The Wickedness of Education

Education is a wicked problem with no solution. Educational buildings are likewise wicked.

A student common room. Isn't education wicked?

Back in 1973, two academics at University of California, Berkeley, developed the notion of the ‘wicked problem’ to describe intractable problems facing social policy makers. With wicked problems, said Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, in their seminal paper Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, “there are no solutions in the sense of definitive and objective answers”.

The most intractable problem is that of defining the problems themselves. The difference between societal problems and those of science is that the latter are definable and have solutions that can be found. For Rittel and Webber, the former are “ill-defined and rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution…Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.”

So, is education a wicked problem? It is certainly a policy problem. How often do we see governments come out with new education policies – trying to re-solve the education problem over and over again? Yes, education clearly seems to be a wicked problem.

Rittel and Webber also point out that solutions to problems like that of education are “one-shot” operations with no opportunity to learn by trial and error. In other words students carry with them forever traces of the “experiment” on them, even if changes are made for subsequent students.

Another trait of a wicked problem is that there is no rule that signifies the end of the problem resolving process. You can always do better. People only stop trying to resolve a wicked problem because of an extraneous factor such as money or time running out. Just as with education itself, attempts to find the definitive solution for the educational building are a road to nowhere.

Probably the best that can be done is to create an education system and likewise an educational building, that has enough “wriggle room” to enable evolutionary change. But this is a “wicked problem” in itself.

One thought on “The Wickedness of Education

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