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The “Wicked” Problem of Transforming Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | The “Wicked” Problem of Transforming Higher Education
Transforming higher education requires cultural, not just governance, changes, posing the most significant roadblock to a wholesale adaption to the modern expectations of higher education.

We have all read, heard, and expressed our own views about the growing misalignment between the current resilient (STEM) higher education system and contemporary needs. We have also all undertaken initiatives to reform, innovate and adapt to the demands of our external stakeholders. Yet, the problem in meeting those expectations has proved deep-seated, persistent and immune to our efforts.

On the one hand, the misalignments between today’s—and tomorrow’s—demands and the current higher education system are much deeper than can be corrected by isolated efforts of curricular change or the adoption of new pedagogies.  On the other hand, the robustness and resilience of the current educational system has enabled it to thwart attempts at more comprehensive reform.

The mismatch between what students, the economy and the world need and what we are currently delivering has been extensively documented. We are still catering to a narrow profile of students in terms of socioeconomics, gender, ethnicity and learning styles. Extensive efforts at diversifying have had very limited impact. We are still operating on the basis that faculty’s knowledge and expertise are our primary added value, even though knowledge has long turned into a ubiquitous and free commodity. Our curricular structures, contents, and delivery remain largely focused on producing uniformity, predictability, and conformity, even though the magnitude, complexity, and speed of changes we are facing put a premium on autonomy and innovation at all levels, not just high-level leadership positions. The academic institution is organized strictly around isolated disciplines, creating several impediments to cross-disciplinary pollination and collaborations. Similarly, students are expected to choose a single discipline as their focus and take a curriculum controlled almost exclusively by faculty from that discipline. This organization persists even though the challenges the world is facing are multi-faceted and require cross-disciplinary knowledge and approaches.

Faculty and administrators have not been ignoring this chasm between what is and what should be. There are a growing number of (mostly faculty-driven) initiatives across the US and the world attempting to research and create alternative forward looking exemplars of STEM education.  These exemplars are ambitious, innovative and far-reaching in their potential impact.  Most of them encounter systemic difficulties that take them by surprise and end up consuming much of their energy and resources. In his book Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, Jon Kolke puts the difficulty of solving wicked problems into four categories:

  1. Incomplete or contradictory knowledge
  2. The number of people and opinions involved
  3. The large economic burden
  4. The interconnected nature of these problems with other problems

All four categories apply to the transformation of higher education. We focus here on two broad complementary aspects: governance and culture with the premise that no solution is effective or viable unless it encompasses these two hand in hand.

Governance is the most overt manifestation of the values upheld and mission embraced by an institution. Governance is also the mechanism by which the system maintains stability and predictability; it embodies resilience and immunity to perturbations that can unsettle a highly optimized system. As such, there are two values embedded in the current governance structure that run against some of the changes required.

First, the premise of knowledge as the core asset to be disseminated to students is manifest in the way faculty are prepared, assigned, and rewarded. Courses and curricula are prepared, reviewed, and approved through a deliberately slow and lengthy process. Only then they can be put in production. Their delivery is seen as a routine process of little scholarly value. Newly hired faculty are released from teaching so that they can prepare their new content, in isolation, again emphasizing the focus on content. This contrasts starkly with the way physicians are on-boarded, for example. Junior physicians are not left alone; they undergo extensive peer observation and peer feedback during their residency. Only then are they “left alone” with patients.  Faculty, by and large, are rewarded through the production of new knowledge. Skills in mentoring and teaching, on the other hand, are assumed and undervalued.

Second, academia, more than any other industry, epitomizes a hierarchy of disciplines and values sanitized mono-disciplinary solitary work. The backbone of the academic administrative structure is an organization of faculty and administrators separated by disciplines. Curricular decisions, faculty hiring and promotion, and budgetary allocations are all done within the confines of disciplinary colleges and departments and promote competition over collaboration between the disciplines. Multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary work takes place but remains hard to asses and reward.

The solutions seem self-evident: if we want to encourage a scholarly approach to teaching and learning, we simply change our reward system. If we want to promote collaboration, we simply change the budgetary model.

This is where the wicked nature of the problem lies: these same artifacts that are problematic exist to safeguard values that cannot be shed so easily and so fast. As Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskov Leahy point in their book Immunity to Change, change is hard because the solution is often not technical (governance), but adaptive (cultural). Changing the technical processes alone often fails because unless we also address the root cause, the system’s immune system will kick in, resist change, and bring it back to its original state. The solution is often cultural; it requires a complete mindset shift from faculty and administrators. For faculty, we are the products of the system we are trying to change. Questioning the adequacy of the educational system and its underlying intellectual model threatens our identity and contributions.

However, if we are to expect our graduates to demonstrate sufficient intellectual complexity, we must begin by learning and modeling this capacity, even as it feels uncomfortable.  The persistent statements of alarms should serve as external and internal motivators to begin this mindset transformation. The magnitude of the problems the world is facing are a constant reminder of the limits of our current way of knowing, learning, and teaching. The wonder at new possibilities provides us the intellectual fuel for this journey.

Wicked problems are hard but not impossible. The increasing number of initiatives around the country and abroad is indicative that there is a definite movement to change higher education.

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