From Wicked Problems to Wicked Cool Schools

“Wicked” is one of the most successful acts of repurposing of recent decades. As a book, and a smash musical, “Wicked” turned the story of “The Wizard of Oz” upside down, and showed how the nasty Wicked Witch of the West was actually the one with brains, heart, and courage.

In my MAET course, we are exploring “Wicked Problems”. These problems are deemed “wicked” because they “have incomplete, changing and contradictory requirements. Solutions to wicked problems are often difficult to realize (or maybe even recognize) because of complex interdependencies among a large number of contextually bound variables” Koehler & Mishra (2008).

Wicked problems have no solution. They have, at best, a “least worst” solution. They also are never solved, because every enacted partial solution re-writes the problem parameters. A wicked problem must be acted upon from different angles simultaneously, with the hope that one action does not cause a ripple effect of even larger issues in another part of the problem. Wicked problems, while he does not use that term, are the problems that Gee (2013) exhorts us to tackle with networked intelligence, or what he calls  “big ‘M’ Minds”.

The New Media Consortium has defined five immediate wicked problems in education, one of which is:

Make innovation part of the learning ethic.

It is this wicked problem that our group (Laurie, Erin, Donna, and I) are addressing. Following the lead of  Frank L. Baum (author of the original “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”), we believe it it time for Education, like Kansas, to be ripped apart by a tornado of innovation and students, like Dorothy, to be landed in the middle of a whole new reality of (using the urban slang form of the word) “wicked” cool schools. Flying monkeys optional.

But what Baum could do to Dorothy with a stroke of his pen, and what Maguire could unfreeze with his re-imagining of  Elphaba and her motivations, will take considerably more will in the Wonderful World of Education. Indeed, because we do not have pens to rewrite the world we want to change, we will have to tackle it as a wicked problem. Koehler & Mishra (2008) consider the use of technologies in schools to be a wicked problem; yet, (as I try to resist the temptation to switch stories and follow Alice down a rabbit hole), we have been discussing the irony of technology as an answer to the wicked problem of innovation in schools.

Innovation Life CycleThe terms “disruptive innovation” and “disruptive technology” are used in business to describe a new product or a new way of doing an old form of business that is completely different from the established ways. The new business model or product “disrupts” the existing market, often forming a new market, or even spawning a new social behavior. Amazon, which helped launch online shopping, and Facebook, which has altered how and when and about what people communicate on a daily basis, are both disruptive technologies that helped to create disruptive innovations (online shopping and social media).

Paying no attention the little girl down the rabbit hole, we see innovation as a disruptive innovation in education. Educational technology, therefore, is the disruptive technology. We have brainstormed our thoughts in both text and visually, and our draft curation can be found here.

Our final raft of part-solutions that will make up our “least worst” solution to the wicked problem of making innovation part of the learning ethic will involve:

  • A comprehensive definition of “innovation,” to distinguish it from novelty
  • A web of issues that define this problem as “wicked,” not merely complex
  • Research-backed commentary on those issues
  • Recommendations that encompass the teacher, administrator, and policy levels of the education system.

There is not one answer, one solution, or one technology, but an interconnected web of actions that could be innovative enough to disrupt the current education model. In order to bring about changes that will turn classrooms into innovative places of learning and make schools wicked cool, we will need to try “Defying Gravity”. We can’t do it; but that is no excuse to not try.


Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2008). Introducing TPCK. In AACTE Committee on Innovation and Technology (Ed.),Handbook of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPCK) (pp. 3–29). New York: Routledge.

Photo of Emma Hunton in the Broadway Sacramento presentation of “Wicked” licensed for non-commercial use: californiamusicaltheatre/14123986835

Gee, J. (2013). The anti-education era: Creating smarter students through digital learning.

New Media Consortium communique:

Innovation lifecycle graph public domain from:

“Defying Gravity” performed at the Tony Awards: watch?v=3g4ekwTd6Ig


3 thoughts on “From Wicked Problems to Wicked Cool Schools

  1. Lisa, I love the way you connected wicked problems to the musical “Wicked”! It definitely grabbed my attention and made me want to keep reading! The layout of your blog also made helped make it an easy read.
    It’s nice to see how a different group tackled the same wicked problem that we are working on. We definitely thought about how innovation is difficult to include in a classroom, but didn’t make the connection to “disruptive technologies”. The only thing I’m not sure about is exactly what direction you plan to go when solving this wicked problem. I checked out your Blogspace but there was a lot going on so I wasn’t sure what to focus on. I look forward to seeing how you plan to “solve” this Wizard of Oz tornado of a problem! So far it looks great!


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