CCHS: A Wicked Problem

November 27, 2007

Last year, I worked with Lieutenant General Paul K. van Riper to create a development program for the top executives at a $10 billion technology company. “Rip” van Riper spent 35 years in the Marine Corps, during which time he developed an interesting framework for problem solving. He thinks of problems as running on a spectrum from “tame” to “wicked,” and wicked problems cannot be solved without extensive discourse.

Tame problems are the ones that we have seen before; for which solutions are known to exist. In a school context, tame problems would include hiring decisions (“We need to find a really good music teacher”), curriculum design (“We want our students to excel at American History”), even new building construction (“Let’s design and build a state of the art facility for 350 students”). These are problems that every school system has faced before and there is a decent probability that they will be solved effectively and on time.

Wicked problems are the ones that are novel and unique and which seldom have a right or wrong answer. Wicked problems often have multiple variables whose interactions are impossible to predict. These issues tend to be more open-ended: “Should we rebuild this school before that school?” or “How do we best teach SPED students alongside mainstream students?” The best way to tackle complex problems is by bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and opinions to debate the issue.

I believe that “when and how to rebuild CCHS” is a wicked problem. Now that the Willard vote is behind us, our community needs to start a constructive process of discourse to figure out the right way to approach this complicated and expensive project.

For more of General van Riper’s insights, read Chapter 4 of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.