Solving wicked problems

Fiona Mueller

04 October 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Education is a ‘wicked problem’ if you go by Australian Public Service Commission criteria.

The APSC has long claimed that some policy areas are so complex that they are “highly resistant to resolution.”

Maybe that explains why truckloads of taxpayer dollars are being spent on myriad reviews of separate aspects of Australian education, with little evidence of any profound, long-term vision to bind them all together.

This is despite the OECD’s advice that solving complex problems demands a whole-of-system perspective and strategic thinking.

Just this year, in addition to a NAPLAN Reporting Review, projects include: a Senior Secondary Pathways Review; the Review of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians; a NSW Curriculum Review; an Australian Qualifications Framework Review; a review of the ‘national education architecture’, a National Teacher Workforce Strategy, and the Early Childhood Education – Universal Access National Partnership. Given that work has already begun on the adoption of a new (and experimental) format as part of the ‘refinement’ of the existing Australian Curriculum, it is not easy to imagine how a planned review of that document in 2020 will complement all the other pieces.

Now there is also to be the sixth review of NAPLAN.

All this reviewing is a futile undertaking if it does not form part of simultaneous consideration of rigorous national academic standards for Kindergarten to Year 12, the design and content of the national curriculum, teacher capacity — and numerous other aspects of education that need more than fads to sustain them.

Education surely warrants the APSC’s call for “a broad recognition and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions.”

OECD research recognises the challenges of ‘governing education in a complex world’ and notes that “creating the open, dynamic, and strategic governance systems necessary for governing complex systems is not easy.”

Nearly 250 billion dollars will be spent on Australian school education through to 2027, notwithstanding evidence of nation-wide failure to improve student outcomes. Complaints are loud about school leavers’ knowledge and skills, teacher quality, curriculum standards, assessment practices, student behaviour, equity and disadvantage, school funding models and many other issues.

The patient is suffering, but the medicos are treating the symptoms and not the illness. A fragmented, piecemeal approach to education policy reform almost guarantees that nothing will improve.

It’s a wicked problem, indeed.

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