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Wicked Problems, Collaboration, and the Harmony of Contrary Motion (Part 1 of 5)

If you grew up in New England, a “wicked problem” might sound like what happens when something wicked awesome goes wicked wrong. In fact, “wicked problem” is an academic term coined in social policy circles in the ‘60s. Wicked problems are intractable, complex problems. They’re problems too big for any one person to solve. Problems such as global food supply chains, natural resource management, and nuclear proliferation.  Problems that make or break civilizations.

Fortunately, as wicked problems have grown more complex, comparable tools and processes have emerged to engage them. The Internet brings together disparate areas of expertise. Interdisciplinary programs integrate academic ways of thinking. Knowledge infrastructures and resources like these stimulate collaboration around today’s issues of deep complexity.  These are timely, because increasingly we are seeing elements of “wickedness” in a broader range of challenges. What about raising the quality of a nation’s education system, for example? How should teachers train? Should we begin with subject mastery, adolescent development, or cognitive psychology? Or should we begin with the craft of asking good questions, or practicing empathy? Good teaching benefits from all of these.

Addressing wicked problems in education requires not only the work of great teachers, but also the work of scientists, historians, sociologists, organizational managers, and perhaps most of all: a healthy dose of human sensitivity. Successfully bringing together these domains of knowledge, though, turns out to be much more challenging—and interesting—than simply putting a bunch of people together in a room and hoping for the best. 


This is the first in a five part series about collaboration.

These posts appear together as an article in the Winter 2014 issue of Deerfield Magazine.
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