Dr. Paul Hanstedt, Director of the Houston H. Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and author of Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses For a Complex World talks about the need to create wicked students ready to solve the future’s most wicked problems.

We need to encourage our students to become wicked thinkers in order to tackle the world’s most wicked problems. This means embracing lateral thinking, persistence, and creative, long-term problem solving.

Wicked problems are defined as more than just 'difficult': they are almost never solved after just one attempt.

To solve a wicked problem requires creativity, innovation, new ways of thinking, and, often, teamwork over a long period of time.

Are our students wicked enough?

Defining Wicked Problems

According to Dr. Hanstedt, “A wicked problem is a problem where the parameters of the challenge are in flux.” For example: the ever-changing challenges of daily life during COVID-19. 

At its core, a wicked problem may not even be solvable, but getting closer to an answer that mitigates the challenge is a goal for the greater solution.

Solving a wicked problem takes both the courage to make the attempt despite probable defeat and the humility to identify what went wrong and try again. 

Wicked problems may change over time, impacted by factors like:

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Sociology
  • Economics
  • Race
  • Geography
  • Interdisciplinary knowledge

“Oftentimes there are conflicting answers and ways of interpreting what's going on with a wicked problem," Dr. Hanstedt observes, "which just adds to that volatility, that difficulty of solving it.” 

It’s clear that we urgently need to instill the competencies of a wicked problem solver in our students — but how?

Wicked Problem Solvers

To become wicked problem solvers, students must be persistent. Persistence means not only accepting failure, but also growing from experience over time. 

When students face a situation that they’ve never seen before, one that perhaps cannot be solved completely or perfectly, they'll need to explore how to translate and apply ideas from different fields. They need to keep trying to make progress toward a solution.

Dr. Hanstedt describes this quality as “an experimental spirit.”

Wicked Problems in the Classroom

A wicked classroom, designed specifically with the goal of training problem solvers, treats content as a tool to solve problems.

For example, the discipline of chemistry is a way to solve problems about elements. Similarly, the field of philosophy is a way to solve problems about ideas, and history is a set of techniques and methodologies to understand, reconcile, or solve the complexities of the past.

A course designed around wicked problems asks this question:

What are you going to do with the content?

Room for Stumbling

Wicked classrooms give students the space they need to stumble and fall.

If we want students to build resilience and persistence, we need to design a classroom in which stumbling is encouraged and rewarded, rather than treated as detrimental.

Room for Riddling

One of the best techniques to encourage long-term lateral thinking that Dr. Hanstedt mentions is to play with riddles. For example, posing a riddle like this one:

A person walks into a bar and asks for a glass of water. The bartender looks at the person, pulls out a gun, and points it at them. The person thanks the bartender and leaves. What’s going on? You can only ask yes or no questions to find out.

This type of problem allows students to grow comfortable with challenges that can’t be solved immediately. By learning how to linger in uncertainty, students overcome their fear of complexity.

Starting Monday with a riddle for the week, or closing a novel at a suspenseful moment and asking students to forecast upcoming events are fun, easy ways to accustom students to accepting a lack of an immediate answer.

P.S. Find the answer to the riddle at the end of this blog.

Action Steps for Parents

1 - Ask Questions Without Answers

Encourage exploration and curiosity by asking open-ended questions without providing an answer. Instead, ask your children for their ideas and discuss possibilities with them. 

When your children ask, “Why is such and such?”, you can send the question back by asking, “Huh, what do you think?”

2 - Play with Riddles

Use lateral thinking games, brain teasers, minute mysteries, or detective riddles for family fun, as well as to model how to approach situations that may not make sense right away.

3 - Face Discomfort Willingly

Evaluate your willingness to face situations that make you uncomfortable.

“This is really a key component with a wicked problem,” Dr. Hanstedt says. “We need to be comfortable with discomfort and recognize that discomfort is oftentimes the thing that creates a catalyzing creative space that keeps us moving forward.”

Support this skill in your children through extracurriculars like theater, music, and other cooperative group activities, whether they participate in schools or independently. As Dr. Hanstedt points out, notable ideas are often collaborative.

Guest Resources

The Answer to the Riddle?

The person has hiccups.


This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

To get weekly episode summaries right to your inbox, follow the podcast at the bottom of this page or anywhere you get podcasts. Ideas for the show? Reach us at podcast@aops.com.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Paul Hanstedt Q&A [1:51]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Dr. Paul Hanstedt, director of the Houston H. Hart Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University, and author of Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, talks about the need to raise wicked students, ready to solve the future's most wicked problems. Paul, what are wicked problems?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: A wicked problem is a problem where the parameters of the challenge are in flux. So what they look like on Tuesday, what they look like a month from Tuesday, what they look like six months from Tuesday are going to be completely different. Think about something like, for instance, COVID. When it first came out, we weren't sure if we were supposed to wear masks or not. We were all wiping our groceries down. So sort of figuring out the problem along the way, and our understanding keeps evolving. That's one criteria for what makes a wicked problem.

Another criteria would be that they're probably not completely solvable, that there's not the perfect answer. Just sitting out there and all we need to do is find that, and then we're fine. More, it's moving toward an answer, getting closer to an answer. And again, COVID is a good example of that. It's probably never going to go away, but what can we do to sort of mitigate the challenge of it?

Other factors come into play. Oftentimes it requires a drawing knowledge from multiple fields. Again, COVID, if it were just a science problem, we'd be done, but clearly politics comes into play. Clearly religion, sociology, economics, race, all of these things can be a factor, geography. And then I would also say kind of related to that is oftentimes as conflicting answers in ways of interpreting what's going on with a wicked problem, which just adds to that volatility, that difficulty of solving it.

Eric Olsen: Hmm. Then describe the competencies of a wicked problem solver. How should we be training our students? How do we raise them to be ready for whatever complexity that their future careers might have in store?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Right. Well, one of the main criteria is they need to be used to not having it work when they try to fix it, right? Which is another way, sometimes I use the word failure, but what I really mean is they're going to stumble, they're going to fall,. They're going to have to get back up, and they're going to have to try again, because when we're facing something we haven't seen before and something that maybe can't be solved perfectly, things are going to go wrong. And so that ability to look at the situation carefully, be deliberate in responding, not just kind of go from have a gut reaction or a knee jerk response, think about it carefully, draw from different fields, take ideas that maybe don't seem applicable because they're from over here in the sciences, but this is a humanities problem, or they're from over here in the social sciences, but this is a natural science problem, and sort of translate ideas from one area to another. That's important.

So I think an experimental spirit and a willingness to when that experiment doesn't work, to step back, to reconsider, to look at it again and to move forward, which is a strange combination, right? Of courage to try in the face of probable defeat, and also the humility to go, "Well, it didn't work this time, but I'm going to keep going."

Difference Between A Traditional Classroom And A Wicked Classroom [5:18]

Eric Olsen: And so, in your opinion, what's the biggest difference between a traditional classroom and a classroom designed specifically with this goal of training wicked problem solvers?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: I love this. Okay, so this past weekend I was at my son's college and I gave a talk. And afterwards, a guy who taught chemistry came up to me. And he was in the seventies. He'd been teaching for years, highly respected. And he said, "Listen, I want to rename my courses. I always tell my students, listen, this is not a chemistry course. This is a problem solving course. Chemistry is what we use in this setting to solve the problem." And so I think what that gets to is a traditional course says, "I've got content. You need to know that content and then you'll be fine." A wicked course of a problem solving course says, "There are problems. I've got some tools that I'm going to provide you to use to solve that problem."

So history is trying to solve, it's using particular techniques and methodologies to try to solve the mystery of the past, the complexities the past, to reconcile things that don't make sense. Philosophy classrooms are taking the logical problems that have challenged us for years and years and years. Our use example of chemistry, physics is trying to resolve issues where we can't even see the things that we're talking about, but we're still trying to answer it. So I think that's a major difference. A traditional course says, "There's content. Once you know that content, you're fine." Wicked classes, "Content is important. You have to know the content, but what are you going to do with the content? And then again, that issue of what does it take to be a problem solver? How are you not going to get it right?"

So there's implications for that too. If our students are going to stumble and fall, a traditional classroom oftentimes doesn't have many, much space for that. You get graded at everything you do. Well, if you're going to stumble and fall, we know you're going to stumble and fall, how do we make space? So that stumbling and falling doesn't get punished in such a way that nobody wants to do it anymore?

Eric Olsen: Paul, so let's say we're convinced of the premise. We want our kids to be these wicked problem solvers, able to help solve COVID-39 faster than our generation solved COVID-19. How then shall we teach? How then shall we parent?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Hmm, well parenting, that's an interesting question. So one of the things actually I often do when I'm presenting on wicked problems is I'll toss out some riddles. A man walks into a bar, asks for glass of water. The bartender looks at him, pulls out a gun, points it at the man. The man says, "Thank you," and turns around and walks out. What's going on here? You can ask me yes or no questions. Louise is going home. Suddenly sees somebody in front of her, turns around and goes back where she came from. What's going on? You can ask me yes or no questions. There's a plot of land in Charlottesville, Virginia, right next to the railroad tracks, in an underprivileged neighborhood. People want to develop that land in the best way possible to make the most money for the city. But the people in the neighborhood want to have a park there. What do you do?

And so part of where I'm going with this, and part of the reason that I open presentations like this, is I want to involve people in puzzles, in problem solving. And I want to get him used to the idea that sometimes puzzles make perfect sense, but other times they don't. A man asking for a glass of water. Why would a guy point a gun at him? That makes no sense. And then why would the guy thank him? That makes no sense either. But then if I say something like, and I'm going to give away one of my best riddles here, but if I say something like, somebody asks, "Does a man have hiccups?" Everybody in the room goes, "Oh." And if they get that on the first one as a group, then the second one and the third one fall like dominoes. And oftentimes, if they don't get that on the first one, then the second one and the third one stay standing.

