Higher Education and Wicked Problems: Students Engaging with Complexity and Uncertainty in Sustainability Transitions


The challenges we collectively face, such as climate change, are characterized by more complexity, interdependence, and dynamism than is common for educational practice. This presents a challenge for (university) education. These transition challenges are often described as wicked or VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) problems. In response, educational innovations that are inspired by ecology such as living labs are starting to emerge, but little is known about how learners engage within and with these more ecological forms of education. This work is an exploratory study into how learners navigate VUCA learning environments linked to tackling sustainability transition challenges, with a focus on the positive qualities of these experiences. This is done through interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) of seven students (using semi-structured interviews) of the MSC Metropolitan Analysis, Design and Engineering program, a joint degree from Wageningen University and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The main findings, which are both psychological and educational, of this exploration include openness to new experiences (1), flexibility (2), a process appreciation of learning (3), a desire to create a positive impact on one’s direct biophysical environment (4) and society (5). In addition, we discuss the potential limitations of the malleability of these different qualities and propose future avenues for research into ecological learning for universities. This work closes by highlighting recommendations for educators to consider when designing or engaging in ecological forms of higher education that connect students to sustainability transitions.

Author Information
Jan Fenten, Leiden University, Netherlands
Bas van den Berg, De Haagse Hogeschool, Netherlands
Nina Bohm, TU Delft, Netherlands

Paper Information
Conference: BCE2021
Stream: Higher education

This paper is part of the BCE2021 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon