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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:

Confronting emotions in the face of wicked problems; an essay

I’m delighted to be able to share this guest blog post from Senan Gardiner, PhD candidate at the University of Vechta, Germany. Senan shares his experiences as a researcher and a teacher regarding the emotional confrontations inherent in dealing with wicked problems and our collective environmental crisis.

In writing about emotions I find it quite difficult to be objective. Ever since beginning my own academic career it’s been hard to separate my work from my personal feelings. I started with a degree in zoology in 1998 where I learned about the cause of the ongoing sixth mass extinction – humanity. It was then a small joy left me and a seed of depression caught root in my heart. Endless academics in my university with their booming voices and frightening statistics proclaimed that we were not good enough, that our efforts weren’t near the challenge. Their major response to this wicked problem of biodiversity loss was simple – more taxonomists. They didn’t have enough taxonomists to identify new species before they went extinct – and that what we all should do, was train in taxonomy, in itself a dying art. Looking back I feel pangs of regret for my younger self, knowing that while my university equipped me with critical thinking skills, it was the epitome of the ivory tower in Ireland. The zoology department (since renamed) had one major national field trip in the entire degree programme. There was a part of me that felt that the academics were more worried about the extinction of the art of taxonomy that they were of the actual species themselves. There was no systemic thinking linking the actions of our nation with the football fields carved from the Amazon. Back then palm oil was an ingredient in Palmolive shampoo. In general, wicked problems – those complex thorny issues with no one cause, effect, stakeholder or solution, were not tackled, or only portions were discussed – I learned about climate change as global warming likely to cause sea level rise – that’s all. No environmental refugees, no potential risks such as the switching off of the Gulf Stream. Action wasn’t taken – people who marched or boycotted were seen as troublemakers and frowned upon. I’m sad to say I remember having this attitude as well, as if my few earnest colleagues were less rigorous in their thinking.

After a period of teaching, I took a masters to apply all the theory I gained from my degree. My Masters was in Conservation Ecology and Ecosystem Management with excursions in Ireland, the Netherlands and Finland and was a fantastic opposite to my theory-heavy degree. I made my first Braun Blanquet survey in a Dutch fen (a simple and effective technique applicable anywhere) with Dutch conservation experts lauding us Irish for having some of the few remaining intact temperate raised bog systems left. Yet as an Irishman, this was my first introduction to the topic. It was there I grew an interest in the teaching of education for sustainable development. I realised then that few people understood the term biodiversity, and hardly anyone had a clue that we were in any sort of trouble or how it applied to their day-to-day lives. Our prime minister at the time portrayed his disgust at having to hold up motorway expansion with culverts for the endemic Kerry slug (Hickey 2007). I wrote my Master’s thesis in the cold refuge of Helsinki on the knowledge-action gap in ESD. The depression came back in Finland, but it was muted by urgency.

In my work career that followed I spent time with numerous environmental NGOs but I tried as much as possible not to simply spread the fear. I learned early on that too much fear shuts people off. It was at the start of my NGO career that I came across the work of Joanna Macy (1998), who advocates despair work. She believes that we should engage with our feelings of pain for the world, because to otherwise dampen or ignore them leads to depression, cynicism, inaction and burnout. As a trained scientist I initially balked at engaging with the emotions – I was training in a “train the trainer” community sustainability course to work with making communities more resilient. I was doing this to recruit more people to tackle climate change, not talk about my feelings.  Transition towns had just started to take off and there was a feeling of tentative hope in the air – for the first time there were goals – another way was possible. However as I sat and practiced the despair work, I realised that I was for the first time learning the skills for handling my emotions. As an educator, the first lesson I had to learn was to acknowledge my own despair and understand my emotional response to wicked problems. My education in this area had been lacking for so long. I remember meditating on my own despair, working to uncover my urgent fight or flight response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. I discovered the seed of my depression was wrapped in the very topic I was becoming a specialist in. I also discovered how natural a response it was to feel pain and fear for the world. I learned that I had already been using coping skills all along to respond to these emotions and I also learned brand new skills, such as meditation and how to facilitate others in their emotional journey.

In the area of emotional learning, I wasn’t an honour student immediately; I had a few false starts. In work I almost burned out in one NGO that callously overworked me. Taking the decision to leave was one of my most important decisions to take care of myself. Weighing the cognitive dissonance of the carbon imprint of flying, yet wanting to understand the world I was fighting for, I set off on a round-the-world trip. I worked and volunteered from Asia to the Americas. One highlight was using Joseph Cornell’s “nature’s palette” exercise with Shuar children in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In the environmental education classic, you must look for  examples of all the colours of the rainbow in natural living objects. Blue is always difficult, and I still remember the delight as one of the children screamed “Mariposa!” as a big blue butterfly alighted on a nearby flower. Another highlight was when I scuba-dived on the then-threatened Great Barrier Reef. I keenly felt the anticipated loss of that magnificent world, even as I swam with striking blue surgeonfish darting in and out of staghorn corals. This was an experience like no other – fully engaged, one that I could never simply tell the grandkids about, one that they would never experience. I knew then that corals were the canaries in the gold mine. On the tail end of my trip I dove again in Columbia off of Cartagena; every coral was bleached.

It was hard to build up to the Macy exercises in my education – it’s something that requires a lot of trust in the facilitator. However, when I went back to university in Germany, this time to study what exactly makes a sustainably competent person (Rieckmann 2012), I made sure to include despair work in all my courses. Sometimes a “widening circles” exercise to help students understand different perspectives, often a longer deeper meditation “harvesting the gifts of our ancestors”. I now run courses in an action research cycle of teaching, having the students reflect on their learning, running focus groups and improving the course. My goal is specifically to operationalise their anticipatory competence – how well they engage with the future as a motivator and as an abstract concept.

For every single student, even the most stereotypically Teutonic, they have effused about the despair work. It’s often the first time they’ve been given an official space in formal education to address their emotional response to our collective crisis. In my own work I’ve documented students’ emotions and their own feelings of “futures loss” (Gardiner 2017) – not only for anticipated things like the death of the Great Barrier Reef but also the loss of their future identity. As we give students the critical thinking skills to deconstruct their perhaps naïve ideas of their personal futures, it is imperative that we also help them develop coping skills to endure the transition to a new set of values and goals. Rob Hopkins of the Transition  refers to this as their “Peak Oil Moment” (Hopkins 2005). This is when participants in his courses, learning about peak oil, realise that their entire way of life will have to change. This movement uses peak oil, economic instability and climate change as a reason to set our goal on a better future, starting bottom-up, from the community. I generally end my course not talking of geo-engineering or the UNFCCC, but talking of transition towns – a movement that’s now worldwide and accessible to everyone. Their motto is to address the Head, Hands and Heart – a journey I took my time to get through, but one I believe belongs everywhere, including the hallowed halls of academia. 

Gardiner, S. (2017). Futures loss, despair and empowerment work in the University of Vechta: An action research project. In A. Wals & P. Blaze-Corcoran (Eds.), Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education.

Hickey, D. 2007. ‘Ahern should stop complaining about snails, says top biologist’. Irish Examiner, 29 October


Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Totnes: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Macy J. & Brown, M. (1998). Coming Back to life. Practices to reconnect our life, our world. Canada, New Society Publishers.

Rieckmann, M. (2012). Future-oriented higher education: which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning? Futures, 44, 127-135.