Growing as a Literacy Leader


This post is written by Erin Kessel. You can learn more about Erin at the bottom of this post.

What is a literacy leader? In my opinion, it is a highly qualified teacher in literacy instruction who provides valuable resources for other teachers to facilitate quality instruction. Providing highly qualified teachers with the opportunity to fill this role promotes growth in our field, allows these experienced teachers to stay in the classroom, and gives more novice teachers a mentor to support them. Today I will share with you my personal story as a literacy leader and the opportunities it provided me to grow as an educator while also growing others.

In 2020 I was offered an opportunity by my district to become a Multi-Classroom Teacher with a focus on literacy. The Multi-Classroom Teacher position was created in our district for master teachers, a designation determined by classroom observation and student performance data, who then co-taught across multiple classrooms with other teachers and apprenticed them in highly effective instruction. After 12 years in the classroom, mentoring beginning teachers, supervising interns, and leading PLCs, I was ready to grow as an educator and accepted the position. The goal was simple — mentor and model literacy instruction in five 3rd through 5th-grade classrooms where teachers had less than three years of teaching experience.

Through years of learning and applying strategies of Adaptive Schools and Cognitive Coaching, I began with a plan to actively listen to the teachers, identify needs, and establish goals to support them. I spent two weeks simply observing the literacy blocks of each classroom. I recorded objective, anecdotal notes and began to set my intentions for areas of targeted support with each teacher. The following descriptions are the focus areas based on my data for each teacher:

  • Teacher #1 – An experienced teacher assistant transitioning to a teacher with strong small group instruction skills but difficulty designing whole group literacy instruction where students experience a gradual release of responsibility of learning (Goal – To design whole group literacy lessons focused on scaffolding the learning for students).
  • Teacher #2 – A engaging third-year teacher who had powerful literacy instruction methods but lacked knowledge of how to incorporate collaborative learning within her classroom (Goal – To learn about, model, and engage in collaborative strategies).
  • Teacher #3 – A second-year teacher who had the “right stuff” as an educator but had never taken the time to build rapport with her students and felt a lack of community within her classroom (Goal – To build relationships with and learn about students as people including their likes, interests, and home life).
  • Teacher #4 – A compassionate second-year teacher who lacked organization and engagement strategies to encourage her students to want to learn (Goal – To learn about, model, and engage in Whole Brain Teaching strategies).
  • Teacher #5 – A first-year teacher who spent her clinical teaching year virtually due to COVID who lacked sufficient classroom management skills, therefore behaviors and disruptions were consistently affecting learning (Goal – To establish norms and routines in her classroom as well as create a concrete classroom management plan to hold students accountable of their actions and encourage them to want to learn).

After a week of collecting observational data, I set a time to meet with each teacher and have a goal-planning conversation. Within the Cognitive Coaching model, it is the coach’s job to lead the participant/s through the stages of a conversation where they identify their goals and set their own plan while the coach provides some potential strategies. I discovered this group had not been able to collaborate with an experienced teacher since their student teaching and therefore did not have access to guidance, resources, and tools for effective literacy instruction.

As a mentor teacher, I had the experience, knowledge, and resources to support each of these teachers’ goals. I asked the teachers to become observers for two weeks during their literacy block and allow me to facilitate learning in their classrooms while focusing on their specific needs. The teachers used an observer form to stay focused on my facilitation of the instruction specifically tied to their goals. I also attended their planning periods, where we collaborated to develop a library of lessons and resources. I built rapport and trust with each teacher, which allowed us to consistently hold reflective conversations focused on their goals and ways to incorporate the instruction they observed into the lesson plans we created.

