The wicked problem of learning

Sometimes we are so deep in an orthodoxy we cannot see it.

In their new book, Becky Allen, Matthew Evans and Ben White give us ways to question how we see and think about our schools. 

They combine a visit to the museum (a history of school improvement policy waves), research from Teacher Tapp surveys, and the lens of complexity and systems theory, with analysis of the perspectives of economics, sociology, psychology, educationalists, headteachers, school leaders and teachers. They share some powerful concepts (like patch-making, creeping managerialism and shadow boxing), vivid metaphors (waves, maps, patches, miracles, hill-climbing, waltzes, helicopters, foxes and hedgehogs feature) and a rousing call to action.

Here are some of their concepts, questions and insights.

What can’t we fully know? Where are we under the illusion of knowledge?


Learning is invisible. The human brain is complex.

Can ‘progress’, or even who’s learning what exactly, be fully known?

Can metaphors like ‘schema’ fully capture what’s happening in learning? 


Prior knowledge differs vastly.

Can ‘the starting point’ of ‘the class’ be fully known?


People’s pasts, beliefs and habits differ vastly.

Can ‘the staff’, ‘the pupils’ or ‘the school’ be fully known?


We can’t fully know the learning, progress or knowledge in the school.

What is known in a school is mostly in the minds of others.

How can we explore it? 


What can we know? In which discrete areas is improvement knowable?


We have limited time and precious energy. 

There are infinite numbers of ‘opportunities for change’. Most should not be taken. 

What can we best give our attention to?


Problems in schools, like knowing who’s learned what, repeatedly reemerge.

What waves of solutions (personalisation, data, progression) have been tried?


Managers have tendencies to want to fix things, ‘do something’, control stuff and monitor people.

Are we labouring under the orthodoxies that leaders act ‘decisively’ to ‘change’ things?

Which diktat and initiatives would have been better if they had never happened?

Might our schools be better places if the initiators had chosen to do nothing on these initiatives?


Some problems are more fiendish than others.

What problem are we trying to solve? What type of problem? Is it ‘wicked’? or ‘illusory’?

  • Wicked problems resist all attempts to resolve them, like the invisibility of learning, or school improvement
  • Tame problems have tried and tested solutions: like knowing your ten times table.
  • Illusory problems are superficial problems, like certain staff non-compliance, caused by deeper problems, like excessive directives, prescriptive policies and high pressure.
  • Metamorphic problems recur in forms bearing the hallmarks of previous solutions: like the data wave emerging from the crash of the personalisation wave.

How can we better break down wicked problems into tamer problems?

How can we stop shadow boxing (attempting to solve illusory problems)?

How can we better see illusory problems for what they are? 

How can we deeply explore the problems we encounter and achieve shared understanding?


Causes work not alone but in teams.

What is the causal ‘web’ that influences whether or not an initiative works?

What are the causal ‘mechanisms’ by which knowledge actually develops?

Which disciplines – history, economics, philosophy, sociology, psychology, evolutionary biology, cognitive sciences – can we draw on and learn from?

How can school leaders understand teacher beliefs and study teacher habits?


All solutions are based on assumptions and justifications.

Ill-fated solutions rest on naive over-simplifications. 

What are the justifications for our initiatives, such as curriculum reviews?

What assumptions underpin them?

What evidence bases are our ‘best bets’ based on?

Where are we overreliant on a single frame of reference, like cognitive science?

How can we put our proposals under scrutiny by people with different expertise and perspectives?


All solutions to complex problems have unintended consequences. 

How can we avoid the distortions of bolt-on fixes like retrieval practice and organisers?

How can we work out the adverse effects of our solutions?


One in five teacher-respondents say they cannot raise problems with school leaders.

How can we create better feedback loops? 

How do staff explain each school initiative? How do they see it? How do they respond to it?


We look to stories to make sense of and give meaning to our endeavours.

How can we tell better stories? that better capture our imagination, harness the energy of pupils and staff and propel us to better action?

How can we find simple, modest ways to improve without simplistic grand gestures?

How can we avoid oversimplifying the problem and overcomplicating the solution?

School leaders are mired deep within the orthodoxies of fixing, intervening, directives, target-setting, prescribing, monitoring, evidencing and scrutinising. 

Becky, Matthew and Ben help us see these orthodoxies for what they are: illusions. 

It’s time to stop shadow boxing. 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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3 Responses to The wicked problem of learning

  1. One thing stands out for me. Knowledge is built on prior knowledge. Make no assumptions.

  2. Pingback: Articles | Joe Kirby

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