Embracing the Ill-Structured Problem in a Community Economic Development Clinic

Clinical Law Review, Vol. 9, p. 45, 2002

38 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2012

See all articles by Susan D. Bennett

Susan D. Bennett

American University, Washington College of Law

Date Written: 2002


This article describes the form, or formlessness, of a typical community development project that a law school clinic might take on for a community group; how the project resembles that described in the literature on problem-solving as the “ISP” – the “ill-structured” or “complex” problem; and how law students, the archetypal novice problem-solvers, face particularly high hurdles in attempting to negotiate this particularly intimidating kind of matter. With their fluidity of variables and indeterminacy of path and result, community development projects are quintessential “ISPs.”

The article asks whether the solving of complex problems can be taught as a learning strategy, or if learners can only expand this expertise through time and experience. For experts, the most important activities within the process of complex problem-solving are those that occur at the very beginning: those involved in defining the problem, in “problem-finding.” These are steps that novices often presume to be obvious, rush through, or simply overlook. The article suggests that teachers focus on assisting their students (and on assisting their students to assist their clients) in taking great care with these first steps.

In the context of community development, where neighborhood-based groups choose their projects to address the systemic bases of poverty, the process of problem definition is inherently political. The article addresses the significance of the “causal story:” the hypothesis about what the problem is, how it began, and inferentially how to solve it. Control over the fortunes of the neighborhood will rest in the hands of whoever gets to dictate the terms of the “causal story.” The article contends that the skill of combatting the received wisdom of the causal story is teachable, and is indispensable to advocacy on behalf of under-served communities.

Keywords: problem-solving, community-based organizations, community development clinics

Suggested Citation

Bennett, Susan D., Embracing the Ill-Structured Problem in a Community Economic Development Clinic (2002). Clinical Law Review, Vol. 9, p. 45, 2002, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1992094

Susan D. Bennett (Contact Author)

American University, Washington College of Law ( email )

4300 Nebraska Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

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