(When these amazing teachers choose to dress in my Erin Kessel “iconic” daily outfit, I know I have made connections with my teachers)

I spent two weeks cultivating and facilitating different plans for each class and working with students of all ability levels while incorporating many diverse types of teaching strategies to model options of literacy learning. The following were ways I helped each teacher approach her goal:

  • Teacher #1 – We redesigned her schedule with a specific time set to introduce content, model, and allow students to practice and apply their learning. We also planned — and I modeled — how to provide differentiated opportunities in a lesson during whole-group instruction. We developed a presentation format (PowerPoint) for her lessons that guided her through the gradual release process.
  • Teacher #2 – I intentionally introduced the class to collaboration practices and strategies within the literacy block. Students participated in Learning-Focused Collaborative Pairs, Socratic methods of teaching, Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies, Adaptive School strategies, and other various strategies I have created through my own experiences. As this teacher observed these strategies being applied in her classroom, she saw student engagement increase, students’ understanding of content grow, and more students involved in class discussion. She then utilized the strategies she was seeing modeled.
  • Teacher #3 – Community meetings were established each morning before her literacy block, which engaged students with each other and utilized multimodal methods of literacy to prepare their brains for the day. Multiple community meeting processes were used where students expressed themselves as individuals and learned commonalities with each other. The teacher participated and learned about the students as individuals, and the students learned more about the teacher. The rapport became evident when students began to support each other during collaborative activities. They also entrusted the teacher with more personal information and would seek guidance in non-academic situations.
  • Teacher #4 –  Through modeling and professional development of Whole Brain Teaching, she was quickly able to establish daily routines through fun callbacks, engage in bodily-kinesthetic and verbal learning of literacy curriculum, and create a respect for her attention when deemed necessary. Her classroom management, routines, and classroom literacy instruction benefited from utilizing this program.
  • Teacher #5 – Through consistent use of expectations and norms and a structured schedule, the teacher replicated my modeled methods and saw improvement in the respect her students had for her. Through attending the planning periods, asking questions, requesting modeling of instruction, and assisting in designing literacy assessments, her understanding of literacy curriculum and how to facilitate it increased exponentially. She also benefited from the shared PowerPoint presentations we made during planning to guide her instruction.

After teaching in all classrooms, I began to see the value of my effort. I started noting strategies I used in their literacy blocks were now being used in other core content areas by these teachers. When we met to review our planning conversations, some teachers felt they had met their goal, and through planning conversations, we established new goals. Over the course of two years, I co-taught and co-planned with these teachers.

(As the shirts state, “Together through it all” was our motto as we worked side by side in their classroom every day.)

The experiences I had as a Multi Classroom Teacher and literacy leader within this school began to grow my need to share this role with others. I recently became a teaching instructor at East Carolina University, where I teach the READ courses to education major students. I can share my experiences and grow our future teachers as they explore their concentrations for their education degree. I encourage students to explore our Read Concentration program to help develop our next Literacy Leaders. I have spoken at multiple conferences on the value of literacy leaders and continue to speak on the benefits of this role in every school, especially schools with low teacher retention rates, as that is where they are most valuable and can make the greatest impact.

Erin Kessel is a teaching instructor in the Literacy Studies, English Education, and History Education Department at East Carolina University.  Previously, she was a Multi Classroom Literacy Leader, Facilitating Teacher, and a 4th grade teacher.  Erin’s work focuses on literacy leadership and developing literacy leaders as well as building a classroom community through literacy as she presents at the local, state and national level.Follow on Twitter @kessel_erin

Please cite this work: Kessel, E. (2023). Growing as a Literacy Leader. Literacy In The Disciplines. CC BY 4.0 license.

Cover Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The Leadership Needed to Support Disciplinary Literacy Initiatives Webinar


In this webinar, Dr. Ippolito will present multiple evidence-based ways for both formal and informal literacy leaders—principals, instructional coaches, and teacher leaders—to support disciplinary literacy initiatives across grade levels and content areas. This session is intended to support both teachers and leaders, as we collaboratively navigate disciplinary literacy work in a post-pandemic world.

When: March 30, 2023 6-7PM EST

Cost: Free

The following resources were shared during the webinar.

Jacy is a professor in literacy and leadership at the McKeown School of Education at Salem State University (Salem, MA), where he currently codirects graduate programs in Educational Leadership and the Center for Educational Leadership at SSU (CEL@SSU). Jacy’s work focuses on the intersection of literacy coaching, educational leadership, adolescent/disciplinary literacy, and school reform, and his most recent books include Disciplinary Literacy Inquiry & Instruction (2019), An UnCommon Theory of School Change (2019), Investigating Disciplinary Literacy (2017), and Cultivating Coaching Mindsets (2016).

For more about Jacy and his work, please visit: or

Cover Photo by Natalie Pedigo on Unsplash

Literacy Leadership Lessons Learned: Post-Pandemic Professional Learning


This post is written by Jenelle Williams. You can read more about Jenelle at the bottom of this post.

I have served in public education since 1999, and I can attest to the fact that this school year has been a doozy. I have served as a middle school and elementary teacher, an instructional coach/coordinator, and now I am serving as a consultant. Working both regionally and across the state of Michigan with secondary teachers, building principals, and central office administrators, it’s easy for me to get lost in all of the challenges. Despite this reality, I have been lucky enough to witness positive momentum in the schools and districts I serve across Oakland County, Michigan. Working as a secondary literacy consultant for the 28 individual school districts in my county provides me with endless variety–though my area of focus is adolescent literacy, each district within my service area represents a wide array of contexts, sizes, strengths, and needs. 

Working with other content-area colleagues, we developed a plan of support around disciplinary literacy in our region for this school year. As is the case with most educational contexts, we began planning while still in the midst of the previous school year, so there were many unknowns. Would we experience another surge of COVID? How would districts navigate large teacher turnover? Would educators even be ready to re-engage with a shared professional learning focus? Despite the unknowns, we built a service plan based on the following beliefs:

  1. Care for the System: If districts are committed to taking up disciplinary literacy as a continuous improvement goal, they must engage in self-reflection and goal-setting around district systems–not just focus on a few professional learning days. The Essential School-Wide Practices in Disciplinary Literacy (2020) provide a basis for our learning.
  2. Break Down Silos: It is essential to have a variety of roles represented on a disciplinary literacy leadership team. At its core, disciplinary literacy is about simultaneously breaking down silos while honoring the unique elements of each discipline. Our plan would need to also break down hierarchical silos that often exist within the continuous improvement, i.e. central office leaders name the area of focus, building principals then try to interpret what that means for their building, and teachers receive the message later in the communication cycle. In order to avoid a continuous improvement “telephone game”, we wanted to bring representatives from a variety of roles to navigate the “messy middle” of implementing disciplinary literacy together.
  3. Center the Learners: Disciplinary literacy also requires that we center our learners and are willing to step back from an expert stance. If we are asking educators to make this shift, we (as the facilitation team) would also need to make this shift. One way to accomplish this is to ask each of our participating districts to host our monthly, half-day network meetings at one of their buildings. Another way is to regularly make space for participating districts to highlight their work in our monthly District Spotlight. As much as we might want additional time for shared learning around research, we know that our participating districts often learn best from each other.
  4. Plan for Tight and Loose Construction: As we know from Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation model, we can anticipate people’s reactions to innovation–whether it is disciplinary literacy or something else–to fall along a predictable bell curve (Hubbard, 2007). As much as we wish we could somehow convince all educators that our innovation is THE thing they should focus on, we know that is not possible. For this reason, our service plan was built around a “cohort of the willing”–nine districts that expressed interest in bringing a team together for a yearlong network. As part of our network series, we also encouraged districts to take this “cohort of the willing” approach to heart, supporting educators who were ready and interested in stretching their instructional practice, while gently encouraging others forward. For participating districts, this meant they were navigating a “tight and loose” construction for their implementation of disciplinary literacy: tight, in that there was clear messaging around the district’s goal; and loose, in that individual educators and departments could articulate specific areas for learning within that goal.

What can this look like? In one district, the “tight and loose” construction has looked like having multiple professional learning sessions for all educators throughout the year–use of district professional learning days and staff meetings has provided opportunities to bring middle- and high-school teachers together, both in disciplinary and interdisciplinary groupings. The Essential Instructional Practices in Disciplinary Literacy (2019), originally drafted by Dr. Elizabeth Moje at the University of Michigan and refined over the years by statewide experts, is a foundational document that has provided this district (and all districts in our network) with possible areas for professional learning. After gathering teacher perception data and engaging in data dialogue conversation, leaders in this district decided to begin professional learning with a focus on Essential Instructional Practice 2, which calls for the development of abundant, diverse disciplinary texts and reading opportunities.

