Mapping a Wicked Problem

When our group first started working on the problem map, we were first stumped by the definition of “high quality education”. We looked up several definitions that all included mention of a quality education that meets the needs of all students. This is a broad definition that could be measured in different ways — how parents regard the school, how students perform on standardized tests, how many students graduate and persist in college. This need to anchor on a definition of quality added a layer of complexity to the mapping process.

Quality education is child-centered, nurtures the whole child, provides a safe, comfortable, happy environment with small class sizes, discovers and celebrate each child’s intellectual, creative, and social abilities, develops every child’s passion for being a life-long learner, encourages children’s curiosity and self-expression, offers individualized, diversified, broad-based learning that meets the needs of all students, develops a love of reading in students, build self-esteem, honor differences, and respect the stages of child development by using high engagement, hands-on learning, and high-quality, appropriate assessments, and employ positive discipline policies and practices.

Once that complexity was defined, we set out to explore and map the problem, and we found that the process was most successful when we allowed it to be organic and generative, rather than prescribed and scientific. Every direction we looked, we saw connections and links between issues and topics. We saw areas that built upon each other, amplifying some issues and ameliorating others where they intersected.

Our group was lucky enough to have a team member who works for the Pittsburgh Public Schools as our main source of information about high quality education in Pittsburgh, but we still had trouble really grasping what the experience of going to school or accessing education was like from the student, parent, or community perspectives. We concluded that including other stakeholders in the mapping process would have been useful to help reduce bias and incorrect assumptions.

In the end, our wicked problem map looked like a brain, with so many connections and intersections it is virtually impossible to see where one line leads and another ends. While it does make it difficult to read, it’s complexity invites the viewer in to explore the issues further, with particularly complicated areas standing out visually at the intersections of the political, social, and economic realms.

What is still difficult to discern from the map and exercise alone is the areas for intervention. Access to high quality education is connected not only to the public school system but to the other systems that surround it. The exercise was valuable to show how the interconnectedness of social, economic, political, environmental, and infrastructural systems directly affect opportunities to access high quality education.

Some of these issues are rooted in historical contexts and are completely independent from the students’ agency to access high quality education. Other barriers to high quality education are determined by personal factors–such as family structure, history of mental illness, family income. This mapping activity was useful to find those insights and understand the scale of barriers (from macro to micro), but points of intervention are still difficult to discern. One point of intervention could be to better arm the public with information about the landscape of educational options in Pittsburgh, but areas for potential intervention would likely become more clear with input from more varied stakeholders.

Insights from this exercise really grew out of drawing connections between the root causes and consequences. It was from there we realized that they all exist in tandem with one another, feeding back and affecting each other every step of the way. The stakeholder relationship mapping was also a very useful place to begin. It forced us to think about not only the connections to each other, but the nature of their relationships. Knowing where conflicts exist, tenuous friendships, and where connections don’t exist but should allowed us to generate a richer picture of the problem.

Key findings

In the process of creating the map, it became evident that:

  • Historic political context still influences public school governance, segregated schools, and school choice in Pittsburgh.
  • Changes in industry, from predominantly labor-based to medicine and technology, changed neighborhood demographics, tax revenues, and impacted population density.
  • Private and parochial schools provide families with alternative educational options, but are selective and cost-prohibitive for many

Our wicked problem map reveals that the issue of accessing high quality education in Pittsburgh intersects with geopolitical issues such that affect disproportionately low income neighborhoods such as crime and gentrification; city-wide infrastructure issues that lead to problems with water quality and access to public transportation; and, national social and economic issues such as homelessness and underemployment also create structural barriers for accessing. high quality education. A lot of the branches in our map end with these other issues leaving room to couple our map with the maps created by the other groups.

— This post has been collaboratively written by Ashley Varrato, Manjari Sahu, Meric Dagli, Monica Looze & Silvia Mata-Marin.

Mapping Wicked Problems — Transition Design Spring 2017

A collection of wicked problem maps from graduate students in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University

Manjari Sahu

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India | USA | The Netherlands…A designer broadening her perspective on critical thinking and how to do good by design.

Mapping Wicked Problems — Transition Design Spring 2017

A collection of wicked problem maps from graduate students in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University