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GUEST blog post from emily taylor

I’m delighted to be able to share this guest blog post from Emily Taylor with some real life examples of teaching about wicked problems.

How to focus students on the solution instead of the problem? This was the conundrum I have been facing every year of teaching an online course for postgraduate students in clinical psychology. The course, Trauma and Resilience in a Developmental Context, was originally designed to show the importance of understanding and facilitating resilience for children who have experienced trauma.

However, no matter how resilience-oriented the course seemed to be, students were drawn towards the trauma and intervening therapeutically with individual cases instead of the wider contextual problem. Drastic action was needed. In autumn 2018, I completely re-wrote the curriculum in favour of an introduction to developmental trauma and resilience theories followed by seven weeks of wicked problems that impact child and adolescent mental health. Each problem was anchored in a specific context to narrow the scope of enquiry for students, but had applicability globally. The civil war in Syria provided discussion about the impact of persistent danger and displacement on children. Different problems presented different formats for learning: Orphanage care in Malawi gave us a debate on whether, as decreed by UNICEF, orphanages are always a bad thing. The topics provided opportunities for students to communicate academic learning in different ways, for example writing an open letter to the US president about the impacts on children and society of incarcerating children at the US-Mexico border. Student activity showed that we had sufficiently engaged them in the relevance of this topic, and there was more evidence of resilience-focused thinking and discourse. Non-clinical professionals on the course, such as teachers and those in the 3rd sector, were more empowered to contribute their expertise.

However, it also became apparent that we had engaged the students with trauma in a different way. Introducing a new wicked problem each week made it difficult for students to fully immerse themselves in the theory and evidence as well as the facts of each problem. Several students described feeling overwhelmed, distressed and demoralised by the scale and challenges of the problems. We had to review our plan to focus on ‘looking after the workers’ in week 10, bringing forward some of the self-care and reflective activities to help students articulate their concerns and legitimise their feelings. Self-care activities included keeping a diary of thoughts and feelings as a way of debriefing; and scheduling time off from study to go for a walk, meet with friends or eat good food.

Feedback from the students was excellent, with a real appreciation for the real-world relevance of the course, and broadening of knowledge and horizons. Their suggestions for improvement aligned with those of the tutor team: reduce the number of wicked problems to allow more depth and academic engagement, and introduce self-care earlier on. For the tutor team it was a hugely rewarding experience. The quality of student contributions to group and individual activities, tutorials and in assignments was truly outstanding at times. Focusing on problems to which there is no clear solution provided learning for everybody and, ultimately, communicated the importance of fostering resilience in children and the system around them.

Fantastic workshop with colleagues

Yesterday we ran a workshop on Teaching about Wicked Problems in the University with some excellent colleagues. I shared ideas about curricula for wicked problems that I’d been developing since our last workshop and learned so much from participants’ ideas. Sharon gave everyone a helpful reminder of the project and our main findings and Andy drew together participants messages for key stakeholders in the University.

We invited along my colleague Daphne Loads to do some work with us on a contemplative pedagogy – Lectio Divina. This involves slow careful reading of short texts, including reading aloud and paying attention to our bodily reactions. This was a really thought provoking experience. Alfy Gathorne-Hardy, from the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, gave a lovely entertaining talk about his own teaching. He emphasised how helpful he had found it to work with students in the outdoors when dealing with challenging topics. Rachel Chisholm, from Social Responsibility and Sustainability, helped us understand all of the great opportunities in the University for students to work on sustainability issues as part of the curriculum or co-curriculum. Harriet Harris, from the Chaplaincy, got us thinking hard about what the University is really for and how that relates to wicked problems.

One of the main messages for policy makers in the University was that excellent teaching about wicked problems requires innovative interdisciplinary teaching. To enable this University practices and models need to support these developments more fully. Interdisciplinary teaching requires deep academic engagement to set up and more extensive training for tutors who have not previously studied the interdisciplinary topics. This needs to be recognised and resourced. We talked about how the consultation process for Near Future Teaching and the Edinburgh Futures Institute could provide good models for this kind of work.

This work is more urgent than ever

I’ve been dismayed by some of the news recently relating to wicked problems. A recent report tells of the unprecedented rates of species extinction across our planet. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tell us how urgently we need to act to prevent a climate crisis with warming above 1.5 degrees which will lead to untold suffering, loss of life and accelerated extinction of species. Higher education is crucial to supporting the leaders of the future to cope with the problems that we have been complicit in creating. We will be pushing forward with sharing our findings with key stakeholders, running events and producing resources to do our bit.

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

teaching about wicked problems in higher education

On the 7th of March the project team will be running a workshop for the University of Edinburgh on teaching about wicked problems. Update – The workshop is now full but we will soon be advertising another workshop which will take place in May.

In that workshop we will be sharing some of the great ideas our participants had about teaching about tough topics like food poverty, sustainability, and the challenges of being a professional vet. Our participants often used strategies such as getting students to work in diverse groups to do authentic problem solving around wicked problems. Teaching students to value diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives was important to them.

I’ve also been looking in the literature for ideas to inspire teaching about wicked problems and I came across this interesting paper by Heila Lotz-Sisitka and her colleagues  about transformative and transgressive learning. The paper is full of rich ideas about how we can support our students to transgress boundaries to solve wicked problems. Whether these are the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, the boundaries between our inner and outer worlds, or the boundaries between the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’. It’s well worth a read!

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.

Interesting paper on higher education curriculum and sustainability

Today I’ve been reading a really thoughtful paper by Valentina Tassone and her colleagues about redesigning higher education curricula in the context of the Anthropocene. The authors argue persuasively for a transition in higher education toward more responsible forms of research and learning in relation to wicked problems. They point out how important it is to prepare learners and professionals for the ‘grand challenges’ facing our societies. Taking an action research approach, the authors developed a set of educational design principles and learner competences which can underpin curriculum development in higher education.

I particularly like this point from the paper:

“The challenging conditions of our time call for human values that return us to our basic obligation to care for others and the earth, and to permeate our endeavors with that sense of care, within and beyond the specific role one plays in society at a given point in time.”