Wicked Problem–Learning from Failure

Educators are faced with tough decisions on a daily basis. Whether it’s what to do with a student who never turns in homework, or a difficult coworker, we all face problems that can be difficult to find positive solutions for. This is never more true than with a wicked problem.

A wicked problem is defined by not having a neat and tidy solution (think of anything involving heated politics). Generally, to “solve” a wicked problem, what we think of as the best solution is often also considered a bad solution. The best bad solution may not address all of the areas of a wicked problem, but works towards a best case scenario in a bad situation. Wicked problems are complicated and sticky, and more often than not, are never properly solved. Schools are stuck with some of the most wicked problems faced by America. And in many cases, schools take the brunt of the blame for these problems, despite much effort and energy placed on making positive change.

It’s easy to sit back and identify the problems, as there are many and lots of people like to talk about them. During our time here at MAET in Galway, we’ve taken a look at several examples of wicked problems involving modern education.

One problem that several classmates and myself have a vested interest in is enabling students to learn the value of failing. Failure means different things to different people, but in this case, we are taking on failure in terms of grades and assessment in K-12 education. By changing the mindset surrounding failing grades, students will have more chances to grow and learn from failure, rather than becoming defeated and discouraged.

Our proposed solution to this problem is to include e-portfolios of students’ work as they progress through their school career. Theses assessment portfolios would affect the various stakeholders  associated with our problem in different ways, but my colleagues and I truly feel that the benefits would facilitate a student’s overall success as well as encourage goal-setting, reflection, and the ability to learn from our shortcomings. Portfolios can remind students about the process that they took to learn something, rather than just a final grade they earned.

While the overall bottom-line of this problem is that the mindset surrounding failure needs to change, we believe that mapping out students’ progress through portfolios would be the first step in moving from a fixed mindset to an open mindset.

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I find the concept of a wicked problem fascinating. Wicked problems are such sticky, tangled messes…it’s amazing to think that our human society is so complex that there are problems that nearly unsolvable.

This wicked problem project pushed me to look at teaching from multiple perspectives and take in multiple viewpoints in a way that I normally wouldn’t. My usual approach to solving a problem is to seek advice, but I’ve never had to consider advice on such a grand scale. Talking with my PLN and trying to adapt and mold their outlooks into a feasible solution was very challenging.

I had a fantastic experience working with my wicked problem group. They were all sharing, reflective, collaborative, and flexible. Several points on our peer feedback stated that they could not identify which group member made what contributions to the final project. I’m sure if that feedback was meant to be positive or constructive, but it’s a good thing to me. The fact that we were able to work so well together made me even more excited about this project.

Over the course of this project, I learned many things that I will carry with me. First and foremost, I think it’s important to always be cognizant of why a wicked problem is in fact wicked. When discussing political or social issues, I notice a lot of people try and over-simplify a problem to make their point (I am guilty of this as well). Remembering to play Devil’s Advocate, even just mentally, is a good way to stay grounded in the whole issue.

Something else that I will take away with me is that there always needs to be a multi-pronged solution to a wicked problem. If we could just plug one thing into the problem and it would be solved, then that problem is not wicked. If the problem is sticky and messy, then the solution will be too.

I would love to throw some wicked problems at students and see what they can come up with. I’m sure that they would become frustrated and perhaps not understand that the point is to create the “best bad solution.” But it could also be a fantastic, mature, creative exercise for them. What an amazing way to get them to reflect, ask why, and seek advice.

This was one of my favorite projects that we have completed this summer. I know that the way I view world problems has changed because of it, and therefore my teaching will change as well (even if I’m not totally sure how yet).


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