#6 ‘Wicked Problems’ of Education

by KS

Wicked problems by their very nature are complex problems that are difficult, if not impossible, to solve. As Rittel and Webber (1973) famously outlined, a wicked problem ‘has innumerable causes, is tough to describe and doesn’t have a right answer’. Education is a wicked problem. 

In the past we have tried to solve it with a one size fits all silver bullet that, after a certain amount of time, hasn’t solved anything. Ofsted, in their 2016 education inspection framework (EIF) alluded to data as the newest solution for schools. They implied that in order for schools to be shown as successful, they needed to track student progress using targets and baseline data. In that framework it stated, ‘[Inspectors will seek to identify whether] pupils are set challenging goals, given their starting points, and are making good progress towards meeting or exceeding these.’ As soon as Ofsted put a statement like this into their framework, schools unfortunately had no choice but to succumb to the new fad, in many cases out of fear of being given poor ratings following an inspection. 

This focus on one small aspect of a wicked problem in the hope that it will solve the entirety of it is termed a ‘perfect solution’. A perfect solution is not a solution. It is an illusion and a short-term potential fix that, in reality, won’t entirely achieve what you set out to achieve. It will fail simply because a wicked problem is characteristically impossible to solve. But the reason we, as humans, need these somewhat artificial solutions is partly for peace of mind. Otherwise, what’s the point? Everyone in education feels the need to have reasons explaining why ideas have or haven’t worked or make up a reason why in case they’re asked. This is highlighted most often when teachers come to observe lessons and everyone, including the most experienced teachers act defensive. In a profession where it seems natural to collaborate, there is a culture of individualism, created by a fear of seeming weak if help is needed. This is toxic and until we eradicate this blame-game era, it is difficult to see a way forward. 

After spending the best part of 2 years teaching science and trying to put research to good use in the classroom, it has become extremely clear to me how difficult it is to find clear-cut conclusions from educational research due to the vast number of variables involved let alone transfer these findings to a classroom setting effectively. This isn’t helped by humans’ inherent nature to jump to conclusions, as expressed in Daniel Kahnemann’s best-seller, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. He shows that humans naturally formulate reasons why something has or hasn’t worked even with very little evidence. Often we even fool ourselves! I have been guilty of this numerous times when trialling something in the classroom after reading about it, and just because I have tried it and enjoyed it, I am blind to the fact that it has had a minimal effect on anyone else. This links with earlier work from Rittel and Webber on wicked problems where they noted that often it is impossible for perfect solutions to ‘be wrong’ – publicly at least. A ‘perfect solution’ will always smooth out the problem just because it is a solution of sorts based, at best, on very loose evidence. Therefore the supposed solution of using data to track progress seemed to be viable for a time. Additionally, the ‘perfect solution’ will be different for every person who tackles the issue because they see it from a different perspective and, because we can’t agree on the nature of the issue in the first place, we go around in circles. A politician will view it from a different angle to a teacher who will disagree with a parent because of their own experiences.  As soon as we try and match a ‘perfect solution’ to a wicked problem it will always fall down eventually. So where are we now? 

I attended a ResearchED conference in Kent back in November and I remember it vividly as being one of the most eye-opening talks I had been to in a long time and it inspired me to write this blog. Professor Becky Allen and Ben White made the compelling case of how there is a new ‘perfect solution’ currently in play and this is another way to shift the public’s eyes to a new course of action from data to something else. This time it is the curriculum that has been chosen as the new ‘perfect solution’ to the wicked problem of improving education. This stemmed from the brilliant work of E.D. Hirsch in his pursuit of a knowledge-based curriculum and the success he has had in America with his Core Knowledge Foundation. I completely concur with the importance of knowledge being at the heart of a curriculum but again, it is not the ‘perfect solution’ to education that it is being made out to be. If we ‘solve’ a curriculum, that is not going to suddenly solve education. It is a tiny part of the issue. Ofsted have a hand to play again in this and in their 2019 EIF they clearly outline their new interest in how departments organise their curriculum. Schools across the country were encouraged to think about the sequencing and produce coherent maps. Senior teams would have lengthy discussions about whether the GCSE should be a 2 or 3 year course. These are all valid and worthwhile things to be doing, but it won’t solve the problem of education and it should not be advertised as doing so. 

Perhaps this has all seemed a little doom and gloom so far; so what do we do? Well, merely being aware that these ‘wicked problems’ exist can alleviate some of the stresses and pressure teachers and policy makers face. Simply knowing that the task in hand is inherently complex, and it might not be solvable in the way that all of us hope for is a good start.  Bannick and Trommel (2019) suggest that if we can learn to live with the problem then this can also help. This may sound counter-intuitive but if we can first accept the problem for what it is, perhaps this will allow us to make more sensible suggestions later down the line and not rush into things without the proper evidence. Secondly, the best thing we can do on a daily basis, as teachers, is to shift our attention from the unsolvable wicked problem to the everyday, complicated ones. Dylan Wiliam of UCL has said for a long time that schools can only change a very small number of things, however doing these small things well will align more with the ‘perfect solution’ than large scale change that takes place too quickly. Equally when governments focus their efforts on smaller, incremental changes like addressing the issue of illiteracy in England instead of tasking schools to simply ‘sort out’ their phonics programmes, we see greater results. Government gave guidance and support on which phonics plans were available and how they can be implemented. As a result phonics has now become the most common way of teaching reading in the early years. This won’t completely solve the problem we all care about, but it is a step in the right direction and we must not let the ‘perfect’ be the enemy of the good. 

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