that we can monitor students’ creative thinking, we can nurture it and develop it over time so that we’re not only providing equal opportunities for both genders in schools, but we’re ensuring that those boys absolutely have the opportunity to meet where the girls are currently at?”

UniSA researcher Professor David Cropley is an internationally recognised expert on creativity and innovation who has this year developed a machine-learning model that provides teachers with inexpensive access to high-quality, fit-for-purpose creativity tests.  

He says an obvious explanation for the good Australian result is that the creative thinking general capability defined by ACARA is leading to changes in Australian classrooms, with more opportunities for creative thinking being given to students across the curriculum.

“What is interesting in our research is that boys and girls enter high school with almost identical creative potential. However, as they progress through high school, this declines for both boys and girls – though it declines more rapidly for boys,” Cropley tells MCERA.

“The reason boys fall behind girls with respect to creative thinking is that boys tend to focus more on STEM subjects, or other areas of study that de-priorities creative thinking.”

He believes creativity needs to continue to be prioritised across the curriculum, especially in Years 11 and 12.

“This report shows that Australia has made a very good start, compared to other OECD countries, but we should continue to drill deeper and take the next steps to ensure that Australian students are prepared for the future of work with well-developed skills in creative thinking,” Cropley says.

Scoular agrees, and says while Australian students’ performance in PISA is encouraging, it’s imperative that we move forward and build, and don’t simply sit on our laurels.

“We need to make sure that our benchmarks are accurate,” she suggests.

“We don’t truly know what the natural maturation is of the skill; we don’t know what level of creative thinking a five-year- old, a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old should have, or even as adults, what our expectations are.

“Some people might be more naturally amenable to thinking in those particular ways – so we need to do a lot more research to really understand some of those aspects of creative thinking.”