Teaching about Wicked Problems

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In this post, Professor Velda McCune, Deputy Director at IAD, explains what a ‘wicked problem’ is, and how a University project team is conducting research exploring how best to prepare students for facing these wicked problems… 

The most significant challenges facing the world in the 21st Century are ‘wicked’ problems. These are messy real-world challenges, like climate change, which are highly complex and uncertain. Typically, the best approaches to responding to these challenges are not at all clear. What makes these problems particularly tough, is that they often bring together stakeholders with competing value positions who do not agree about the nature of the problems or the proposed solutions. Working with these challenges often requires excellent interdisciplinary collaboration. All this being the case, I’ve become really interested in how we might prepare our students to face up to and work with these challenges in the future. What capacities do our graduates need to be able to do this? How can we support them to develop these capacities?

To start to answer these questions, I got together with some fantastic colleagues from across the university* – including our project researcher, Rebekah Tauritz – to develop a project called “Preparing Students to Face Wicked Problems”. We were delighted to receive funding for the project from the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme. So far we have interviewed more than 30 teachers across the University for their views on how to prepare students for wicked problems. We have also been collecting data online from blogs, twitter and web pages. This has been a wonderful experience as we’ve been talking with some of the most inspiring teachers and researchers across the institution. I come away from these interviews full of hope for the future.

We have been learning a lot about the kinds of wicked problems that colleagues are working on across the University which include among others: sustainability; company failures; food security; public health; and social inequality. We are still analysing the data, but here are some of the capacities these teachers thought our students should develop to rise to these challenges in their future lives:

  • Being open to understanding different perspectives.
  • Realising there are no black and white answers to wicked problems.
  • Having the will to persist in the face of wicked problems.
  • Being able to accept that we are all complicit in some wicked problems.

We have also been learning about the teaching strategies these excellent teachers use, which include:

  • Working with controversial topics that students can relate to.
  • Teachers sharing their own uncertainties about wicked problems.
  • Creating rich, authentic learning experiences and assessments.
  • Helping students feel they can make a difference.

I think that helping students feel they can make a difference is one of the biggest challenges in these kinds of teaching. The teachers we spoke with also found this tough but they had come up with some ways forward. These included giving students examples of successful real world actions on wicked problems. Other teachers helped students frame modest ways of engaging with wicked problems to help them get started. Another possibility was offering students models or frameworks to build up their engagement with wicked problems. I think that many of the teaching strategies which help students build confidence in any kind of learning can also be used to teach about wicked problems. These include gradually building up the difficulty of the tasks students have in their classes and assessments so they can have experiences of success as they progress. Helping all of our students to understand that it’s quite normal and reasonable to make mistakes, have disagreements and get stuck is also a great idea. If you have any more suggestions, do let us know!

As we develop the analysis, we will be running workshops and writing for publication. You can join the mailing list for the project via our website.

*The project team are: Velda McCune, Rebekah Tauritz, Sharon Boyd, Andy Cross and Pete Higgins.

We are deeply grateful to our research participants and to the University of Edinburgh Development Trust which funds the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme. We would like to thank all of the donors who support the Development Trust.

Velda McCune

Professor Velda McCune is the Deputy Director at the Institute for Academic Development and Head of the Learning and Teaching Team. The team provide University-wide professional development opportunities for all colleagues involved in teaching and supporting learning. The team also guide students in their development as learners. Velda’s research focuses on learners and teachers in higher education.

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