The loose part in this district’s implementation involved optional Study Group sessions on other Essential Instructional Practices in Disciplinary Literacy, with an opportunity for participating educators to share their learning with staff later this Spring. For a more in-depth discussion of how professional learning can allow for a shared focus AND teacher autonomy, we recommend Investigating Disciplinary Literacy: A Framework for Collaborative Professional Learning by Christina Dobbs, Jacy Ippolito, and Megin Charner-Laird (2017).

Keeping our core beliefs at the forefront of our thinking, my colleagues and I created a predictable structure for network meetings. We asked participating districts to select a month when they would like to host the meeting. One of us acted as a point of contact, gathering necessary information about the location and communicating with the network. Each network meeting would last for three hours, and hosting districts could select whether to hold the meeting in the morning or afternoon. This structure made it more possible for all participants to attend due to time constraints and a lack of substitute teachers. Each district could select its team–some started with just a few central office administrators, some came with representatives from all levels, and some consisted of one instructional coach. All were welcome. Meetings always began with introductions and agendas, norms, and a connector. Especially at the beginning, we used the connectors as a way to build relationships across districts. As we moved through the year, one of the most popular portions at the start of the meeting was our District Spotlight–the planning team would intentionally reach out to one of the districts with a specific ask, such as, “Can you tell the network about how you’ve been engaging in instructional rounds?” Next, consultants would lead the group in shared learning around portions of the School-Wide Practices for Disciplinary Literacy. Areas of focus were selected based on the time of year and the types of decisions that districts make at those times. For example, as we moved into Spring, it made sense to focus on School-Wide Practice 7, which outlines systemic approaches to evaluating instructional materials. Perfect timing as central office leaders begin making budget decisions! Finally, each meeting ended with at least one hour of team time. Each district was assigned two consultants who would serve as points of contact for any necessary support. Finally, though the planning team had absolutely no expectations in this area, we started to find that each hosting district was excited to outdo the others–specifically as it related to food! In one district, food service employees created a magnificent spread of snacks. The next month, the hosting district asked their Foods teacher (and his students) to create an array of tasty treats. What a way to highlight teacher (and student) excellence!

As I think back, I am sure there were many more beliefs guiding our plan for supporting these participating districts, but the ones described above have been a driving force throughout the year. So what have we learned after engaging with this network since September 2022? And why am I so encouraged? First, we have learned that you don’t have to be a “perfect” district or school in order to get started with this work. What is necessary is a shared vision, passion, and commitment to the work. In one district, nearly all central office administrators are new this year. They have certainly had quite the learning curve as they become familiar with the strengths and needs of their district. However, they have committed to attending network meetings, along with individual consulting sessions with me, to craft a multi-year plan that fits their context. More importantly, we are seeing positive changes: teachers are talking with department colleagues about instruction, staff are using common terminology around disciplinary literacy, and building leaders are seeing the value in having a shared goal across multiple buildings.

We have also learned that despite everything they have experienced over the past few years, educators are just as interested in honing their craft as they have always been. In fact, some are even more concerned than ever before–they want to shake up their approaches in order to engage all learners. Even more heartening is that when provided the chance to invite colleagues and leaders into their classrooms to observe and debrief their practice, middle- and high-school teachers have been willing to open their doors. Debrief sessions from these observations highlight just how reflective and growth-minded classroom teachers continue to be.

The future is bright as we begin service planning for the upcoming school year. Participating districts are overwhelmingly positive about continuing with this work in year two, and several additional districts have expressed interest in joining in the work. We have an incredible array of resources to offer–most importantly, we will continue to make space for the most important resource–each other.


Hubbard, W. G., & Sandmann, L. R. (2007). Using diffusion of innovation concepts for improved program evaluation. Journal of Extension, 45(5), 1-7.

Dobbs, C. L., Ippolito, J., & Charner-Laird, M. (2017). Investigating disciplinary literacy: A framework for collaborative professional learning. Harvard Education Press.

Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education Leadership Network Disciplinary Literacy Task Force. (2019). Essential instructional practices for disciplinary literacy: grades 6 to 12. Authors

Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators General Education Leadership Network Disciplinary Literacy Task Force. (2020). Essential school-wide practices In disciplinary literacy: Grades 6 to 12. Authors

Jenelle Williams is a Literacy Consultant within the Leadership and Continuous Improvement unit at Oakland Schools, an intermediate school district supporting the 28 districts in Oakland County, Michigan. She joined the organization in 2017 following 18 years of experience in public schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She has served as a classroom teacher, IB Middle Years Programme Coordinator, teacher leader, and educational technology coach. An IB Educator and Examiner since 2013, Jenelle leads professional learning workshops and marks e-assessments for the International Baccalaureate Organization. She holds an Education Specialist in Leadership degree and a Master’s degree in Reading and Language Arts through Oakland University. In addition, Jenelle serves as an Adjunct Professor in Grand Valley State University’s Graduate Program and a co-editor of The Michigan Reading Journal, a publication from the Michigan Reading Association. Jenelle is passionate about supporting teachers, building leaders, and central office administrators in the area of secondary literacy, and she is especially excited to be able to support Michigan’s work around disciplinary literacy through her role as Co-Chair of the statewide Disciplinary Literacy Task Force. She can be reached at, and on Twitter at @JenelleWilliam6 and @GELN612Literacy.

Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash

How Can School Leaders Support Disciplinary Literacy?


This post is written by Jacy Ippolito, Christina Dobbs, Megin Charner-Laird. You can read more about these authors at the bottom of this post.

When talking with school leaders interested in supporting disciplinary literacy (DL), one question we often ask is: “What kind of holding environment are you able and willing to establish for your teachers as they learn about and pilot disciplinary literacy practices?” Note that this question touches on three critical components: 1) the notion of a holding environment for teachers; 2) a focus on professional learning and piloting of DL practices; and 3) what leaders are able and willing to do to support these efforts. In our experience, we have found that all three components are necessary to foster rich disciplinary literacy work within and across content area classrooms. Let’s take a moment to explore each component in turn.

  • Holding Environments for Adult Learning

First, it is important for school leaders to understand that just as we establish and maintain holding environments for students to learn within classrooms, adult educators also need holding environments to support their professional learning. A holding environment is “a nurturing context in and out of which we grow, and can be a relationship, a series of relationships, carefully designed collaborative practices, or a complex organization like a school” (Drago-Severson & Blum-DeStefano, 2017, p. 52).

An effective holding environment meets learners where they are, and it also nudges them to grow and shift at a rate they can handle. In the words of school change researcher Michael Fullan (2016), an effective holding environment applies pressure and support. School leaders are well-positioned to provide both support and pressure within the larger context of a disciplinary literacy professional learning initiative. In terms of support, leaders can provide time, stipends, and resources (e.g., books, workshops, consultants, etc.) to jumpstart DL professional learning efforts. Regarding (gentle) pressure, leaders can incorporate DL questions and frameworks into their informal and formal evaluation efforts (e.g., “In your classroom, what does it mean to read/write/communicate like a historian, literary critic, mathematician, scientist? How have you made this explicit to students?” [Ippolito & Fisher, 2019, p. 54]). For more on how leaders can craft/incorporate DL-related questions into their informal and formal classroom observations and conversations, see “Instructional Leadership for Disciplinary Literacy” (Ippolito & Fisher, 2019).

  • Supporting Collaborative DL Professional Learning & Piloting of Practices

Second, school leaders need to be cognizant of helping to establish an effective holding environment (i.e., relationships and collaborations among teachers) that supports invention, adaptation, and risk-free piloting of new practices. Given that disciplinary literacy is still a young field of research and practice, very few codified ways of working have been established and backed by research. Thus, school leaders can set the tone for the work by encouraging teachers to form content-specific or cross-content area professional learning communities (PLCs). These PLCs can be led and facilitated by teacher leaders who have deep expertise in the content area standards and traditional practices. These teacher leaders can take on the role of lead learners (Charner-Laird et al., 2016). They can use discussion-based protocols to support looking at student work, tuning new DL lesson plans, and making sense of emerging student data. Furthermore, these teacher leaders can support colleagues, within PLCs, to engage in collaborative inquiry around new DL practices (Ippolito et al., 2019).

