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

Jan Fenten, Nina Bohm, Bas Van den Berg

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionAcademicpeer-review


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 sustainability 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 students engage within and with these more ecologically-inspired forms of education. This work is an exploratory study into how students 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 and society (4). 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 to sustainability transitions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Barcelona Conference on Education 2021
Subtitle of host publicationOfficial Conference Proceedings
PublisherThe International Academic Forum (IAFOR)
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes


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