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Workforce Readiness

Teaching Innovation by Tackling Wicked Problems

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Safe landmine detection. Preservation of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Reducing human trafficking. Helping NATO deploy troops more quickly and efficiently. Ensuring ballot access and voting rights in marginalized and underserved communities. Those are all big, complex challenges that defy easy solutions. They're "wicked" problems, as James Madison University refers to them.

Wicked problems, the bailiwick of the university's JMU X-Labs, draw undergraduate students from across majors to come together as an interdisciplinary force, to think and work in new ways. Launched in 2015, X-Labs runs semester-long courses that call on students, faculty and off-campus stakeholders to work as partners in understanding big problems and coming up with ways to make an impact. The approach also requires developing "wicked students." How faculty do that was the topic of a James Madison panel discussion during the recent virtual ASU+GSV conference.

Defining a Wicked Problem

"Wicked problems aren't just hard problems. Hard problems require a complex solution yet they're solved in a definitive time and with new techniques. Problems are wicked because traditional processes won't solve them. And I can sum up some of the literature on wicked problems by saying they have many causes, they're tough to describe, they don't have a right answer. And — super interestingly to me — some stakeholders stand to benefit from the problem," explained Erica Lewis, assistant professor in the School of Nursing. "Wicked problems require diverse perspectives to make forward progress. The interdisciplinary [approach] allows for deeper and broader problem understanding from multiple angles. And ideas from one discipline can be applied in a new way to or to a new area through a lens of another discipline."

But the thing that really sets X-Labs apart is that the students (many of whom — but not all — are the brightest in their programs) are thrown into the deep end and spend a lot of their time flailing, feeling frustrated and experiencing the pain of failure. As Nick Swayne, executive director of 4-VA and founding director of JMU X-Labs, said in a Chronicle of Higher Education article last year, "In the age of standardized tests, where there's always a rubric and right answer and a checklist to get an A, some students can't handle that ... We've had some students say, 'This is crazy, I can't do that.' We've had some faculty say, 'This is crazy, I'm used to being in charge and you can't do that.' We say, ‘This is life.'"

Selling the Idea

On the surface, setting up a program like X-Labs is resource intensive and requires instructors to come together in ways that don't fit easily into traditional department goals and fall way outside of pedagogical pathways. Yet, convincing the School of Nursing that students should participate in X-Labs wasn't hard for Lewis. "There are so many wicked problems in healthcare and our society," she said. After all, in spite of a "super-tight professional curriculum," courses that focus on solving big problems "are important to our students' development."

Patrice Ludwig, associate professor of Biology and a member of the core faculty at JMU X-Labs, said the interdisciplinary nature of X-Labs is compelling to department heads too. "Look at homelessness, look at climate change, look at food insecurity. Underlying all of those things are biological processes. And if we don't understand those deep disciplinary dives for biological reasons and how those show up in wicked problems, how are we ever going to meet the needs of society?" she wondered.

The arguments are bolstered by research from the program, which has found that aspects of the course strengthen learners' interdisciplinary skills and "deepen the student's budding professional identity instead of threatening it," Lewis noted.

The impact has trickled in positive ways into her own work too. "My colleagues noticed that I as a faculty member was also benefiting, bringing ideas from other disciplines back to the School of Nursing work, applying it to new ideas about my pedagogy and nursing curriculum."

Benjamin Selznick, assistant professor of Strategic Leadership Studies, emphasized that while there's nothing easy about X-Labs, there's a definite payoff. "There's a value proposition for the students themselves who might experience discomfort in actual learning. There's discomfort for the faculty. There's definitely discomfort for the university and department chairs to look at this and not know what to make of it and see it as a challenge of resources. And then there's the value proposition to the community. And these days the interaction between the university and the community is more pronounced than ever," he noted. "So, I think it's really important to think about not just doing this stuff, but really being mindful that as you're doing it, you're consistently articulating the value proposition to all the relevant stakeholders involved."

Payoff for Students

Anybody who's read the statistics about the overall lack of enthusiasm employers have for today's graduates will recognize the dilemma that X-Labs targets head on: "Sadly often what employers are looking for isn't present in college graduates: the ability to identify problems, understand problems, develop solutions," Lewis pointed out. "These students have developed skills to work on diverse teams. Who among employers doesn't like the sound of that?"

