Albert Einstein famously said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
When it comes to the problems of education, there has been a lot of great thinking done by a lot of great people. Ask a thousand educators, students, parents, researchers, business people, or politicians what the problems of education are in America today and you are bound to get a thousand different answers. Ask these same people how to solve these problems and you will get a thousand different solutions.
The problem of education in America today is not just a simple problem, or even a complex problem, but a wicked problem. But it’s more than a wicked problem… it is an X-problem.
Adam explains that most organizations or systems face 4 types of problems.
Simple Problems: These are problems for which both the problem and solution are easily defined.
Which budget should be used to purchase supplemental materials? Which grade level will require an additional teacher next year? Who is going to teach the new section of Latin? Which classrooms need instructional aides?
Complex Problems: Here the problem is known, but the solution is not.
How can we get students to complete their homework? Which technology is best to introduce into an elementary classroom? Which curriculum will best meet the needs of our students who are two years below grade level? How do we create a system that allows for student input? What is the most effective assessment of reading comprehension for English Learners? How can we increase teacher collaboration and trust?
Wicked Problems: The challenge here is that neither the problem nor the solution is known. How can you define a good solution when cannot even state what the problem is?
I previously discussed wicked problems here [Wicked Problems Need Designed Solutions].
The wicked problem was a term coined in the 1960's by mathematician and planner Horst Rittel. He described them as messy, confounding, and aggressive. In 1968, C. West Churchman detailed the issue of wicked problems in an issue of Management Science.
Churchman describes wicked problems as, " a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing."
There is no definitive statement of the problem, and each solution reveals new aspects of the problem.
How do we fix public education? What is the problem? Which part is broken?
Take the issue of technology. Is technology essential in education? Do we need more technology in school? How much technology is enough in school? Which technology should we focus on? Who decides? How do we measure it? How do we pay for it?
Or take the issue of creativity. Do we attempt to teach creativity or let students use their own creativity? Can creativity be taught? If so, who should teach it? How do we measure it? Is there good creativity and bad creativity? Is creativity in school even a problem?
Or how about the questions of making students go to school longer. They do they go more days or should they go longer each day? What about breaks? Should they go to school on Saturday? How long is too long? Do we pay teachers more for the longer day or just for more days?
Each one of the problems opens us another can of worms as you dive deeper into it. There are so many factors involved with each. What does the research say? What do the parents think? What is best for the brain? How will it impact the budget? Who makes the final decisions? Who is in charge? What is best for our society? Which will ensure success in the future? Is it scalable? Who should be involved in crafting the solution?
As you try to answer these questions more questions arise. It really gets...wicked.
None of these “problems” can be explicitly stated as a problem statement, because, they may or may not even be problems. It all depends on your perspective.
Since there is no definitive problem, there is no definitive solution.
Can’t fix it if we can’t point out exactly what it is we need to fix.
Each wicked problem is risky because it is unique, and it’s hard to test or simulate solutions ahead of time.
There is no way to simulate a new public education system in America, without actually building a new public education system in America. Simulating a school model here or there does not provide solutions or the same experience as a new system of public education. The scale is simply not comparable.
There are many stakeholders with different perspectives on the problem and how to resolve it.
Teacher, parent, student, administrator, union official, county official, state official, federal official, education researcher, business person, school board member, elected city, county, state, and federal politician, statistician, economist, sociologist, technologist, etc. They all have a different definition of the problem and a different solution.
But there is a problem even more difficult to grapple with than the wicked problem.
It’s called the X-problem. Why X-problems? Adam shares his thinking on why X represents another level of problem.
X is extreme: X-problems are extreme in risk and complexity.
Educating an entire country’s population and building a system that does it in the most effective way is a risky proposition. You can’t build the wrong system. You can’t make a mistake.
X is mysterious: Every X-problem revolves around questions that have never been asked before, or challenges that are unprecedented.
Solving the “problems” of education and doing so in a way that meets all the needs of all the stakeholders now and in the future is going to create some questions that we have never encountered of thought of.
X is a crossroad: A crossroads is a place where things converge together—and diverge outward. At a crossroads one must make a choice among paths, each of which could entail risk or opportunity.
Do we take the road of creativity, technology, brain research, etc? Saying yes to certain solutions requires that we say no to others. Which do we choose?
X means opportunity: X marks the spot for treasure—the winnings that come from finding the problem and capitalizing on it before others can.
In the global competition for knowledgeable, creative, innovative, caring, informed, collaborative, cooperative, and intelligent populace, the country that can figure out which problems to solve and which solutions to choose will have an advantage in the future.
See what I mean? This is not easy. It’s not a simple, complex, or even a wicked problem. Education is an X-problem.
There are several factors that Adam says differentiate X-problems from wicked problems that I will discuss a coming post.