All posts by Rebekah Tauritz

Confronting emotions in the face of wicked problems; an essay

I’m delighted to be able to share this guest blog post from Senan Gardiner, PhD candidate at the University of Vechta, Germany. Senan shares his experiences as a researcher and a teacher regarding the emotional confrontations inherent in dealing with wicked problems and our collective environmental crisis.

In writing about emotions I find it quite difficult to be objective. Ever since beginning my own academic career it’s been hard to separate my work from my personal feelings. I started with a degree in zoology in 1998 where I learned about the cause of the ongoing sixth mass extinction – humanity. It was then a small joy left me and a seed of depression caught root in my heart. Endless academics in my university with their booming voices and frightening statistics proclaimed that we were not good enough, that our efforts weren’t near the challenge. Their major response to this wicked problem of biodiversity loss was simple – more taxonomists. They didn’t have enough taxonomists to identify new species before they went extinct – and that what we all should do, was train in taxonomy, in itself a dying art. Looking back I feel pangs of regret for my younger self, knowing that while my university equipped me with critical thinking skills, it was the epitome of the ivory tower in Ireland. The zoology department (since renamed) had one major national field trip in the entire degree programme. There was a part of me that felt that the academics were more worried about the extinction of the art of taxonomy that they were of the actual species themselves. There was no systemic thinking linking the actions of our nation with the football fields carved from the Amazon. Back then palm oil was an ingredient in Palmolive shampoo. In general, wicked problems – those complex thorny issues with no one cause, effect, stakeholder or solution, were not tackled, or only portions were discussed – I learned about climate change as global warming likely to cause sea level rise – that’s all. No environmental refugees, no potential risks such as the switching off of the Gulf Stream. Action wasn’t taken – people who marched or boycotted were seen as troublemakers and frowned upon. I’m sad to say I remember having this attitude as well, as if my few earnest colleagues were less rigorous in their thinking.

After a period of teaching, I took a masters to apply all the theory I gained from my degree. My Masters was in Conservation Ecology and Ecosystem Management with excursions in Ireland, the Netherlands and Finland and was a fantastic opposite to my theory-heavy degree. I made my first Braun Blanquet survey in a Dutch fen (a simple and effective technique applicable anywhere) with Dutch conservation experts lauding us Irish for having some of the few remaining intact temperate raised bog systems left. Yet as an Irishman, this was my first introduction to the topic. It was there I grew an interest in the teaching of education for sustainable development. I realised then that few people understood the term biodiversity, and hardly anyone had a clue that we were in any sort of trouble or how it applied to their day-to-day lives. Our prime minister at the time portrayed his disgust at having to hold up motorway expansion with culverts for the endemic Kerry slug (Hickey 2007). I wrote my Master’s thesis in the cold refuge of Helsinki on the knowledge-action gap in ESD. The depression came back in Finland, but it was muted by urgency.

In my work career that followed I spent time with numerous environmental NGOs but I tried as much as possible not to simply spread the fear. I learned early on that too much fear shuts people off. It was at the start of my NGO career that I came across the work of Joanna Macy (1998), who advocates despair work. She believes that we should engage with our feelings of pain for the world, because to otherwise dampen or ignore them leads to depression, cynicism, inaction and burnout. As a trained scientist I initially balked at engaging with the emotions – I was training in a “train the trainer” community sustainability course to work with making communities more resilient. I was doing this to recruit more people to tackle climate change, not talk about my feelings.  Transition towns had just started to take off and there was a feeling of tentative hope in the air – for the first time there were goals – another way was possible. However as I sat and practiced the despair work, I realised that I was for the first time learning the skills for handling my emotions. As an educator, the first lesson I had to learn was to acknowledge my own despair and understand my emotional response to wicked problems. My education in this area had been lacking for so long. I remember meditating on my own despair, working to uncover my urgent fight or flight response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. I discovered the seed of my depression was wrapped in the very topic I was becoming a specialist in. I also discovered how natural a response it was to feel pain and fear for the world. I learned that I had already been using coping skills all along to respond to these emotions and I also learned brand new skills, such as meditation and how to facilitate others in their emotional journey.

In the area of emotional learning, I wasn’t an honour student immediately; I had a few false starts. In work I almost burned out in one NGO that callously overworked me. Taking the decision to leave was one of my most important decisions to take care of myself. Weighing the cognitive dissonance of the carbon imprint of flying, yet wanting to understand the world I was fighting for, I set off on a round-the-world trip. I worked and volunteered from Asia to the Americas. One highlight was using Joseph Cornell’s “nature’s palette” exercise with Shuar children in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In the environmental education classic, you must look for  examples of all the colours of the rainbow in natural living objects. Blue is always difficult, and I still remember the delight as one of the children screamed “Mariposa!” as a big blue butterfly alighted on a nearby flower. Another highlight was when I scuba-dived on the then-threatened Great Barrier Reef. I keenly felt the anticipated loss of that magnificent world, even as I swam with striking blue surgeonfish darting in and out of staghorn corals. This was an experience like no other – fully engaged, one that I could never simply tell the grandkids about, one that they would never experience. I knew then that corals were the canaries in the gold mine. On the tail end of my trip I dove again in Columbia off of Cartagena; every coral was bleached.

It was hard to build up to the Macy exercises in my education – it’s something that requires a lot of trust in the facilitator. However, when I went back to university in Germany, this time to study what exactly makes a sustainably competent person (Rieckmann 2012), I made sure to include despair work in all my courses. Sometimes a “widening circles” exercise to help students understand different perspectives, often a longer deeper meditation “harvesting the gifts of our ancestors”. I now run courses in an action research cycle of teaching, having the students reflect on their learning, running focus groups and improving the course. My goal is specifically to operationalise their anticipatory competence – how well they engage with the future as a motivator and as an abstract concept.

For every single student, even the most stereotypically Teutonic, they have effused about the despair work. It’s often the first time they’ve been given an official space in formal education to address their emotional response to our collective crisis. In my own work I’ve documented students’ emotions and their own feelings of “futures loss” (Gardiner 2017) – not only for anticipated things like the death of the Great Barrier Reef but also the loss of their future identity. As we give students the critical thinking skills to deconstruct their perhaps naïve ideas of their personal futures, it is imperative that we also help them develop coping skills to endure the transition to a new set of values and goals. Rob Hopkins of the Transition  refers to this as their “Peak Oil Moment” (Hopkins 2005). This is when participants in his courses, learning about peak oil, realise that their entire way of life will have to change. This movement uses peak oil, economic instability and climate change as a reason to set our goal on a better future, starting bottom-up, from the community. I generally end my course not talking of geo-engineering or the UNFCCC, but talking of transition towns – a movement that’s now worldwide and accessible to everyone. Their motto is to address the Head, Hands and Heart – a journey I took my time to get through, but one I believe belongs everywhere, including the hallowed halls of academia. 

Gardiner, S. (2017). Futures loss, despair and empowerment work in the University of Vechta: An action research project. In A. Wals & P. Blaze-Corcoran (Eds.), Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education.

Hickey, D. 2007. ‘Ahern should stop complaining about snails, says top biologist’. Irish Examiner, 29 October


Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Totnes: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Macy J. & Brown, M. (1998). Coming Back to life. Practices to reconnect our life, our world. Canada, New Society Publishers.

Rieckmann, M. (2012). Future-oriented higher education: which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning? Futures, 44, 127-135.

Great turnout and engaged participants during first wicked problems workshop

Last week the project team ran our first workshop on preparing students in higher education for dealing with wicked problems. It was great to see how relevant teachers find this timely topic.  

The programme started with a description of what messy real-world problems that cannot fully be defined may look like. Aspects such as multiple stakeholders and their diverse and often incompatible perspectives were discussed. These dynamic and uncertain problems require imaginative interdisciplinary problem solving and often involve having to make decisions based on incomplete and often contradictory information. There are no single right solutions to these wicked problems.

For some teachers it is obvious what the relevant wicked problems are in their field, for others it is not. So we asked the participants to exchange ideas in small groups concerning the wicked problems they might teach about. Here is a sample of their answers: health inequality, violence against children, waste, planetary health, migration, corporate social responsibility, climate change and food security. These problems are truly complex and uncertain!

We then moved on to the concept of uncertainty competences. This refers to the skills, strategies, knowledge, attitudes and capabilities needed to handle these wicked problems. We shared some examples of competences that the teachers in our research project find relevant such as open-mindedness, ability to integrate different kinds of knowledge and the ability to go against the (social and political) flow.

Small groups of workshop participants explored teaching strategies that could be useful for developing such competences. One group emphasised the importance of thinking about ‘equipping’ students with competences rather than ‘teaching’ them how to solve one particular problem. Another group discussed providing students with lots of exercises for developing good listening skills, for example, by going into communities and interviewing people. Several groups mentioned the need for providing students with information from people with different perspectives, as well as the need for reflective learning. One participant explained employing imaginative exercises to help his students grasp the bigger picture of wicked problems so often lost when we focus in on the details of a complex situation.

In the second half of the workshop we focussed on a particularly challenging aspect of teaching about wicked problems: helping students to maintain hope and persistence. We talked about suggestions various scholars have made, such as using contemplative pedagogies (Litfin) and the concept of ‘critical hope’. The latter refers to reflecting critically on wicked problems and combining this with help to imagine a better future (Ojala).

