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.

What’s causing the problem? Thinking deeper and taking notes


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By now you should have had some time to think about what’s causing the problem of low adult literacy and numeracy? Or at least, you’ve had some time to think about the factors that we associate with low literacy and numeracy levels.

Here’s what we’ve covered:

  • The impact of colonisation
  • Socio-economic factors
  • Cycles of poverty
  • Poor teaching
  • Technology

Let’s make some notes. As with the other sections, you might want to skip back and check on any details. But we also want you to think about your own learners. What do you see as the main factors associated with low adult literacy and numeracy?

Time to do some work

Let’s pause for a few moments. Here’s your task:

  1. Download the worksheet, or use the chart below to make notes on the different
  2. factors we’ve talked about.
  3. Can you think of specific examples for each?
  4. What’s the impact of each on your learners?
  5. What’s the wider impact of these on our country as a whole?

This task is not assessed, but it will help you with your assessment.

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What’s the problem? Technology


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The impact of technology and the accelerating technological change is one of the themes that often comes up in discussions about why we face literacy and numeracy problems in the 21st century.

The relentless march of technology and increasing technological complexity mean that the demands of work and life have changed significantly in recent years compared to previous generations.

Adult learners today face literacy and numeracy demands today that simply did not exist before. Or at least they did not exist in the same way due to the increasing integration of computers, mobile devices, and the internet in our daily lives and work.

This change is highly visible and means that we all need to develop new “literacies” including digital literacy in order to keep learning and address gaps that could emerge between the “technologically” rich and poor.

Your learners are likely to be at a disadvantage if they can’t access online resources and services for work or daily life.

Some questions to think about

Let’s pause for a few moments. The questions below are not assessed, but thinking about your answers to them will help you with the assessment task.

  1. What impact has technology had on your trade or industry?
  2. What about the impact on how you teach or assess?
  3. What can you do to help encourage digital literacy?

What’s the problem? Poor teaching


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Poor teaching is another factor that we often associate with low levels of adult literacy and numeracy. This applies to teaching in schools as well as in the tertiary sector with adults.

Poor teaching reinforces adult learners’ negative beliefs about literacy and numeracy. For example, if an adult student thinks that she “can’t do maths”, this is reinforced when a tutor fails to notice her needs or skips over an important explanation of what happens in a calculation.

These beliefs are hard enough to change without making things worse for learners.

Also, beware…! What looks like great classroom behaviour doesn’t always mean that there’s been great teaching. Just because students have their heads down doesn’t always mean that they understand what you’ve taught them.

On the flip side, a chaotic noisy classroom doesn’t always mean students are distracted and not engaged.

In the tertiary sector, many trades and vocational tutors are recruited from industry. This is as it should be.

But it also means that while these tutors have the right kinds of trades skills and qualifications, they often need professional development opportunities to develop their teaching skills. This includes embedding literacy and numeracy into their teaching.

Whether this is well supported or note depends on the organisation. Some funded training now requires that trades and vocational tutors hold specific qualifications.

An example of this would be SAC funded training at levels 1 and 2 in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as Workplace Literacy Training.

This training which is funded by the Tertiary Education Commission requires that tutors have the New Zealand Certificate in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Education (Vocational). That’s this course…!

Some questions to think about

Time for a cup of coffee and some more things to think about. The questions below are not assessed, but thinking about your answers to them will help you with the assessment task.

  1. If you’re doing this qualification, you’re already part of the solution. But what about your organisation… are they supportive of professional development opportunities?
  2. What about your colleagues? Are they ready to make changes to the way they teach?
  3. What about your learners? How do you really know whether they understand or not?

What’s the problem? Cycles of poverty


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Poverty is one of the socio-economic factors that we discussed earlier. A cycle of poverty is what happens when where poor families become impoverished for at three or more generations.

This means enough time passes that the family includes no surviving ancestors who possess and can transmit the intellectual, social, and cultural capital necessary change their impoverished condition.

This is the kind of poverty trap that many low-income families find themselves in. They often don’t have the resources to get out of poverty, such as education, savings, or connections.

Students from families who are trapped in this kind of vicious cycle are more likely to struggle with literacy and numeracy as adults.

Often, people trapped in a cycle of poverty need some kind of outside intervention to help break out of it.

Early childhood intervention is a key strategy in breaking the poverty trap. Foundation focused adult education that includes literacy and numeracy is another strategy.

Some questions to think about

Let’s pause again and think about your own learners. The questions below are not assessed, but thinking about your answers to them will help you with the assessment task.

  1. Do you have learners who seem trapped by cycles of poverty?
  2. Is there a framework or approach that you could use that would allow you to work with your learners from a more holistic perspective?
  3. What other support services, either inside or outside your organisation, could you promote to your learners?

What’s the problem? Socio-economic factors


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There is a range of socio-economic factors associated with low levels of adult literacy and numeracy.

This includes things relating to education, income and occupation that have a negative influence on someone’s position in relation to others in society.

Sometimes this relates to the kind of home environment that a person grew up in. For example, the following kinds of home life are associated with low levels of literacy and numeracy.

A home environment:

  • That is chronically stressful. For example, if parents are distressed.
  • That is characterised by low literacy and numeracy. An example would include a home where there are few books or reading is not valued.
  • Where parents may be unable to afford resources such as books, computers, or extra tuition needed to create positive literacy and numeracy experiences.
  • Where parents have less time available to read to their children at younger ages or provide academic support as they get older.

The kind of school environment someone grew up in has an impact too. For example,

  • Schooling that doesn’t meet the needs of learners who struggle for various reasons.
  • Poorly trained or inexperienced teachers.

In terms of income and occupation, these factors below are often associated with low levels of adult literacy and numeracy.

  • Poverty or low incomes
  • Unemployment or underemployment.

Other factors sometimes include poor physical or mental health, or discrimination because of culture, religious or other reasons.

Some questions to think about

Again, it’s good to stop and think about the impact of these on your own learners. The questions below are not assessed, but thinking about your answers to them will help you with the assessment task.

  1. Can you identify any socio-economic factors affecting your own learners?
  2. If you think about your learners, is any of this their own fault?
  3. Make a list of what factors you can positively influence versus what is outside of your control.

What’s the problem? The impact of colonisation


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The impact of colonisation is associated with low levels of literacy and numeracy. Colonisation refers to the loss of sovereignty by one group to another group. Here we’re talking about the colonisation of Māori by the British Crown and European settlers.

In the 1800s colonisation directly impacted Māori life expectancy. Sometimes this was from warfare, but often it was from illness and introduced diseases.

Māori had no immunity to illnesses brought by settlers that were common in Europe. This included measles, mumps, and whooping cough. All of these took a terrible toll among Māori In the European population, these diseases often affected children. But among Māori, these affected both adults and children.

In the 19th century too, introduced respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and tuberculosis also killed large numbers of Māori.

Loss of Māori land following the 1860s wars, Crown purchase and the Native Land Court led to the displacement of large numbers of Māori. Losing their land reduced many tribes to poverty and living conditions that were overcrowded and unhygienic.

Loss of land also meant they lost access to traditional food sources. Poor diet helped disease take hold and spread.

Māori life expectancy began to increase in the late 1890s and the population began to recover as Māori gained immunity to European diseases.

Despite improvements in the first half of the 20th century, Māori were also still severely disadvantaged socially and economically. This meant poorer housing and nutrition than Pākehā, or non-Māori New Zealanders.

In 1979, just 139 years after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi), Māori academics believed that the loss of te reo was so great that it would suffer language death.

The main cause of this was colonisation and a state policy of assimilation. In some cases, there are specific pieces of legislation regarding education that we can link to this loss.

Since the 1970s though we have seen many gains including:

  • The development of Māori-language immersion kindergartens (kōhanga reo), schools (Kura Kaupapa), and tertiary institutions (whare wānanga).
  • The recognition of Māori as an official language of Aotearoa New Zealand in 1987.
  • Māori broadcasting since 1989 and Māori television since 2004.

The impact of colonisation on Māori is far reaching. It extends into to politics, spirituality, economics, society and psychology.

For Māori, colonisation means dealing with the impacts of devastating loss including:

  • loss of land
  • loss of power
  • loss of identity
  • loss of status
  • loss of language
  • loss of culture

The impact has been intergenerational. And this is not a comprehensive list, but enduring impacts include:

  • Low levels of participation and achievement in positive indicators such as education and economic well-being.
  • Over-representation in negative indicators such as drug and alcohol abuse and imprisonment rates.

Some questions to think about

Here’s a good place to stop and think about the impact of colonisation on your own learners. These questions are not assessed, but thinking about them will help you answer the assessment task.

  1. What do you see as the enduring effects of colonisation in education?
  2. What do you do in your teaching or training to value Māori language or culture?
  3. What more could you do to strengthen the overall well-being of Māori and other learners in your care?