Transforming Industrial Age Schooling To Authentic Education — A Very “Wicked Problem”

Trace Pickering in the April edition of the F.M. Duffy Reports, says the reform of public education is not sufficient, that what is needed is transformation. Much of what he says resonates with the point of view I develop in my book, Public Education 2030.

The first step to solving a problem is to understand the problem — to understand the nature of the problem. If we seek to solve the problem of how to improve public education, then we must first identify the problem to be solved. Pickering says there are two categories of problems — some problems are “tame” and others are “wicked.” Pickering says school reformers make a big mistake by classifying the problem of how to improve schools as a tame problem — when, in fact, it is a wicked problem.

Pickering explains, “Education has been transformed into a wicked problem. We’ve moved from the relatively tame problem of preparing people for machine-like factory work and advancing the ‘melting pot’ theory to a wicked one in which we desire a much more nuanced and purposeful end: helping children unfold their full potential. As Horst and Rittel pointed out, wicked problems are of the social domain. Since education and learning are part of the social domain tame solutions provided by classical systems are doomed to failure.”

Pickering holds that the order of magnitude of the change we need in education is a paradigm change. He says reformers accept the current Industrial Age paradigm of schooling and focus on what can be produced and measured: “test scores, graduation and attendance rates, time-on-task, teacher compensation and evaluation schemes, school report cards, etc.”

When education is seen as a tame problem, Pickering says, “solutions become sound-bytes of the obvious: bad or underpaid teachers, lack of competitions, low standards, complacency, poor curriculum, poor instructional practice. They are framed as beautifully simple, seductive, independent, tame problems to be solved. It makes sense to seek improvement via upgrading in the curriculum, raising standards for teacher certification, etc.”

Pickering says that schools, in the current paradigm, are seen as places of production. But what is needed is a transformation to a new paradigm that will see schools as places of learning. He says, “If we are faced with a tame problem, like how to squeeze another 3% out of an existing system, then reform works just fine. But if we need to realize order-of-magnitude sorts of change, then we are faced with a wicked problem requiring transformation.”

Pickering quotes Peter Block, “Transformation occurs only through choice.” He says,

Unlike reform, transformation cannot be coerced, mandated, sold, bartered, bribed, negotiated, or threatened into existence. Choice is a useless and foreign tool to the classical system construct that loves order, standardization, scalability, and predictability. If transformation is achievable only through choice then perhaps the best answer to transforming our schools lies in our communities.

Transformation means engaging the community, where choice is not simply an empty word or mantra for a narrow agenda but holds restorative power. Wicked problems are dissolved and the creation of an alternative future are only achieved through social processes, not through industrial-age hierarchies and traditional power brokers. Where large bureaucratic institutions move slowly and take only presumed “safe” routes to change, strong social networks have the ability to rapidly prototype new designs for new outcomes. (Conklin, 2010)

Transformation, then, cannot happen but with and through community. Only in community can deeper questions be answered. It is in the community’s answers to the questions: “how do we want to raise our children?” and “what is the ultimate goal of education?” that hold within them the power of transformation. It is the community’s answers that craft a holistic, integrated, interdependent design for learning and the unfolding of their children’s potential and which gives them the power and choice to execute on it.

Unfortunately, our communities have slowly and steadily abdicated their power and authority to the classical system designed to make things efficient through the creation of sameness and predictability. We are now faced with a dual problem – how to help communities both reclaim their efficacy and primacy and to understand and apply socio- cultural systems thinking and practice. Communities must first quit abdicating their power to outside others, “experts,” and distant institutions and then go about the work of creating the future they want.

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2 Responses to Transforming Industrial Age Schooling To Authentic Education — A Very “Wicked Problem”

