Landscapes of practice and wicked problems

I’ve recently been reading a book called Learning in Landscapes of Practice by Etienne Wenger and colleagues. I think this book presents a useful shift in metaphor away from the notion of ‘communities of practice’ from Wenger’s earlier work. The idea of landscapes of practice is that we all of us in our professional lives move across diverse communities and multiple boundaries in our own particular trajectories. I find this idea works better for me when thinking about teaching wicked problems than the narrower communities of practice metaphor.

When we think about learning in relation to communities of practice, we tend to emphasise how the learner moves from peripheral to deeper participation in one community with its particular norms, values and practices. Life is more complex than this, especially when we are working on wicked problems. Thinking about moving across a landscape lets us think about multiple possible paths, different kinds of boundaries and experiences of getting lost! As Wenger and colleague put it (p.2):

“The metaphor of a landscape ensures that we pay attention to boundaries, to our multimembership in different communities and to the challenges we face as our personal trajectories take us through multiple communities”.

As well as introducing the idea of landscapes of practice, Wenger and colleagues introduce the distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘knowledgeability’. Competence is being able to understand and practice well within one community. Knowledgeability is the capacity to work well, collaborate and be understood across multiple communities. I think this distinction is important, as those working across multiple communities might feel deskilled or less able when they have less time to devote to the practices of a single community. Yet their knowledgeability is crucial to working well with wicked problems.

Practical Strategies for teaching about wicked problems

I had a great time recently running a workshop for University colleagues about teaching about wicked problems. We had some excellent discussions 🙂 I’ve posted the recordings of my parts of the workshop and the slides below in case anyone wants a look.

Practical Strategies Part 1

Practical Strategies Part 2

Practical Strategies Part 3

How to embed wicked problems through whole university curricula

I’ve just been rewatching this excellent keynote by Professor Amy Tsui at the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference. I think Amy does a fantastic job of explaining what it really takes to transform university curricula to prepare students for wicked problems. She sets out the whole process including the consultations, discussions, development of shared language and shared perspectives on curricula, policy, implementation, resourcing and evalution. Very inspiring!

Keynote talks | The University of Edinburgh

deep listening

I’ve been reading about the use of contemplative practices in higher education recently. Getting students to engage with wicked problems is bound to prompt strong emotions and disagreements. These are important parts of transformative learning but we need to support our students to work well with these emotional reactions. I think contemplative practices can really help with this.

I’m currently reading a book chapter by Barbezat and Bush (2013) about deep listening. They give lots of examples from higher education of students benefiting from this contemplative practice. It both helps students learn better and also prepares them well for many future roles.

The basic idea is that students practice deep listening by taking turns listening to one another for a few minutes. The idea is just to listen and try to resist the temptation to help, coach, judge or react to what the other person is saying. Once the speaker is finished, the listener can repeat back what they heard as closely as possible. Students report how much they value being truly heard in this way and how much they learn from the practice.

Barbezat, D. and Bush, M. (2013). Contemplative Practices in Higher Education : Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, John
Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Chapter 7.

Thinking again about curricula for wicked problems

Reading the news is so hard just now. Political crises, the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the covid-19 pandemic make me want to hide under the duvet and give up! Watching the recent David Attenborough documentary on extinction was deeply upsetting as well. We can’t give up though. Especially folk like me who are so privileged and safe compared to many others in our world. So I’ve been thinking again about curricula for wicked problems and how we in universities can support and challenge our graduates to work with us on these global challenges. Here’s the new video I’ve made based on that thinking.

Here are the key sources for the video, other than the findings from the wicked problems project.

Anderson, C. and McCune, V. (2013). Fostering meaning: fostering community. Higher Education, 66, 283-296.

Anderson, C. and McCune, V. (2013). Facing an uncertain future: curricula of dualities. Curriculum Journal, 24(1), 153-168.

Ashwin, P., Boud, D., Calkins, S., Coate, K., Hallett, F., Light, G., Luckett, K., McArthur, J., MacLaren, I., Mclean, M., McCune, V., Mårtensson, K. and Tooher, M. (2020). Reflective Teaching in Higher Education 2nd Edn. Bloomsbury.

Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. Maidenhead: Open University Press 

Beer, L., Rodriguez, K., Taylor, C., Martinez-Jones, N., Griffin, J., Smith, T., Lamar, M. and Anaya, R. (2015). Awareness, integration and interconnectedness: Contemplative practices of Higher Education Professionals. Journal of Transformative Education, 13(2), 161-185.

The Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project

Harraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Lotz-Sisitka, H., A. Wals, D. Kronlid  and D. McGarry. (2015). Transformative, transgressive social learning: Rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16: 73–80.

McCune, V. and Hounsell, D. (2005). The development of students’ ways of thinking and practising in three final-year biology courses. Higher Education, 49(3), 255-289.

Near Future Teaching

Ross, J. and Collier, A. (2016). Complexity, mess and not-yetness: teaching online with emerging technologies. In G. Veletsianos (ed), Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications. Athabasca University Press.

Tassone, V., O’Mahony, C., McKenna, E., Eppink, H. and Wals, A. (2018).(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective. Higher Education, 76, 337-352.

Wamsler, C. (2020). Education for sustainability: Fostering a more conscious society and transformation towards sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 21(1), 112-130. DOI 10.1108/IJSHE-04-2019-0152

Zajonc, A. (2013). Contemplative pedagogy: a quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 134, Summer 2013, 83-94. DOI: 10.1002/tl.20057

curricula for wicked problems

Here is a short video I’ve made about higher education curricula for wicked problems based on what we have learned from this project and the wider literature.

Here are the slides for the video.

These are some of the key sources of inspiration for the video beyond the wicked problems project:

Near Future Teaching

Staying with the Trouble

Anderson, C. and McCune, V. (2013). Facing an uncertain future: curricula of dualities. Curriculum Journal, 24(1), 153-168.

Barnett, R., & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

The ETL Project

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: