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The Adjacent Possible and School Transformation

As I was driving through town today, I heard the beginning of an interview with Steven Johnson, author of the newly-released book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I would have heard the entire interview if I hadn’t pulled into my local bookstore and snapped up the last copy! I’ve been thinking about this very topic for the past couple of weeks as I prepare for the recording of my next Teaching Out Loud podcast episode, the theme of which is school level innovation.

Johnson’s first chapter is based on an idea that scientist Stuart Kaufmann calls the adjacent possible. In Johnson’s own words, the adjacent possible captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. My own understanding at this point (I’m going to go out on a limb here…) is that in any system, natural or man-made, there is a set of possible things that can be developed from what already exists. This set may seem endless, but it’s really finite. Johnson describes it as a circle of possibilities that defines what next steps can actually occur. Again, quoting from Johnson, What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain change can happen.

But–and this is the exciting part–as you explore the existing boundaries of what is possible, then those boundaries expand: new boundaries now emerge.

Johnson reflects on some of the inventions throughout history that didn’t take root because the thinking was ahead of its time. He uses the idea of the adjacent possible to point out that what was needed to create these new products didn’t yet exist and so, while innovative, they were doomed to failure. In effect, the innovators tried to leap over the existing boundaries. With few exceptions, it can’t be done!

So, what does this mean for those of us interested in innovation related to schools and education? The most obvious caveat presented by Johnson seems to be that we need to be very aware of our surroundings. What spare parts are around us now that can be used to achieve the change we would like to see? Do our ideas lie within the bounds of what is possible, or are we trying to jump too far ahead?

There are days when I get so frustrated that change in education seems to be happening at a snail’s pace. But, given the notion of the adjacent possible, perhaps there is value in tinkering with what we have.

I realize that this broad stroke thinking at this point, but I thought that on this Sunday-night-before-heading-back-to-school-after-spending-two-glorious-weeks-with-my-family, I would throw the idea out there with the hopes that someone else may be familiar with the idea of the adjacent possible or, at least, be willing to spend a bit of time thinking about it with me this week. I’m thinking that there may be some valuable connections here in the thinking that we are doing around school transformation.

Here’s a link to a summary article written by Johnson for the Wall Street Journal. (Some concrete examples, as well as some ideas on opening ourselves up to ideas that can be found outside of our field. This may connect with Chad’s recent post on Good Business.

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


9 thoughts on “The Adjacent Possible and School Transformation

  1. Hi Stephen, I enjoy your thoughtful posts and comments so much, and I haven’t said it enough. I am all about big, serious transformation of the sector, AND small, incremental, “tinkery” change, just like you describe. When I go into schools with my partners, we often try to get very small wins in place, to build something new just from what’s lying around. Here’s a link to a similar idea…small changes at the school level that make a big difference.

    Thanks for this idea, and I’m glad you’re someone who is sufficiently enthusiastic to leap from his car to a bookstore. I’m right there with you, double parked.

    Posted by Kirsten | January 3, 2011, 4:39 pm
    • Thanks so much for the comment Kirsten, and the link. The small changes described in the article from San Diego feed beautifully into the area of innovation that I’m concentrating on today. It’s from Chapter Two of Johnson’s book, and it deals with Liquid Networks. I think that the school in the article would fit the criteria for liquidity in terms of its openness to others ideas and collaboration.

      Thanks for the cognitive kickstart!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 4, 2011, 9:41 am
  2. I agree, Kirsten – Stephen has a depth of grace and insight.

    Stephen, I’m thankful for your thinking with us!

    I’m very concerned about an imbalance of private control over schools because school systems don’t typically spend money to hire people to push them outside the box of traditional schooling. Private business, home-schoolers, private and independent schools, educational technologists, and vendors can all outpace schools in innovation. That means that when an educational innovation – or “scientifically proven” product – its the market, we’re beholden to spend money to purchase something we could have R&D’ed or debunked for ourselves if only we invested in systematizing ways to listen to our internal outliers.

    School is almost alone now while other industries and sectors make their way into their adjacent possibilities.

    How should a school system go about systematizing – at any level – deliberate movement into the adjacent possible?

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 3, 2011, 5:18 pm
    • Thank you Kirsten and Chad for your kind remarks. I’m really enjoying the supportive environment here…I only wish we could get together for a drink at some point!

      To your point Chad, I’m just starting to explore Johnson’s next chapter on Liquid Networks. Here he talks of spaces that are designed to leak–leakage is a feature, not a flaw.

      In the article, The Genius of the Tinkerer, Johnson also points to the need to have more open environments of exchange when tackling problems or looking at innovation:

      The problem with these closed environments is that they make it more difficult to explore the adjacent possible, because they reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem, and they reduce the unplanned collisions between ideas originating in different fields. This is why a growing number of large organizations—businesses, nonprofits, schools, government agencies—have begun experimenting with more open models of idea exchange.

      I don’t think that this answers the question of how to systematize deliberate movement into the adjacent possibilities, or even the sense that these are things that need to be explored, but it does point to the need to expand the scope of our networks if this is going to become real.

      And this might provide some direction for good school/other partnerships.

      I continue to think!


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | January 3, 2011, 7:57 pm
  3. Hey Steve….

    Did you see this video…. for a while back…. I wrote a post about it.

    It explains it really well.


    Posted by dloitz | January 4, 2011, 2:06 am
  4. HI Steve,
    Funny enough, I heard the same interview with Mr. Johnson and automatically began to think about education. I am finishing up my thesis, which is focused on my own pedagogical learning through work with the Common Core State Standards. As part of this work I am considering why certain pedagogies have fallen out of favor (whole class/non differentiated reading and deep discussion of content), while others have become deeply engrained in our teacher training programs (developmental practice) while still others are deeply entrenched in our classrooms (skills based programmatic instruction) and how the pieces of these disparate practices might marry with our own beliefs and philosophies of education to create new practices that marry the best of what some theorists and politicians wee as mutually exclusive pedagogies. And I wonder more deeply about how teachers who have come into our field since the Dawn of NCLB might have a narrower range of adjacent possibilities because they have never implemented teaching practices that center their own or student knowledge. I also sense that my own apprenticeships of experience (the ways in which I was taught) contribute to my own adjacent possible. Having experienced the strictest and most rigorous of classrooms through high school, I was asked to unlearn the pedagogies of my own childhood in order to operate in a modern classroom. But those pedagogies are still a part of my experience and inform the potential I see for my own practice and the practice of others, but now I need to learn them from the teaching side rather then the learner. I appreciate you bringing this topic up; it is nice to know it inspired other educators as well.

    Have you done any reading from Kauffman or Johnson in the days since you posted this?


    Posted by Linnea Wolters | September 24, 2012, 10:11 pm


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