The workshop participants talked about providing students with a support community, for example, by giving informal chat time before activities. They also concluded that it is important to frame students as change agents and frame wicked problem in such a way as to encourage students to ‘contribute’ to solutions to these problems and not to ‘solve’ them. One group suggested providing students with lots of problem-solving experience. In addition, some mentioned the need to break these huge complex problems down into smaller chunks and to celebrate all successes, even small ones. The participants agreed that teachers need to show students that it is okay to fail and to not have clear final answers to wicked problems. An authentic and honest attitude and sharing their own choices and limitations with students was seen as essential. Lastly, a few participants mentioned the value of irony and humour when coping with wicked problems.


Litfin, K.T. (2018). The Contemplative Pause: Insights for Teaching Politics in Turbulent Times, Journal of Political Science Education, DOI: 10.1080/15512169.2018.1512869

Ojala, M. (2016). Hope and anticipation in education for a sustainable future. Futures

Guest blog: Accepting uncertainty as a given is not a defeat, but a necessary step towards progress

By Anne Michiels van Kessenich, PhD candidate, Maastricht University, The Netherlands

As a happy consequences of my ongoing research into ways to educate children about the use of the concepts of risk and uncertainty in their decision-making (Michiels van Kessenich & Geerts, 2017), I met Rebekah Tauritz.  Who then introduced me to your wonderful website. As I was browsing the site, I clicked on the article by Prof. Mertens in the Guardian,

and was thus reminded of one of the many troubles that befall us when we want to discuss the uncertainty that surrounds so many of the wicked problems we face today.

Placed in a conspicuous position above Prof. Mertens’ excellent article about ways in which scientists can inform the climate change debater was an ad inviting me to consider Dubai for my next holidays. Visiting this website again just now, I am enticed by a different but just as visible ad to buy jeans.

In other words, an article devoted to the need to slow down climate change was surrounded by invitations to perform the very behaviours that cause climate change: air-travel and conspicuous consumption. This accurately reflects the reality of the political arena: every political discussion that I join will include people whose views staunchly oppose mine. Consensus is not waiting around the corner.

This illustrates the point that Rebekah mentions in her blog; one which I agree with. Indeed, one of the hitherto underestimated needs in dealing with uncertainty is precisely the ability to tolerate ambiguity in the debate and the divergence of political opinions. People have different outlooks on life and they are often prepared to defend these with vigour. This divergence carries over into the political arena: one generally does not engage in politics to make friends, but rather to promote one’s own ideas about a good society. To promote these ideas is often putting one’s welfare at risk, as Hannah Arendt (2011) wrote. Firstly, because for the good of the community you may have to forgo benefits for yourself or for you own group. As an illustration: by paying taxes I lose money that I might want to spend otherwise. Forgoing this pleasure and giving up this freedom for the wellbeing of others therefore constitutes a loss, and that loss feels negative (see Slovic, 2010).

Secondly, acting on behalf of the political good, and going against prevailing opinions and power structures may literally be life-threatening, as many activists protesting commercial logging in South- America have discovered (see: But, even when the contest is fought with words only, emotions can run high when people defend their positions and a negative atmosphere can result.

In addition to forgoing personal benefits and engaging in dangerous disputes, this call for tolerating ambiguity in a political dialogue may seem rather pointless. For if I favour shutting down commercial air-travel and you don’t, we seem destined for a dead-lock. This seeming deadlock, however, stems from looking at a political decision as a zero-sum game with a winner and a loser. But political decisions are never taken in isolation: we meet in the same arena again and again discussing many different topics. So rather than addressing one topic, we are actually engaged in a permanent dialogue about many political issues. Looking at political decision-making as an ongoing conversation offers a way to re-conceptualise the desired outcome of what constitutes good decision-making.

A good political decision-making process, in which the interests of diverse groups of actors must be taken into consideration, differs considerably from one in which a problem caused by a knowledge–deficit is to be resolved. The latter can be informed by scientific knowledge: we agree on what needs to be done, we just don’t know how to do it. The next step is obvious: invest in research. A truly contested decision however does not pivot around missing or incomplete knowledge, but rather around a profound disagreement over the desired outcome.

In such a situation we need to look for not one, but for two totally different outcomes. The produced decisions are but one of them. In addition to those decisions we also need to strive to maintain a healthy political atmosphere. In such an atmosphere, it is the decision-making process itself that adds an additional layer of meaning and value. This meaning is shaped by the participants. Does the dialogue still offer them enough recognition of their points of view to wish to remain part of the dialogue? Do they feel that although there are instances where their views are not completely taken into account in the decision taken, it is still in their interest to remain included? In this way the most important result of an inclusive political decision-making process may be a sustained belief that the system, although it contains many ambiguities and uncertainties, continues to provide an arena in which everybody included will see some of his interests served.