By encouraging the adaptation of existing practices, and the invention and piloting of new practices, school leaders can signal to teachers that they don’t expect perfection or mastery immediately. Instead, the leadership expectation is focused on teachers delving deeply into the reading, writing, and communication habits of minds and norms of practices within their disciplinary areas of expertise (e.g., biology, chemistry, world history, etc.). The essential question becomes: “How can we apprentice students into these discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, and communicating?” Teachers can also be encouraged to delve into their own students’ cultures, languages, and out-of-school ways of reading, writing, and communicating, in service of both bridging towards discipline-specific practices and perhaps at times reinventing those practices to more fully include students’ own funds of knowledge (Moje, 2015; Moll, 2015).

  • What Are Leaders Able and Willing to Do to Support?

Third, leaders need to consider a larger arc of professional learning than simply purchasing a book, setting up a one-time workshop, or encouraging PLCs to form and then stepping away. Wise leaders will consider establishing a cross-role committee of teachers, leaders, coaches, and specialists to design a DL professional learning initiative that might unfold over a period of a year or more (Dobbs et al., 2017). The initiative might include some initial shared learning experience (e.g., a summer institute or series of workshops led by an outside expert or district-based literacy leader). Following initial learning experiences about DL research and practice, teams of teachers might collaboratively inquire into new instructional practices as part of PLCs led by teacher leaders (Charner-Laird et al., 2016). Finally, new practices might be piloted, assessed, refined, and then shared more widely across teacher teams within and across content areas in a school or even across a district (Ippolito et al., 2019).

Leaders who are invested in this work will participate in all stages of this professional learning arc—from dipping into initial workshop learning experiences, to observing and participating in a few PLCs, to observing new classroom practices, to supporting the wider sharing of work across the school and district. Leadership participation signals the importance of the work and aligns informal and formal observations and evaluations with professional learning efforts.

Understandably, this work takes time and resources. Yet the results are worth it. As one middle school principal who led DL professional learning and teaching efforts across the pandemic recently noted: Disciplinary literacy work is meant to “activate and engage students as doers” as opposed to being “passive receivers of content.” His essential question to teachers became: “How do we begin to use disciplinary literacy as a way to strengthen students as doers in our disciplines?” By providing summer professional learning time with outside consultants, and then devoting whole-school and departmental faculty meeting time to collaborative DL professional learning, teachers made strides in adopting, adapting, and piloting DL practices. In this way, leaders can work alongside teachers to make disciplinary literacy a reality in K-12 classrooms.


Charner-Laird, M., Ippolito, J., & Dobbs, C. L. (2016). The roles of teacher leaders in guiding PLCs focused on disciplinary literacy. Journal of School Leadership, 26(6), 975-1001.

Dobbs, C. L., Ippolito, J., & Charner-Laird, M. (2017). Investigating disciplinary literacy: A framework for collaborative professional learning. Harvard Education Press.

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2017). Tell me so I can hear you: A developmental approach to feedback for educators. Harvard Education Press.

Fullan, M. (2016). The new meaning of instructional change (5th ed.). Teachers College Press.

Ippolito, J., Dobbs, C. L., & Charner-Laird, M. (2019). Disciplinary literacy inquiry and instruction. Learning Sciences International.

Ippolito, J., & Fisher, D. (2019). Instructional leadership in disciplinary literacy. Educational Leadership76(6), 50-56.

Moje, E. B. (2015). Doing and teaching disciplinary literacy with adolescent learners: A social and cultural enterprise. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 254-278.

Moll, L. C. (2015). Tapping into the “hidden” home and community resources of students. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 51(3), 114-117.

