Information Age Education
   Issue Number 126
November, 2013   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, three free books based on the newsletters are available: Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments, Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education, and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This newsletter is the twelfth in a series on complexity. Our informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.

Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
Embracing the Complexity of Mind, Brain, and Education 

Abigail L. Larrison
Doctorates in Neuroscience and Educational Leadership

On a recent journey to attend the annual conference of the Alternative Educators Resource Organization (AERO) in New York, I found myself completely lost on a small stretch of road in Elizabeth, NJ where travelers rapidly confront eight separate highways that come together to cross bridges towards Manhattan or neighboring boroughs. I accidently exited at one of the convoluted ramps that lead me onto a dizzying journey through endless U-turns and jug-handles. I did finally arrive safely at my destination, and after enjoying a thoroughly engaging conference, I found myself coming back again and again to this agonizing moment in my travel history. The experience then seemed to me the perfect metaphor for issues directly facing us in education. As we try to apply the growing knowledge from the neurosciences to classroom practice, the challenges of merging our paths across disparate fields has created a convoluted mish-mosh of brain-based-neuro-edu-myths that have caused considerable confusion in educational practice.

Before becoming an educator, I had previously worked as a research neuroscientist focused on system-level neuroscience. This experience showed me that isolating individual cells, neurotransmitters, and brain nuclei was meaningful only when viewed within the functioning of our entire nervous system and behavior. When I subsequently moved into educational leadership, I similarly looked at the issues of organizational dynamics. Could the frameworks of complexity theory help educational leaders to understand the emerging transdisciplinary field of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE)?

Transitioning from neuroscience into education as a graduate student led me to the dissertation challenge of merging the two complex disciplines. I thus focused my research on how neuroscience discoveries can inform educators on how best to enhance instruction. My dissertation utilized a grounded theory research design in which I interviewed a panel of educators who also had backgrounds in the fields of neuroscience. My dissertation findings suggested that the merging of the two fields should not occur under the dominance of an individual field, but rather through a dynamic system of interactions between the multiple fields (Larrison, 2013). This is where the field of MBE comes in. MBE itself is not a field of research, but it represents that place where all fields of scientific knowledge can merge to help create a new form of pedagogical practice. Autonomous agency, emergence, and co-evolution are three principles from complexity theory that I believe can assist educators as they work towards understanding this new transdisciplinary effort.

The Principle of Autonomous Agency

As I was trying to understand where this new field of MBE existed in the realm of education, I came across a number of conflicting explanations. In my own naiveté, I had assumed that MBE was the main source of the effort to combine knowledge from neuroscience, psychology, and education. There was a popularized view that MBE and educational neuroscience were one-and-the-same. In an extended entry, Wikipedia (2013) suggests rather that "Educational Neuroscience (also called Mind Brain and Education or Neuroeducation) is an emerging scientific field that brings together researchers in cognitive neuroscience, developmental cognitive neuroscience, educational psychology, educational technology, education theory, and other related disciplines to explore the interactions between biological processes and education."

I was conflicted with this view. The problem was that when creating something new, what happens to the old? The work of educational neuroscience, or more importantly the science and psychology of learning is not new. What happens when neuroscience labs move into the classroom in order to be grounded in real life learning situations? According to complexity theory this type of merging of fields is not necessary, and in fact such an approach diminishes both fields.

Autonomous agency was first used in understanding artificial intelligence and in computer programming to describe how small independent programs or agents would contribute to a well-functioning whole. Looking to this definition, it became clear to me that by allowing each field to maintain autonomy we retain a greater depth of expertise. I came to believe that this is how we should approach the new field of MBE.

Once I had reconciled the idea that the field of MBE was made of up separate autonomous agents, I was still left with the same problem of finding the common ground. How does one create a place where all these ideas can come together, not in a chaotic mess, but in an elegant meaningful manner? It was a problem expressed over and over in my conversations with educational leaders, and the problem seemed considerable. Differences in methodologies, vocabulary, and general goals created such a vast divide. Several of the educators in my study suggested that only tenuous connections were possible at this point. Personally, as one who had moved from neuroscience into education with the goal of seeing change in classroom practice, I was not willing to wait. I knew of a wealth of knowledge that could be applied to practice, and moreover that there existed a great desire of teachers at all grade levels to see this happen.

I began to see the solution to this problem of merging of fields through the application of a second principle of complexity, emergence.

