Wickedness and Fuzzy Front Ends: ‘Solving’ Public Education

Let’s talk about solving problems! Yessss! <fist pump!>

Scratch that – reverse it. Instead, let’s talk about solving Wicked Problems. “Wicked problems are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” (Rittel and Webber, 1973) Ah, that’s more like it. Because really, if we’re going to talk about solving problems facing formal systems of education, we might as well face this fact: we’re staring at a bunch of pretty wicked problems. And by wicked I don’t mean ‘cool’. Or ‘sick’. I mean truly wicked.

So now what? This post is not intended to magically propose some kind of awesome solution to the wicked problems in education (I’m working on it… but, you know, it’s just not quite ready yet… cough). That said, I do identify as a problem-solver, as I suspect many of you do, too. What I’d like to do here is to highlight the value in problem-solvers studying design. Six years after my undergraduate studies, I completed my Bachelor of Education, followed by ten years of teaching in the public education system in Toronto, Canada. Since beginning grad school, I’ve had to correct many folks on their assumption that I’m doing a Master of Arts in Education, or a Master of Education, when really I opted to pursue a Master of Design. At the time, it was a somewhat intuitive choice, as I didn’t fully grasp the program description: I just knew I was drawn to words like “innovation”, “foresight”, and “strategy” (which essentially make up the program title). Frankly, my decision was also influenced by my desire to step outside of the education realm and learn with and from people working in other complex systems and organizations, as I suspected many of the problems facing education weren’t unique to that system. It wasn’t until I became a Master of Design student that I realized that ‘designer’ is really a fancy term for ‘problem-solver’. The process of designing something – a chair, a poster, a website, a prosthesis, a healthcare management system, healthy food options for cafeterias, particle accelerators (or – in the case of my MDes program – systems, strategy and foresight design) – is centred around solving a problem. Designers solve problems.

Really good designers know that the bulk of the work happens at the ‘fuzzy front end’. Bookmark that phrase in your mind (I mean really, how can you not!) – I’ll come back to it. First let me put this out there: before a designer can jump to designing a solution for anything, they have to have a clear idea of the problem they’re trying to solve in the first place.  For most of us, there is something so satisfying, I think, about coming up with a great (possible) solution, that we tend to put all our energy there – without knowing, for sure, if what we’ve ‘solved’ actually addresses the root of the problem. So we make a lot of bandaids and isolated fixes that seem great on the surface but don’t gain a lot of traction or prove sustainable over time (this can be as simple as running through twenty different ‘classroom management’ strategies in your first year teaching, before realizing that good teaching is good classroom management). I realize I’m speaking generally, though I think it holds true in education. Ask a teacher tomorrow what the latest professional development push is, and you’ll get an idea of just how many new ‘solutions’ come down the pipe all the time. So many ‘solutions’, actually, that many educators feel totally burnt out by and distrusting of these changes. They can end up feeling like fads. It seems there are so many people simultaneously trying to design solutions to the wicked problems of education, that it’s just a big mess, with so many left hands and right hands in the mix that nobody knows what anybody’s hands are doing.


If you think of a path travelling from the beginning to the end of a project, it forms a narrative or story. Often, we jump toward the climax, eager to arrive at the denouement (solution) and produce the final design or product – but we miss out on the character development, and the more nuanced aspects of the tale. If you see the potential in spending more time clearly identifying and articulating the problem at the outset, then really our problem-solving story should look something like this:

That big squiggle at the start of the design ‘story’? That’s the fuzzy front end. It’s the messy place where we dig into research, turn over stones, and really explore all the different angles and perspectives on our perceived problem – we take in the full ‘landscape’ of the situation. Sometimes, we emerge from that state realizing that we actually needed to do a 180, and focus on something different altogether. The smooth line near the end? That’s where the designer heads into the solution(s).

“The pre-design phase, also referred to as the ‘fuzzy front end’ because of its ambiguous and chaotic nature, describes the many activities that take place in order to inform and inspire the exploration of open-ended questions. In the fuzzy front end, it is often not known whether the deliverable of the design process will be a product, a service, an interface, or something else. The goal of this exploration is to define the fundamental problems and opportunities and to determine what is to be, or should not be, designed…” (Sanders & Simons, 2009.)

I think the reason the fuzzy front end of design is so, well, fuzzy, is because it acknowledges the systemic nature of many problems. Most issues in public education – underfunding, bullying, the industrial model, technology, evaluative processes, boys’ declining achievement, class size, teacher burnout, standardized testing… <deep breath> – are not standalone problems that exist in a vacuum. They are inextricably linked to so many other issues – both inside and outside the education realm – that it’s almost laughable to consider trying to ‘solve’ one without acknowledging the fine balance within which each is suspended. Thinking like this is called systems thinking.

Do you know that people draw this stuff? They draw systems diagrams, as an attempt to begin to capture some of the complexity attached to (seemingly) single issues, and to try to make sense of them, especially in the fuzzy front end of the story. Which way will the dominoes fall if I shift this one thing?  Here’s an example I grabbed from the web. It’s a fairly simple, straightforward kind of systems diagram, with linear connections. More complex systems diagrams (or systemigrams, or gigamaps) start to highlight the specific relationships between elements, as types of feedback loops. Systems thinkers and designers (and anyone else who wants to take the time to scrutinize) can use these kinds of diagrams to begin to identify where in a system one is most likely to gain leverage when attempting to solve a problem – which, in itself, is part of identifying the root of a problem in the first place.

In sharing that wicked problems are ‘difficult or impossible to solve’ I don’t mean to sound discouraging. On the contrary: I feel motivated and inspired to make change. What has shifted for me, over the past year, is my perspective on the rate and depth of change needed. I believe strongly in the all the work that thoughtful teachers and administrators and parents and students and other stakeholders do on the ground every day, and support it wholeheartedly. There’s something to be said, though, for stepping back and trying to take in the larger picture.

Which is what our elected officials should do. And our school board directors of education. And our superintendents. And our administrators, to whatever extent they are able. People charged with overseeing a large system – or system of systems – need to understand design, and the merits of systems thinking and taking time to work in the fuzzy front end. They really need to get it, and incorporate that understanding in how they lead. Myopic, short-sighted views of wicked problems will lead to short-term, short-sighted solutions – wherever you happen to be reading this, I suspect this approach to leadership is familiar to you. It’s time we look for people to lead by design. Perhaps it will be you? <fist pump!>

Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”. Policy Sciences 4: 155–169.

Sanders, L., & Simons, G. (2009). A social vision for value co-creation in design. Open Source Business Resource, (December 2009).



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