On Conflict, Wicked Problems and Answering THE Three Big Questions – Part 1

This is not the blogpost I intended for my first contribution to Societal Innovation– that was to come next week. Funny, how life unschedules intentions. The day I began reading other Societal Innovation postings from my University of Minnesota office, six time zones away from Salford, the turbulence, mayhem, riots broke through via Manchester Evening News live blogging – in that beat, my heart leapt straight away to it’s other home, to that geographical place I’d left only a week before: that neighborhood where Churchill Way bends to Fitzwarren Street and from the 14th floor window of a building nooked among flats, the immediate view is of the Lidl Market, but also sweeps toward the Salford Precinct, and offers a long view across the span of housing and parks between to Langworthy Road shops and then onto the flash of the Lowry and MediaCity.  Across the next several hours, Twitter, Facebook and GChat kept me in touch with my friends who call that corner home.

For the rest of this week, my brain has been working between the thorough revision of a Teaching in Higher Education course and the thorough tussling about that comes from reading and asking, as always, what’s learning and teaching got to do with this moment?  Two wicked problems, really – the first a lovely wicked problem, the second certainly a pernicious wicked problem.  And any wicked problem involves conflict, specifically how we (who’s that) approach the work (what’s that) of conflict (please don’t mention that).

So, what if – as a societal innovation – everyone’s everyday thinking included considerations about resistance? conflict? and about their own answerings to my grandmother’s everyday question to me when I pouted or raged or passively shrunk from situations tinged with either of these: What are you going to do about that?

1. Resistance – theirs, yours, mine, ours?  (Women’s Studies Mankato State University)    A wicked problem is described as having at least these four characteristics:
* Solution depends on how the problem is framed
* Stakeholders with radically different worldviews / frames for understanding problem
* Resource constraints, including need for changing resources over time
* Never a definitive solution, but range of creative/contrary solutions
Any perusal of news reports and analyses alongside public commentary and testimony lets us tick each one of these characteristics as alive in the events of the week.

What I keep looking to understand in people’s framing of worldviews and problem posing is resistance – the refusal to accept something new or different, the ability to prevent something from having an effect (thank you Merriam-Webster).  But, rather than looking at their resistance, I look to my resistance.  I look not for resistance, per se, but for evidence of struggle – make that plural, evidences of struggle: mine, theirs, ours in convergence and in divergence.  What do “we” refuse to see – individuals in a collective looking moment?  What “work” do we resist seeing that needs to be done – those multiple and complex and everybody’s everyday work solutions?  What do we insist is work that “they” have to do – as actions not ours to own up to for having had a hand in perpetuating the proximate cause for upheaval?

Hayley Matthews (in “Salford Riots”) notes, after being in the midst of Salford Precinct wearing her clerical collar, we who are living in contemporary UK (and US) cultures “do have a two tier society without a doubt.”  And she asks, “What will we do? Continue to promulgate the values that have created this deadly cocktail of haves and have-nots….Surely THIS is nonsensical?”  As nonsensical as not asking questions about our resistances, which is an action that will begin revealing the other 90% of the problem parts that need posing.

Attending to resistance embedded in social unrest embedded in social injustice also requires that we consider the framing of wicked as we cast problems into words, movement of ideas, actions for the moment and the future.  So, what’s wicked as this week has been framed – the problems? the people?  and then which people are most frequently and most rhetorically framed as wicked?

When considering personifications of wicked, I’m leaning toward Ira David Socol’s invitation – in “Raising amoral children” – to look in a way that Myles Horton would call two-eyed: looking at who we always see and who we need to also see; looking at where we are and where we want to be:
“Since the 1980s the Anglo-Saxon world in particular, has revelled in amoral leadership. We have created a nightmare which is now just beginning to unfold.  // I felt exactly the same watching the riots unfold as I did watching [News of the World], as I did watching Republicans in the US Congress during the “Debt Limit” debate.  “In each case I stare at the television or computer and ask, “On what planet were such venal people raised?” “How does any human reach even adolescence not knowing anything of the difference between right and wrong?

2.  Wanna fight about it?  (family dinner table conversations)
I came to academic work as the first in my big and deeply extended Minnesota-based family to seek a doctorate.  I am here because learning was an everyday experience in my family and in spite of the 7/8th classroom time that seemed insistent on scrubbing away anything but schooling. In school, I was – quite honestly – that student looking for a fight. And fighting for ideas was part of the learning to fight integral to my upbringing as someone of a dead poor working class family where men labored when there was work and women ran boarding houses in a railroad town, and from a family of successful farmers who deeply felt the stigmatization of land laborers within Minnesota 1950s first flourishings as a knowledge and industrial economy.

It was at the kitchen table where the shared rituals across these families came together as my experiential education.  The three daily rituals were listening to the radio all day, reading newspapers and books or magazines in the evening, and fighting about ideas over food. Conflict was always on the menu, and it played out less like the Minnesota Nice version of passive-aggressive behavior and much more like the cognitive conflict and reasoning skills my UMinn colleague Karl Smith sets out in Teamwork and Project Management (generally, pages 49-86;  especially, pages 55-58):
* criticize ideas without criticizing people,
* differentiate ideas and reasoning of members,
* ask for justification on conclusions,
* extend answers,
*probe by asking in-depth questions,
* generate further answers,
* test reality by checking the group’s work.

Conflict, then, comes to my mind as personal cognitive struggles –
* to understand – or to at least gather together – multiple, competitive, divergent, often actually/seemingly incompatible  ideas, interests, perspectives;
* to be responsive and responsible (as in the list above) when engaging in strong disagreements with, between or about people / groups;
* to be mindful of context and power structures, making room for processing of dissent as well as impatience with selecting, prioritizing, evaluating consensus.
In this I value recognition of the ways in which on-going mental struggle in the face of wicked problems – given incompatible or opposing needs, multiple drives or wishes, powers of external or internal demands – is exacerbated by cultural namings of whose power, what property, which values, why some beliefs are valuable.  And, in this, I recognize that the mental, psychological, economic and interpersonal demands of wresting with cognitive conflict are exhausting – often more often than they are exhilarating.

As I think on conflict within the Societal Innovations I seek in the work we do as learning and teaching people, I want more “fighting about it” through our classroom practices, in the learning students invite us to witness, and in our roles as the real deal when it comes to policy making/enactment related to education. I’m dead tired of “deep-seated aversion to conflict and…profound failure to understand bully dynamics” as exemplified by UK and US leadership and what it does to diminish our capacity to engage, to name wicked problems, to seek complex ever-evolving solutions. I want us to name everywhere we can the conflicts that are being avoided, packaged in “nice” or nowhere on the priority lists of the powerful.  I want us to name how we enact conflict by creating climates safe for risk taking, by practicing “the arts of the contact zone.”

3.  What are you going to do about that?  (Hannah Ellen Stafford Alexander, aka Gram)
Because of this question, I teach and I still get to hear my Gram’s voice in my head.  The question exists because it was asked of my Grandmother Hannah by her Grandmother Hannah (a teacher) when the granddaughter (an enthusiastic learner who never missed school) had to leave school to participate in the family economy after 8th grade.  Posed to me, the question was less “What are you going to do, granddaughter of mine, to continue flourishing in school?” and more an early in life acknowledgement that schooling and I did not fit. I counted recently how many classes I had taken as a public school student and calculated in that the number where I was invited to learn – 43 classes, 9 where I experienced learning – with only one of those in the elementary school years, thankfully in first grade, where I learned the first principle I’d have us consider:
* Margaret Courts: Provide experiences in group living as essence of all school living.
* Frank Coffield: Learning refers only to significant changes in capability, understanding, knowledge, practices, attitudes or values by individuals, groups, organisations or society.
Stephen Brookfield: understand that high levels of learning come only with, through, after conflict, and know adult learning and discussion as a way of teaching principles even if teaching kindergarten.
* Carolyn Shrewsbury: Feminist Pedagogy as one means for understanding ways of learning and teaching that involve (mixing quote and paraphrase here in ways I can no longer trace out) continuing reflective process in which students actively engage materials to work together to enhance knowledge, and engage with others in the classroom, and in community, traditional organizations, and movements for social change to get beyond destructive hatreds.
* Fred Garnett: brokering learning and social justice suggestions, both linked to taking learner’s interests and mapping them to formal learning outcomes.

And most dear to my practice as a teacher, predilections as a family member, and preferences as a learner:
* Peter Elbow Embracing Contraries in the Teaching Process, in which we are reminded of the fulcrums we navigate as teachers:  attention to Knowledge (Profession) and Learners (Students); interactions with learners as Stewards (Gatekeepers) and Allies (Apprentices); walking the talk as Facilitator (Elbow) and Cousin (me – as number 43 of 48, I learned as much from hand holding as kicks in the pants).

On Conflict, Wicked Problems and one, okay two, New Big Questions – Part 2
4.  What are we going to do about ‘those students’ (parents, lads, people, thugs)?
5.  Why should we care?


About IleneDawn

I write. I learn. I write and learn in order to communicate - in and across the multiculturally rich and complex communities in which I integrate life and work, play and passion. Within a uni, I teach about learning and communicating before teaching about pedagogies of all sorts because, otherwise, why bother. Teaching with understanding of learning and communicating is priceless.
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4 Responses to On Conflict, Wicked Problems and Answering THE Three Big Questions – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Part 2 – On Conflict, Wicked Problems: Okay, Two More Big Questions | Societal Innovation

  2. Pingback: Part 2 – On Conflict, Wicked Problems: Okay, Two More Big Questions « morelearning4morestudents

  3. Pingback: Personal Innovation and Societal Innovation | Societal Innovation

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