Complex Thinking and the Story of the Wicked Problem

If you have been scoping out this sight, you are aware that I am currently enrolled in the MAET program at Michigan State University (Go Green!).  I have been fortunate to take part in their MAETy1 summer hybrid.  The culminating activity for year one is a group project on a Wicked Problem.  My group was blessed with Teaching Complex Thinking.

The first issue that I had to overcome was seeing complex and inserting critical.  While critical is indeed a part of Complex thinking, it is only a part.  The following Infographic will give you an idea of the weightiness (or Wickedness) of the problem (you can see my group mates infographics here and here).  You can see the rest of my infographic by clicking it.Infographic

As you can see, Complex Thinking has so many moving parts that it seems virtually impossible to wrangle it all into a solution at all let alone a simple one.  How does one simultaneously address creativity, social skills, critical thinking, problem solving, computational thinking, and a smattering of others with a lovely flip chart?  The short answer is you can’t.

To add to the intrigue of all of this, we surveyed our coworkers and received sixty responses.  You can see the survey here (and the results here).  While there was a fair amount of data, what stood out to me the most is:  Only 17% of teachers surveyed sometimes or rarely require their students to use complex thinking skills. 50% of the teachers surveyed (60 participants) from Suburban Public, Suburban Charter, Rural Charter schools require their students to use complex thinking skills “some of the time.” 33% of the participants require using complex thinking skills most of the time or all of the time.


How do we move from 33% to 100%?  Teachers innately want the best for their students.  They will do whatever they need to in order to better their students and their students’ futures.  If Complex Thinking is as pivotal as we think, and 87% of the respondents indicated that these skills are at least somewhat taught as opposed to innate, why isn’t there more teaching of these taking place?

We should pause here so that I can mention a study (Marin & Halpern, 2011) that found that Complex Thinking skills (critical thinking in particular) that are explicitly taught show greater gains than those that are embedded.

I would like to propose a five-point process to improve Complex Thinking skills instruction to my school:

  1. We must put a significantly larger emphasis on students participating in creative studies such as Art, Dance, Drama, Music, and Creative writing, while simultaneously giving students options within the core classrooms to utilize those skills to combat their own wicked problems.
  2. Much like we need to evaluate lesson plans with TPACK, we also need to evaluate lesson plans for the inclusion of Complex Thinking skills such as AEA 267 facilitates.
  3. We must also utilize modeling to show students how the myriad of skills interrelate to one another. This can be done through whole class discussions where the teacher verbally walks students through his/her thought process when engaging a complex problem.  It can also be done by bringing in experts to work with students in smaller groups doing the same type of thing as the teacher example.
  4. We must actively encourage students to find their own wicked problems that they and a group of classmates can tackle with class time devoted to this task (as we know that’s how students judge if it is important).
  5. We must provide opportunities for students to present their findings at a Wicked Problem Night to show the students that the work that they do is important and has an authentic audience.

While this plan still has holes that need filling (such as how does each level approach the teaching of Complex Thinking), it is a start towards closing the gap from 33%-100% of teachers working towards teaching these skills on a regular basis.

Here is my group’s presentation of this Wicked problem:

What are your thoughts?  What can we do collectively to battle this Wicked Problem?


Complex Thinking Skills & Reasoning from Dimensions of Learning | AEA 267 Curriculum. (n.d.). Retrieved July 24, 2016, from

Marin, L. M., & Halpern, D. F. (2011). Pedagogy for developing critical thinking in adolescents: Explicit instruction produces greatest gains. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 6(1), 1-13. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from & Halpern (2011).pdf



[Untitled illustration of a Survey Definition]. CC BY-SA 3.0. Retrieved July 27, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s