Category Archives: leadership

The Origin of Wicked Problems

I learned about Rittel and Webber in my policy course in graduate school. The identified 10 characteristics of wicked problems in their article Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, published in 1973. You are fortunate as it is available for free online. If you don’t wish to dive into the article, here is the abstract:

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

And, you’ll be relieved to know that Wikipedia has the Cliff notes (or Spark notes, depending on your age).

I share this research with the classes I teach, including a project management class, where they are generally doing planning in the social sciences, and with my Master’s in Ed students who will become school divisions leaders, often tasked with doing planning. The concept continues to be timely.

In fact, I just started reading a book that uses the concept as a theme. The author attributes is understanding of the concept to a professor but makes no reference to Rittel and Webber. I wonder if it is because the research is so old? At some point, does a concept become commonly understood, an accepted part of the vernacular, so that it is no longer required to cite its creator? I think we need to at least give a nod to the origins for those who might want to learn more and explore the thinking behind the concept.

What Comes Easily to You?

I am just a few hours away from teaching the first class of the semester. I have a limited number of face to face sessions so I think this first class is even more critical than in a K-12 classroom. Every moment together counts.

Katie Martin’s pic of six questions to ask your students showed up in my Twitter feed. I followed the link to her blog post about four ways to create a learner-centered classroom. Both are worth a look. I completely agree with her that reviewing the rules or the syllabus are important but should not be the first thing a teacher does no matter the grade level. When I taught middle school, we started working on the first day and I either wove the rules in as part of our activities or spent some time with the students creating classroom rules and norms together. I wanted the message to be that this was an interactive class where we worked hard, played hard, and learned hard.

The goal of Martin’s six questions are to help teachers build relationships with their students. They are reasonable questions that would certainly help a teacher personalize classroom learning for students.

But, I did wonder about one of the questions: What comes easily to you? This is a potentially powerful question. But as with all things: it is all in what we do with. If the answer is used to customize activities so Suzie always gets to write and Billy always gets to draw because it comes easily to them, I think we could be taking student choice too far.

Given a choice in how to respond, I’m probably going to choose the way that comes easiest to me, in my case by writing text. In fact, publishing my little sketchnote/infographics and committing to public writing has been my way of moving away from what comes easily and pushing myself outside the proverbial comfort zone.  (I probably add 750 words a day to my journal…writing isn’t the problem for me, publishing is.)

I shared my course outline with some colleagues and at least one pushed back on requiring a “TED style talk” to present the work from their passion project. Wouldn’t some people be uncomfortable doing that, he asked. Yes, I’m sure they will, and I might tone down the “TED talk” rhetoric so it eases the pressure a bit, but the students WILL do a stand up presentation about their semester-long project. They are going to become school administrators and education leaders, and they need to get comfortable presenting ideas in front of groups of stakeholders.

We do lots of things that make people uncomfortable in my class at one point or another, from coding to recording videos of ourselves to solving challenges. For some people, just taking a course called School Technology causes anxiety. I combat that by being as supportive and reassuring as I can that while they will be expected to try out tools, failure will not affect their grades. (I don’t grade anyway really but that’s a whole other blog post.)

I am offering lots of choices this semester: from pursuing your passion to choosing from various tools to “writing” to your blog using a variety of media. But, I also am planning whole group activities around topics and tools, and I will expect participation from every student to some degree.

I think we should use the answer to the question of what comes easily to a student as a foundation for supporting them and a springboard for pushing them beyond the walls created by their preferences. I am a huge fan of Seymour Papert’s idea of hard fun where learning is challenging, but we find satisfaction in that challenge. He comments:

My whole career in education has been devoted to finding kinds of work that will harness the passion of the learner to the hard work needed to master difficult material and acquire habits of self-discipline. But it is not easy to find the right language to explain how I think I am different from the “touchy feely … make it fun make it easy” approaches to education.

My class is not easy in many ways and does require students to do more than a typical textbook, lecture, discussion kind of graduate class. You will get metaphorically dirty in this class but if you’re willing to try out things that may be difficult for you, I can promise you hard fun.

Blog Challenge Update:

Bad news: I had just turned out the light and plumped the pillow last night when I realized I had not posted a blog entry. I made a futile attempt to see if I could do it from my phone if only to keep the very short streak going but gave up pretty quickly and went to sleep. And slept soundly so clearly wasn’t too upset about missing.

Good news: In an effort to be more public about my blogging (honestly, I could probably write away here for months without anyone knowing), I shared my 10,000 Steps post on Facebook and got some nice feedback.



I have made time for playing my piano and am learning Bach’s Two Part Inventions. I’ve been working on the first Invention for awhile now using a version from an anthology of classical music. I was getting pretty good at it.