The Principle of Emergence

It was following a discussion with the current president of the Brain, and Neuroscience Special Interest Group at the annual American Educational Research Association (AERA) convention that I fully embraced the concept of MBE as what she described as "a translational science," something that truly lives within the intermediary space. What does it mean for a field to exist outside the existing structures? I felt a great deal of excitement at the idea of working in a domain whose boundaries are being defined and redefined through the shared communications of multiple stakeholders. I was beginning to get a sense of what such a field would look like, a super-highway of emerging concepts that would be tested and re-applied to the construction of a continually moving dynamic system.
I have always been interested in emergent approaches. Before entering the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN) at Rutgers University, I was part of the Institute of Animal Behavior, a program grounded in ethology (scientific and objective study of animal behavior), an approach popular in the 1960s that was based on pure observation. I believed that it could help revive a more complex method to behavioral neuroscience. When I switched into teaching, I struggled with providing lesson plans, since much of what I brought to the classroom came from an emergent approach guided by student interest and abilities. (Parenthetically, I think we have lost much of the art of teaching by the use of pre-scripted, outcome-oriented curriculum).

For my dissertation, I was drawn to a grounded theory approach, allowing significant codes and themes to emerge from a more open conversation with a set of incredible leaders in the field. When thinking about the principle of emergence, I could see that as a conceptual framework—a phenomenon that is being embraced in a number of areas in the sciences today—and I wondered, "Is the natural progression as things become more complex to move away from pre-formed structures towards processes of emergence?"

I love the idea that an emergent field can hold the space between. For MBE, that space is where the theory meets pedagogical action. As various parent disciplines advance and expand into their neighboring fields, I see the need for a unifying force—one perhaps like an attractor—that can represent the shared goal and direct activity towards it. By focusing on emergent properties, it is possible to see how none of the original fields will be reduced or diminished. Those ideas, crystallized in the minds of leaders in different fields, will rather serve as guides for the creation of more deeply nuanced perspectives. It will allow for a deeply complex perspective unattainable in any of the individual fields alone, and yet not possible without allowing for each field to develop independently.

The Principle of Co-evolution

Co-evolution is a central component of complexity theory that can be used to understand how the autonomous agents of separate fields can contribute to a more profound system of education based on the neurosciences. In interviewing educators for my dissertation, almost everyone agreed that there was incredible growth occurring in transdisciplinary work at the crossroads of education and neuroscience. One described it as the "sea level rising" and "all of the boats along with it." This exponential expansion of the knowledge base in all of the sciences is due to our advances in technology and to our ability to share this knowledge through instantaneous online access. It is clear that information sharing is able to deepen our understanding across fields of research and practice that were previously isolated.

However, in my conversations with educators, there was some fear that the real value of this information would be lost unless meaningful shared dialogues could be created. This is the real work of MBE, to create active connections among the different autonomous agents in order to help find shared meaning and vision. The creation of shared avenues of conversation represents a means of enhancing co-evolution, and decreasing the lag time between developments in the sciences, and practical application of those developments in education.

While writing my dissertation, I looked for models and metaphors to help understand the processes at work. Perhaps what MBE is able to provide is the super-highway of information across fields, creating a structural framework and force for effective action and interaction across the fields of neuroscience, psychology, and education. The analogy of MBE representing a place for dynamic interaction (space between) rather than a static location (independent field) is one that can help to permit all players to contribute to this important effort of informing education through the brain and learning sciences.

As we move into a great awakening of the capacities of learning and how to best teach, it would be a shame if we were to apply rigid approaches misaligned with our growing understanding of neurodevelopment. MBE shines a light out of the morass of scripted curriculum and multiple-choice tests and points us towards process-oriented, student-directed activities sure to create a generation of critical thinkers and leaders prepared to find thoughtful solutions to as yet unknown problems.

The International Mind, Brain and Education Society is an organization that seeks to facilitate effective, cross-cultural collaboration in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. See

References and Resources

Larrison, A.L. (2013). Mind, Brain and Education as a Framework for Curricular Reform. Unpublished Dissertation, Joint Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership from University of California, San Diego and California State University, San Marcos. Retrieved 11/29/2013 from

Sousa, D.A., ed. (2010). Mind, Brain and Education: Neuroscience Implications for the Classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2011). Mind, Brain and Education Science: A Comprehensive Guide to the New Brain-based Teaching. New York: W.W. Norton.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2010). The New Science of Teaching and Learning: Using the Best of Mind, Brain and Education Science in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2008). The Scientifically Substantiated Art of Teaching: A Study in the Development of Standards in the New Academic Field of Neuroeducation (Mind, Brain and Education Science). Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Capella University.

Wikipedia. Educational Neuroscience. Retrieved 11/23/2013 from

Abigail Larrison

Abigail Larrison received her PhD in Neuroscience from Rutgers Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience studying mechanisms of attention and systems level neuroscience. She began working in education in 1995, applying her knowledge of the brain sciences towards teaching pedagogy and practice. She recently graduated from the Joint Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at University of California, San Diego and California State University, San Marcos. Her research focused on advancing issues of educational reform based on the brain and learning sciences. Her recent publications extend into the area of neuropharmacology, the psychophysiology of attention and critical issues in neuroeducation. She can be reached at

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