Solutions and re-solutions for education

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.


7 Responses to “Education Reform – A Wicked Problem”

  1. Loren said

    Wicked problems strike me as artificially/man-made created problems. Paradoxically, maybe the solution is to not try & solve it. F.A. Hayek, a student of Ludwig Von Mises, is a famous free-market economist who debated many centrally planning economists in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Hayek argued that centrally planned economic systems will fail for 2 reasons. First, the decision makers incentives are not aligned with the participants. We know that people tend to behave in their own self-interest, yet our central planners are not expected to. Secondly, and more importantly to Hayek, these systems fail because the central planners don’t/can’t have the necessary information. The information is embedded in each individual participant, and oftentimes they don’t even know it’s there, it’s tacit knowledge. It’s not physically possible to get this information into one place. Hayek said, “The curious task of economics is to teach men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

    These problems hold true even in simple systems like corn supply. In Russia, the corn production was controlled from a central office. But those officials lacked the ability to efficiently control the system, even though all the participants were legally required to provide all this information and the best Russian economists tried to solve it. Even such a simple commodity was far, far to “wicked” to centrally control. In the U.S. we take a different approach. There’s no central control of the system. Each farmer is left to decide for themselve what to produce, how much, and how to distribute it. They have strong incentives to do a good job, and they know more then anyone about their farm, the soil, the workers, the local roads, weather patterns, etc. Yet the productivity of our wild & chaotic system puts the centrally planned Soviet system to shame. The soviet’s had many many wicked problems to solve even in relatively simple systems. We didn’t even try.

    I agree with your solution that “best hope we have of reforming education successfully is for stakeholders from multiple perspectives,” to get together and solve it. However, given the level of centralized control of the education system, I think this is an impossible task to plan or organize. The best way to get the real stakeholders involved is to give them real, meaningful choices; to create/allow a system where the participants themselves choose their own path and not have the path dictated from someone else, even if that someone is a benevolent & wise.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Loren. You’re right that wicked problems are human-made problems. In fact, their wickedness stems from the distinctly human capability to reflect on past decisions, project potential decisions into the future, and make decisions in the present based on that. Our distinctly human capability to hold social values about those decisions also defines these problems as wicked, because agreement about which social values matter is unlikely. Your economics example is compelling. You might enjoy Dörner’s book The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations. He talks about how research in several domains shows how even systems-savvy humans are terrible at conceptualizing and operating on systems of even mild complexity. I agree that stakeholders (or end users) of the system have tacit and explicit knowledge that those intervening in the system more remotely might not have, and that it is indeed impossible for centralized decision-makers to have and digest all information about the education system at any point in the decision making process. Another characteristic of wicked problems is that any intervention will produce expected, unexpected and delayed consequences that will lead to other wicked problems. So solving them is out of the question, as you suggest. We must continuously re-solve the education system.

      Your last sentence puzzles me. “The best way to get the real stakeholders involved is to give them real, meaningful choices; to create/allow a system where the participants themselves choose their own path and not have the path dictated from someone else, even if that someone is a benevolent & wise.” The current education system does allow participants to choose their own path (public, private, parochial, home school, charter school, etc.). How meaningful and real these choices are is a value judgment that is entangled with the socioeconomic conditions of each student’s family and community. Some people argue that the existing system works pretty well; others argue that it does not. Still others argue that there are gross inequities in the current education system. I think you and I agree that the current education system has serious problems. My point is that how you define the problem frames the re-solution (another characteristic of wicked problems). Just changing the system of participants’ education choices without addressing other issues that have emerged over the past few decades isn’t likely to produce different outcomes for the people whose problems are more complex than finding classrooms close to home that are staffed by highly qualified teachers.

      For example, neuroscience research shows that there are lasting structural effects on a child’s developing neocortex (the part of the brain that controls concrete and abstract thought processes that are necessary for success in school) of stress hormones produced due to adverse conditions in the home environment (regardless of the family’s structure or socioeconomic status), such as the non-attunement of early caregivers that leads to the child’s inability to form secure attachments and to self-regulate behavior. The behavioral and neurodevelopmental research are converging here. See Bruce Perry’s work listed in the Social and Emotional Resources. All this happens before students even get to preschool! My point is that students come to the K-12 education system with different needs – needs that are emotional, social and cognitive. Neuroscience research shows us that healthy emotional and social development are the precursors to cognitive development. To limit our education re-solutions to just the cognitive ignores these important neurobiological factors. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has published a set of reports and working papers on these neurobiological issues. You can find them here.

      I could name other such pervasive issues at any level of the educational system from individual students’ and teachers’ neurons to social cultures. I agree with your message that participants in the education system should have choices – choices that meet their needs. How to frame what choices get offered (and what needs get met) is the wicked problem that will take collaboration of stakeholders from many different backgrounds. Is it, as you suggest, an impossible task to plan or organize? I am optimistic that we can at least narrow the gap between what we know from research in neurodevelopment and on how people learn, and the education policies we make, so the choices offered to students and parents are responsive to 21st century conditions. I appreciate your engaging in this discussion!

  2. Loren said

    I think you have understood my underlying concerns and I appreciate that.

