A World of Wicked Problems, Not a Wicked World

wicked problems

Our world presents many ‘wicked problems’, often of humankind’s own making, and compounded by the complex nature of the times. The effects of climate change; the ever deepening and broadening gap between rich and poor; the mental health of our young, and not so young; distorted conceptions of body and self; the radicalisation of the disaffected; the victimisation of the vulnerable; corrupt conduct in business and politics. All wickedly difficult, increasingly complex and often interrelated social and environmental challenges.

Yet the world itself is not wicked. Its intrinsic beauty and largesse; its natural and manmade wonders; its capacity to sustain, reproduce and regenerate, and its peoples who individually and collectively work in good will – these are indicative of a far-from-wicked world.

The world of education has its own wicked problems; a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. Narrow measures narrowing learning; disengaged or compliantly engaged learners; prescriptive and scripted curricula; borrowed fashions, fads and fixes; fragile and dependent learners; inequitable access and opportunity; educational disenfranchisement. All wickedly difficult and often intertwined challenges.

Yet the world of education is not wicked. It’s predicated on a strongly-held belief in the rights and worth of our children; inhabited by young lives of immense value and potential; populated by educators dedicated to their students and their craft; rooted in deep history and philosophy; replete with new thinking and creativity – a far-from-wicked world.

Nonetheless, the wicked problems must be addressed and, unsurprisingly, the answer rests within. Many of our educational dilemmas have developed over time and are self-inflicted. Even as we attempt to salve here and bandaid there, we end up with an unhealthy mix of problem, misguided solution and exacerbated problem. For example, in trying to achieve more equitable student outcomes we reduce curricula to the literacy/numeracy, measurable ‘basics’, particularly targeting the most disadvantaged. And so, locked into their basics agenda, the poor get culturally and creatively poorer.

Drawing parallels with the environment, we can, however, shape a new destiny. Just as the future for the planet lies in applying climate science; conducting and attending to the research; taking account of both local and global context; connecting and working with practitioners; fashioning solutions at the local level; taking collective responsibility; communicating within and beyond community; networking; resourcing; having political will, and believing a better future is possible…

So… the future for our young people lies in an approach to education that sees a coalition of students, practitioners, social scientists, researchers, civic leaders and community. Our aim is to understand student, teacher and leader learning deeply, and both to individualise and generalise that knowledge. We need to recognise schools as complex and adaptive systems, responsive at the local but networked at the wider level, and empower educators through the science of educational improvement to strengthen practice.

The point is for students to have mastery of their learning. A practical example of this thinking is emerging in South Australia as part of a pilot project where students grapple with ‘non-Googleable questions’, ones which don’t have simple answers.

Together we can acknowledge there are wicked problems, believe a better future is possible and open the world for and with our students. That’s the journey we’re about to embark on at Incept Labs through a new program on school change and sustainability. Watch the space.


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