Solutions and re-solutions for education

Archive for March, 2011

Education Reform – A Wicked Problem

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on March 16, 2011

Why is it so difficult to change the way we educate our children? We recognized thirty years ago that the existing industrial model of education won’t produce workers able to think critically and apply knowledge to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems. We have defined and measured achievement gaps between many populations with great specificity, yet we cannot close them. I’ve spent the last two decades of my life working on several STEM education reforms because I believe that engaging children in a conversation with nature can transform their lives and their relationships to our planet. I still believe that. But here’s another thing I’ve come to realize. No matter how engaging the STEM experience, if a child’s brain is hyperaroused or depressed as a result of trauma (and remember, trauma can be ordinary life circumstances such as losing a tooth, gaining a sibling, or coping with parents’ divorce and remarriage), she can’t engage to learn. I’ve written about that here. So how can we address these  and other complex circumstances in education?

Engineers recognize that how one defines a problem determines the course of its solution. They have a special term for social problems like education reform – wicked problems. The term wicked problem was coined in 1973 in a seminal paper by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, a designer and an urban planner. They described wicked problems as messy social problems that are impossible to define, understand, and reach consensus about. Wicked problems can’t be neatly defined and are always entangled with other social problems. For example, it’s often said that the education problem can’t be solved until the poverty problem is addressed. These two problems are intertwined not only with each other, but with many other social issues such as crime, child care, health care, and unemployment. These entangled problems are made even more complex because they are values-laden. It’s impossible for everyone to reach consensus about how they should be addressed. There is no right or wrong answer, and each attempted solution will give rise to other anticipated, unanticipated, and delayed wicked problems. Furthermore, each wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another wicked problem because of their interconnectedness. Wicked problems are never solved once and for all, just re-solved over and over again. Hence, the current state of affairs in education.

Neuroscience, behavioral and cognitive research, and systems thinking research has revealed much about how we operate as individuals and in social groups. It turns out that we’re wired for connection with each other, and that our relationships define us more than our separateness does. Neuroscience also helps us understand how our brains function to limit our grasp of and responses to wicked problems. Dietrich Dörner gives many examples of how capable, intelligent and thoughtful people fail to understand complex systems and make wise and prudent decisions about interventions in them. Psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about how our brains respond with feeling and action to situations that are intentional, immoral, imminent, and instantaneous – and not to situations that aren’t. This was an adaptive trait that kept us alive long ago, but it short-circuits an appropriate and collective sense of urgency in the face of wicked problems like global warming and education reform, whose consequences play out day by day over decades. David Brooks synthesizes multidisciplinary research in a nuanced narrative of an emerging new humanism in his recent TEDTalk. This new humanism acknowledges what psychodynamic researchers have known for years: that our unconscious emotions give rise to our conscious reasoning, and that emotional fluency comes from attuned attachment experiences with important others early in life. The ability to form secure attachments underpins several abilities that bind us socially and are essential skills in solving and re-solving the wicked problems that face the human race. Brooks lists these as:

“Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or [oneness with the Universe]. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.”

These first three abilities appear in the three key findings about how people learn: 1) students’ preconceptions about subject matter must be engaged in order for them to learn new ways of thinking about the subject matter, 2) students must have a deep factual knowledge base that is organized for easy retrieval in a conceptual framework that makes sense for the subject matter, and 3) students are able to think about and monitor their own learning. Brooks’ last two abilities are embodiments of the three core emotional needs: 1) to feel loved, 2) to feel a sense of belonging and 3) to feel a sense of appropriate power over one’s circumstances. Schools should be places where students develop all of these abilities and experience the joy of learning through meaningful connections with teachers, peers, and the natural and human-made world. If students are to be prepared for a lifetime of thinking, playing, creating, loving and working, schools should be places where relationships are valued as essential to acquiring knowledge that is measured as well as knowledge that is important but not measured. The ability to collaborate with others to learn in formal, informal and social situations is a life skill.  Engineering experiences can provide meaningful and authentic contexts for students to practice learning in these ways. The teacher-student relationship can provide the secure base from which students can explore the joy in learning. Emotional safety and stability are necessary for the cognitive mind to develop fully.

