Education is a wicked problem (AKA What’s broken in education and how do we fix it?)



This is a soapbox rant

Click away now while you can. You have been warned…

Houston we have a problem

From primary school to higher education something ain’t right… Like Neo, you know there’s something wrong. Even if it’s hard to pin down.

Actually, there’s no shortage of description.

Just google “education broken” for a quick look. Nearly everyone has something to say about what’s wrong.

And there’s no shortage of prescriptions for fixing the problems either. But these tend to be complicated, contradictory and emotionally charged.

Learner problems

What I see in my own work is that we have learners of all kinds in all educational settings struggling with things like reading comprehension or understanding what’s required in assessments.

Most learners can read, but many lack the literacy skills needed to succeed in their studies, let alone in the real world of 21st work and community life.

That’s aside from the fact that many of the assessment tasks seem trivial or meaningless.

And then there are numeracy issues.

This is not just the inability to deal with fractions, decimals and percentages.

We’re all crap at those…

But basic maths as well. And an inability to apply maths outside the classroom.

In fact, I have an unsubstantiated nagging worry that a lot of classroom-based maths and numeracy training doesn’t actually transfer at all to the real world.

And what about all the factors that we associate with poor literacy, numeracy and low employability?

Learners with drug, alcohol and behaviour problems… Enduring cycles of family poverty… Poor housing and other societal factors. Second and third language issues… Learning-related anxieties… The impact of repeated academic failure…

And that’s just the tutors.

Damn it! I mean the learners. It’s the learners.

Tutor problems

Teachers, tutors and trainers face their own problems too.

This includes overload and overwhelm, not to mention problems with the content that they have to teach while somehow trying to address their learners’ issues at the same time.

Add in layers of bureaucracy, compliance and professional development and you start to see why tutors are so stressed.

Why wouldn’t you go back to an industry-based job after a few years?

Or sell real estate instead.

I don’t really want to get bogged down in the specifics of description or even prescription.

Well… maybe I do a little.

But what’s interesting for me is how complex this has become.

And we haven’t even got to the organisational problems yet.

Wicked problems

What we are facing in education is what’s known as a “wicked problem”. This is a technical term.

A wicked problem is one that:

  • Is essentially novel and unique.
  • Is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  • Has no given alternative solutions.

We don’t know how to deal with the exponentially increasing and unceasing acceleration and increase of technology and knowledge.

We don’t know how to deal with the impact of this in our own lives.

We certainly have no idea how to deal with the impact of this on education in the 21st century.

Characterising education as a wicked problem which is hard to understand until after the formulation of a solution helps me understand the phenomenon that people can only tell you what they don’t want as a solution.

For example: “No…! Don’t fix it like that”.

I call these negative solutions.

This is when one or more possible solutions to a problem are eliminated, but can’t actually be eliminated until they are fully developed and also weren’t initially obvious at the start of the exercise.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is time-consuming and frustrating.

No Stopping Rule

Another characteristic of a wicked problem is the following:

  • It has no stopping rule.

A stopping rule is a rule that tells you when to stop doing something. For example, if you’re gambling at a casino, a stopping rule would be something like “I’ll stop when I run out of money” or “when I’ve played five games of roulette”.

Not only do we not know what to do next in education, but I’m not sure that we know what the conditions would look like that would tell us that we fixed it.

Or even fixed some part of it.

There is no Omega point.

And given that we’re on some kind of exponential curve of accelerating change including technological growth that now permeates every aspect of life and work we may never know what it looks like to “fix” education or when we’ve “got it right”.

At least not in the ways that we think we could at the moment.

One shot…!

What’s more, any solution to a wicked problem is a kind of ‘one-shot operation.’ This is compounded by the fact that solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

You can see this in history partially thought out, half-solutions that get proposed, funded, rolled out with enthusiasm and then thrown out, scaled back, defunded or otherwise scrapped.

It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the nature of the problem.

Actually, it might be someone’s fault. But let’s not get on that train.

It’s a mess

This kind of problem is also known as a mess. Yes, that’s also a technical term.