Cover photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Jacy Ippolito is a professor of literacy and leadership in the McKeown School of Education at Salem State University (Salem, MA), where he currently co-directs the graduate programs in Educational Leadership and is the co-founder and co-leader of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University (CEL@SSU). Jacy has worked as a reading specialist and literacy coach, and his research, teaching, and consulting focus on the intersection of coaching, leadership, adolescent/disciplinary literacy, and school reform. For more about Jacy’s books and articles, or to connect with him, visit or

Christina L. Dobbs is an assistant professor and director of the English Education for Equity and Justice program at Boston University. Her research interests include language diversity and the language of schools and disciplinary communities, the argumentative writing of students, teachers’ beliefs about language, and professional learning for secondary teachers. Additionally, she writes about being a woman of color in the academy. She is a former high school English language arts teacher, as well as a literacy coach, reading specialist, creative writer, and native Texan. To connect with Christina, please find her at

Megin Charner-Laird is a professor of elementary education and educational leadership in the McKeown School of Education at Salem State University (Salem, MA). She currently co-directs the graduate programs in Educational Leadership and is the co-founder and co-leader of the Center for Educational Leadership at the University (CEL@SSU). Megin worked primarily as a fifth-grade teacher, and she carries those experiences into her teaching, which focuses on teachers’ professional learning, teacher leadership, formal school leadership, and school change. To connect with Megin, please find her at

Wicked Problems


Many important societal problems are neither simple nor easily solved; they are wicked problems. 1 A wicked problem is a social or cultural challenge that involves many social systems and groups, has unpredictable outcomes, and defies typical problem-solving techniques. 2

Wicked problem is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. It’s important to note that the word (wicked) is used to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. 3

Systems Theory

Because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. We make sense of this through systems theory, or the the interdisciplinary study of systems. These systems are cohesive groups of interrelated, interdependent components that can be natural or human-made.

Every system has causal boundaries and is influenced by its context, defined by its structure, function and role, and expressed through its relations with other systems. A system is more than the sum of its parts as it can express synergy, or the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Systems can also show emergent behavior, or an unanticipated side effect of bringing together a new combination of capabilities. Emergent behaviors can be either beneficial, benign, or potentially harmful, but in all cases they are very difficult to foresee until they manifest themselves.

Addressing Wicked Problems

To address a real-world, wicked problems a transdisciplinary lens is needed to support educators and students as they engage with this content in ways that extend beyond traditional academic boundaries 4 Transdisciplinarity is a research or educational approach that seeks to challenge disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic perspective that enables inputs across scientific and non-scientific communities. 5 Looking at a problem and context through a transdisciplinary lens allows one to construct meaning in more authentic contexts where disciplines intersect, combine, and work together. 6

Illustrator: Uğur Orak

What could be described as a wicked problem is really a situation in which we’re recognizing the power and irregularity of evolving systems. In education, we want to provide learning opportunities for students that are valid representations of the challenges they’ll encounter in the real world. This calls for a greater amount of flexibility on the part of the teacher. Given the lack of structure, and problems with validity, reliability, and access of open digital information, educators need to be more flexible and tolerant as they engage in the learning process. 7 Teachers need to have an appreciation for the complexities, pitfalls, challenges, and opportunities that exist when using open, digital information in the classroom. 8 Educators must constantly re-envision what it means to be educated, and what it means to be literate as technology advances. Through the careful use of texts, tools, and pedagogy there is an opportunity to effectively achieve Friere’s goal that teachers should be learners, and learners should be teachers. 9

Students also bear a great deal of responsibility when engaging with wicked problems in the classroom. Students must display the discipline, responsibility, persistence, and flexibility required to work as an active participant in these interactions. In this process, students must take an active role in learning, and reconsider the concept of “school.” 10 In a classroom in which teachers empower students to wrestle with wicked problems, students may have to take a leadership role in the crafting and revision of new learning process or product. 11 12


We we prepare youth to enter their futures, it is important to be honest with learners and let them know that the systems, policies, and practices that govern our spaces may not always make sense. As we address wicked problems it is important to consider all of the contexts and contingencies that impact the these decisions. As learners in a globally connected community, we need to continue to evolve with these incomplete, contradictory, and changing challenges from a systems perspective.

When we think about pedagogy or curriculum in terms of content areas or disciplines, these arbitrary designations limit the creativity and perspective that youth need as they prepare for their futures. This siloed view of teaching, learning, and assessment stunts youth from fully engaging with meaningful experiences.

Adding complexity to this wicked problem of considering these opportunities in learning environments is that as we debate whether to include them in classes, the wicked problems themselves evolve, intensify, and metastasize. Educators need to evolve and reset paradigms around teaching, learning, and power as the challenges persist. 

Content originally posted at

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash