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Teaching Higher Level Thinking

A Brief Overview of Tame and Wicked Problems

By Mac Bogert

In 1973, an article appeared in Policy Sciences, a periodical with a small but devoted readership. Written by Horst Rittell and Melvin Webber, the piece introduced the concept of tame and wicked problems. Soon after, Gerry Weinberg (he’s a household name in computer science) suggested that “All the easy problems have been solved. From now on the problems will be much tougher.” What they suggest is that we need to better understand wicked problems. Not wicked in the sense of evil, but in the sense of the higher level of thinking we need to tackle them.

Any question, situation, or problem can be framed in terms of wickedness. “What is the meaning of life?” is a wicked question. “What time does our flight leave?” is a tame question.

In a nutshell, tame questions have an answer, so they have a solution. Tame problems can be complicated—like balancing a checkbook—but they can be solved. Wicked problems linger. No matter how smart we are, and how hard we work, issues like social inequality and education are too “wicked” to be adequately addressed by any single solution. Tame thinking — that there is a single answer that will fix this — leads us astray when we’re faced with a wicked problem.

The traditional approach to learning — memorization and repetition — is adequate for tame problems (most math problems, history focused on names, dates, and events, multiple choice exams). But a reliance on this kind of teaching and learning can lead us into the trap of thinking that, if we study and work hard enough, we can find the answer, a comforting illusion for wicked problems. Much of the traditional approach to learning still relies on tame problem thinking.

It’s always tempting to look back at that past as simpler and safer, somehow. I started teaching using chalk, mimeographs, and film strips. It seemed like a simpler time with clearer answers. Yet this year I have provided as many virtual learning sessions as face-to-face. To make them work, I’ve had to change not only how I deliver my message, but how I think. I’ve found delivering webinars and web-based retreats to be challenging, exciting, and wicked. I, like all of us, am liable to fall into the trap of tame problem thinking. Tame problem thinking — that I can simply transfer face-to-face teaching to the Web — wasn’t sufficient, as I discovered very quickly.

Wicked and Tame

Tame Problem Math: 2 X 2 = 4

Tame problems have four important characteristics:

  1. They have a firm and stable problem statement.
  2. They can be objectively judged as right or wrong.
  3. Once they’re solved, we’re done.
  4. They belong to a similar class of problems that can be similarly solved.

Tame thinking may be comforting — two plus two always equals four! — yet it nurtures an illusion that every problem has a correct answer. Unfortunately, that leads to the idea that all other possible answers are wrong, and how much of our actual experience supports that notion?

Wicked Problem Math: 1,232 X 13 = 19

The second equation captures an event. 1,232 American bison X 13 Native American hunters = 19 days of protein for the village. It’s a snap shot, a possibility, and it’s an example of wicked problem thinking. It’s not the answer, nor is it a solution, yet it can increase our understanding and insight. Here are the characteristics of wicked problems:

  1. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping point.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.

I’m not suggesting that some things aren’t right or wrong in the moral and ethical sense, but that we need to shift our thinking away from certainty toward options. In this brave new world, we need to help our learners expand rather than contract the scope of their thinking, toward possibilities rather than a solution.

We’re all liable to fall for tame thinking — the idea that there is a right answer — to avoid the discomfort of ambiguity, especially when faced with questions about who to marry, how to save for retirement, which candidate to vote for, what career to seek, how to reconcile different accounts of the same events, why we can’t understand each other or how to best educate and measure education. These are all wicked situations. Tame solutions simply bounce off and usually add to the problem as the illusion of correctness leads us to stop considering other answers.

 Wicked Learning for a Wicked Problem World

I’m very grateful for all the teachers who dealt with this infernally curious boy. I must have been fun and a pain. I was always asking questions. Still do. And these wonderful folks provided me with a great baseline of useful tame problem knowledge. Arithmetic. Trigonometry (which I still use when I go sailing). Information about chemistry, physics, biology, history. I also had some wicked problem teachers — two I remember in high school, several in college — who made me uncomfortably better.

They gave me the gift of skepticism, challenging me to expand my understanding continually rather than be satisfied with the illusion that I’d figured it out. “Okay, that’s a pretty good explanation. What about the opposite? What are other possibilities? How would you see this decision point in history if you were on the other side?”

We still need to master the kind of thinking that solves tame problems, focused on the solution which provides a baseline of verifiable knowledge. And we also need to make space for expanding our wicked problem thinking, an open-ended exploration that generates insight without the expectation of the solution, but of expanded understanding and collaboration. Our smart phones and tablets provide a prime target for this kind of learning, since access to the Internet can be a blessing. It can also be a curse.

Due to the Net, at the same time we can find out just about anything about anything, we are also liable to all kinds of misinformation and fabrication. The Web has presented us with our most recent wicked problem. We can focus on helping our learners in this increasingly complex world with a critical element in Wicked Learning: Skepticism.

A great exercise is to keep some buckets (any containers will do) labelled “Fact” (the sun is about 93 million miles from Earth); “opinion” (we need to assign more homework); and “possibility” (maybe we could have students ‘teach’ one class per week). Start the day with the news and have the class decide which items go in which buckets. Use the buckets whenever controversy, be it about the school dance, international news, class behavior, or an assignment, crops up.

This helps everyone become more discerning about the tendency to masquerade opinions as facts and to understand that we can see things differently, essential for generating options. Over time, we grow more comfortable with generative ambiguity—the tension that leads to innovative ideas by looking for answers that expand rather than limit the continued search.

We can also practice, and model, using more open questions. These are questions that invite exploration rather than focus on a single answer. We can ask, “Who can tell me when Columbus discovered America?” A nice tame problem question (it has an answer) that is useful as a framework to set the stage for a wicked learning opportunity. Then we can follow up with “What are some of the fears that must have been on the minds of the folks on the three ships that sailed in 1492?”

The first is a tame problem question, the second a wicked problem question. The first has an answer, the second expands curiosity and frames a conversation that invites us to expand rather than contract our focus, to look for insights rather than answers.

We can also spend time with our fellow learners exploring our differences without judgment. There’s more than enough information available — through both research and experience — about how we think differently, learn differently, prefer to work alone or in a group, move toward the concrete or the abstract, find comfort in the literal or the figurative, even down-to-earth preferences like tastes in food, music, and apps.

This not only builds a sense of community, it gets us acclimated to respecting, even celebrating different perspectives. When we suffer under the illusion that we should all think alike, we lack the capacity to grapple with wicked problems. The wider the universe of perspectives we can welcome to thinking and problem-solving, the better we can explore and manage solutions that address wicked problems.

Teaching and learning within a wicked-problem world start with changing (and getting used to continually changing) how we frame and shape our thinking and the thinking of our learners. It’s about assessing and dealing with problems less narrowly as well as changing our expectations for success. A wicked problem cannot be “solved” in the traditional sense, so we can help our learners balance working toward a solution for the tame part with working toward understanding, insight, and possibilities for the wicked part.

If you prefer, you can listen to the podcast, “Wicked Learning for Wicked Problems” at the Learning Chaos Podcast by clicking on the link below:


Author Further Reading
  1. Harvard Business Review – Wicked Problem-Solvers
  2. The Insider – Wicked Problems: Some Problems Demand Different Methods
  3. Policy Sciences 4 – Dilemmas in a General theory of Planning
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