A Wicked Problem

We have a wicked problem.  According to design theory, a wicked problem is one that is difficult, if not impossible, to solve because it is ill-defined and amorphous. Consequently, there is no simple or clear solution, or one correct answer.  The “rules” don’t work to solve it.

The problem? Our current education system.  This past weekend I had the privilege of participating in ConnectEd Canada, held at Calgary Science School, a school built entirely on inquiry.  I was able to spend time observing the classes in session, and what I saw amazed me. An entire student body deeply engaged in learning, doing work that mattered, and articulate and aware of the process and their learning. How often does that happen? Not often enough, and that’s the problem.

I went to the conference with one question in mind, “Can this be replicated in any school, or does it need to be built intentionally from scratch with this idea in mind?” I found my answer. I honestly think it can happen anywhere, but a few things have to be present.

Calgary Science School functions as it does because of its culture, and this largely hinges on the administration.  It’s a culture that requires sharing and collaboration, open-ended questions and deep engagement. Schools need administrators that are visionaries not simply managers. Being an administrator shouldn’t be about controlling teachers and students or maintaining the status quo; instead, it should be about unleashing a school’s potential. Maybe we need to start hiring a different kind of administrator than in the past. Maybe earning a Master’s degree doesn’t denote that someone is a competent leader. Maybe we need to start looking for pedagogical leaders who have a deep understanding of what is best for kids, who are able to ask tough questions and have difficult conversations for the purpose of establishing the learning environment our kids need.

So what does this look like? Students need learning environments that deeply engage them in work that matters. Enough with the worksheets. Seriously. Worksheets don’t provide the rigorous environment that our students need for their brains to develop to their full potential, or sometimes, at all.

Kids need experiences that encourage myelination. Quite simply, myelin is the white fatty coating that acts like insulation on a wire and allows signals to move faster, while making it less likely they’ll leak out. However, myelination is a process and much depends on how students use their brains.  Connections that are continually used develop thick myelin sheaths that allow for better brain signals and create thick neural nets. There’s a reason neuroscience has the adage, “connections that fire together, wire together.” Kids become better problem solvers and more efficient at their own learning, if they spend a great deal of time doing so.

But here’s the thing, neuroscience research suggests that active engagement is necessary for learning. When learning occurs, it tends to enlarge the parts of the brain it continually uses; we call this plasticity. Worksheets don’t do this, nor does sitting in a classroom passively hearing a lecture.  Research has shown that passively listening to lectures doesn’t even tend to alter the auditory cortex.  So how does this happen? Student-centred, inquiry learning.

I get that changing things is hard. I’ve done it, and I’m still engaged in the process. There were times during the transformation of my classroom that the learning curve was so steep I thought I was going to shatter into a million pieces. There were other times it felt disasterous, but here’s the thing, we all survived. It’s hard to change; It’s hard to wrap our minds around something so foreign to the traditional school system so many of us are products of, but our students need us to engage in the hard work.  I’ve found over and over that students are not only gracious during our learning process, they also do amazing things to give us the courage to continue on.

Finally, we need to encourage and support the risk-takers and innovators in our school systems. Too often the status-quo is supported because of the comfort level it affords. As Brian Harrison stated in a recent blog post, “…it is clear to me that we cannot sustain a great system of public education by rewarding those in our schools and systems who do not innovate at the cost of those who do.”  Too often those who are engaging students in meaningful learning close their doors, so they can do what is best for their students. Why? To reduce the backlash from others. I know. I’ve done it, and I’ve listened to the stories of many other educators who have experienced this same phenomenon. If we truly want to do what is best for kids, we need to support teachers who willingly engage the messy landscape of student-centred learning.

The wicked problems ones are the only ones worth pursuing, not only for us, but our students too. Given the chance, my students willing and enthusiastically partnered with me to create the educational environment they needed. It wasn’t easy, but it was entirely worth every difficult moment.

Picture courtesy of cc, flickr: DonnaGrayson

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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14 Responses to A Wicked Problem

  1. An excellent post Shelly, I agree that schools need leaders that are acting in the interest of students, pushing the boundaries, and challenging long held ideas. A Master’s should not limit some of these visionary leaders from leading in our schools. How do we encourage people to innovate and break away from the status quo?

