This is the third in a series of articles about taking risks with Education Leadership, Learning and Teaching. The articles are based around a workshop that I have been doing with the same name for Scottish Local Authorities and the EIS.
If ever you needed an example of a wicked problem then education would be a perfect example.
A "Wicked problem" is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (source)
One key thing that risk taking leaders and teachers have in common is that they have realized a long time ago that it is OK to re-invent the wheel. The reason that this is OK is because other things have changed (eg: technology advances, changes in staffing, young people’s expectations etc…).
Industry provides us with another interesting example of this. Amazon started out selling books. Selling books was not a new business idea in fact I am sure that some people probably laughed at it. The main idea behind Borders (UK) Bookstore was to sell books. Borders Books was around long before Amazon had even been dreamed up. Amazon re-invented the wheel but they re-invented it in a different way. In a way that took into account changes within society and embraced the digital age.
Amazon continues to thrive. Borders Books UK went bankrupt in 1999 (the US part of the chain in 2011). They key difference was that one company realised that there was a difference between, ‘we have done that before,’ and ‘doing things differently’. Schools need to keep this in mind every time they develop strategies to fully include children, personalize learning, adopt a Local Authority directive or deliver on a piece of policy.
As well as being a wicked problem (in particular developing the curriculum) education is also a complex problem. Unfortunately we often deal with complex problems in education in complicated way. In ways that are not sustainable or adaptable. The result tends to be a quick fix rather than actually tackling the core of the problem.
Problem One - Fresh Water in sub-Saharan Africa
No one can deny this is not a problem. In a number of locations over the word there is a shortage of fresh surface water and the water table has dropped so much the water needs to be pumped to the surface.
Electric pumps are not sustainable and when they break they are not adaptable. They are a quick fix and don’t solve the problem.
Hand pumps work and are sustainable (eg: they don’t rely on electricity). But pumping is hard work and adults need to do other things so don’t always have time to spend hours a day pumping water. Children find the traditional hand pump mechanism hard to use and although many see the point of pumping water it is very boring! Hand pumps are not very adaptable.
The Solution - play pumps. A children’s merry-go-round attached to the hand pump. As the children play (it only spins one way) water gets pumped into a storage tank. The sides of the storage pump are used for advertising to help generate an income to maintain the pump.
More information on Play Pumps here - it is a fascinating story.
Problem Two - Obesity
Is technology making us over weight? How do we encourage people to walk up stairs rather than taking the escalator? If we did this how much more healthy would people be and how much money would this save the national health service in the long run?
Is this a possible solution? - (You Tube Clip below)
Both of the above examples are useful to examine when trying to work out how to tackle education and curriculum problems.
The solutions given for each problem are both very different but they are also both very simple. Both solutions have been adapted for local need. Both solutions are playful and exciting. Both problems are solved by encouraging people to have a challenging (it is hard work to walk up steps and push a merry-go-round), positive and happy experience.
What can we learn from this? Well perhaps our first steps to tackling our challenges in education are to make sure that children have a positive and happy experience of school and learning. Perhaps we can do this by providing authentic challenge and excitement within a playful environment. Individual children will need different approaches to help them get the most out of their learning. Everything that is done needs to be simple, adaptable and sustainable but within a local context.
Finally, let us return to industry for one last example. In the USA the bottled water industry is a $8 billion business. But 42% of US tap water is better quality than bottled water. Why do people drink bottled water? It is because they have bought into the experience.
We need to get out children and young people to buy into the experience. The experience is learning.
In the next post in this serise I'll talk about how the solution is often in the problem.