FORUM: Wicked problems and real world issues

Wicked problems and real world issues are all around us, so can we afford to ignore them in education? Big question, and an even bigger problem in itself, too complex to solve in any way here.

Effective teachers orchestrate learning experiences that provide realistic, authentic experiences that extend a student's ability to develop cognitive ability, morality, creativity and problem solving skills. Creating rich learning opportunities that not only mirror what happens in real life, but empowers students, gives them choice, a voice and doesn’t render them passive - becomes a more complex undertaking. A kick start for this learning might be to ask, what’s happening in our world today that will ultimately affect the future and the way our children/young people live, learn, work and play?

Wicked problems and real world issues have become steadfast terms in politics, economics, research and education. For example, NZCER has published Key Competencies for the future (2014), a book that makes close associations to future-focused learning and the dispositions needed for now and the future.

Most social problems (poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness) are deemed ‘wicked’ because there is no quick fix (too cumbersome on mass), but they continue to affect each one of us locally and globally. The problem with wicked problems is they’re often difficult or impossible to solve because:

  • incomplete or contradictory knowledge
  • the number of people and opinions involved
  • the large economic burden
  • interconnected nature of these problems with other problems

Wicked problems are highly complex, uncertain and value laden, they span multiple domains (social, economic, political, environmental, legal and moral), these are not the kind of problems schools have traditionally been set up to try and solve. (NZCER webinar discussion). While there is a perception that wicked problems can best be addressed by stakeholders with the authority/power (large corporations, governments, scientists), there is also some literature about possible strategies for tackling wicked problems that requires sharing the learnings and experiences from dealing with wicked problems within and among public sector organisations” (source). It also requires collaboration across sectors such as government, private industry, and non-profit organizations—as well as universities and K-12 schools. (source).

One way to do this, is to look at the potential behaviours that are linked to social problems, and identify what behaviours/action we want to endeavor to change. A simplistic example perhaps, but as Mother Teresa said,  I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples. There's a belief that there’s always something I/we can do, no matter how small the action.

Another approach is to deconstruct and partition the problem, to more a manageable ‘project size’ where students work in teams to collaboratively address elements of real world issues. Examples such as; MOOCs, problem-based learning, challenges and competitions demonstrate how groups/teams of students are engaging in collaborative problem solving contexts that in some cases spur change and positive action while, New technologies can act as a powerful tool to enable local and international connections. CORE Education 10 Trends 2016: Sustainability.

Closer to home - having a whole-system perspective that requires us all to be invested and respectfully integrates Māori understandings of our natural world into learning programmes could be a more appropriate, promising way forward for the citizens of Aotearoa (originally sourced from CORE Education 10 Trends 2016: Sustainability).

Passing the baton:

What could be a good starting point when weaving wicked problems into learning that enables our students to make a difference, rather than be rendered powerless?

What kinds of skills, dispositions and competencies do you think our students will need to engage with real world issues, while also being culturally responsive?

What might this look like with the effective use of e-learning tools and pedagogies?

Can you share examples of approaches you are planning or have trialed with your own learners (primary, secondary)?


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