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.