What makes inclusion a wicked problem and how might Design Thinking address it? Part 1

Realising authentic inclusion
October 12, 2017
What makes inclusion a wicked problem and how might Design Thinking address it? Part 2
November 8, 2017

What makes inclusion a wicked problem?

Inclusive services in early childhood rely on early childhood educators’ abilities to support children’s access to activities and environments, as well as their ability to fully participate in those activities and environments (DEC/NAEYC, 2009). Both the National Quality Framework (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2012) and the national Early Years Learning Framework (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, 2009) use inclusion as a central principle within their respective stances.

While the field clearly supports and values inclusion as a guiding principle in services for young children with disabilities, one might ask why we have not yet been able to achieve full inclusion in the year 2017.  Using the work of Rittel and Webber (1973), we propose several reasons why inclusion fits the definition of a wicked problem, which requires a solution seeking approach instead of a problem solving approach.

So how does inclusion stack up as a wicked problem?

  1. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.  Applied to inclusion, while every child has the right to be fully included in early childhood programs and services, so too every child and family is different, has different needs, habits, skills. Differences in children and their families may far outweigh the similarities across children and families, so every plan to support their inclusion is one-of-a-kind.
  2. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.  There is no right way to “do” inclusion. The parties involved in the process, primarily children, families and early childhood educators, are “equally equipped, interested and/or entitled” to determine if inclusion has been successfully achieved.  And success may be defined very differently for each, based on their values, needs and interests. Early childhood educators and program administrators may have incentives to support “inclusion” yet families may be more interested in individualised supports for their child.  A solution might be viewed as satisfying for a family, yet only good enough for the early childhood educator.
  3. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. In the words of Rittel and Webber, “problems can be described as discrepancies between the state of affairs as it is and the state as it ought to be” (p. 165).  To address these problems, one starts with the generation of potential explanations for the discrepancy.  Does inclusion continue to be a persistent problem as a symptom a changing workforce, lack of training, administrative support, limited resources, different philosophical approaches?
  4. The planner has no right to be wrong.  Ensuring young children have access to and can participate in activities and environments with their peers with and without disability matters to those individual children and families.  There is no opportunity for a “do over” given the limited time they are in early childhood programs.  And our ability to ensure their access and participation has implications for their long-term educational journey.

In a second blog post of this two part series we consider what design thinking might say about each of these challenges.

John Nash and Beth Rous are the keynote presenters at the ECIA NSW/ACT’s Inclusion Symposium, Partners in Practice in Sydney on 30th November 2017.  Learn more about this event and register here.

As a preview to their presentation at the Symposium, John and Beth hosted a 30 minute webinar titled  Exploring Design Thinking as a solution to inclusion’s challenges .  To view a recording of this session click here.

John Nash (john.nash@uky.edu) is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky and the founding director of the Laboratory on Design Thinking in Education, or dLab. John is a specialist in the application of human centered design in education. He teaches a range of courses on design thinking, school technology leadership, and school reform. His current research agenda focuses on the methods to design and prototype innovations in education. He has held faculty positions at Iowa State University and the University of Texas at El Paso.




Beth Rous (brous@uky.edu) is Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies, College of Education, and Research and Policy Associate at Human Development Institute, at University of Kentucky. She is a former special education teacher at the preschool, elementary and middle school levels. Since 1990, she has secured over $97 million in federal and state grants/contracts to support the design and large-scale implementation of early care and education programs with a focus on children from vulnerable populations.





DEC/NAEYC. (2009). Early childhood inclusion: A joint position statement of the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Institute. http://community.fpg.unc.edu/resources/articles/files/EarlyChildhoodInclusion- 04-2009.pdf

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2009). Belonging, being & becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/05_2015/belonging_being_and_becoming_the_early_years_learning_framework_for_australia.pdf

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2012). National Quality Framework. Retrieved from: http://www.deewr.gov.au/earlychildhood/policy_agenda/quality/pages/home.a spx

Rittel, H., & Webber, M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155–169.

Catalina Voroneanu
Catalina Voroneanu
Inclusion Program Coordinator


  1. Jenna Golab says:

    Thank you for a wonderful webinar this morning, interesting ideas and looking forward to hearing more at the inclusion symposium later this month!

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