Plus, she added, as somebody responsible for teaching bioethics, she's found that the subject of ethics is bound to surface in the projects students undertake in X-Labs. "When students weigh the unintended consequences of the solutions they're working on and when they're able to work on these wicked problems, they're presented with these tensions where they can really learn ethical reasoning. That's exciting to see."

The X-Labs model also expands the arena of players who can come up with truly new ideas. "For a very long time, innovation and entrepreneurship have been restricted mostly to the business world" or to engineering, said Selznick. "These types of courses in these types of approaches offend all that. They suggest that everybody can and should be an innovator. And being an innovator is part of what it means to be college-educated in the 21st century ... These types of pedagogy are really valuable to a variety of stakeholders and certainly translate well to a lot of students across disciplines as they enter the labor market."

Selznick said he'd go so far as to say that students who don't get the experience will face hard falls once they start their careers. "Those are the ones that come in and say, 'I can solve it all. I have all the answers. Look at me.' By week three, they burn out because they don't know what to do. They haven't worked on a team, with computer scientists, with engineers. They haven't worked on a team with people who aren't like themselves, and they burn out." Lab-X helps to develop "responsible disruptors" who head into the labor market understanding that "disruption isn't a flip of the wrist. It's a multi-year process that involves a lot of people, a lot of time and a lot of sweat equity."

Failure, Disengagement and Joy

The panel agreed that failure is a big part of the program. "We've got to learn to fail," said Seán McCarthy, associate professor in the School of Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication. "We've got to try things out, go out and talk to people, get out of the office, figure out what we don't know — before we actually can really figure out what we do know. And so that's not a light switch thing. That takes time."

During the process — or "journey," as McCarthy described it — the faculty don't simply allow students to flail, "or else they're not going to learn it," said Ludwig. Like any deep learning experience, the goal is to scaffold the learning.

Bernie Kaussler, professor of Political Science, said a hard part of the process occurs when students think they've found a solution to the problem and declare, "We're free!" As he mused, their initial solution is "usually an app," or a website, or "just an idea and a concept." Often, the solution doesn't come close to hitting the mark. The instructors will have to step in at that point and help students "disengage" from their attachment to their product, "[which is] quite painful for the students." But for the students who make it through the course, at some point, "they're not there for the grade anymore," he said. "They want to deliver something for their client."

Relinquishing the Lectern

Students aren't the only ones who feel pain during the process. So do the faculty — but for different reasons. One is just letting go of the "sense of expertise," offered McCarthy. "It's difficult to say, 'I don't know what the answer is. And we've just got to really pull together to figure out how to solve that.'"

On the other hand, he added, that kind of response puts the student on notice that "really big" problems won't be solved "with one answer or one way of doing things. They get to really feel that experience about what it's like to be in the world, trying to grapple with some of the biggest questions that we face and realizing that we have to pull together in creative ways to do that."

Also, because faculty are team-teaching, students get to see them disagree, which can make them "nervous," said Ludwig. "The students get a little scared." But the benefit there is that it helps them to "be prepared to understand differing points of view and how to work through them" in a professional way.

To help other institutions adopt a Lab-X model, JMU has dabbled with coming up with faculty curriculum to help them prepare to teach like this. But aside from some "published literature" and informal conversations (such as the panel itself), much of the learning comes down to "trial and error," said Lewis. Teams of instructors work together with the same group of students through the semester, and each team works on one aspect of the whole problem. Structuring the work that way allows students to "develop relationships where they can be kind and candid with each other, that allows us to develop a coaching relationship with them. And we move into more of a coaching role in our work and have developed those specific skills."

Infusing Relevance into Higher Ed

Anybody looking for to fix the "wicked problem" of relevance in higher ed could do far worse than look to the Lab-X model. As Selznick noted, the argument comes down to two things: mission and differentiation. "If you look at mission statements [in higher education], a lot of them talk about preparing leaders and thinkers for the 21st century world. The 21st century world I live in is in chaos, and these wicked problems are everywhere all the time," he said. "If we want to prepare [students] for a world where they're only going to work with the right answers, with people that think and look just like themselves, that's not the 21st century world. If colleges say their mission is to prepare students, then this is what it looks like. It's different and it's challenging and it's not easy."

Then there's differentiation: "If we want to really think about what makes higher education different from certificates and badges, from Google programs, from all the rest of the competitors, it's already here," he said. All it needs is for what's already working in higher ed to be "optimized and transformed" in ways that will help prepare students for the jobs "that are in demand in the world today."

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