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.

Do you mind if I chop off your legs?


This is one of the problems working in education. We keep trying to cut off people’s legs. Or their heads.

What do I mean? Here’s a quick story:

A long time ago, in Greek mythology, there was rogue smith and bandit who lived along the way to Athens named Procrustes.

He’d lure in guests with the promise of a nice meal and night’s rest in his very special bed.

Procrustes described the bed as having the unique property that its length exactly matched whomsoever lay down upon it.

But the problem was that nobody ever actually fit the bed exactly.

So after the meal, Procrustes would set to work on his guests with his smith’s hammer.

If they were too short for the bed, he’d stretch them. And if they were too long, he’d cut off the excess length.

Fortunately, the story has a hero and something of a semi-happy ending.

Theseus, who was the mythical founder of Athens, was on his way to Athens when he also was stopped by Procrustes.

After a fine meal, Procrustes tried to get Theseus to lie down on his iron bed.

Luckly though, Theseus had already been tipped off about his host’s intentions.

And instead he tricked Procrustes into lying in his own bed and gave him a dose of his own medicine.

I’m not suggesting a similar solution for dealing with things that are broken in the education system…

However, I would like to suggest that what we need are more heroes. And if you’re up for the challenge, here’s the first task

  • Any time you spot a Procrustean bed, point it out.

And to avoid the blank stares, you’ll probably have to tell the story. But I think you’ll remember it.


Four Tools For Building Cool Stuff Online: Or How To Start Thinking Outside The Box


I went to the Supercharge conference the other day in Wellington. This was a business conference… nothing to do with literacy, numeracy or even education (I know… thank goodness right…?)

Lots of cool stuff. The coolest though was the 40-minute presentation by Justin Wilcox of Customer Development Labs.

At the start of his presentation, he said that in the 40 minutes that he had to speak he was going to do the following:

  1. Come up with a product idea.
  2. Get some customer feedback.
  3. Build a website
  4. Launch the product

Considering that by the time he had said all this he only had about 35 minutes left I think we were all rather skeptical.

But he pulled it off. And these were the tools that he used:

1. Customer Discovery Ninja

Just this on its own was very cool to see in action. The Customer Discovery Ninja is a tool that allows you to connect to potential customers in North America. They sign up because they have time on their hands and get a small reward for participating.

Justin had decided that he wanted to create some kind of Fitness Tracking App, so he had selected various categories and subcategories in the Customer Discovery Ninja. And ended up with something relating to fitness, weight loss, and diet as the key areas.

From there, he opened the phone line and waited for the call. 10 minutes later someone connected and we listened to him interview a guy in New York who was struggling with diet and weight loss issues.

After a few minutes, it was clear that what this guy needed was not a fitness tracking app, but some kind of product that allowed him to track what was working when it came to diet.

So based on the dialogue, Justin switched away from his initial idea to the diet tracking idea. And then he had about 10 minutes left to do everything else.

2. Instapage

And this is mostly what he used: Instapage. Within about 2 minutes, he had built two landing pages for his new product. Instapage allows you to create web pages via drag and drop.

And then he  created an alternate version of the page so that you could do A/B testing. Instapage makes this really easy. I haven’t tried any of this yet, but based on the demo I think it’s all doable.

3. Powtoon

From here, Justin wanted to jazz up the landing page a bit with a short animated video. For this he used Powtoon. Powtoon advertises itself as an alternative to Powerpoint. It;s drag and drop like Powerpoint or Keynote, but you end up with a animation at the end.

So another 2 minutes to create a short animation. And then he imported this into the Instapage landing pages.

4. Celery

Finally, he wanted a button on the landing page to take pre-orders for the product. So he used Celery for this. Celery is very simple. It’s just a button for taking credit card information for pre-orders. Buyers don’t get charged until your product launches.

And then he launched it.

So Justin didn’t actually create the product, but he did something that was in line with the lean startup method: Come up with a minimal viable product idea and then see if anyone would buy it.

From here, he would be able to take pre-orders to fund the development of the actual product.

It was fast and dirty. But it was impressive.

Justin practises what he preaches as well. And you can have a look at his series of books on how to implement this kind of thinking at his website here: The Focus Framework.

This stuff is cool. I wish I knew this when I started in business. Talking to Justin afterwards, he said that everyone wishes the same thing. And that we all come to these conclusions late.

In my field, we tend to be good at what we do. But this is only in terms of our technical skills. We get professional development and training in these areas.

But we are often rubbish at the skills we need to use our technical skills to build and run a sustainable business. We don’t know how to make a buck… to put it in crude terms.

Most of all, I think we need this kind of thinking in education: Customer validation, lean startup methodology, designing a minimum viable product, product testing.

And then quickly pivoting when it’s obvious that something isn’t working. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment (both TEC and NZQA) act in ways that run counter to this kind of thinking.

This is not their fault. But it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Really thinking outside the box.

5 Questions That Will Make You Uncomfortable If You Work In Education

It’s an uncomfortable business


Working in education is a tricky and often uncomfortable business. Especially if you want to get paid… And if you work in education sometimes even just using words like money and customers make you feel uncomfortable. You’d better click away now if you’re offended already.

The “Customer” is not a straightforward matter


Still, it gets worse, one part of the problem is trying to figure out who your actual customers are. And this might sound kind of strange, but it’s not a straightforward matter. And your main customer might not be who you think it is.

If you’re like me, you have different kinds of customers. All at the same time. These different kinds of customers often have different (and possibly contradictory) needs and expectations.

Paying versus value creation


So how do you figure out who these customers are? Well, you can start by asking these two questions:

1. Who’s paying?

2. Who are you creating the most value for?

You might not need to, but sometimes you may need to decide if your main customer is EITHER the person or organisation that you are creating the most value for, OR the one who is paying you the most. This can be important depending on what key deliverables are for your work.

The tension


There is not always a tension between who’s paying versus who you’re creating the most value for. But sometimes there is. People have different needs and wants. So, how will you deal with this? There’s only one answer:

  • Embrace the tension

The Money


One way to start thinking about this tension is to follow the money. Ask yourself the question again: Who’s paying?

If your education programme or training is mostly (or completed) funded or subsidised by a government department or similar agency then you better start thinking of them and treating them like a valued customer. Their investment is paying for or subsiding your delivery, outcomes, and probably ensuring that you can pay the rent.

There’s nothing like the promise of continued employment to incentivise your work…



However, there’s still the issue of value creation. One way of defining a customer is to determine who you are creating the most value for. Which of these groups are you creating the most value for?

  • The funding agency or other investors?
  • Your learners, i.e. the ones in front of you in the training environment?
  • Your learners’ employers?
  • Your learners’ learners, staff, or clients (if you’re working with tutors and trainers like we do)?

It’s complex


So… are your learners the ones allowing you to pay your bills and meet payroll? For us, it’s more like our learners (and their learners) are the combined end-users of the training that we deliver. They don’t pay, but we do create value for them.

Our customers then are actually a combination of our learners’ employers and a government funding agency (these two groups pay for the training together) as well as the learners themselves (who are non paying customers).

So… understanding who your customers are and getting paid in the education business is a bit more complex than just shipping widgets.

It’s seldom a simple business transaction. The main thing to realise is that organisations and government departments that fund education and training are like venture capital investors. And learners can be customers too, even if they are non-paying customers.



Finally, after you’ve figured out whatever complicated and often contradictory mixture of customers you’re attempting to create value for, you also need to ask these questions for each customer group:

3. What do they really want?

4. Are you really delivering the right results?

5. What’s the return on investment for each?

6. Who’s getting the best return on investment?

So, tar and feather me with the brush of economic reductionism… These last questions make me uncomfortable. But they’re great questions to keep asking.

How can we open source our training and still make money working in education?


It’s a good question… and one that is constantly in my mind as the owner of a small niche education business in a very small country.

I’m not sure I’ve got the answer, but this is how I see the way forward at the moment. What I’m describing below is a process that for us is well underway. It represents a big investment of time and money, especially in terms of time not spent doing other things. And money spent stopping doing things that we no longer wanted to do.

Here’s the answer in one word:

  • Unbundling

This is similar to what the telecoms have done, but we’re applying it to education. Here’s the longer answer below. I’ve framed what we’ve done (and are doing right now) in terms of steps if you want to head down this path yourself:

  1. Build relationships that can become strategic partnerships that allow you to collaborate effectively. This takes a long time. And it has to be genuine. Our key strategic partnerships have been in place for several years now. Our relationship with our funding organisation and several key organisations – some large and some much smaller – allow us to leverage our core skills and try to create win-win situations for the people we work with.
  2. Hack the traditional education business model. This is the unbundling. New technology means new business models, particularly online. Our future as an education business is going to be mostly online (but not completely). We’re trying to pull apart traditional delivery, assessment, and credentialing. Thinking in terms of unbundling allows us to full apart a 20th century model and reconstitute it for 21st century application in education.
  3. And then hack it some more: You can even pull apart delivery and assessment. Delivery breaks down into the deliverers (e.g. face-to-face facilitation and delivery by humans, online delivery by humans, online computer mediated delivery). Assessment is similar – assessment by humans, automated assessment by software.
  4. Focus on scalability: This is going to be a big deal. Dollar for dollar investment in educational projects and programmes that are scalable are a better investment for education spend at government level. But we have to get this right… or our learners will suffer.
  5. Learn about MOOCs: There’s that four letter word again. A MOOC is a massive open online course. They’re not the solution to all our education problems and challenges. However, the idea behind a MOOC is a good one. Think of open source software as a kind of metaphor. Ours is a mostly open online course. It’s not just a sandwich of youtube clips, and there’s no social sharing at the moment. Think what you like, that’s what we want.
  6. Deal with the challenges of MOOCs: We’ve been thinking for a long time about some of the challenges of working in this way. One challenge relates to our most “hands on” learners, e.g. the ones who don’t or won’t like working online. The solution here is simple: we need to keep doing our face-to-face training and retain or reinvent this business model to work in with the online and blended components. Other challenges of MOOCs relate to student completion. Or mainly the lack of it. That’s why ours is not completely open. Candidates need to unlock the higher stages of the assessment process by enrolling with us in an official capacity.
  7. Have a business model: Learners’ organisations will pay a fee to have their staff assessed and credentialed in this process. We also have access to limited government funding to subsidise this. So the content is fully open and online, but we’ve unbundled the assessing and credentialing process which will become our new lean business model.
  8. Think about the options moving forward: This all gives us options. We can still deliver our face-to-face training. This will still need to be led by demand and remain financially viable (so no changes there), but we’ll have other options for people and organisations including a fully online and distance model, other blended models, and the possibility of increasing how we and organisations customise the training for their own purposes. And these options could be priced differently as well.

And all of this gives us a great model to implement next year with the new New Zealand Diploma in Adult Literacy & Numeracy Education (NZDALNE) that we want to develop next.

What do you think? Any suggestions on how we can continue to tweak this…? Let me know in the comments.

Hacking Learning Podcast Demo – Take 2


Ok, here’s the second pass. I’ve changed the set up slightly and done some basic editing.

I’ve also spent all day messing around with this as I’m finding it pretty exciting in terms of potential. So, if you’re waiting for me to get some marking done, you’ll just have to wait another day.

Here’s the set up and procedure in a nutshell:

  1. Plug my Blue Yeti USB Mic into the back of my Mac Thunderbolt Screen which is running off my MacBook Air. I’ve had this mic for a while now and I’ve used it to record audio for screen capture work I’ve done with Camtasia 2.
  2. Use Audio Hijack Pro to record audio. I already had this software as I use it with iTunes to compensate for loud music versus quiet speaking when we’re watching movies.
  3. Use Fission to edit the audio. This was new software. It’s made by the same people who make Audio Hijack. I read a couple of reviews, downloaded it, had a play, then paid the US$32 for the licence.
  4. Dragged the audio track into Garageband 10. I downloaded the latest version. It’s free. I read a bunch of reviews saying how Apple had taken away podcasting capability from Garageband, but I’ve used it for music production and was already familiar with it in a basic sense so I dug a bit deeper: It still works just fine for podcast production from what I can see.
  5. In Garageband I added some audio loops from the loop library for intro music and a few sound effects then exported the song as an MP3.
  6. The only other step was to upload it into WordPress.

Next steps: One thing is that I need to see if I can record a Skype Interview, and another is to figure out how to get a series of podcasts listed in iTunes. I’ll keep you posted.

If you have any ideas on content that you’d like to hear us discuss, or people that you’d like us to interview let me know in the comments.

12 Steps You Can Take to Disrupt Education

93-10-31-disrupt-logoI know, I know… you’d rather not. Nor would any of us really, but I’m working on a manifesto for disrupting education. This is not because I think I know how to do it, but rather because I think it’s inevitable and I want to set myself something to work towards.

These are some of the underpinning actions and ideas that I think underpin positive disruptive education models:

  1. Adopt a new business model. Despite their inertia, our old 20th century business models will not survive. This is especially true for any business model that relies on customers (or learners) just showing up. If you’re sitting around waiting for your customers or learners to show up you may as well shut the doors now and save yourself the pain later. By the way, this new business model probably involves the internet (which is the mother of all business models).
  2. Figure out who your customer really it. Who are you providing value for? In education this is complex. Are your learners paying you to create value for them? If not, who is paying you to do this work? It’s a problematic relationship in education. We at least need to ask the question. If you’re like me you have funders as well as learners and multiple layers of bureaucracy to appease.
  3. Develop amazing niche content. If our content is generic and boring it’s going to be dull to deliver and mind numbing for our learners. The hardest thing is to make it accessible to the target audience given our tendency to bludgeon our learners with our much larger vocabularies and subject area knowledge. That’s not even the problem… we usually don’t know we’re doing it.
  4. Work with a great (and small) team. Who can afford a large team these days? Small teams are great. Working with contractors rocks. The tools for working and collaborating over distance and independent of geography are available and mostly free.
  5. Crush it with killer design. This should go without saying. But it doesn’t. In education we are guilty of some of the worst design sins ever committed. It doesn’t have to be that way. I think it’s worth setting our sights a whole lot higher than we have in education. I’ll spend money on a graphic designer or a professional photographer before I spent money on a website company these days.
  6. Help people get better at something. If we’re not doing this then what are we in education, let alone in business for.
  7. Get savvy. And by savvy I mean internet and technologically savvy. The new education tools are mainly digital. Actually, the new work tools for anything are digital. This is unavoidable. But I guess if you’re reading this I’m preaching to the choir. So tell your colleagues if you can stand the arguments that will inevitably start.
  8. Create social objects. Social objects are things that people can’t stop talking about. We want people to care about our stuff. And then share it with a bunch of other people. This means some of what you do has to be shareable.
  9. Iterate quickly. This is the difference between an innovative education provider and… one that’s going to struggle and die. The innovation cycle is well documented in industry and it works for education too. Change it.
  10. Deliver great experiences. Again, this should go without saying. But so much of education is not a great experience either for the learners or even for those doing the delivery of the content or assessment. Learning is not always easy and effortless. Sometimes it’s damn hard, but that doesn’t mean we can’t deliver a great experience.
  11. Start with the big picture. As educators we know this and teach it as a principle of adult teaching and learning. But we’re typically hypocrites. While we understand this academically, we don’t actually do it. Or we do it badly. We need to start with the big picture, then break it down, and then put it back together again.
  12. Get mean and get lean. Perhaps this should be at the top of the list. Education is hard work. Getting paid to do education is even harder. None of us will survive if we don’t pull out all the stops to reduce our large fixed costs and tighten up on everything else. The implications of this are uncomfortable to put it mildly.

What else can we do to disrupt education? What do you do? Let me know in the comments.