Why students must solve ‘wicked problems’

Sonny Magana's T3 Framework empowers students to figure out how they learn best
By: | June 14, 2019
Education expert Sonny Magana says today's student learning strategies must enable kids to become their own teachers and assess their own progress. This builds capacity rather than dependency.Education expert Sonny Magana says today's student learning strategies must enable kids to become their own teachers and assess their own progress. This builds capacity rather than dependency.

As a former AP biology teacher and principal, Sonny Magana likes to understand how complex systems work—and then figure out how they work best and turn them into student learning strategies.

This led him to develop his tech-driven T3 Framework for instruction, which he will detail for attendees of the District Administration Leadership Institute’s Chief Academic Officer Summit in Chicago to be held September 25-27.

Magana, author of two education bestsellers that also focus on edtech integration, has challenged school districts to use his approach to double student achievement over the next decade, though he believes his framework can produce even greater results.

First off, why do you believe edtech is not yet having the impact it should?

It’s for a number of reasons. We have a 20th-century education system, and all we’re doing is sprinkling 21st-century frosting on a 20th-century doughnut. Scrape away the frosting of 21st-century digital tools and what you have is a stale doughnut.

The pedagogy is what matters most. When technology is used to promote a tell-and-practice pedagogy in which teachers tell students what knowledge is important to memorize and students dutifully memorize it, that’s not preparing them to be adaptive, agile thinkers or creative responders to problems. How much more can a kid memorize using OneNote or G Suite? Not much.

What’s the vision behind the T3 student learning strategies?

It’s a student-learning innovation framework, not a technology usage framework. We inundate teachers with way too much stuff, so they’re drowning in frameworks and strategies and information. We should shift our conversation to learning and to mastery learning.


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T3 provides opportunities for children to reflect on their learning strategies. Masterful learners have a whole host of strategies that they wield masterfully. When kids learn how they learn best, they in essence become their own teachers. That’s very different from what people are saying right now, which is: “Find out what a kid is good at, and then they’ll get good at everything.”

Tell us how T3 works.

It has three domains of impact. The first is translational. This is where teachers and students use technology to translate learning from the analog to the digital environment. But when you just have old pedagogies supported by new technology, the impact is a bit disappointing.

What’s next?

The transformational domain is when students wield technology for the purpose of planning for their learning. They need to be more involved in representing and expressing their knowledge gains, and more actively and accurately tracking their progress. We need to build capacity, not dependency.

In the transformational domain, students also produce learning artifacts that are specifically designed to teach someone else what they know. It’s in the teaching part that all the magic happens. When kids teach other kids what they know, their role is transformed from passive recipient of knowledge to active knowledge architect.

When students implement such strategies in the T2 domain, that’s where we observed effect sizes that were equivalent to quadrupling student achievement.

And the third domain?

The transcendent domain is the place where we go well above the expectations for which public education was first designed 130 years ago. That means we need to prepare kids for the digital age; they need to use scientific observation and the tools of research to identify, investigate, and then generate and test hypotheses about solutions to wicked problems that matter to them.

These fifth-grade students in Lemon Grove Academy in California confronted with the wicked problem of a lack of kindness in the world by creating a buddy bench. It gives students a place to sit when they are lonely and need a friend.

These fifth-grade students in Lemon Grove Academy in California confronted with the wicked problem of a lack of kindness in the world by creating a buddy bench. It gives students a place to sit when they are lonely and need a friend.

The good news is that there’s no shortage of wicked problems that matter to kids. The bad news is that there’s no shortage of wicked problems. But when students start to identify problems, the passion pilot light gets turned on. They see learning as not as an end in itself but as a means to improving their world.

Give us an example.

I introduced the wicked problem idea to a group of third-graders at the American International School of Lagos in Nigeria, and they started to investigate the problem of single-use, disposable plastics. They were so upset when they realized that they were part of the problem. They looked around the school and found their cafeteria had thousands of single-use plastic straws, spoons and wrapping.

They came up with a strategy that they pitched to the school to eliminate such plastics from the cafeteria, and they were successful. Now, they’re looking at microplastics. They are third-graders. People think they’re too young to know this stuff. The fact that they lobbied an international school board to eliminate disposable plastics is a testament to the power of students’ collective passion.

Matt Zalaznick is senior writer.


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