This is when every problem interacts with every other problem. It’s a set of interrelated problems.

A system of problems.

(I wish I’d thought of that turn of phrase myself, but I lifted it from a Wikipedia entry).

If you want to look at the problem, you can’t really separate out the variables without losing the bigger picture.

In the past, when I’ve done professional development work with tutors I’ve referred to the problem of low adult literacy and numeracy as an ecological problem.

I didn’t use those words exactly. I called it a kind of swampy mess.

A swampy mess is something that ecologists understand but educationalists often don’t.

For example, in a swamp, you have to study the frogs, the mud, the old rubber tires, the decaying vegetation, blood-sucking mosquitoes, rotten tree trunks, slime and muck and all of it as a system.

When we’re looking at low literacy and numeracy our conversation might need to include poverty, colonisation, technology, poor schooling, anxiety, and fill-in-the-blank with a lot of other things.

In this kind of swampy mess, everything is complex.

Here are some things you’re likely to find when you’re dealing with a mess like this. See how many you can recognise from your own experience in education:

  • There is really no unique “correct” view of the problem;
  • People and organisations have different views of the problem and often pose contradictory solutions;
  • Most problems are connected to other problems;
  • Data are often uncertain or missing;
  • There are multiple value conflicts;
  • There are all kinds of constraints including ideological, cultural, political and economic;
  • There is often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking (i.e. many possible truths are possible rather than a black and white view of the problem);
  • There are many possible intervention points;
  • Consequences are difficult to imagine;
  • There are considerable uncertainty and ambiguity;
  • There is great resistance to change; and,
  • Problem solvers might be out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.

Not finished yet…

The wicked problem and swampy mess are further compounded by another set of problems which I don’t have time to get into right now but I’d love to at some stage:

  • Groupthink.
  • Analysis paralysis.
  • Activity inertia.
  • Non-agile thinking and solutions.
  • Inability to “ship” any kind of solution.
  • Dysfunctional teams.

I realise that I haven’t said how to fix education. And I realise this was promised in the title.

Whatever the answer, I don’t think it’s another prescription.

Perhaps, more of an approach.

How do I enrol in TEACH BETTER NOW…? How do I enrol in the NZCALNE (Voc)…?


If you are teaching foundation education at any level, you need to be qualified and on a continuing professional development journey.

You need to start this journey through the Teach Better Now programme available on Pathways Awarua.

At the heart of this is the new New Zealand Certificate in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Education (Vocational/Workplace) – the NZCALNE (Voc).

There is a cost for assessment and gaining the credential. But it’s free to register on the website and you’ll have access to all of the course content.

Here’s what you need to do to kickstart your foundation learning professional development journey for this year:

 

  1. Register on Pathways Awarua if you haven’t already.
  2. Join our virtual classroom.
  3. Enrol in the qualification.
  4. Get started on the coursework and first assessment.

FIRST: Register on Pathways Awarua

1. You need to register on http://www.pathwaysawarua.com as a tertiary educator. If you are already registered, then go to step 5 below and join our virtual classroom.

2. Enter your details in the form including a username and password.

3. If you start typing the name of your organisation or employer it should appear in the box. Then add a name for your class, accept the terms and conditions and click Register. If you are an independent contractor please use the code 8888.

4. Once registered you should see a screen like this below. Ignore the code on the right. This is for you to use with your own learners later. Right now you just need to click the link on the left for the new NZCALNE (Voc).

SECOND: Move yourself into our virtual classroom

5. Now you should see the main NZCALNE screen below. Next, you need to join our virtual class. Click the head icon to go to your account settings. If you’ve already done this you can go to step 8 and enrol.

6. Enter the join code 1622DD to join our virtual class. Then tick the box to move to this class.

7. Save your settings and return to the main NZCALNE pathway.

Third: Enrol in the NZCALNE (Voc)

8. Now you can enrol in the programme. Make sure that the enrolment module is selected. Then click start. If you’ve already enrolled and you’ve also moved into our virtual classroom, you can go to the last step.

