The Wicked Problem in Higher Education

While this post is not related to my main research effort, quality of education is important for me. I haven't enjoyed high school and have a pretty sceptical view on its ability to prepare pupils for anything. My experiences with most freshmen has only reinforced this image.  Over time, also what I have seen in universities, is questionable if it prepares students for work life. In an attempt to try to understand the changes in higher ed, and the bit of research I have done on this topic so far (thanks also to Marian Svensson who has analyzed interviews I conducted with more than 10 faculty and produced a wonderful master thesis.)
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What’s a wicked problem?

The term “wicked problem” comes from the public policy field 1. It describes problems which are more than ill-structured. There is no solution all stakeholders would simply agree on, there is no way to test the usefulness of a solution, and by working on the solution the problem may change 2. It requires a great deal of collaboration and trust between stakeholders. With wicked problem, the formulation of the problem is (the first) problem 1,2 which needs to be addressed before a solution could even be conceived. The formulation of the problem is important, as this sets the boundaries of what a possible solution could look like 3.

The Background

The ability to manage complexity and increase dexterity is nowadays thought for in professionals 4. Professionals need to have transferable cross-disciplinary skills 5. This has – sort of – reached the awareness of policy makers, visible through the greater importance international organizations such as OECD put on comparing problem-solving skills of students in different countries 6.

But we might be introducing more open-ended questions, moving from teacher to student centered education, incorporating the newest technological devices, but the overall infrastructure and models for learning, through which tertiary and professional education is offered, remains static 7. This suggest that I believe that something is wrong in the way we teach students. Let me share with you my educational experiences. That will help you to understand from where I’m coming and my view on universities.

My past

I have a few cherished memories of kindergarden, packed with freedom and games. However, when we moved to another country, two memories stuck with me from the 6 months I spent in that new kindergarden. Firstly, being told off by an instructor for not following the instructions on what (and I think also how) to paint a picture, whereas the person on the other side of the table was doing the  same thing than I (not following directions). Secondly, being told in front of all, that, with a bit more practice, I would be get better at something other kids already mastered. I’m not saying that those moments traumatized me for life, but these moments I still remember more than 20 years later.

The good teachers I remember, where those who could make classes come alive (Recalling the experiences of others shared during an online course offered by High Tech High this seems to be the common denominator, separating the memorable courses from the undefined mass). I had three of those in 12 years of primary and high school. Apart from that, I remember seeking out the table nearest to the window so that I could have some distractment. The only reason why I didn’t fail school, is that I knew this wasn’t an option in my family and the chance of being taught extra lessons by my father was scary, to say the least.

This experience stands in stark contrast to my desire “to know everything” as I told my grand-parents as a toddle and my desire to teach my youngest sister everything. In my pursuit of a PhD, I have regained the opportunity to know everything (about a very narrow area) and to pass my knowledge on to others.

These experiences have shaped my view that universities are not really that useful. Yes, you get a lot of (theoretical) knowledge, but can you apply it? Do we want students to know it or to use it? I think most of us want their students to be able to use the knowledge we pass on, but for administrative, logistics, or costs reasons, we content ourselves with assessing what they know (i.e. were able to memorize) than what they can apply. But this divide between learning and assessment doesn’t help anyone. In addition, it creates a trench on the path towards work life.

What’s an University

Now, that you know what I think of universities (because of where I came from), let’s look at what universities are. Definitions of ‘university’ state that it is a place where someone can gain a degree 8,9. The word appears first in the 14 century and describes a group of scholars engaged in the “higher branches of learning in a certain place”10. The origin of the word in late Latin means ‘guild’, ‘society’, and in Latin ‘the whole’, ‘universe’ 10. Taking this together, the original meaning of university means “a place where the whole number of scholars of a field are working”. Two things are notable, first it needs to be a physical place, and secondly, it is bound by something (i.e.. the boundaries of the discipline).
A conclusion out of this, is that universities are the place which “hordes” knowledge and passes it on to other people. It is a place of knowledge creation, transfer, and preservation. Has this changed over time ? I propose that no, it hasn’t. The role of universities remain the same, it is still focusing on passing on and creating knowledge (depending on the university, faculty is more concerned with creating or passing on knowledge). As Dr. Helfand in his TedX talk remarks, universities are still organized around disciplines 11. We’re sitting in our disciplinary silos, untouched by change.

The point is often made that universities need to innovate, they need to adapt to the increasing use of technologies, the changing demands of learners, and the labour market. But for some reason, they are unable to do so and therefore unable to prepare. Doesn’t sound that much different than a typical organization. In the business world, many change attempts result in failure 12. What sets universities apart from businesses is their security of funding through national governments and the prohibition to fail (at the end, who wants to have a degree from an university which failed because of inadequate teaching and/or resource practices?).

The following post on this series on Wicked Problems looks at the stakeholders and their needs.


1 Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–160.
Conklin, E. J., & Weil, W. (2007). Wicked problems: Naming the pain in organizations. Touchstone Tools and Resources.
3 Bruggen, J. M., & Kirschner, P. A. (2003). Designing external representations to support solving wicked problems. In J. Andriessen, M. Baker, & D. Suthers (Eds.), Arguing to Learn: Confronting Cognitions in Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Environments (Vol. 1, pp. 177–203). Kluwer Academic Publishers. doi:10.1007/978-94-017-0781-7_7
4IBM. (2010). Capitalizing on complexity: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer study. Retrieved from
5 Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: a brief history of the twenty-first century. World (Vol. 5). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
6 Schleicher, A., & Lalancette, D. (2013). Country Note Education at a glance 2013: United States. Retrieved from States _EAG2013 Country Note.pdf
7 Frenk, J., Chen, L., Bhutta, Z. A., Cohen, J., Crisp, N., Evans, T., … Zurayk, H. (2010). Health professionals for a new century: transforming education to strengthen health systems in an interdependent world. Lancet, 376(9756), 1923–58. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(10)61854-5
8 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Definition of University. Retrieved on 2nd November 2014. Retrieved from
9 Definition of University. Retrieved on 2nd November 2014. Retrieved from
10 Hoad, T. F. (2003). Etymology of University. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Hoad. T. F. (Eds). Oxford University Pressdoi: 10.1093/acref/9780192830982.001.0001
11 Helfand, D. (2014). Designing a university for the new millennium. TEDxWestVancouverED, June 2013. Retrieved on 3rd November 2014. Retrieved from
12 Kotter, J. P. (1995). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 73, 59.

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