Are You Up for a Design Challenge? Wicked Problems for Post-Pandemic School Redesign


By Eric Chagala, Aaron Roberts, and Allison Zmuda

The new liberal art of design thinking is turning to the modality of impossibility… what many people call “impossible” may actually only be a limitation of imagination that can be overcome by better design thinking. This is not thinking directed toward a technological “quick fix” in hardware but toward new integrations of signs, things, actions, and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.

Richard Buchanan

COVID19 has been a massive disruption in your school plans and will likely continue to shift what learning is essential and where learning happens for the next 12-18 months. How might we leverage this disruption to meaningfully engage with wicked problems to tackle the “impossible” that persist in schools?

What Is a Wicked Problem?

A wicked problem is one that feels impossible to solve. First coined in the 1960s by German mathematician Horst Rittel, he wanted to describe an alternative to linear problem solving within the confines of a singular discipline.

The chaos of our current crisis has laid bare those wicked problems with which schools continue to wrestle. Complex and interdependent in nature, this is a quick list of topics to launch your own generative ideas that would benefit from a re-think right now—equity, learner engagement, grading and reporting, year-long test prep curriculum for state and national assessments, learner agency, seat time, and where learning happens.

We know these topics have plagued us for years, but they have become more stark and intolerable in light of COVID19.

This is more than iterating current practices and filling in understood gaps like technology access. This is about posing the big, complex, structural problems about how we do school.

These wicked problems may prompt every local community to candidly and compassionately examine pervasive shortcomings to generate and test out new designs, structures, practices, and policies. The pandemic, the social distancing — while awful and cruel in how it is disrupting lives socially, economically, educationally—could this be the straw that breaks that camel’s back? That pushes education to a new opportunity for all kids?

Knowing that school may begin again in the fall in a very different context than we are accustomed to, how might we take this unique opportunity to define wicked problems that need fresh eyes and fresh designs for our new realities?

Key Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Are you dealing with wicked problems in your school design? How do you know it’s truly wicked? Take your conceptions and run it through the following tests to add dimension, urgency, clarity, and aspiration.

Is it ambiguous and complex? Something that is an adaptive change, not a technical one. We cannot rely on current practice and solutions to address. We also need to better understand the problem itself by listening with understanding and empathy to a diverse set of stakeholders.

Is it worth the investment? The wicked problems you frame ideally are taking on persistent problems that have become even more clear because of COVID19.

Is it clearly and concisely framed? Transparency is key so that all stakeholders can have access as to what and how you are framing the problem so that they can choose how they want to engage. Whether they are on a design team, pilot team, feedback team, or implementation review, every person in the school community will ultimately be impacted.

Is it compelling to inspire a range of stakeholders to want to tackle it? All of these wicked problems can’t be solved by a local school system alone. Every wicked problem stretches beyond the organization’s locus of control and involves partnership with outside entities.

We are proposing that if we take this unprecedented time and change the way we not only frame problems as ‘wicked’, but how we design with our school community to better understand and take action in prototyping them into new opportunities for all students.

Begin and Act with Empathy

So where do we begin? The most important start to addressing a wicked problem is through gaining empathy from the “users” affected. Schools are good at talking about and to “stakeholders.” But to address a wicked problem, we need to up our game. We need to listen. Truly, listen. We need to hear the stories of our users and those who are affected by the problem. It isn’t just students, staff, and parents. What insights can be gained from different viewpoints? What about alumni? What about local business owners, taxpayers, community members, civic leaders, and on. Let’s seek out the lived-experiences, insights, and stories of others. The most effective way to get to these stories is to think like an ethnographer and dig deep.

Once we have gained empathy in a deep and meaningful way, we synthesize it all. We are then able to inspire hope in our teams by developing a “How Might We” (HMW) question. These questions are formulated on a workable scale; something that isn’t too big, it isn’t too small, but it is just right. For good reason, this is called the Goldilocks Test.

In design thinking, HMW’s not only breed hope in the team, but they guide the ideation cycle, and will provide a structure to test prototypes against. HMW’s are powerful because they help provide the following to a problem-solving effort:

‘How’ acknowledges that there is a problem—and it removes the blame-game for it,

‘Might’ gives a basis of hope and optimism that a solution exists,

‘We’ indicates that when it is worked on together, that anything is possible.

NOTE: For a whimsical approach with HMW’s, check out this resource from the Stanford d.School.

Examples of HMW’s for a real-life wicked problem, such as learner engagement, might include:

  • HMW design school to be more about the lives of our students than just school?
  • HMW make the strengths, interests, and values of each student central to their learning journey?
  • HMW inspire teachers to adopt a more personalized approach towards learning?

Once we get our HMW established, we are off to the races and our creative flair will be put to the test through ideation, prototyping, and testing!

So, let’s ask: What are the wicked problems that you are willing to tackle? How might we leverage these times to re-think, re-work, and re-make opportunities for all students?


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