Does anyone have a complete enough picture of the education system – from neurons to policy – to prescribe exactly how to do this? No one person does because the system is too complex for any one person to understand. The wicked problem of education reform requires transdisciplinary imagination to solve and re-solve. There are no quick fixes or silver-bullet programs that work for everyone in every context. The best hope we have of reforming education successfully is for stakeholders from multiple perspectives and disciplines who embody the five abilities above collaborate on innovative and iterative solutions adaptable for specific contexts. We must be creative and attentive to emergent consequences. Every iteration of a solution will change the lives of at least one generation of students. Neuroscientific and psychological research indicates that that educational policies and interventions should maintain and foster both the emotional and cognitive growth of each child. Policies that fail on either count could ultimately fail the child.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: brain, mind, experience, and school.  Expanded edition. District of Columbia: National Academies Press
Brooks, D. (2011a, March 15, 2011) David Brooks: The social animal. TED Talks. retrieved from
Brooks, D. (2011b). The new humanism. Retrieved from
Brown, V. A., Harris, J. A., & Russell, J. Y. (Eds.). (2010). Tackling wicked problems through the transdisciplinary imagination. London; Washington, DC: Earthscan.
Dörner, D. (1996). The logic of failure: Recognizing and avoiding error in complex situations. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.
Gilbert, D. (March 15, 2011) It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine. Harvard Thinks Big. retrieved from
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.


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Empathy and Education Research

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on March 6, 2011

Did you know that our brains are wired to connect with others? When an infant notices another baby crying, mirror neurons fire in the observing baby, causing her to cry too. Scientists believe these mirror neurons are the biological basis of empathy. Empathy is vital in establishing a sense of belonging in play, love, work and learning. Scientists have studied mirror neurons and empathy in many contexts, from neuroscience to social science. Vittorio Gallese documents his discovery of mirror neurons and his subsequent work here. Bruce Perry explores how and why empathy is essential and endangered in his book Born for Love. Jeremy Rivkin talks about the evolution of empathy in his RSA Animated presentation called The Empathic Civilisation here. I’m going to talk about what I’m learning about empathy as a researcher and as a participant in the research of others.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m conducting my Ph.D. research on elementary teachers’ mental models of what engineers do. When I’m not working on my dissertation research, I’m working with the staff of an educational organization to create a system dynamics model to help them better understand, nurture and replicate what they do very well. The best way I have found to understand and represent a person’s mental model or an organization’s process from the inside out is to join them as a compassionate witness in their experience – to empathize with them. Both projects involve systematically paying attention to what people say and do – their outside actions – then finding the connections to what happens on the inside of those people and the organization in a way that represents the authenticity of their inner and outer experiences to someone outside. Researchers and participants must trust one another if they are to learn from and with each other in this way. I know what it feels like to be willingly vulnerable in order to help someone else learn. I have experienced this kind of empathic connection with researchers as a participant in several studies, and I bring that awareness to my role as a researcher.

In my teens, I needed a specific dental procedure that was part of the state’s licensing examination for prospective dentists. I was invited by a dental school to be a dental student’s patient on his licensing examination day. I had a positive experience that day, and the results have held up over time. When I had my babies, I chose to deliver them at the teaching hospital where my doctor was on the faculty. Over the years, I have volunteered to be a participant in research studies on healthy living strategies and in studies of teaching and learning. The researchers in these studies made sure I knew how much they respected me, valued my participation, and safeguarded the data I provided them. I felt so good about helping them create new knowledge to help others that I intend to donate my body to science when I die. My friends in the medical professions who have learned this way tell me how profoundly that learning affected them. I consider that act my final opportunity to connect with another in order to teach.

I volunteered for each study because I was genuinely curious about the topic, so I asked lots of questions throughout. The researchers were eager to talk to me about their work to the extent that the study allowed. In entering their system as a study participant, I learned a great deal about their areas of interest, which were different from my own. What surprised me most were the insights I gained about myself by participating in the interactions they designed and reporting how I experienced them. In most interviews, I felt deeply heard as the researcher listened to what I had to say, then asked me to elaborate about specific comments I made. Their probing questions helped me discover meanings and interpretations I might not have become aware of otherwise. In some cases, researchers sent me their write-up of our conversations and asked me to make sure it conveyed what I meant (researchers call this process member-checking). It was clear to me that both of us were changed by our connection with each other within our co-created system that included me, my experiences within the study, and the researcher.

Now that I’m the researcher, I feel deeply honored by my participants’ willingness to open their practices to me and allow me to join them in their experiences of it. As I take apart our conversations in order to put the pieces together again into each person’s mental model of what engineers do, I am changed. I look forward to being changed again during the member-checking stage of my dissertation work. I hope my participants are also changed by our work together in ways that please them.

In my work with the educational organization’s members, we use a more interactive model-building process designed to stimulate meaningful conversations within the organization about what makes them unique and effective. The system dynamics model we are constructing together captures their collective and developing mental model of what they do and how they do it. It provides a shared, evolving representation they can build upon internally and use to communicate with those outside the organization. All of us are changing through working together in this way.

I find that the most satisfying thing about being a researcher and participating in another’s research is the empathic connection that changes everyone involved while creating new knowledge upon which others can build.

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