Playing with wicked problems

In his keynote for the annual Association for Learning Technology conference in Edinburgh, Ollie Bray gave an inspiring talk on the importance of play. Ollie is Global Director for Connecting Play and Education at the LEGO Foundation, leading work related to education improvement through the use of technology and play. In his talk, in addition to getting an excellent opportunity to play with LEGO, I noted a number of areas where the research linked with our findings on this project. It left me wondering, are we missing the opportunity to play with wicked ideas.

In his outline of the “playful paradoxes”, Ollie talks about play as being chaotic and risky, versus the ordered and safe teaching environment. In teaching about wicked problems, we need to work in this chaotic, risky space. I found the comparison between divergent and convergent thinking an interesting extension of this, as a mix of idea generation, risk-taking and flexibility with logic, focus and persistence would be core to dealing with these complex issues.

The creative learning spiral of imagine, create, play, share, repeat, imagine
The Creative Learning Spiral – earliest reference for the source image is credited to Mitchel Resnick (MIT and Lego Foundation)

The LEGO Foundation state that their work aims to “ensure children develop the skills needed to navigate an uncertain and complex world”. The five skill centres described were physical, social, cognitive, emotional and creative. A key area for me was the recognition of emotion. In our research, participants talk about the deep concerns expressed by students and staff when faced with wicked problems. In his talk, Ollie spoke about the characteristics that underpin powerful learning experiences: activities that are meaningful, socially interactive, actively engaging, iterative and joyful. The tasks and activities our participants have shared cover the first four characteristics, but not so much the joy. While it is difficult to find joy in the super-complex problems we are facing, perhaps we are seeking what Ollie describes as part of a more structured activity, that “joyful feeling of hard fun”.

My colleagues at the vet school are tackling this exploration of play in higher education in a project on Vets at Play. Watch out for an upcoming guest blog post from one of the team!

You can watch a recording of Ollie’s presentation on YouTube by following this link:

LEGO Foundation (2018) Learning through play: A review of the evidence. White Paper available at:

2 thoughts on “Playing with wicked problems”

  1. Could point Sharon, it is not enough to acknowledge the role of negative emotions in learning to deal with uncertain and complex problems, it is also about honouring the full range of emotions learners may encounter during lessons about wicked problems.

    1. Thanks Rebekah! I found that idea of acknowledging the joy from “hard fun” helpful when thinking about working on the small projects that chip away on the bigger problems. Finding joy in the small stuff to keep going through the big stuff 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *