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Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems

An Article describing difficult problems and offering simple techniques to look for solutions.

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Creativity, Any Subject

Tags: Problem Based Learning Problem Solving Grit Creative Thinking


Once upon a time there lived a young man who wasn't good enough. So he thought and thought about what to do and eventually came up with a plan: he joined a gym and went there every day. Soon his arms and chest became huge and muscly. But the new muscles on his top half were so heavy that his knees gave way and stopped working. They couldn't hold him up any longer.

So the young man went to a doctor who gave him some cream for his knees. As soon as he rubbed it on they were strong again but unfortunately the rest of him came out in a horrible rash. He quickly wiped off the cream but the rash remained. 

Next the young man traveled to a healing pool and the monks there let him bathe in it for a while. When he got out the rash had gone but water had run into his ears and he could no longer hear.

Try as he might he couldn't shake out the water so he asked a friend to hit him on the side of the head. When his friend did as he'd been asked, out shot the water. But the blow was so hard that the young man was knocked unconscious. When he finally came round he couldn't recall a single thing about himself. Not even his name.

That story starts to explain what is called a Wicked Problem. Wicked problems:

  • Are not clearly defined.
  • Keep developing into new problems.
  • Don't have right or wrong solutions.
  • Change once a solution is attempted.

They are complex. They are interesting. They are annoying. And they are all around us right now.

Big, Small, Wicked, Complex

The anticipated impact of global warming is a complex problem. Conflict in the Middle East is a complex problem (some say the most intractable on the planet). Finding the next rent cheque can be a complex problem. Working out how to make and keep friends in the playground can be a complex problem. Keeping your passion for teaching alive in the midst of unreasonable and unnecessary paperwork IS a complex problem.

It's not about the size or scale or impact of the problem, but about how you view it. A problem is a perceived difference between your current state and your desired state. And a complex problem is one that has a little bit of wicked in it too.....

Solving the Problem

Creative and analytic problem solving techniques abound. They abound alot - all over the internet and all over training courses. Here are a few things they have in common.

1. Clearly define the problem. Don't be vague like the young man in the story. Describe what you are seeing, hearing and feeling. Then describe what you want to be seeing, hearing and feeling when the problem is solved.

2. Take a reality check. Is this actually a problem I can and want to solve?

3. Focus on moving from where you are to where you want to be. Actually solve the problem. How?

4. Get creative. Imagine (or ask) what people in other professions would do in your situation. And ask people who've faced a similar challenge themselves.

5. Get analytic. Choose a handful of possible actions. Assess each for pros and cons and give a score. Follow the action with the best score.

6. Assess the outcome. Is the new state as expected? If not is there now a new problem? If all's good, crack on with your life.

Complex Problems in the Classroom

Problem solving in class usually relates to Maths. Exploit this. Apply the skills and attitudes used to struggle with complex maths problems in other places and in other subjects. Pupils generally need to:

  • Recognise that it is a problem.
  • Develop confidence to have a go and to keep having a go at solving it.
  • Have step-by-step processes to hand.
  • Know when they've solve it and be able to celebrate a good solution.

If you work with very young children you're very lucky. They are some of the best problem solvers on the planet. They are unbaggaged by right or wrong. They are unfettered by limited imagination and they are uninhibited when it comes to blurting out genius. 

If you really want to solve a wicked, complex problem, ask some 4-year-olds.

Related Resources:

Apollo Thinking

Block Problem Solving (Premium)

Block Problem Solving (Standard)

Block Problem Solving PowerPoint

Expert Thinking

Problem Solving

Problem Solving Think Sheet


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