Wicked Problem: Complex Thinking

In every day life, there are things we have to solve. Some of those are simple, like deciding what to wear. Some of them are hard, like what to do with your time when you have many things to do. Other decisions in life are complex and involve many people, like whether or not to move your family across the country and when. Then, there are the beastly problems that could easily be described as the answers in beauty pageants and political debates: bring world peace, stop world hunger, ending racism, changing society’s entitlement attitude, even fighting terrorism, save the earth, and so on. Those beastly problems are referred to as wicked problems. They don’t really have a clear cut answer. They hardly have a clear-cut definition. The Jon Kolko (2012) defines wicked problems as “a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems,” (Kolko, 2012).

If problems are so wicked, why try to solve them? In short, by trying to solve them, the world is made a better place. One such wicked problem is Complex Thinking. I wasn’t sure what complex thinking was myself. There are lots of definitions. Here are a few:

  • Complex Thinking is understanding the why and how of a particular problem, and communicating that knowledge in an organized and understandable way.
  • Complex Thinking involves higher order thinking skills. This includes synthesizing, comparing and contrasting, finding the value of, and development of creation of ideas.
  • Complex Thinking is a problem solving process that includes higher order thinking and creativity. When complex thinking is explicitly taught, students are able to apply their new thinking to new experiences. They will use their new skills to ask quality questions, in order to create a product, and evaluate their own product or thinking.
  • Complex Thinking involves four main processes: problem solving, critical thinking, decision making and creative thinking

From the definition comes the second aspect of what makes this problem so wicked for educators and decision makers: How is important is Complex Thinking and how is it supposed to be implemented? We surveyed 60 people involved in education and found that 83% of them do require their students to use some form of Complex Thinking, yet only 25% actively teach it all or most of the time. At the same time, over half of these teachers notice that their students are lacking in Complex Thinking skills. Critical thinking is very important. “The ability to think critically is essential for success in the contemporary world where the rate at which new knowledge is created is rapidly accelerating,” (Marin & Halpern, 2011). How to implement the teaching of it is another field of great variety. The following infographic gives some definitions of Complex Thinking, possible solutions on how to teach it, and further explanation of why it’s wicked.
To summarize, by working toward teaching Complex Thinking, we may not get it perfect, but we will better prepare our students to think creatively, critically, problem solve, make decisions, and do all of the other things. Being better at all of the Complex Thinking will make them better people, and slowly fill this world and change the world to be better than when we found it. What if one of our students with Complex Thinking skills was part of the solution to bring world peace, stop world hunger, end racism, changing society’s entitlement attitude, fighti terrorism, save the earth, or at least make this world a better place.

This slide show describes the findings my MAET group made in our journey.

Kolko, J. (2012).Wicked problems: Problems worth solving. Retrieved from  https://www.wickedproblems.com/read.php

Marin, L. M., & Halpern, D. F. (2011, April 16). Pedagogy for developing critical thinking in adolescents: Explicit instruction produces greatest gains [Electronic version]. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 6(1), 1-13.


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