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.

References

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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2016.10.004

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