Wicked Problems

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.” –Laurence J. Peter

Ever had a problem? A big problem? How about a wicked problem? In education, we deal with some very wicked problems. What exactly is a wicked problem? An organization called the New Media Consortium (NMC) researches challenges that school systems face and make determinations about what kinds of issues need to be addressed with high priority. They call these wicked problems and define them as “issues that are extremely difficult and even seemingly impossible to solve because of the complex or ever-changing environments in which they arise” (2013).

In my MAET graduate program, I worked with my peers to “tame” the wicked problem of “Teaching Complex Thinking.” Now, before we began trying to tame such a problem, we had to spend some time defining it. We had to spend some time defining the term “complex thinking,” to be more precise. In our research of the NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition, we found a few descriptions that helped us understand the term more accurately. The report stated that “The term complex thinking”refers to the ability to understand complexity, a skill that is needed to comprehend how systems work in order to solve problems, and can be used interchangeably with the term “computational thinking” (Johnson, 2015). As you might imagine, we then looked into the term “computational thinking” and began to explore it as well.

We found that there are four basic steps to computational thinking: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction and algorithm design (Google). To put this another way, a large part of computational thinking, or complex thinking is, “the ability for students to make complex ideas understandable,” both to others and to themselves (Johnson, 2015). Teaching skills like this is certainly not something you can buy a textbook for. Therefore,  you can see how this could be a wicked problem. And that’s just the beginning.

As we dove deeper into the issue, we found interesting research and points about the influence that complex thinking skills are having on the economy and job creation, not to mention the shift in standards and standardized testing to knowledge acquisition and representation through deep thinking practices. We read that new job creation is becoming more and more data and inquiry-based, but that there is actually a decline in the number of computer science graduates (Sykora, 2014).

So how do you address such a wicked problem? We don’t claim to have all of the answers, but we do think we have some great, research-based ideas that can help teachers get on track with teaching more complex thinking.

  1. Questioning- Practicing deep, open-ending questioning and teaching your students to question can be a great skill to hone. Questions can help extend and refine thinking, which promote openness and innovation in thinking.
  2. Consistency- Imagine how powerful it could be if we incorporated complex thinking strategies and routines into your DAILY practice!
  3. Visible Thinking Routines– Interactive learning strategies that provide students with the opportunity to display their own understanding while interacting with content.
  4. Coding and Makers Education- Both coding and making support problem-solving through design and implementation. For more information and a few ways to get started, try Code.org or MakerEd.org.

These are obviously just a few ways that teachers can promote complex thinking. Click on the images below to see our full presentation using Piktochart and interactive Thinglink. It includes many helpful visuals, videos and representations of the research and conclusions we found in relation to the wicked problem of teaching complex thinking.


Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2015). NMC Horizon Report: 2015 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Google. (n.d.). What is Computational Thinking?Retrieved July 19, 2016, from https://computationalthinkingcourse.withgoogle.com/unit?lesson=8

2013 Future of Education Summit. (n.d.). Retrieved July 18, 2016, from http://www.nmc.org/publication/communique-from-the-2013-horizon-project-future-of-education-summit/

Sykora, C. (2014, September 11). Computational thinking for all. Retrieved July 19, 2016, from https://www.iste.org/explore/articledetail?articleid=152

Visible Thinking. (n.d.). Retrieved July 19, 2016, from http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org/VisibleThinking_html_files/VisibleThinking1.html