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.