    • That’s the million dollar question, and I wish I had the solution. The only one I have for the moment is creating change one teacher at a time. When teachers see the difference inquiry makes in their classroom, they’re sold, and would never go back to what they used to do. I think it’s finding ways to help teachers take that risk and supporting them along the way.

  2. Jill says:

    Inspiring post! I would love to hear more specifics about what you saw at Calgary Science School.

  3. Sounds like you would like Team Based Learning – check out http://www.teambasedlearning.org/ lots of experience in higher ed and some in K-12. Contact me if you are interested.

  4. Erin says:

    Another inspiring post Shelley – thanks. One day I will be able to implement some of what I want to. In spite of unsupportive administration and a lack of technology. Every time I read one of your posts I am inspired again. Did you find the Phd programme? I’m curious because I’m seeking a Masters programme in the same area.

    • I haven’t been able to find one, so it looks like we’re going to create one. I’m really lucky to have the PhD supervisor that I have! There are a number of masters programs in the area, but I don’t think any of them are on-line.

      When I started creating an inquiry class, I really had very little tech and very little support from my administration. It seems like a lot of teachers are in that situation, but it’s important for us to do what we know is best for our students. Thanks for reading!

  5. David Truss says:

    Wonderful post, and a topic I have been pondering for a while. How do we take the ‘pockets of brilliance,’ that seem to work in spite of the challenges of being ‘different’, and make them the status quo… The expectation, rather than the exception?

    Culture building seems to be key, but it really goes beyond the admin. What (I think) I saw in Calgary was leadership that removed barriers, provided teachers with the time & space to share & learn, and then both supported and got out of the way of teachers. As you said, “It’s a culture that requires sharing and collaboration, open-ended questions and deep engagement.”

    How we make this approach mainstream is a wicked problem indeed!

  6. Hi Shelley, wanted to chime in on the neuroscience side of things, especially in terms of the adolescent brain…here’s a great resource: DANA…http://www.dana.org/search.aspx?q=teenage%20brain

  7. Heather Hobbs says:

    Shelley,
    I wholeheartedly agree that we need strong instructional leaders to administrate our schools. The vision starts there. It needs to be followed by equal amounts of pressure and support to attain that vision.
    I, too, was an outcast teacher on staff, who closed my door and went about my work. Being innovative can lead to exclusion. It also can lead to the uncomfortable situation of defending what you are doing, even though you know it’s beneficial to your students. While reading an excerpt on Reflective Practices I found a description of the positive deviant which I think personifies the innovative teacher: they are focused on student learning, committed, responsible, aware, thoughtful, inquiring and action-oriented. We need to create schools where being a positive deviant is the norm, not the exception.

  8. Great ideas. I need specifics to move forward with this type of learning at my school.

  9. Altitude says:

    Once again, a thought provoking post! However, I wonder if part of the reason for why many educators baulk at moving towards a more engaged, inquiry based model of learning is precisely because they see it as a wicked problem – “difficult, if not impossible.” Although change is both difficult and hard, it is by no means impossible and I think what really needs to happen is for this change to be demystified. Wicked? Problem? How about attainable challenge? Am I splitting hairs here and too focused on semantics? (As an English teacher it wouldn’t be the first time! :)

  10. Caroline says:

    Could you provide some of the specifics of what you saw? Or a link to their curriculum or to some of their solutions? Your blog is awesome and thought-provoking and I’d like to know a little more about what you observed.

  11. Great post . We are grappling with the same issue in my high school in Ottawa. We are trying to introduce more critical thinking and get more engagement from our students but our biggest stumbling block is coming from teachers who think that they are already doing this. Some teachers are married to their lessons and don’t want to contemplate change.

    • Thanks! We too have the same issues with engagement. Our division recently completed the Tell them From Me survey that showed only 25% of our students in grade 10-12 are engaged in the classroom environment. 75% of teachers thought the students were engaged. Obviously we have a bit of denial going on. It’s a long road, isn’t it :)

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