Wicked problems are problems that are incredibly complicated and difficult to solve. In fact, solving one aspect may reveal or create other problems – but that doesn’t mean we mustn’t try!
Often, wicked problems involve environmental, economic or political issues or combinations of each of these. One wicked problem that will impact us all is climate change.
Wicked problems as opportunities for cross-curricular and key competency learning
Classroom teachers have the opportunity to support students at all levels to think about issues that are large and complex and affect us all. Wicked problems can form rich, real-life contexts for developing students’ thinking, visioning and problem-solving skills as well as their action competence and an array of key competencies. Wicked problems also draw on knowledge relevant to many different curriculum areas, providing contexts for developing students’ literacy and numeracy as well as their science capabilities. Wicked problems are also value laden and so present opportunities to be utilised in a cross-curricular context for student inquiry and learning, with strong links to the social science learning area.
Using an inquiry approach to tackle the wicked problem of climate change
An inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning requires a degree of scaffolding tailored to the level and experience of the students. When used effectively, it increases student agency in learning and can strengthen authentic connections to the world around them.
With an inquiry-based approach, the teacher is not necessarily the expert but the facilitator of the process of inquiry. Providing the opportunities to unpack students’ prior knowledge about the issue will often uncover misconceptions as well as different levels of knowledge and students’ beliefs and values in relation to the issue. It will also give the teacher an insight into areas of student interest. By engaging in an inquiry process, the students will develop new understandings, often raising further questions driven by their own learning journeys and curiosity – much like practising scientists. Inquiries can also be scaffolded to support students to identify, articulate and justify their own views about complex issues.
Climate change – as a wicked problem that governments grapple with and disagree on – can be overwhelming for students to explore as a whole. One inquiry approach to tackling this large wicked problem is to start by developing a question (or questions) to guide the inquiry, whether for student groups or the class as a whole. These questions could start from a scientific basis, for example:
- What is the link between CO2 and climate change?
- How does the ice melting in Antarctica change the oceans?
Alternatively, the questions could have a more social focus with some underpinning science that can be identified in the inquiry process, for example:
- How might climate change impact me and my whānau?
- Why is climate change important?
Another approach may be to have a larger inquiry question as an overarching inquiry that different student groups (or the whole class) could contribute to, for example:
- What are the impacts of climate change?
Students can then formulate a series of ‘What if?’ questions as a way of exploring smaller bite-size inquiries, for example:
- What if the sea level was to rise 3 cm?
- What if CO2 keeps increasing at the same rate it is now?
- What if the oceans had a pH of 7?
- What if governments don’t believe scientists working in the field of climate change?
- What if decision makers do not have access to robust data from scientific climate change models?
- What if the world reduced carbon emissions to 350 ppm?
The important aspect of using smaller bite-size inquiries is bringing the knowledge together to explore how it fits into the initial inquiry’s overarching question.
A large number of climate change resources exist on the Science Learning Hub that can be used to help guide students in their inquiries.
Reflection and action as part of an inquiry
Often when students are investigating topics such as climate change, they can feel an overwhelming responsibility to fix things or an overwhelming sense of doom and gloom, and in some students, this can lead to emotional distress. It is the teacher’s responsibility when tackling wicked problems to create opportunities throughout the inquiry for students to reflect on new information. How does it make them feel? How are my peers feeling about this? What can be done?
It is important to guide students through a process of reflection involving scaffolded discussions that lead to creating opportunities for students to share with others and explore solutions or actions. Exploring different opportunities to get involved and take positive action is an important part of supporting students to feel empowered to be change makers and steers the emotions from being overwhelmed to being part of the solution – ‘let’s do our part’.
Taking action is often a crucial part of an inquiry cycle. Actions can be as simple as communicating student findings to a wider audience through to more complex action taking (such as organised plantings) or technology-based solutions. Building student action competence involves creating opportunities not only for students to think about what action they may take but how they will carry out the action, who they would involve and what impacts the action may have – and then putting all this into practice.
Nature of science
The New Zealand Curriculum’s participating and contributing strand of the nature of science focuses on students using their science understanding to participate and contribute to their own lives and to society. Contemporary democratic societies need to be able to use an understanding of science to solve problems faced in everyday life and to confront and make decisions about issues that involve science.
