Sunday, 30 June 2013

Wicked Problems and Problem Solving

I attended a learning and teaching forum back in April on activity-based learning. Sarah Wilson-Medhurst from Coventry University talked about the concept of 'wicked' problems and the competencies required to solve them. 'Wicked' problems are the types of problems that occur in the real world.

Conklin (2005) defines wicked problems as:

1) You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.

2) Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

3) Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

4) Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

5) Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one-shot operation'

6) Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

This is quite a contrast to the types of problems traditionally used in education. In education, we tend to focus on problems with known solutions. This is almost expected so we can prepare sample solutions. The problem is that students get the idea when we propose an assessment that what they need to do is discover the correct answer or at least the answer that the lecturer or assessor expects.

Is it possible that some of our politicians are like our students. That is they haven't got past the idea of known solutions or there being a correct answer. It would certainly explain why they claim there is no alternative to their policies. However, it isn't simply the politicians who think this way. The result is advisers who push politicians down blind alleys and the public who vote in politicians who claim to have “the solution”.

The idea is that a wicked problem has the property that they are not understood until after formulation of a solution (Conklin 2005).. It is the process of solving the problem that leads to a clearer understanding of the problem. I wonder though how the perception of the problem, that the person trying to solve the problem has, influences the solution and the understanding. Again, thinking in terms of politicians dealing with economic issues, I can see that their understanding of the problem both feeds the type of solution that they are looking at and their longer term understanding of the problem.

If we are open to the idea that wicked problems are not understood until solved then we should also expect that in the problem solving process, we are revising our understanding and our perception of the possible outcomes. Being open to changing perceptions has to be the core to being able to come to a deeper understanding of the problem and to developing a series solution along a path of appropriate solutions to the problem. Remember there is no stopping rule.

The concept of wicked problems also contradicts the problem solving process that we teach. We assume that it is possible to understand the problem before attempting to create a solution. However, although we may not fully understand a problem at the start, this doesn't mean that we do not understand anything about the problem. Solutions must build from the current knowns (my view) but we need to be open to a changing understanding and maybe a rewriting of our solutions.

It is argued that wicked problems need multidisciplinary teams to solve and that the competencies required are difficult to measure (Knight & Page 2007). These competencies include creativity, teamwork and collaboration, communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, adaptability, working across subject boundaries, etc. It is argued that in order to find a solution to wicked problems, we need to be able to be confident in the solution. However, since we are growing our understanding of the problem along with the solution, then maybe we should rephrase that to being confident about our current solution or the path toward the current solution.


Conklin, J (2005) Wicked problems & Social complexity. In: Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. Wiley.

Knight, P & Page, A (2007) The assessment of 'wicked' competences. Report to the practice-based professional learning centre.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Fought in a war that nobody won

Today in the UK is armed forces day and the prime minster, David Cameron, is encouraging people to support the armed forces for the sacrifices that they have made on our behalf. However, as I come to the end of the day, I have a song sung by a New Zealander, Phil Garland, running through my mind. In particular the refrains that go

“When I was a young man,I carried a gun. Fought in a war that nobody won.”


“Now I am an old man, I set in the sun, thinking and dreaming of all that I've done. Recalling the good times. Forgetting the pain. If I had my time over I would do it again.”

I will be honest. I don't support war and don't see violence of any form as justifiable. There is no such thing as a “Just” War. It is always just war. I don't have any pride having sent people to fight in wars and I certainly don't see what they are doing as being a sacrifice for me. If anything, I feel sorry for the men and women that are sent to war to fight battles for political leaders who sit comfortably back in their home countries or in wars that are sold as being necessary or “just” only to be discovered later that the justification is questionable (Iraq).

But let's take a look at the words of Garland's song. I am not sure which war he is talking about but I suspect that it was the First World War because the following phrase talks about “clearing the bush where I once used to roam.” This is what happened with returning World War I soldiers in New Zealand. If this is the case, then I find it interesting that the song says “no body won” but I suspect the song writer isn't looking at who surrendered but is looking at the overall outcome and the consequences on all sides. The consequences of war are far reaching having negative outcomes for all sides that are involved.

From my perspective, I am not sure that anyone really wins any war. Sure some seem to have the outcomes desired (World War II, Balkans, and Libya) by the major powers that enter into them (USA and UK) but there are others that never seem to have ended (Israel vs. Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan) or that have been withdrawn from (Vietnam).

The problem that I see is that we are not learning from our involvement in war or failure in bringing lasting peace. The song says that even as he reflects back, he would do it again. This seems to be happening with humanity as a whole. We go from one year to the next without learning from our mistakes or from history. Even great minds challenge us to rethink but we seem to continue to stumble on with our mistakes.

Albert Einstein said

"Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding"

but are we seeking understanding? It doesn't seem that we are. We seem to hold fast to underlying concepts and principles of arming for defence that have never been proven to work.

Einstein also said

"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction."

Maybe this is our problem. We continue to make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. We don't have the courage to put any resources into looking at things that might take us in the opposite direction. This is possibly not surprising when the UK government keeps saying that there are no alternatives. It is as though there are principles or concepts that are not possible to challenge or change.

Back during the civil rights movement (1963), Walter Reuther said

"If we can have full employment and full production for the negative ends of war, then why can't we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace?"

Here we are 50 years later and we are still justifying huge expenditures on weapons of mutual assured destruction (MAD) and spending little on the pursuit of peace. Some would argue that the development of weapons as deterrents is for the pursuit of peace but this ignores Einstein's challenge that peace can only be achieved through understanding.

On this day, when we are supposed to be honouring the armed forces, let us step back and consider whether our assumptions are valid. Is it possible that there are other alternatives to our emphasis on using violence. Is it possible that there is a way of understanding that could lead to a more lasting peace?