Information Age Education
   Issue Number 115
June, 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 first 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:
An Introduction

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke; British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist; 1917–2008.)

There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. (H. L. Mencken; American journalist, essayist, editor; 1880–1956.)

The intact human brain is naturally curious and creative, with the ability to effectively solve complex problems and accomplish complex tasks that initially seem beyond resolution. This Information Age Education Newsletter begins a new series on the concept of dealing with complex problems, tasks, and questions. It will focus on the roles of informal and formal education, the tools that enhance our physical and cognitive capabilities, and current cognitive neuroscience research that's applicable to the study of complexity.

Complexity and Problem Solving

This first newsletter in the series focuses on how humans learn to deal with complex problems and problem situations.

You have heard the assertion, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Here is a somewhat parallel statement. Complexity is in the brain/mind/body of the problem solver. What is a complex problem for one person may be a simple exercise for another, and vice versa.

I use the term problem solving to include dealing with:
  • Question situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and answering questions.

  • Problem situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and solving problems.

  • Task situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and accomplishing tasks.

  • Decision situations: recognizing, posing, clarifying, and making good decisions.
In summary, getting better at problem solving means learning to make effective use of tools, and using higher-order critical, creative, wise, and foresightful thinking to do all of the bulleted items.

A number of the TED videos provide good examples of complexity and dealing with complex problems. See

Historical Example

Early humans were prisoners of their sensory-motor limitations. They had an increasingly capable brain, but couldn't yet get beyond its solitary limitations. One solution was to blame evil spirits. Another was the beginning of the long intellectual trek towards “science-based” solutions to problems they faced—to try to understand underlying reasons and theory, and then try to figure out solutions.

The concepts of germs and germ theory provide an interesting historical example of such complexity. Before germs were discovered, people blamed various diseases on evil spirits and tried to develop techniques to avoid or placate these evil spirits. Eventually researchers developed tools and knowledge that were a more useful explanation than that of evil spirits. Quoting from

[Using a microscope] Anton Van Leeuwenhoek was the first to see and describe bacteria (1674), yeast plants, the teeming life in a drop of water, and the circulation of blood corpuscles in capillaries.

Leeuwenhoek’s careful research combined with the use of a relatively new scientific instrument helped to dispel the magic and pave the way to major changes in our understanding of medicine. Now, soap and water, handkerchiefs, hospital cleanliness, and antibiotics help address the continuing complex problem of bacterial infection. See

Mind and Body Tools

Over the millennia, humans have become increasingly good at creating and using mind and body tools to help solve complex problems.

Ancient Tools
Current research suggests that the first anatomically modern human developed about 200 thousand years ago. See
. Long before then, our earlier ancestors developed and used tools to cut and spear, to control fire, and to create clothing. See Wong (March 2013) and

Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic

The 3 R’s are examples of brain/mind tools. Here is a very brief history of the development of the three R’s.

Agriculture was developed a little more than ten thousand years ago. This made it possible for nomadic hunters to gather in villages (farming communities). The expansion of agriculture, population density, and commerce led to the need for reading, writing, and computational arithmetic based on using reading and writing. These were developed a little more than five thousand years ago.

The early agricultural practices could be learned through a combination of imitation, informal education, and on-the-job training. However, reading, writing, and arithmetic provided a different type of complexity and educational challenge.

Some Modern Tools

I find it quite interesting to see children using a “black box” that we call a smart phone. Fifty years ago, before the invention of the first cell phone, many people would have thought of today’s cell phone as magic. Today’s children have relatively little trouble learning to use a smart phone—they learn from each other and by experimentation what it can do and how to “do it.” However, they usually have very little insight into what is inside the box and how it works. In many problem-solving situations, people now “call on” their smart phone rather than on the deities for help. For more discussion of this topic, see Moursund (2010).

We Are A Social Species

We're a social species, so not everyone has to start from scratch and figure out how to solve each particular problem or concern. A few inspired problem solvers are enough, because the explanation and solution can then spread through informal and formal educational processes and technologies.
Central to all of this is:
  1. Using our increasingly educated higher-order, critical, creative, and foresightful thought processes.

  2. Developing tools that aid our brains and physical bodies.

  3. Broadly disseminating the results of innovation via demonstration, informal and formal education, and product development and marketing.
Smart phone and tablet computers provide an excellent example. Typically they combine telephone, cameras, data collection, Internet connectivity, and computers. The combination of such tools is of considerable value to users. The social value is seen in the very high usage level of these tools in messaging and social networking, and in other types of communication and sharing in their daily lives.

The worldwide installation of smart phones now exceeds the installed base of laptop and desktop microcomputers.  See

Complex Individual and Group Problems

Ownership is a key issue in problem solving. I might have a particular problem that does not interest or concern you. The ways in which I deal with my personal problems may be quite different from the ways in which you deal with your personal problems.

Many of the problems faced by an individual are different from problems faced by a family or neighborhood or community. Those problems often differ from those faced by a corporation, city, state, nation, or the earth.

For example, the U.S. federal government is challenged by many interacting and overlapping national issues, exacerbated by diverse perspectives within the congressional, executive, and judicial branches of the government. Consider just a few: debts and income, international competition, worldwide sustainability, malnutrition, disease, terrorism, education, aging, and rapid changes emerging out of science and technology. The levels of complexity are overwhelming.

Thus, in total, clearly identifying problems and tasks important to various people, groups, organizations, and entities, and making progress toward their solution, is a very challenging and complex endeavor.

It is unreasonable to expect that a person will gain a high level of expertise in solving all of the different types of problems the person encounters in life. Instead, our educational system and employment practices facilitate the development of people with a high level of expertise in one or a few areas, and we have come to make use of such expertise. For example, individually, we hire experts to deal with complex medical, investment, housing, and education problems. Of course, this approach to dealing with complex problems creates the problem of earning enough to pay for such goods and services.

The well-known phrase, "It takes a whole village to raise a child" identifies child rearing as a complex problem. We're a social species who have learned to live and work together in dealing with child rearing and many other problems related to our species survival. Think about how parenting, schools, and informal education provide the basic skills that children need to understand and solve more complex problems.

Benjamin Bloom captures the essence and promise of education.

After 40 years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning. (Benjamin S. Bloom; American educational psychologist; 1913–1999.)

The Internet, Web, and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCS) are all modern aids to help people gain the knowledge and skills they need to help solve problems and accomplish tasks that interest them.

Telling the Stories

This sequence of IAE Newsletters will relay stories about how individuals and groups come to understand and master complexity, and how using these examples can improve school instruction. The next newsletter in the series will describe how a parental football fan helped his interested eight-year old son understand the complexity of football. Some combination of a father and son bonding, individual parental tutoring, and intrinsic child motivation led to relatively quick and deep learning. Intrinsic motivation and individual tutoring can and do enhance learning.

The young can also teach their elders. A subsequent article describes how an adult learned a computer game through the help and encouragement of two daughters and a granddaughter. This very moving experience reinforced my belief that one is never too old to learn, and that each person is a teacher. This story also gives new insights into informal ways of teaching and learning.

A subsequent article describes how the education profession moved from a Behaviorist perspective of teaching to our modern one, which incorporates discoveries being made by cognitive neuroscientists. During the past 50 years, educators have moved from being relatively naive about the neurobiology of the brain that defined their profession to becoming quite knowledgeable. They could not have accomplished this without the assistance of cognitive neuroscientists.

Final Remarks

The complex problems of long-distance communication and transportation, along with a need for storage and retrieval of written materials, graphical materials, sound, and video have led to the development of the printing press, steam locomotive, telegraph, photography, telephone, audio recording and playback, radio, cars, airplanes, television, computers, and space ships. The early abacus helped us to perform arithmetic, and we now routinely use calculators and computers in this task. Many of the complexities of disease are now understood at a level that has allowed the development of medical practices and aids that are helping us effectively deal with many of these complexities.
Many of the tools we have developed to aid our physical and mental capabilities are so complex that it takes years to master effective and appropriate use of the tools. Our efforts to deal with complexity often lead to the development of still more complexity.

In summary:

It isn't enough just to learn—one must learn how to learn, how to learn without classrooms, without teachers, without textbooks. Learn, in short, how to think and analyze and decide and discover and create. (Michael Bassis; American educator and author; 1946–.)


Moursund, D. (2010). “Living in a world of black boxes, opaque boxes, and somewhat clearer boxes.” IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/26/2013 from

Moursund, D. (2012). Using brain/mind science and computers to improve elementary school math education. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Free download available at

Wong, K. (March 2013). “The roots of human genius are deeper than expected.” Scientific American. Retrieved 2/26/2013 from

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.