Chapter 19 Teaching and learning for epistemic fluency

Learning by designing inquiry

An extract on “wicked systemic problems”

This approach aligns with a recognition that many complex problems in the worlds of professional work require conscious design of the inquiry process that will be used to tackle them. The design literature talks about “wicked problems” (Rittel & Webber, 1973 and see section 19.1.2 above). We extend that notion by distinguishing a special class of wicked problems which we call “wicked systemic problems”. Wicked design problems, in Rittel & Weber’s sense, are seen as wicked mainly because they have no clear, uncontestable solution. However, they can often be tackled by using established design methods. We see “wicked systemic problems” as problems that require the people working upon them to engage in deep learning and in the design of the methodology for tackling the problem. Blackmore & Ison (2012) talk about it this way, in reference to managing systemic change, which they say is

“mainly about developing a critical appreciation of situations with others, recognizing what actions are systemically desirable and culturally feasible and getting organised to affect change in a positive way” (348-9)

So, strategies for investigating and solving shared, systemic wicked problems are much fuzzier than for investigating and solving “tame” problems (even complex ones) and what one might call “regular” or “designerly” wicked problems. As with wicked problems generally, they normally entail constructing the problem and its solution together. But systemic wicked problems are usually distributed across, and solved by, many people over extended periods of time. So they require both joint action and deep learning, which enables all the actors to make sense of the situation and act in alignment with how others think and act. Crucially, systemic wicked problems are dynamic; they change while they are being worked upon, and so cannot be tackled by a single strategy that can be chosen in advance. It is not just that the problem and its solution are constructed together, but the problem, the solution and the problem-solving strategy are worked on together.

Wicked systemic problems are increasingly common in many professional domains, particularly in areas of engineering, management and the social/caring professions – information systems, design, environmental planning, health, social work, education, for example (Senge, 2000, 2006; Senge et al., 2010; Wals & Corcoran, 2012;). Here is a representative example from the field of healthcare.

“The home care managers and workers are now struggling to redefine their work and services so as to meet such demanding problems as increasing loneliness and social exclusion, loss of physical mobility, and dementia. <..> How can the managers, workers, and clients learn to work in such a way that the new needs are met and the society can afford to provide the service?” (Engeström & Sannino, 2010, 1, our emphasis)

Blackmore and Ison (2012) give an example of a similar challenge encountered in environmental sustainability:

“Should people in Europe welcome the increased availability of biofuels when their production is often considered unsustainable as it is linked to water supply constraints and increased competition for land for food production?” (Blackmore & Ison, 2012, 349)

Questions like these require that we do more than take into account the interconnections between various systems – such as the social and biological – and acknowledge multiple causes and multiple effects. We also have to work with peculiarities of the problem-solving context, the multiplicity of human perspectives and the requirement for sustainable, joint action. When problem-solving processes are distributed across many domains of professional expertise, and touch on diverse non-professional interests, this demands diverse kinds of knowledge, diverse ways to think, and diverse ways to construct knowledge. In short, the process of problem-solving is ill-structured; not just the problem itself. And while designerly approaches to solving wicked problems typically result in the production of new objects, systemic wicked problems involve joint learning and design of the inquiry process itself. For example, if one imagines trying to find an answer to the question posed above about biofuels, then one immediately faces the issue of how such an inquiry should be conducted. The scale of the problem, the diversity of the cultures, people and interests affected, and the need for shared sense-making and joint action over extended periods of time all combine to make us aware that the processes of learning and knowing involved will be complex, problematic and hard to untangle.

The dominant approaches to professional education certainly acknowledge that professionals have to tackle wicked problems almost every day, and that they may have to deal with these promptly and with little time for deliberation, let alone design. But we have found very few traces in the professional education or instructional design literature of approaches that help students learn how to design their own process of inquiry.

Source: These are extracts from Chapter 19 of Markauskaite, L., & Goodyear, P. (forthcoming, 2015). Epistemic fluency and professional education: innovation, knowledgeable action and actionable knowledge. Dordrecht: Springer. This is a close-to-final draft. Please check the final published version if you are going to quote it. The book  is available from Springer’s e-shop.

Your comments: Please, leave your questions and comments about this chapter in the field below. If you want to keep your comment private, say this in your message. (We will read it, but won’t publish.)


4 responses to “Chapter 19 Teaching and learning for epistemic fluency

  1. michaelrhysjohnson

    Thanks for sharing… Admitting to reading these extracts rather like I would a newspaper, I.e. From the back pages… But re. ‘But we have found very few traces in the professional education or instructional design literature of approaches that help students learn how to design their own process of inquiry.’ Are you looking in the right places? Hasn’t PBL always explicitly sought to accomplish something like this? Even the whole-sale move of professional education into the academy aims to beef up curriculum with knowledge work when the learners main aspiration is quite out of line with this… i.e. In the case of student nurses, the degree is a bonus, what they really want to do is care for people, however idealistic that might sound.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the feedback Mike. Good points. On PBL – we do have a section on PBL but I think we see it as an inquiry-based process, rather than one which necessarily involves groups of students (re)designing their processes of inquiry to match the needs of new and changing inquiry situations. Of course, the details of exactly what inquiry work must be done within each cycle of PBL have to be thought through and agreed – but I think it would be unusual to see that as involving (re)design of an inquiry process. On the ‘degree as bonus’ – absolutely. We have quite a lot of material from nurse education, distributed across a number of chapters; that sense of moral and social commitment – to a vocation if you like – comes through quite clearly I hope. Probably more so in earlier chapters than in 19!


  3. Pingback: A 21st-century higher education: training for jobs of the future | epistemic fluency

  4. Pingback: Wicked problems and epistemic fluency | epistemic fluency

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