Reflections: Education as a “Wicked Problem”

I’m glad that I only teach one class a year.

When that one class is finished and the grades are turned in my mind is always churning with unanswered questions, suggestions for books and articles that have emerged from our reading and gaping holes in my knowledge that have been exposed by 15 weeks discussion and exploration. (This year is worse: I have all those unfulfilled goals plus a couple of weeks of blog-guilt–both reading and writing.) I’m not sure I could take this much intellectual turmoil on a regular basis.

This year’s class is no different. The students came from a wide range of technical backgrounds–five from K-12 teaching or administration and 2 from higher or continuing professional education backgrounds. They were uniformly hard-working, curious, enthusiastic and supportive of one another in our journey together.

Over the next few days, I’ll try to articulate some of my thoughts on the class in a number of different areas, but my first meta-reaction is that those of us who teach or “teach teachers” need to develop a whole new paradigm for understanding educational “planning.” (My course title was Educational Technology Planning.) Our K-12 teachers face incredible challenges in their attempts to balance the demands of incredibly diverse student bodies, misinformed or belligerent parents and a coarsening popular culture, all in the face of simplistic and unfunded government requirements.

I’m not sure that our current planning and vocabulary are adequate to dealing with that complexity.

Dave Pollard in a How to Save the World blog post back in October introduced me to the term wicked problem. Wicked problems don’t easily lend themselves to our conventional understandings of goals, objectives, decisions or solutions in that:

  1. Each attempt at creating a solution changes the understanding of the problem.
  2. Since you cannot define the problem, it is difficult to tell when it is resolved.
  3. There are no unambiguous criteria for deciding if the problem is resolved.
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
  5. Every implemented solution to a wicked problem has consequences, some of which are unforeseeable or adverse.
  6. Wicked problems do not have a well-described set of potential solutions (it’s a matter of individual judgement).
  7. Since every wicked problem is essentially unique, there are no ‘classes’ of solutions that can be applied.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem (there is no constant or ‘root’ problem underlying others in the set).
  9. The causes of a wicked problem can be perceived in numerous, changing ways.
  10. There is an unreasonable expectation that the team working on the problem will find a satisfactory solution, preferably the first time.

Technology can help respond to some of those challenges, but only if we adopt much more sophisticated models for understanding the teaching and learning process. What does it mean to plan in such environments? Are those of us in higher education preparing a generation of students who can deal with 21st Century problems as complex as peak oil, terrorism, health care for an aging population, environmental degradation, and yes, education? I’m not sure that we are.

2 thoughts on “Reflections: Education as a “Wicked Problem””

  1. There are many wicked problems in education that combine economics, race, intelligence, and politics. I just finished reading The Education Trust’s report, The Funding Gap 2005, which reviewed the funding discrepancies among low-income and minority students that are occuring in most states. Massachusetts, Minnesota, Alaska, and Indiana were the only states that did not have funding gaps for low-income and minority students. It was acknowledged that just throwing money at the problem is not going to just fix the discrepancies; it needs to be spent wisely.

    Another wicked problem in education is the curriculum. What should teachers of the K-12 setting be teaching? Some things we can agree on like the basics of reading, writing, and math but beyond the standard core there is much controversy; for example, the debate over intelligent design and evolution in science classroom and which foreign languages, chinese or spanish, to offer have become hot topics in education. Our current middle school model includes exploratory classes like home economics, shop, art, etc; however, many have question whether or not these types of courses should be offered. Perhaps, foreign language and technology should replace the course offerings but as soon as you start talking about it, parents who have had the traditional courses get upset because they want what they had for their children. For these parents, it is tradition and culture of a time that has past. Personally, I think we should be preparing students for a bilingual and technological world that stresses collaborative working relationships engaged in problem solving tasks. I feel that some of the traditional exploratory classes should be offered as afterschool clubs (I am not very popular with the exploratory teachers right now.)

    Education has been trying to save the world very a long time now. I look forward to your discussion in the weeks ahead.

  2. Great post, Gene.

    I’m reminded once again of Richard Weaver’s observation that every theory of education is a theory of what it means to be human. What it means to be human may be the most wicked problem of all.

    I’m trying to figure out when “stuff that seems to work” is a creative oblique strategy and when it’s just a “turtles all the way down” evasion. The task is especially poignant for me because I value rigor and conceptual clarity, as well as improvisation, seat-of-the-pants, and inspiration, both in and out of the classroom. Alas!

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