So how do we raise our kids? Traveling, traveling through Asia with my kids 10 years ago, we would ask these riddles with the yes or no questions to keep them busy at the dinner table when the food was taking too long. Play with riddles, ask questions. Don't feel like you always have to have the answer. We get a lot of that as a parent. "Why, why, why, why?" Well, it's fair to turn around and say, "Well, why do you think? What are your ideas on this?" And when they say, "I don't know," say, "Well, are you sure? Do you have any ideas at all?"

So ask the questions. Ask the questions about the things that are uncertain and unsolvable. Encourage exploration and curiosity. And it's fair as well to kind of also say, "Well, here are three possibilities. Which one do you think is the best one?", because a wicked problem doesn't mean anything goes. A wicked problem just means that we need to be more careful and more thoughtful about what we're thinking about.

Helping Students Become So Used to Wicked Problems They’re No Longer Scared of Them [10:40]

Eric Olsen: Really love that, Paul. It's a deeply shared philosophy that we talk about a lot at APS that we want to continually present students with very, very difficult challenges from such a very early age that they're used to it. They're so used to living in the complex, they're no longer terrified of it anymore.

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I think about a teacher that I had years ago, who, when he wanted to get us to read, he stopped, he read a book out loud, and then he stopped right at the scene where the hero fell down and didn't move. And then he closed the book and said, "If you want to know how it ends." And boy, a bunch of fifth graders lining up to read that book. Right? And there's nothing that says, if we have Monday morning riddles in our classes, there's nothing that says we have to solve it. Isn't it intriguing to get to the end of 20 minutes and say, "Well, keep working on it all week long. I will take any ideas that you have. We'll come back to the next riddle, next week, Monday." That's part of the joy. We always talk about lifelong learners, but then we answer the question as though there's nothing left to learn.

How Parents And Teachers Should Think About Raising Wicked Problem Solvers? [11:43]

Eric Olsen: So Paul, maybe leave us there. You have this repository and knowledge of teasers and challenges in your head that you use to help your own children when you were going across Asia. Any next steps advice for parents looking to raise wicked problem solvers? Where's this book of riddles we can use for our own students? How else should we think about that challenge?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Yeah, I think honestly, if you look at my phone, there's all these screen captures from years ago of I think they're called two minute riles or something like that. But the bigger question I think is also kind of thinking about what can we do at home? How can we approach things at home? What are the conversations we have at the dinner table? How do we approach things that don't make sense? What is our willingness to face things that make us uncomfortable? This is really a key component with a wicked problem, I think, is we need to be comfortable with discomfort and recognize that discomfort is oftentimes the thing that creates creative space, a catalyzing creative space that keeps us moving forward.

I think as well, thinking about it on the local school level and on the regional and on the state level what's being rewarded? In Virginia, we have the standards of learning, and they have a lot of multiple choice on there. And I remember my fifth grader saying, "Multiple choice are the best because they're so easy."

"You don't even have to know," he says. "You can figure it out half the time." So what can we do to nudge the systems around us?

And I would also kind of point out that there are things, extracurriculars, that can we make sure that they're occurring in our neighborhood schools? Theater, because theater is a wicked problem. Right? How do we produce this? How do we make it engaging? How do we make it entertaining? How do you occupy this character? How do we like this? How do we create the set? Chess, music, all of these things. And that idea and all of these worth noting are collaborative. They're people working together, which is kind of how the world works as opposed to individualized performance. Right?

Yeah, I know. Right? But then we had two years living at home and we missed communities, so…

Download AoPS’ Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook [14:15]

Eric Olsen: That concept of nudging the systems around us is so important. And speaking of nudging, have you downloaded our Raising Problem Solvers guidebook yet? It's full of helpful strategies to support and challenge advanced learners, curriculum recommendations straight from our Art of Problem Solving families, our STEM gift guide, free resource recommendations, and much, much more. It's the perfect next step to help you navigate and build an educational plan that's right for your family. Download our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook for free today.

Dr. Paul Hanstedt Rapid Fire [14:56]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Paul, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Get rid of grades. Is that quick enough?

Eric Olsen: That's perfect. If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Keep drawing pictures.

Eric Olsen: Hmm, what part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: In all education, again, I would say our approach to grades. Are there ways we can give more effective feedback rather than a numeric or letter grade that says very little and becomes the prize rather than the meaningful learning.

Eric Olsen: And what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: Ask questions back. when they say, "Why is such and such?", you say, "Huh, what do you think?", or, "Maybe it's this, or maybe it's this, or maybe it's this. Which one?"

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Paul, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Paul Hanstedt: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

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