Today, I sat down to play using a new version from Alfred Masterworks. It includes a CD, and I was reassured at the speed and felt good that I was able to keep up. But, it also included specific ways to do the ornamentation and there’s where it got ugly. I had made up my own ornaments previously. This version includes the “official” ornaments, the way Bach would have played them. They were slightly different from my version. And suddenly, I couldn’t play it! NONE OF IT: not just the sections with the ornaments but NONE OF IT. The pagination and fingering suggestions were different, too. So, despite most of the notes being the same, all my practice seemed to be for nothing.

I think there is a lesson here for educators: we teach students one way to do something but how often do we challenge them to use that knowledge in new and different ways? If their learning is important and essential, then we need to be sure they can use the knowledge in new and different ways.

Meanwhile, I’ll be practicing…


Eclectic Reading: Leadership Lessons from Rebel Yell

I have been fascinated with the Civil War since first seeing Ken Burns’ epic documentary. Moving to Virginia fueled that fascination, and I have visited many of the battlefields.

One of the most intriguing characters that came out of a war full of intriguing characters was Stonewall Jackson, an odd stiff man who seemed to only come into his own when in the midst of the war. Beyond the battlefield, he was  unsuccessful in many ways. He often let his strong ethics get in the way of his relationships. His tenure in both the military and VMI was fraught with somewhat silly arguments with others. It was only when he found his place in the war that he began to shine as a strategist, warrior and, ultimately, a leader. After his death, even those in the north admired him for his tenacity and religious fervor. Abraham Lincoln, on reading a northern editorial about Jackson, wrote, “I sought my state-room, to weep there. Is it wrong, is it treason, to mourn for a good and great, though clearly mistaken man?” (p. 558).  And, Henry Ward Beecher, ardent abolitionist and editor of The Independent, called Jackson, “Quiet, modest, brave, noble, honorable, and pure. He fought neither for reputation now, not for future personal advancement.” (p. 559).

S.C. Gwynne‘s recent biography of Jackson, Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, dissects the man, getting beyond the legend to reveal a loving husband and father and a loyal friend to those who get past the prickly exterior.

But Gwynne also highlights some essential leadership lessons that can be taken from Jackson’s life. One of those is the power of belief to drive men to do more or less than they might otherwise do. He speculates on why groups of soldiers might advance or retreat, writing:

Belief counted for a lot–in one’s general, in the caption in front of you brandishing his gleaming sword, in the bravery of one’s fellow soldiers, in the idea of winning itself…Though it is impossible to measure the effect of Jackson’s growing reputation as a winner on his men, it was undoubtedly strong (p. 321).

Often being a leader means having to influence people to do things they wouldn’t do naturally. When visiting the now peaceful battlefields, I find it unfathomable that soldiers on both sides, having witnessed the carnage of previous fights, were willing to continue to march into these battles. Yet, several times in Rebel Yell, Gwynne comments that the men of the Stonewall Brigade seemed, despite the deprivations and horror, happy as they followed the man who made them victorious against all odds. There is a lesson here for all of us who lead: build confidence by creating opportunities for success.

I am fascinated by the story about the demise of The New Republic because I think it prompts so many different threads of thought about how technology is impacting our lives. It is a larger than life demonstration of the clash of old and new, past and future, that is playing out throughout our culture, including our classrooms. There are lessons here for educators, both the innovators and the traditionalists, about how to make change in a way that preserves the best of the past and takes advantage of the best of the future.

For now, I just have a few random thoughts after reading the lengthy article in the The New Yorker and the shorter piece in The Washington Post.

1. I had trouble getting through The New Yorker article. It was well written, engaging and informative, but my attention span seems to have shortened for long form essays. Have I been impacted by the 140-character trend? Or is there just too much distraction from email and social media?

2. I wasn’t prepared for how young Chris Hughes looks. He is over 30 years old but that still seems too youthful to take over the helm of TNR, which just celebrated its 100th birthday. He does sport a history and literature degree from Harvard. Startled by his photo, I suddenly realized that I am the older generation with more respect for experience and longevity than youthful enthusiasm. But, I was wrong, since Franklin Foer is only 37 and was 31 when he first became editor. The battle of past and future isn’t always defined age any more than the clash of digital natives and immigrants depicted in education.

3. At its core, however, this is a story about botched leadership. Leaders are expected not just to have vision but be able to communicate that vision to others and be open to their ideas and input, showing respect for that experience and longevity I mentioned earlier. The two leaders overseeing the debacle remain mostly unrepentant, a further demonstration of their lack of leadership. Hughes has lashed out at the writers and editors who left while Guy Vidra, brought in as the new chief executive, was a little more conciliatory but still defiant. Despite his protestations otherwise, this seems very much a clash of cultures and the inability of a successful businessman to admit that just being able to buy the magazine doesn’t mean you know best how to run it. Vidra’s comment that Gabriel Snyder better shares their vision and ideas is a sure sign that they think they know best. Only time will tell.