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The teachers we have interviewed

Looking at the news about hurricane Florence, which is threatening the Carolinas this morning, made me want to find something hopeful to think about. One of the things that really gave me hope about the capacity of our society to respond well to wicked problems has been the amazing teachers we have interviewed for this research project across the University of Edinburgh. I have had the privilege of meeting an incredible group of deeply committed, passionate and thoughtful teachers through this project. They are putting their hearts into preparing students to make a difference in these uncertain and difficult times.

One of the things that really struck me about this group was that they seem to have more coherent academic identities than some of the people I have interviewed for other projects or read about in the literature. In other research, academics often talk about the tensions between their research, teaching and other duties. They feel that they are pulled between different parts of their identities. The participants in the wicked problems project, by contrast, seemed more likely to have identities which cohered around the wicked problem they were considering and saw their teaching, research, activism, and other work as all pulling together to address their wicked problem.

Giving students ‘controlled’ experiences of wicked problems

I’ve been enjoying reading some of the interview transcripts from the  project today and one of the things that struck me is that several of our participants seem to be giving students ‘controlled’ experiences of wicked problems. What I mean by that is that students get to work in groups on authentic and complex problems but with a bit more structure and support than they might get outside of higher education. Sometimes the teachers helped the students create some boundaries round a manageable slice of a wicked problem. Other teachers provided students with structured readings or thinking models to help make the wicked problem easier to think about. Sometimes graduated support was provided with the groups which were struggling getting a bit more teacher support. I think all of these are great ways to help students learn about dealing with wicked problems.

Great discussions at the University Learning and Teaching Conference

The team really enjoyed discussing our preliminary findings with colleagues at the recent University Learning and Teaching Conference and meeting more people who are interested in wicked problems.  We will be getting in touch and adding people to our mailing list soon.

We got lots of useful ideas about what competences students might need to be good at dealing with wicked problems. People suggested:

capacity to engage in ethical debates

being able to cope with ambiguity

being willing to engage when you are not sure you are right





group work skills


appreciation of diverse perspectives

confidence and willingness to take risks

being able to take an evidence based approach

being able to do interdisciplinary work

being able to draw on perspectives from the humanities

… and more.

What a great list!


Some preliminary findings …

We are currently analysing the first batch of our interviews to present at the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference next week. One thing we have been looking at is what the academics we have interviewed do to help students engage with wicked problems. There are lots of rich examples of exciting teaching methods.

Quite a few of our teachers talked about learning experiences where students learn to value diverse perspectives. So valuing other students’ perspectives, perspectives from other academic disciplines and perspectives from outside academia.

There was also lots of emphasis on ‘authentic’ learning experiences where students worked together on real world messy problems.

Our discussions with these teachers also brought up their consideration for students’ feelings. They talked about helping students stay hopeful or supporting students to come to terms with their feelings about wicked problems.

Getting underway

We’ve made a good start on the project this semester. We have been doing fascinating interviews with academics across the University who teach about wicked problems. We’ve also started collecting data from web pages and social media. Soon we will be able to start giving you some insights into our initial findings.