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.