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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
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
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
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
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 http://www.imbes.org.
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 http://csusm-dspace.calstate.edu/handle/ 10211.8/305.
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:
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.
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 email@example.com.
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