Special education can be seen as a practical, if limited, response to this thorny issue at a time in the late 1970s when children with disabilities had previously lived in asylums or hospitals and received treatment rather than education.
Tensions present at the birth of special education and associated with the education system have not disappeared: indeed there is evidence that special education’s successor, inclusion, is facing threats on a number of fronts in Australia and elsewhere due to their re-emergence in parts of the education system.
For example, thousands of children with disabilities are effectively excluded from schools across Australia on the days when NAPLAN testing occurs each year.
For further instance, too many children with disabilities are excluded from schools on behavioural grounds, often as an outcome of ineffective behaviour management strategies with students who have a disability and because overwhelmed teachers are unaware of how to meet their needs.
Given the strength of legal protection which children with disabilities now have in Australia, then, it is surprising that exclusion and discrimination still, it seems, occur to such an extent in the schooling system – in common with England and the US.
What we can gather from this understanding is that the system here, including educational policy, faces some deepseated, pervasive and difficult to address issues which prevent the inclusion of children with disabilities.
Problems of this type can be described as ‘wicked’.
The planner, Horst Rittel coined the term ‘wicked problem’ in the 1960s and described them as a particular type of intractable, hard-to-define, problem affecting complex human systems.
Whilst Rittel referred to the town planning system, researchers after his death popularised the term and applied it to areas of public service like education and health, referring to the type of costly, complex issues which keep professionals and policymakers awake at night.
Indeed in a recent blow to the concept’s kudos, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull frequently refers to wicked problems.
Comedy aside, educators and educational leaders often pinpoint problems which keep cropping up in schools and which regularly appear across different settings and with different students, year after year.
Pervasive issues of this type are typically the result of larger tensions or contradiction which afflict the education sector.
The Australian Government has recently called for research in Australian universities to focus on how it can address such realworld issues affecting public services (although of course this makes the large assumption that research does not already do this).
Better understanding of wicked problems affecting education by research could, however, have major benefits and focus action to tackle their underlying causes in, for example, teacher attitudes or educational policy.
As editor of the Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, (JORSEN) this reasoning led me to write a special article which identifies wicked problems in special and inclusive education and which is, to my knowledge, one of the first research articles to do so.
Practically, this article is designed to provide the structure for special issues in JORSEN over the next three years with each wicked problem identified as the theme for a special issue and readers invited to submit research which fits each theme.
Considering wicked problems as an agenda for research, is also intended, if I dare say it in these often anti-intellectual times, to offer some intellectual coherence to papers published.
Considering wicked problems connects with the school improvement agenda.
Acknowledging the contribution which behavioural psychology can make, is often missing in this discussion, particularly in terms of how to incentivise individuals working in the system (teachers, school leaders, policymakers) so as to enable improvement.
The article highlights two highly promising theories which can frame efforts for innovative school improvement at the level of the individual and at a whole-school level.
In efforts to design a better planning system, Rittel came to the conclusion that wicked problems are highly political.
This insight empowers educational communities because, in a democracy, it indicates the possibility of strategic, joint actions by professionals themselves in reforms intended to improve the social equity and effectiveness of schools.
We should therefore work collectively to design initiatives designed to unlock wicked problems affecting the education sector rather than leave it to our politicians.