9. Read through the enrolment information.

10. Fill in the enrolment form with as many details as you can. Then save and move to the next screen.

11. If you can’t fill in everything, you’ll see a screen like this below. But you’ll still be able to move forward. Just click the arrow on the right. Or click Retry to add more info.

12. From here, you need to show that you understand some of the conditions of enrolment. And you need to let us know if you have access to learners of your own and whether you’ve done other study at level 4 or above.

13. Nearly done… Add your employer and supervisor’s details.

14. Complete the self-assessment. There are two pages.

15. If you are an experienced TESOL teacher please add details here. Likewise, if you are a very experienced trades or vocational trainer with existing evidence and you want us to consider this please add details here.

16. Add your timeframe

17. Review the summary of your enrolment and save

18. Drag the box ALEC1 Admin to submit for comment

19. You’re done…! Click the link for the new NZCALNE (Voc) to return to the main course pathway.

FOURTH: Get started on the course

20. Get started…!

Teach better now – Where’s the new content for Assessment 7 of the NZCALNE (Voc)?


Kia ora and welcome to Collection 7

If you’re reading this then you are up to Assessment 7 in the new and improved NZCALNE (Voc).

That means you are up to the final assessment task in the programme…! This next part is about assessing learner progress, reviewing your teaching and working out the next steps.

As always, you can find this content on Graeme’s blog first. It will be live on Pathways Awarua shortly.

If you do stop by Graeme’s Blog, please comment. Let us know what’s useful and what’s not. Our model is a dynamic one and we’re always tinkering with programme content and assessment tasks where we can. You can help us continue to improve the experience.

There are four sections in Collection 7:

  • 7.1 Just do it: Progress assessment
  • 7.2 What does it mean?
  • 7.3 Collecting some final information
  • 7.4 Reviewing your teaching and next steps

If you find that you already know what you’re doing for a particular part of this collection, then feel free to skip ahead to the next relevant section.

Or start with the assessment template and dip into this material as you need to. Email us if you don’t already have the template and checklist.

Otherwise, work your way through as usual. Here are the links you need to different parts of this collection.

Follow the links below

Here’s the overview for the final collection.

7.1 Just do it: Progress assessment

7.2 What does it mean?

7.3 Collecting some final information

7.4 Reviewing your teaching and next steps

If you’re stuck, please get in touch with us by email here: assess@alec.ac.nz or by texting or calling Graeme on 0800-ALEC-1-2.

AFTER: What are the reflection and review questions?


You’ll find the reflection and review questions to finish off this part of the programme below. Your answers are your own evaluation of what you’ve done and how effective it was.

  • You can download the questions here in a form that you can print out and write on if you want to take notes. Otherwise, don’t forget that the template is in Assessment module 7.

THE TEACHING SESSIONS OVERALL

What went really well for you?

  • The best thing was …
  • One thing that surprised me was …

What would you do differently?

  • Something I’d do differently if I was doing this all over again, is …
  • Also, …

How do you feel you managed the delivery of embedded literacy and numeracy?

  • I think that …

What was it like collaborating with the learners on different things?

  • For the learning plans, I thought that …
  • Another thing was …

What about any collaboration with your supervisor? Any comments there?

  • One thing …

Any comments on your learners’ evaluation of the sessions?

  • They said that …

MOVING FORWARD

Are there any key changes or improvements that you will make to your teaching?

  • One change that I’m considering is…
  • I know I need to …

What kind of goals do you think you need to set for your learners from here?

  • Learner A needs to …
  • Learner B needs to …

What are the implications for you now for designing literacy and numeracy teaching and learning?

  • One implication is that …
  • Another thing is …

AFTER: How do I review my teaching and reflect on the next steps?


It’s time for some R&R. For us, that means to review and reflection.

This is the last thing. You have to think about what you’ve done in this programme and reflect on different parts of it. You don’t need to be doing advanced academic qualifications or read a lot of research to be a reflective teacher.

Reflective teaching is simply the process where you think about your teaching practice and analyse how you did. The idea is to look at where you can improve or change what you’re doing to get better learning outcomes.

If you’re like most of the people who do work in foundation education, you are probably reflecting on what you do all the time. In this next part, we want to make this process visible. Once it’s visible you can use it as evidence to finish off the NZCALNE (Voc).

Here’s what we’re going to ask you to do:

Review your teaching

This includes your reflections and thoughts on:

  • What went well.
  • What you’d you do differently.
  • How you managed the delivery
  • Any collaboration with learners and supervisor
  • Any comments on the learners’ evaluation
  • Anything unexpected.

Reflect on what you need to do moving forward

This includes your reflections and thoughts on:

  • Any key changes and improvements you might make.
  • What kind of goals you might set for these learners from here.
  • What the implications are now for designing your teaching and learning.

All we need to do this then is a set of questions for you to think about and answer. These questions are in the final section of your template for Assessment 7. We’ve also given you sentence starters as well to get you going. You can ignore these if you want.

If you know what you’re doing, you can just write up your reflections in the assessment template now. If you need some time to think about them, the questions are listed next.

AFTER: Can you remind me what evaluation evidence I need to supply for the NZCALNE (Voc)?


Let’s pause for a moment and take stock of what you should be collecting as evaluation evidence for Assessment 7 of the NZCALNE (Voc).

You still have to do your own final review, but by now you should have collected two kinds of evaluation evidence.

One lot of evidence is from your learner and takes the form of learner evaluations. The other is comments from your supervisor. There’s a separate checklist for this as discussed.

Here’s it is again below. This checklist is also in the template for Assessment 7:

Checklist of Information supplied as supporting evidence

Learner evaluations

  • These should be scanned or supplied digitally in some way.
  • You should have evaluations for at least two learners.

Supervisor comments

  • These should also be scanned or supplied digitally. We have a template for this as well. You can find it in the Assessment 7 module.

Coming up next is the last piece of work. This is your own final review and a place to reflect on what went well, what you’d you do differently and how you managed the delivery.

AFTER: Why do I have to involve my boss in the evaluation?


Collaborating with your boss or supervisor to review your teaching delivery is one of the requirements of the NZCALNE (Voc). It’s also good teaching practice. We can’t sign off on the whole qualification unless we have some evidence of this.

For our purposes, a supervisor may include any of the following:

  • Your direct manager or programme leader.
  • A colleague that is acting as study support person.
  • Someone in management that has already acted as a verifier for another part of this training and qualification.

What does this evidence need to include?

We need evidence that you and your supervisor have reviewed the teaching and facilitation in the following areas:

  • Your strengths.
  • Any potential improvements for future delivery.
  • Any comments on how this informs planning for your professional development

This review should be a collaboration and conversation. It could include teaching observation evidence, but it doesn’t have to.

What do I have to ask my supervisor to do?

If you’re about to finish off your NZCALNE (Voc), you need to include some feedback from your supervisor. It’s one of the requirements.

The easiest way to involve your supervisor or boss is simple to ask for a few minutes of their time. Hopefully, they already know how you’re doing and where you’re up to. They may have already verified your portfolio evidence for other parts of the course. However, when you get a chance, you need to:

  • Bring them up to date with the latest on your embedded literacy and numeracy project work
  • Discuss the results of your learners’ work, assessments and evaluations.

Then as evidence for this programme, your supervisor will need to summarise their responses in the Supervisor Comments template. You can find the full template in the assessment module for Collection 7.

For now, here is a list of the questions that your supervisor will need to respond to. We’ve provided prompts and sentence starters for your supervisor to use as well, but they can ignore them if they want to. Download the full template in the assessment section for this Collection.

Supervisor review questions and prompts

1. When did you collaborate on this review?

Our conversation took place on…

2. What are their strengths?

One strength is…

Another strength…

3. What are some potential improvements for future delivery?

One possible improvement could be…

Another potential improvement relates to…

4. How does any of this inform planning for the candidate’s professional development?

In terms of future professional development…