Complexity, 'wicked-problems' and musings on assessment

by Guest Blogger, 07 July 2022
Boy solving complex equation on a blackboard

In this blog, Dr. Neil Gilbride, Senior Lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire, and a participant in our #MappingTheWay discussion series with Loic Menzies, talks about schools and why they are tricky places to navigate and understand. 

He then sets out the implications this has for the decisions teachers and school leaders need to make on a day-to-day basis. He concludes with 5 key questions to ask ourselves when determining the role that information and data can play in solving so-called ‘wicked problems’.

Schools are complex organisations. By complex, I am referring to how those in the Complexity Sciences (or ‘Complexity Theories’) define complex. Although there are different takes, there are some shared features that define what we mean by complex.

Hawkins and James describe many schools’ features in their seminal paper, characterizing them as C. E. L. L. S – Complex, Evolving, Loosely Linked Systems. Complex can mean, among other features, that each part of a school system is deeply interconnected. Consequently, one part of a system can interact in many different direct and indirect ways with its other parts. These interactions are crucial because through them completely new variables can emerge. This means systems can move between stability and change and become very difficult to describe as a whole. After all, how do you describe something which is so deeply interconnected, interacting, and with the capacity for change?

Cause and effect are also hard to determine and largely unpredictable in such environments. If everything is interconnected and the interactions are high, how do you know what effected who? Plus, the size of the input doesn’t predict the effect on the system (this is often referred to as the butterfly effect). Finally, for Hawkins and James one system is ‘Loosely linked’ to another – no man really is an island, and neither is one school or one system: changes in one setting can have effects on others. Thus, no school is ever standing still – they are either changing as a result of internal interaction or changing because their position is impacted by changes in other systems. Hence, they are either evolving to be a better fit, or, without change, will risk becoming less relevant. 

Gilbride, James and Carr make the case that in such environments ‘wicked problems’ are likely to be common. In other words, wicked problems provide a way of explaining how this complexity is made to manifest in the day to day challenges that school leaders and teachers face. 

A wicked problem was first defined by Rittel and Webber (1953) as having several key features: 

First, they are hard to describe. There are many parts to a wicked problem and many won’t be within view. Because of this, individuals from different positions will comprehend the problem in different ways. Critically, applying a solution is challenging as the problem is largely unique. It is difficult to determine the consequences of the solution or to predict what these consequences might be. Once a solution is applied, it could lead to other problems as well. 

Education is commonly associated with these wicked problems and, hence, complexity. In a forthcoming paper, Gilbride, James and Carr argue that Wicked Problems emerge from the complexity of school environments in a way that is different to other scenarios. Take for example rocket sciences. Norman states that, whilst rocket sciences are complicated, they are relatively simple, compared to the complex education sciences. That might sound surprising, but it’s a consequence of the fact that when it comes to schools, the output (learning) is so complex. 

Leithwood, Begley and Cousins show that a considerable proportion of school leaders’ time is taken up by what they refer to as ‘swampy’ problems (based on a similar problem framework to ‘wicked problems’). A recent survey of 70 school leaders by Getting Heads Together, reaffirmed this finding, showing that the conclusion applies across a wide range of responsibilities – from finance, to classroom learning to professional development. Meanwhile, according to Anderson certain challenges such as Special Educational Needs appear to be particularly ‘wicked’ . 

Ultimately, whether they are swampy or wicked and whether you’re a main-scale classroom teacher, or an executive headteacher of a large-scale trust, you are likely to be working in complex circumstances, addressing wicked problems.

If we accept that so many of the big questions in education are wicked and/or complex then this should inform our decisions about what information we gather and how we use it. For example, when conducting asssessment in school, are we trying to determine whether there has been a change in a child’s mind (i.e. has learning happened), or whether a school policy is having the desired effect? 

In either case, the purpose of assessment is to get us closer to what is happening and to help us see something that might otherwise be invisible or imprecise. Yet, taking into account the nature of complexity and wicked problems reminds us that even once we have gathered information, drawing conclusions about inputs, processes and outputs remains challenging. 

Does this mean we should abandon all efforts? Far from it. If anything, good quality information is critical when trying to describe complex phenomena and processes. But we do need to be more careful about how we interact with data. 

We should therefore be asking ourselves a series of questions when using information to understand a complex or wicked problem - particularly in education:

  1. What is the nature of the problem? Understanding this can help sound the alarm-bell when we find ourselves trying to understand a complex phenomena via overly simplistic means. When we try to capture something as inherently complex as learning, we need to remember that there might be multiple valid perspectives and that when we apply a solution, it will create consequences that are largely unpredictable. 
  2. Can we see data as more of an aid rather than an answer? Rather than relying on information to create sense for us, maybe we can turn to information to help us to make sense of things. In other words, information might help us find greater understanding and adapt, rather than granting an understanding of a situation that is either devoid of context and without requiring careful interpretation. 
  3. Can information help us ask better questions? Wicked problems are essentially unique and the application of a solution cannot predict whether or not something is likely to happen. Rather than pointing toward a solution which can be considered to work, good data might allow us to ask questions about what to do next. 
  4. Have we put as much effort into comprehending the context and variables attached to the phenomena, as we have into directly studying the phenomena itself? Data is deeply connected to its context so insights are inseparable from the context they are drawn from. 
  5. How can we integrate and bring together different viewpoints on the insights information provides? Given that alternative perspectives are not just likely - but important, in order to gather a whole world view, we are likely to need many eyes on a scenario and the information that tries to capture it. 

I hope that this very brief piece has introduced you to the world of complexity and Wicked Problems and, at the very least, sowed the seeds of a question about what this means for how we treat information and context within schools.

This blog was in response to our discussion series 'Mapping The Way to a More Equitable Future for Education' which brings together key voices from the education sector to discuss the barriers to equity in education, and the information policy makers and practitioners might need to improve it. You can add your voice to the discussion by signing up to our next live webinar event - make sure you're on our mailing list to receive an invite.

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