The First Year Seminar and Wicked Problems

The First Year Seminar Coordinating Council (FYSCC) is facilitating a workshop during Plymouth State University’s January Jamboree. We will be discussing the changes we envision as the First Year Seminar (FYS) becomes our students’ introduction to the cluster initiative. One of the biggest changes (although it might not seem like a big change at first) is that each section of the course will focus on what we’re calling a “challenge” rather than a question as it has in the past. We’re envisioning these challenges to take the form of “wicked problems” which I’ve written about before. Here’s a preview of some of what we’ll be discussing in our workshop.

As I said in a previous post:

A wicked problem is “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve.” “Wicked” means resistance to resolution rather than evil. There are many reasons that these problems can be difficult to solve. We might have incomplete or contradictory knowledge about the problem. There might be a large number of people with a variety of opinions involved in the problem. Full solutions might involve a huge cost so as to be out of reach. And often, the problem is interconnected with other difficult to solve problems. Because of this interconnectedness, attempts to solve these problems often illuminate or create new problems.

Horst Rittel coined the term “wicked problem” and, in 1973, he and Melvin Webber identified 10 characteristics of such problems in the area of social policy:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of the wicked problem. Different people may characterize the problem in different ways because of their particular perspective on the problem. In fact, it may be difficult to even describe the problem at all.
  2. There is no stopping rule for the wicked problem. That is, we don’t have a rule for determining whether a solution has been found.
  3. Solutions are not right or wrong. Instead, solutions are better or worse. This implies that there is no single solution to the problem.
  4. There is no immediate or final test of a solution to the problem. That is, it is difficult (or impossible) to determine whether the problem is “solved.”
  5. Solutions to wicked problems have irreversible consequences so every potential solution is a “one-shot deal” and matters significantly.
  6. We can’t exhaustively list all potential solutions. We also can’t list or describe all of the permissible actions involved in potential solutions.
  7. Every wicked problem is unique.
  8. Every wicked problem is interconnected with (a symptom of, a subset of, a cause of) other wicked problems.
  9. There are many explanations for the cause of a wicked problem. The explanation chosen determines the kind of solution one might propose.
  10. Because Ritter and Webber were working in the area of social planning, they said, “The planner has no right to be wrong.” That is, the planner is liable for all of the consequences of the solution they propose.

This list of 10 characteristics has since been generalized to problems outside of the area of social planning but I like this formulation of the characteristics because I think it provides a fuller understanding of what we mean by “wicked problem.”

The FYSCC envisions that each section of FYS will focus on a wicked problem. For example, as a Communication and Media Studies faculty member, I am very interested in public distrust of the media, particularly the news media, and want to develop a FYS that focuses on this wicked problem. For the rest of my examples in this post, I’ll use this wicked problem. In focusing on this problem, I have no illusions that I or my students will “solve” the problem. Instead, I simply want to make some sort of difference in the problem, even if that difference is that my students understand more about the nature of the problem than when they began the class.

We’re also envisioning that the FYS will be project-focused. So we want every section to engage students in action-oriented projects that address some aspect of the wicked problem for the class. How does that work?

The first step would be for the faculty member to create their own formulation of the wicked problem. Remember that there is no definitive formulation of the problem so different faculty members working on the same problem might formulate it differently. We might start by thinking about potential causes of the wicked problem. For example, based on my disciplinary perspective and knowledge, I might think that technology use contributes the public’s distrust of the media. I might then formulate the wicked problem as “how does technology use contribute to the public’s distrust of the media?”

I would then gather some resources for the students to read to begin our investigation into the wicked problem. I might have students read about Google’s customized search algorithms through which different users are presented with different results for the same search and whether those create a “filter bubble” for users. We might read about the ways in which Facebook decides what to put in a user’s news feed and how those items affect a user’s worldview. I might have students read about “fake news” and “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance.”

The students would then gather their own resources about the wicked problem and share them with each other. Through these initial research phases, which actually look very much like our current FYS, students would begin to reframe the essential question “how does technology use contribute to the public’s distrust of the media?” as something that they care about and that they would be able to work. Perhaps they reframe the question so that they decide they want to work on reducing the influence of “fake news.”

The students would then design a project related to the reframed version of the wicked problem. They might decide they want to work on reducing the influence of “fake news” by educating users about the issue. So they might develop a media literacy guide for determining the validity of a particular online news source and share that guide with a media literacy site. Or maybe they want to work on reducing the influence of “fake news” by pressuring Facebook to change its policies and procedures for what is displayed in users’ news feeds. So they might initiate a national letter writing campaign to Facebook. Note that the projects I’m listing connect to the outside world in some way. The work of the students then has a life beyond the boundaries of the classroom and is seen by people outside of the classroom. The main point is that the students work on their reframed statement of the issue by engaging in some action that has the possibility of making some sort of difference. The difference is likely to be difficult or impossible to measure (because of the nature of wicked problems) but the students will be engaged with the outside world, using their newly found knowledge to try to make a difference. The FYS then becomes an introduction to the cluster initiative and the kind of thought and work the students will be expected to do throughout their time at PSU.

At our session next week, the FYSCC will lead participants through an exercise in which they explore their own possibilities for wicked problems and the ways in which they might engage students. We’ll use the United Nations’ 17 Goals for Sustainable Development (all of which are wicked problems) as a starting point. We definitely look forward to exploring these exciting ideas about the FYS.



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