  1. Stan Hirtle says:

    We must first get used to some new and value laden terminology. “Tame problems:
    1. have a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement
    2. have a definite stopping point, i.e. we know when the solution or a
    solution is reached
    3. have a solution which can be objectively evaluated as being right or
    4. belong to a class of similar problems which can be solved in a similar
    5. have solutions which can be tried and abandoned (Conklin, 2010)
    For a simple example, consider the problem of energy. In mid-century it became clear
    America was going to have an energy problem as more and more cars hit the road and
    furnaces and factories started burning fuel oil instead of coal. The problem was a tame
    one and followed Conklin’s explanation: (1) we need more fossil fuel; (2) we know we will
    have solved this problem when we procure more; (3) the solution will either work or it
    won’t; (4) this is similar to our problems of finding enough coal and steel to run our
    factories; (5) we can try and abandon solutions without much consequence. So we
    solved this seemingly tame problem through off-shore drilling and engaging politically
    and economically with the Middle East. And just like that, our identified problem was
    solved and we moved forward.
    But wicked problems are completely different from tame ones. Wicked problems are illdefined, ambiguous and entangled with strong moral, political and professional issues.
    Wicked problems are contextually sensitive and highly stakeholder dependent. It is oftendifficult to gain consensus on the nature of the problem, or how to dissolve [?] it. In fact, wicked problems are never singular and instead display complex circular behaviors and interactions in an ever-evolving social context. Wicked problems become more intractable when problems are attacked as tame ones, one at a time, or with limited
    understanding of the set of problems the designers face. Wicked problems can only be
    approached holistically and systemically, not mechanically where it is easy to track
    cause and effect and apply a direct solution.”
    The battle over high stake testing in education has mostly been about failing schools of poverty and conducted by the political enemies of the people who attend these schools and the people who teach in them. They use test scores and other measurable outcomes to beat up on the schools with continued crises, perhaps treating as a “tame problem” what is a very complex and “downward spiraling” and value laden problem of poverty, not because of the wrong view of problem solving, but aas the wya to exercise political power.
    Bock has consistently said that even the high performing schools of the affluent suburbs require transformation. While we may feel the obsolesence of the traditional industrial age poor who are becoming employed less, incarcerated more, and otherwise left out of our changing society, enlightened purposes of education would produce not only good employees but good citizens of a democratic political and economic system. However again the problem may not be the lack of proper problem solving approaches, but the desire to maintain existing power relationships and wealth relationships which are dominated by a few who need to control the many. This is certainly another complex issue and involves a certain amount of “wickedness” in a traditional sense as well as the jargon used here. One of the issues of seeking measurable outcomes in efforts to deal with poverty is that they may guarantee failure and therefor political pressure to abandon them. Some conservatives will tell you that the efforts that originated with the “war on poverty” era and that have continued with lower effort since, were totally wasted, not that they did not go far enough. We should think about how those who are not inclined to believe in solving complex social problems can be persuaded to participate if the problems are in fact “wicked.”

  2. Mike Bock says:

    Stan, Thanks for your comments. You write, “The problem may not be the lack of proper problem solving approaches, but the desire to maintain existing power relationships and wealth relationships which are dominated by a few who need to control the many.”

    It seems, of late, I’m using the term “big picture” a lot. I’m intrigued by a systems view. In the big picture, the United States is a system with many component parts — but of central importance to making the system work as it should is that there is a government of the people, for the people, and we are a long way from having such a government. One reason we have failed to create such a government is the fact that our political parties are corrupt and inept and full of people who simply want to have their own way. As evidence of this corruption, we need look no further than the Montgomery County Democratic Party and its endorsement practices. The party has many good people wanting to advance the common good, but the party itself is anti-democratic and the movers and shakers in the party are driven by a “desire to maintain existing power relationships.”

    So, we don’t need to imagine the secret meeting place of the Republicans high on a hill with menacing clouds — as pictured in the Simpsons, with Monte Burns and his cronies conniving to extend their power — the system has many elements conspiring together to maintain the status quo. Two of which progressives usually want to defend — The Democratic Party and Public Education. But both are in big need of transformation. It is amazing how the common people have been so evenly and cleverly divided. One purpose that our educational system brilliantly fulfills is to maintain this division and to cripple the capacity of individuals to function as effective and thoughtful citizens. But education in the most comprehensive sense is the best hope our nation has. It is education that can bring political transformation, but the problem is political transformation is needed if public education is to be transformed. So it is a chicken and egg problem — and what is needed is a grass roots awakening. So the obligation of anyone even a little awake is to try to awaken others. The needed critical mass is actually a very small percentage of the general population. What is needed is a new consensus about what purpose education should fulfill and then a redesign of the system so that it can fulfill that purpose.

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