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Lucas Center Blog

Something Wicked This Way Comes

March 10, 2022  / Katie Johnson, Ph.D. 

The Lucas Center supports faculty teaching, scholarship and service by funding attendance and presentations at conferences and other forms of professional development. In Spring 2022, Associate Professor, Katie Johnson, Ph.D., was awarded funding to utilize toward the SoTL Commons Conference. Continue reading below to learn more about Katie's opportunity.

Teaching is a wicked problem. So is learning. And the study of how to do both of these, AKA the scholarship of teaching and learning. A wicked problem has no comprehensive solutions and will never be completely solved, primarily due to its complexity and ever-changing nature along with a lack of sufficient resources.

Other examples of wicked problems include eliminating homelessness, making recycling efficient, and raising kids. These are hard problems, with messy partial solutions. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and even if one were found that worked quite well, it’s unlikely to continue to work long-term or in every situation. Teaching can be like this. Our classes are dynamic, evolving over the years (and sometimes from semester to semester) to reflect student needs and interests. That makes our work frustrating and interesting, simultaneously exhausting and energizing.

In February, I had the opportunity to attend my first conference that was entirely focused on education (beyond the Southwest Florida Symposium on Teaching & Learning which is always inspiring!). I joined about 8 other FGCU faculty and 1 student at Georgia Southern’s annual SoTL Commons Conference in Savannah. I had the opportunity to present about our Learning Assistant program with Drs. Laura Frost and billY Gunnels. During the 2.5 days, the idea of wicked problems came up repeatedly.

When I was in college, I worked at a small sandwich shop in Colonial Williamsburg. There was something immensely satisfying about that job, knowing that I could do it efficiently and had the answer to every question, the solution to every problem that came up, which was in stark contrast to my previous job grading for the math department. While grading (much like teaching), I’m always questioning how much I should say, how I should say it, and what the student’s reaction to the feedback will be, if they even read it at all. Bringing someone a sandwich requires far less mental energy and often results in far greater joy. Kelli Harding in The Rabbit Effect writes about a similar experience she had while working as a barista, trying to make the perfect cappuccino (as opposed to her current position as an ER psychologist): “That intense concentration while working on a skill…is associated with reduced stress, increased happiness, health promotion, and longevity. Finding flow brings joy and positive experience to whatever task you do.” I wonder, how can we help our students find flow in the classroom?

Teaching is really hard. And for a lot of students, learning is also really hard. At SoTL Commons, I learned that pre-service elementary education majors have the highest math anxiety of any major. When students experience high levels of stress, they submit assignments late, have more absences, and eventually stop attending class or withdraw. What if, instead of adding one more stressful thing to their plates, class was a respite from outside stressors? Come join us and learn some interesting things, work with some new friends, and put anything else aside for an hour. That sounds like something we could all benefit from.

I heard from faculty at Georgia Southern about running 5-minute mindfulness exercises at the start of class, helping students to ground themselves to increase focus for the following lesson. This might sound like a significant amount of time to give up, but if it helps groupwork to run much more smoothly as a result, the time is easily made up. I like the idea of having students write down everything running through their minds, whether to-do’s or worries, on an index card to stick in their pocket. Because they can pull it back out at the end of class, they can let it go and free up that mental space during the lesson.

I like the idea of having students write down everything running through their minds, whether to-do’s or worries, on an index card to stick in their pocket.

Developing a growth mindset (among students and teachers) was also a frequent point of discussion. I particularly liked one activity that was shared: each student is provided a handout of a thought bubble, and the teacher shares a list of fixed mindset examples, such as “I’m not a math person” or “If I don’t understand it now, I’ll never get it.” They are asked “which of these thoughts have been holding you back recently?” Each student writes one in their thought bubble. Next, their handout is passed around and their group members write encouraging responses outside of the bubble. Why does this work? Most people are kinder to others than they are to themselves. The presenters reported that several students would tape their handout to the front of their folder or said they put it up by their desk where they studied as inspiration. This is a learning outcome that won’t appear on any test but could affect students the rest of their lives.

Using wicked problems during class has also been shown to be beneficial to students, increasing retention and helping them translate concepts to real-world problems that help them to find good jobs after graduation. I heard about the EPIC program at Georgia State University that uses messy, interdisciplinary projects that span multiple courses (pairings such as American History & Government, or Philosophy & Sociology) to bring more meaning to the college experience. While impacts on GPA of participants only last for about a year, students in the program were much more likely to continue at the university because they could see the value of their education more clearly (76% retention vs. 46% for non-participants). How we measure the impacts of programs is an extremely wicked problem!

On the other hand, messy problems provided to students as part of the curriculum should be paired with lots of social and emotional support1 so as not to contribute to the previously mentioned stress... There is plenty of evidence that confusion is part of deep learning and squashing misconceptions (I love this video for a brief example). But students don’t like to be confused. They tend to want the content delivered into their brains in nice little organized packages… which often doesn’t translate to the messy problems of real life. And so this is the wicked problem of teaching: pushing students to expand their critical thinking abilities and problem-solving skills, but not too quickly and not too forcefully so that the frustration drives them away. Learning is hard, but it should also be enjoyable.


1 Learning Assistants help with this support a great deal! They are also trained to encourage a growth mindset and develop students’ metacognitive abilities. Learn more about how to apply for an LA to help in your class here.