Making a difference
The film Thin Ice – The Inside Story of Climate Science was developed to tell the story of climate change and the scientists working in the field. It is a tool to stimulate thinking and engagement with this wicked problem.
Like the scientists featured in Thin Ice, students who engage with wicked problems will want to know more and will develop the skills to take action, no matter how small, in order to make a difference.
I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.Mother Teresa
See other resources on the Hub
This article looks at the understanding about science strand of the nature of science in the New Zealand Curriculum for levels 3–6. It is concerned with students understanding the processes of science – the characteristics of scientific knowledge and how it is developed.
Ethical frameworks provide a structured approach to exploring controversial issues with students. Here, we describe five commonly used ethical frameworks and questions to help scaffold student thinking, follow this with the article Teaching ethics for more information on teaching ethical thinking.
The nature of science participating and contributing strand focuses on students using their science understanding to participate and contribute to their own lives and to society.
This class case study provides an example of introducing ethical thinking into the classroom to explore a controversial issue in science. In this example, year 12 students consider the issue of euthanasia. The Ethics thinking toolkit or the Futures thinking toolkit could be used to support students in their climate change inquiries.
Evans Bay Intermediate School teachers and science educator Stephen Williams plan for a climate change unit in the video Teachers learning and planning together.
Our atmosphere and climate – introduction curates a suite of resources developed in collaboration with the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ. Resources highlight climate connections and implications for Aotearoa and for Māori. They have a strong focus on evidence and data. Our atmosphere and climate 2023 curates resources with a focus on the report’s themes of interconnectedness between systems and people and the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems.
Climate action identifies how working for change is a global issue.
Environmental pressures are often wicked problems. This article uses Pōhutukawa (the eldest child of Matariki) as the context for reflection on the pressures we’ve put on te taiao and how this information can guide us to take action. The article Waipunarangi – rains, frosts and climate looks specifically at climate change impacts.
The Science Learning Hub team has curated a collection of resources related to climate change. Login to make this collection part of your private collection, just click on the copy icon. You can then add additional content, notes etc. and also share and collaborate with others. Registering an account for the Science Learning Hubs is easy and free – sign up with your email address or Google account. Look for the Sign in button at the top of each page.
NZCER's Opportunities for education in a changing climate: Themes from key informant interviews includes recommendations for schools and kura. There are useful ideas for student engagement and action.
This NZCER article explores using a future-focused approach to teaching and learning.
Further research to support teachers’ approach to teaching wicked problems can be found in the following resources. This journal article researches teachers’ values and emotions around the teaching of the climate change topic. This journal article uses climate change as the context for using scientific literacies to tackle current societal challenges.
The Royal Society Te Apārangi has a concise evidence summary and infographic that describe the human health impacts of climate change for New Zealand.
Visit NIWA's Climate change page for links to videos, infographics, scientist snapshots and more resources.
Yale Climate Connections has an article about children's books that help to aid knowledge about climate change rather than create fear.
This article from Science News for Students discusses the mental health effects of climate change on children and teens, along with suggestions on how to help them cope.
The Ministry of Education's Climate Change Learning Programme is a level 4 programme focused on climate change that includes specific student activities; the wellbeing guide focuses on student wellbeing and hauora when navigating climate change as an area of learning and action. Many of the suggestions are relevant to other learning levels.
Returning to a green Antarctica is a comic by Simone Giovanardi and Bella Duncan. It explains why Antarctica once looked more like South Island’s West Coast beech forests than the frozen continent we know today.
Thin Ice – The Inside Story of Climate Science, a David Sington/Simon Lamb film, looks at what’s really happening with global warming by filming scientists at work in the Arctic, the Antarctic and around the world. It gives a 56-minute view of the range of human activity and scientific work being undertaken to understand the world’s changing climate. The result is a unique exploration of the science behind global warming and an intimate portrait of a global community of researchers racing to understand our planet’s changing climate.
The Science Learning Hub has produced a series of articles using short video resources produced by the Thin Ice team. The film itself is available by emailing email@example.com. It is recommended viewing to give students context for the Hub’s articles and the videos they contain. The link for streaming is available free of charge. The DVD is also available to New Zealand schools for $20 to cover costs.
Learn more at www.thiniceclimate.org