    Your last sentence puzzles me. “The best way to get the real stakeholders involved is to give them real, meaningful choices; to create/allow a system where the participants themselves choose their own path and not have the path dictated from someone else, even if that someone is a benevolent & wise.” The current education system does allow participants to choose their own path (public, private, parochial, home school, charter school, etc.).

    While the system technically allows you the choice, in practice it’s not real for those who need it most. I do not have a choice to pay for public schooling, that’s taken out of my property taxes. So if I choose private, parochial or home school, I’m incurring a significant additional expense. Only the wealthy or especially passionate people can choose, so the system is effectively operating without competitive checks. You can choose public schools if you move to a different district, but we all know how property values vary accordingly and, again, this is not an option for the poor who may need more family support. I do agree that charter schools provide more real choices for parents, so why do states restrict the number of charter schools which are allowed to operate, and then allocate the under supplied resource through a mindless lottery process? Even getting to this level of parent choice is politically difficult, and it’s still a far cry from a free system. I have hopes that the competition there is becoming better.

    The one area where we have far more choice is our collegial system. I can choose what schools to attend and they can choose to deny me. I can choose my topic of study but even then I must be accepted. If I don’t have very much money I can attend a JUCO or technical college, or get a scholarship, grant or student loan, or try and work my way through. I’m not going to list the ways choices are restricted here, suffice to say the level of competition here is considerably more then K-12. And, surprise surprise, our collegial system is the best in the world. This point has always intrigued me. How can we have the worlds finest colleges bar none, but our K-12 is trailing other developed countries? I believe the level of choices that we have is the primary reason. When people have real, meaningful choices, the system is forced to adapt and special interests are weakened.

    I agree with your message that participants in the education system should have choices – choices that meet their needs. How to frame what choices get offered (and what needs get met) is the wicked problem that will take collaboration of stakeholders from many different backgrounds.

    That’s the approach I’m suggesting will fail. This problem can’t efficiently be solved centrally; you shouldn’t centrally decide what choices to give or take away. It will suffer from lack of tacit information & political special interests. Better to just give the parents choices even though you may not know what they’ll do with it, and even though they’re unaware of how their children’s neurons are operating. Let them choose where to send their own kids without making them pay twice for the privilege/right. Allow parents to send their kids to technical schools, college prep schools, boarding schools, parochial schools, art & music schools. Allow schools to reject applicants. Allow new schools to start without requiring bureaucratic approval. Allow parents to sue schools who falsely advertise their scores, or agree to provide a level of service which they don’t accomplish. Some parents will make poor choices, but I know that parents care deeply about their kids and I have faith that a freer system will ultimately be far far more efficient, even if it will appear more chaotic to those accustomed to the central control. And I think my faith in more freedom is well founded in historical evidence.

    Why do you believe this problem is best managed centrally? Would you oppose allowing parents to send their kids to the school of their choice and take their tax dollars with them?

    • Once again, Loren, I think we agree on many points. The current system doesn’t meet the needs of too many people and we must make changes. New educational choices make sense from many perspectives. I think you assume that I am an advocate for a centralized educational system.

      You write “Why do you believe this problem is best managed centrally? Would you oppose allowing parents to send their kids to the school of their choice and take their tax dollars with them?”

      I wrote this entry using the pronoun “we.” The “we” I use isn’t the “we” of centralized education, but “we the people.” The point I’m trying to make is that whatever “we” addresses the educational system – from the nuclear family to the American citizenry – “we” need to recognize the wickedness of the system when “we” make changes. A decentralized, free market education system is still a wicked system, albeit a potentially self-organizing one. There will still be people (e.g. the ones who decide to operate educational institutions) who decide what choices get offered and what needs get met. There will also be people (e.g. people who admit students to our higher education institutions) who will decide whether these free market institutions prepare students adequately for admission, which will affect, as you state “the world’s finest colleges, bar none.” I also wonder what kind of education (if any) the children who are rejected from pre-college institutions will get if some kind of compulsory education system isn’t in place. Do you believe that every child should have the opportunity for a basic education? Who decides what constitutes a basic education? Parents? Communities? What about children whose adult guardians do not value education? What if pre-college education ceased to be compulsory? How many children would leave or never enter the education system? What downstream consequences will society bear for those circumstances?

      I cannot agree or disagree that increasing real and meaningful school choices is one intervention that will improve the current education system, or that addressing the problem centrally will fail. I argue that the system is too complex for me to have the information necessary to make that judgment alone. What I do know is that I want perspectives like yours, mine and many others at the table when “we” make decisions about what to do. I also advocate that “we” use all the social system dynamics modeling tools available to us during the discussions. It’s possible to construct qualitative models that help us visualize a complex system and can enrich our discussions of it. It’s also possible to construct models that incorporate quantitative data for simulation of proposed changes. You can read about one such effort here. We owe it to ourselves to consider many perspectives before coming to such important and values-laden decisions.

  3. What would your ideal school look like, Ann?

  4. Joseph Rayle said

    I just wanted to let you know that I’ve made this article required reading in my Foundations of Education Class for several semesters now. My students really get a lot out of it; a lot of them tend to conceptualize solutions to problems in education in rather facile terms. Your work is touching many lives!

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