Book Review: Creating Wicked Students

Paul Hanstedt’s book Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World

At the heart of Paul Hanstedt’s recent book, Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World, is the big idea that professors need to find ways in their courses to help students claim authority over their learning. And there is no time to waste.  Hanstedt argues in the book, published by Stylus in 2018, that our incoming college students have been insulated from owning their education; instead of facing challenging work that invites creative thinking with real implications, students have been trained to find the “right” answers, repeat well-trodden lab instruction, and follow prescribed essay formats.  

If Hanstedt had his way, all of that would end even at the beginning of the college experience. Instead, students would be faced with questions that don’t have clear, easy, or even “right” answers, and their task of trying to respond to such questions would have real implications. Right from the get-go, students would be doing research, presenting in public forums, tackling case studies, writing with peers, and encountering low-risk spaces in which to fail and struggle regularly. Rather than lowering expectations or demanding high expectations without any scaffolding, Hanstedt argues for the powerful middle: challenge from the beginning and give firm feedback while ensuring that students can still succeed academically. Then add complexity as they face similar learning opportunities multiple times. Rather than one and done, repeat the opportunity to produce again and again, always increasing the complexity, the stakes, and the expectations. Some educators may read this book and quickly see the themes of gradual release and scaffolding, which are important and not new. But don’t miss the big idea Hanstedt is offering; he is not arguing that students need to be challenged for some implicit reason. He is arguing the challenge needs to be immediate and with real implications so that students can author their own growth and learning, and that is the key to pursuing meaning in one’s education.   

Paul Hanstedt
Paul Hanstedt

The innovative step in the argument is the notion that authority–self authorship–is essential for vocation and the only way to get there is by being placed in challenging situations in which the stakes matter and there is room to fail. If that theory is intriguing to readers, then they will be surprised to discover that this book is almost entirely focused on the practical. The chapters unfold as a step-by-step guide to designing college courses that introduce students to wicked challenges to give them chance after chance to own their learning. Readers are taken through the process of designing course goals, setting up a course structure, creating assignments and exams, and through the day-to-day teaching practices that help create students who are ready for wicked problems and aware of their role to play in working towards complex solutions. Readers must consider how their course design influences vocational discernment through a specific goal of placing students in vulnerable discomfort that clearly has implications outside of the grade book.  

Help students move away from doing as they are told and instead take risks as they wish, and you will cultivate a class with vulnerability, an environment of growth, and an undergrad cohort that sees the value of their education–not because you told them to see it–but rather because they learned to experience it. Creating Wicked Students is a reminder of some of the highest hopes we have as educators that also offers a practical outline on how to get your students there.