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.

Service Design Thinking: Thanks to the University of Auckland Business School for the shout out


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Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

I blogged recently about the Service Design Thinking course I did through the University of Auckland’s Business School and Executive Education programme.

It was a great two-day programme and I learned a lot. They’ve featured my blog on their LinkedIn Showcase page. Thanks, team…!

For easy and quick reference, here are all the links to the seven posts I’ve written so far on Service Design Thinking.

Introduction

Some Basic Service Design Tools

Got any Service Design Thinking tips or tools? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

What are some easy-to-use Service Design Tools…? Part 3 – Customer Journey Maps


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Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

Customer journey maps are another simple but powerful tool from the Service Design toolkit.

These sit nicely with the other tools I’ve been looking at including Stakeholder maps and using Personas.

The idea is that you map out in a highly visual way the experience of a person (or persona) over time. You can do this for different purposes. Some of these might include:

  • Collecting real-life stories from users. In my case, this might include learners or tutors.
  • Understanding how services work – don’t work as the case may be. A journey map might help you identify pain points and roadblocks or potential inefficiencies that you want to target.
  •  Envisioning future services.

All you need really is a bunch of sticky notes and a decent wall space. I like the style below where you also map the emotional ups and downs of the user journey as well.

I haven’t used this one yet, but I’ve been thinking through how I could use it in the implementation phase of the current project.

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What are some easy-to-use Service Design Tools…? Part 2 – Using Personas


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Updated: In collaboration with the University of Auckland Business School, get 10% off the course fees for Service Design Thinking at checkout by using this code before the end of 2018: GRAEME10

Another easy to use and super helpful tool from the Service Design toolkit is to develop and use personas.

Here’s an alternative definition to the one in the image above from this great website:

Each persona is based on a fictional character whose profile gathers up the features of an existing social group. In this way, the personas assume the attributes of the groups they represent: from their social and demographic characteristics to their own needs, desires, habits and cultural backgrounds.

Personas can be assumption-based or research-based. And sometimes one leads to the other.

For my project, I needed to develop personas that were composites of different kinds of tutors, educators and other support personnel working in the foundation education sector.

My process for this evolved over time and I would modify it based on each group I worked with. But the basic idea was this:

  1. Get a group of tutors together who share common attributes. An example might be that they all work in an ESOL context with refugees and migrants, or that they work with Māori learners in a particular special character context.
  2. Talk about my project in a way that makes sense to the participants. Often this involved telling the story of the most recent personas created from a previous group. And then drawing out differences or similarities to their own contexts.
  3. Set up a task with two or three key questions. In this way, they were able to describe the kind of work they do and evidence that they might bring to the table.
  4. Facilitate a discussion around the emerging categories. Usually, I’m finetuning the categories with each group. By the end, I had a good idea about what categories would encompass all of the different kinds of responses I was likely to encounter.

My questions were specific to the context of my project. For example, we were looking to create a draft professional standards framework for educators and others. This meant that there were three key questions to ask.

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Responses didn’t give me the broad categories I needed for the framework. Rather, the responses allowed me to play with different categories and see how the responses fit.

The result: Now I have a selection of personas that I can use to tell stories about different kinds of tutors who may be affected by the new service that we are looking to design. This cuts across a lot of technical jargon and needless education-speak.

And that makes it easier for me to pitch the work to others when I need to in a very user-friendly way.

Talking about NZ’s embedded literacy and numeracy approach with Indonesian vocational teachers at AUT


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Recently, I had the tremendous privilege and pleasure of spending a day at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) talking about literacy and numeracy with a group of vocational teachers and tutors from Indonesia.

The group was large. The image above shows half of the team and I need to paste in a second photo below so you can see the other half. Here we go…

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My sincere thanks to Dr Adrian Schoone at AUT for inviting me to join these teachers for a day in their busy schedule. Adrian also deserves credit for the two photos above.

These vocational teachers and other support staff were here on a two-week study tour in October looking at how we teach trades and vocational education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

And as part of our introductions and whakawhanaungatana (getting to know each other), I asked them all to place themselves on a giant map I had projected on the wall.

As you can see below, they came from all over Indonesia – from the West to the East.

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For my part, it was a brief and hopefully fun introduction to literacy, numeracy and the embedded approach that we’ve developed here over the last 10 years.

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We had a play with some of the online tools that we have in New Zealand for literacy and numeracy as well. Luckily, AUT had a computer lab big enough to house us all for an hour or so.

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My students for the day were friendly, engaged and worked hard to transcend some of the language barriers between us.

One of the most interesting things for me was realising how integral approaches from Te Ao Māori are now to any discussion I want to have about this work.

Concepts like ako and tuakana-teina seemed to really resonate with the group and their own cultures.

In fact, some had questions about how they could incorporate aspects of their own indigenous ways of knowing and being into their teaching practice.

Just on that note, according to Wikipedia:

  • there are over 300 ethnic groups speaking more than 700 living languages across the vast Indonesian archipelago.

So these weren’t questions I felt could readily answer, but hopefully, they will open a door to further positive discussion back home.

This, in turn, should feed into the work these excellent teachers are doing to invigorate and reinvigorate vocational education in Indonesia.

Overall, it was an excellent day,  I loved spending time with this group and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

To my new friends and colleagues:

  • Assalam ‘alaikum. I wish you all the best with your work in Indonesia and hope our paths cross again at some stage.

 

 

Nearly 80,000 words later…! All collections for the NZCALNE (Voc) are now live on Pathways Awarua.


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If you follow my blog, you’ll know that over the last eight months I have only posted content relating to the new NZCALNE (Voc).

Well… we’re done. I finished the writing a few months back, but I’m very happy to report that all seven collections including all the new and revised content are now live on Pathways Awarua.

If you’re already registered, you’ll automatically have access to all of the new content. If you’re not, you can enrol as a new tertiary educator.

This has been a mammoth writing project with something close to 77,000 words of new and updated content.

I kinda feel like I’ve said everything I want to say about the NZCALNE (Voc). My sincere thanks to the awesome team at Pathways Awarua.

What’s next…? Probably, more of the same, but I’m open to ideas. Let me know.

Cheers, Graeme

 

DEMANDS – New Content for the new NZCALNE Assessment 3 with ALEC


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Kia ora ano and welcome back

You’re up to the third assessment task in the new and improved NZCALNE (Voc). Kai pai you…!

We’re working hard to get all new content for this and other modules live on Pathways Awarua, but until then you can find the first draft here.

The new Assessment 3 still focuses on mapping the demands of your programme using the Learning Progressions. However, the format is simpler and easier to use.

There are six short sections to complete in the new assessment task.

  • What are the big picture literacy demands?
  • What are the big picture numeracy demands?
  • What are some specific reading demands?
  • What are some specific writing demands?
  • What are some specific number demands?
  • What are some specific measurement demands?

Follow the links below

If you already know what you’re doing with mapping, please skip ahead to the assessment template. Email us if you don’t already have it. You can always come back and dip into these resources as you need to.

Overview

The Learning Progressions

Looking at the big picture for literacy

Looking at the big picture for numeracy

Getting more specific

If you’re stuck, please reach out by email here: assess@alec.ac.nz or call Graeme on 0800-ALEC-1-2