The system that Prof. Merton alludes to is very much larger than just interacting political and economic institutions, and, in an important sense, now contains us all. Traditionally, institutions like political parties were put in place as ways to reduce uncertainty and address value disparity in decision-making. But in today’s world the acceptance of influence via representation is decreasing. Ever more people are dropping out as party members whilst at the same time becoming single-issue activists. The old, relatively predictable, political landscape in the Netherlands, for instance, is breaking up as increasing numbers of political parties vie for power. These trends cause the total amount of ambiguity and value disparity contained in the political system to increase. This means that the ability to tolerate uncertainty and the negative feelings that can accompany ambiguity becomes extremely important. So important in fact that the lack thereof threatens to tear the political system apart. Political dialogue was, is and will continue to be the difficult search for a harmonious balance between different points of view; it is not intended as a search for the one superior outcome.

Summing up: We need to look at the deliberative process with new eyes. This process should not just aim at producing decisions quickly and efficiently. It is not like winning a race. It should also be inclusive and slow-moving, expressly to enable everybody to participate. People should feel free to join and express their wishes and values, however much these differ from those of others. And the outcome is never just the decision under discussion. The trust that the dialogue will in the long run balance all interests as harmoniously as possible is at least as important a result in an era that is becoming ever more pluriform. To exhibit this kind of trust in the future decision-making dialogue is to take a risk. But if this risk is not taken, the system cannot hold.

Helping children to understand and welcome this diversity of views and the associated ambiguity as essential elements in deciding about common interests is one of the goals of the Dutch risk education initiative now under way.

Educating for an unknown future: putting the jigsaw puzzle together

On November 16th 2018, Marion Brady wrote an article in the Washington Post which paints a powerful picture of the urgent need for a different way of teaching to prepare learners for dealing with wicked problems. Brady gives an example of how something as mundane as buying socks may contribute to global warming, destruction of infrastructure, decline of healthcare and even an increase in mortality. Understanding such complex and uncertain problems, he emphasises, requires the ability to generate new knowledge rather than the ability to simply recall existing, often second-hand, information. He also explains that it is essential that learners learn how to relate information. Instead of focusing on individual pieces of the puzzle learners require an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. Perhaps this may sound obvious, however, formal education often still compartmentalises knowledge even though messy real world problems cannot be compartmentalised. Brady writes: “Preparing to put a jigsaw puzzle together, we study the picture on the lid of the box. It’s the grasp of the big picture—the whole—that helps us make sense of the individual pieces” (Brady, 2018).

Risk education should cherish uncertainty

Two weeks ago I attended a 5-day workshop ‘Risk Science and Decision Science for children and teenagers’ at the Lorentz Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. The aim of the workshop was to develop ideas about risk education in the upper primary and secondary years. The event was initiated by a group of international scholars with expertise in risk science and decision making in higher education and was attended by a mixture of participants, some of whom also brought expertise from within the field of primary and secondary education with them. We explored what each of our fields might contribute to a joint conceptualisation of what risk education could look like.

One of the things that struck me was that when participants talked about teaching teenagers sound decision-making, for example, regarding risky behaviour involving sex and drugs, they  seemed to assume that sound decision-making would lead to their own take on the obvious right decision or behaviour. In other words, it would lead to what they considered to be safe behaviour. I see a new risk being created when risk education is predominantly focused on the sort of dilemma’s in regard to which educators want the target group, in this case teenagers, to arrive at a predetermined right decision. Such a strategy could block the development of independent critical, creative and lateral thinking skills that would in addition enable (1) formulation of personally relevant questions; (2) gathering and systematic assessment of information; (3) consideration of personal values and trade-offs. To avoid impeding this development requires of educators the willingness to accept the risk that the right decision as they have conceived it will not be made.

When I consider teaching about how to deal with wicked problems, I would emphasise that wicked problems are typically characterised as messy, uncertain and difficult to define (Rittel & Webber, 1973). They have no single right answer, require creative interdisciplinary problem solving and decision making and bring together multiple stakeholders with diverse points of view and values (Barrett, 2012; Conklin, 2006). My research explores the need to equip learners with uncertainty competences that will enable them to manage these wickedly uncertain and risky problems (Tauritz, 2016). In my opinion, autonomy and independent thought are in themselves risky, but they are also exactly what we need to be able to deal with our rapidly changing and uncertain world. This suggests to me the need for a very different learning environment for risk education that not only teaches students how to reduce and tolerate risk and uncertainty, but also how to cherish uncertainty.