I wrote yesterday about the concept of the Adjacent Possible, featured in Steven Johnson’s new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”. I’ve thought for the past 24 hours about how I may have encountered the effect of this idea in my own attempts to move innovative ideas through our local school district.
A few years ago, I was asked by my principal to begin an integrated arts program for grades 7 and 8 students. Although this was going to start out as a local initiative, there was some indication that the District would be interested in moving the program we developed into the wider system. I told my principal that I wasn’t interested in starting an auditioned “elite” arts program for students that had an already-demonstrated proficiency in the arts. Instead (at the risk of sounding self-righteous), I agreed to build a program that sought to position the arts—music, visual arts, drama, dance, and media production—as a set of powerful languages. In learning how to communicate effectively in these languages, students would actually be building a more expansive sense of literacy. They would, in fact, be learning to read and write the world in a variety of ways!
Well, the program ran successfully for three years and the time came for the District to make a proposal for a school of the arts. Much to my disappointment, my model–the one that had been running for three years–wasn’t even acknowledged in the report. I can’t accurately express how I felt when I found out! Instead of putting energy behind a new and innovative way of looking at the idea of integrated arts, they were willing to raise up an old and familiar model of what a school of the arts would look like.
It wasn’t until this week, some two months after getting the initial news, that I was able to frame the decision in a different way. In his explanation of the idea of the Adjacent Possible, Steven Johnson talks about the need to choose innovative solutions that are in the adjacent realm of possibilities. The model on which I had been working would have required collecting a whole battery of teachers together that had the same perspective on the arts that I did. It would have also required to recruit a building level administrator that bought into the vision enough to lend strong support to it. It would have required challenging many of the assumptions that we make about school including issues of scheduling, staffing, assessment practices and even curriculum. And, quite honestly, I now recognize that these were resources that we had not yet developed and work that, as a system, we were not yet ready to do.
I had developed and implemented a model that I was able to manage in a local setting on my own, but the systemic expansion of this thinking is something that is going to require a few more “in between” steps. As Johnson indicates in his own thinking about innovations that have been successful, and those that have fizzled quite quickly, our particular system is very likely not ready to support this idea.
Instead, it is first necessary to move to one of the adjacent possibles first. In our District’s case, this may be the initial establishment of an elementary level arts-based school using a more traditional and already familiar model. From there, we can push the boundaries a little more as to how the arts can be used to explore traditional curriculum concepts. Then–and only then–will we be able to look at the fuller implementation of an arts as literacy approach.
So, my initial reaction was to walk away from the project altogether. That’s when I viewed their choice of another model as a reaction of the work that I had done over the past three years. After exploring the concept of the adjacent possible a little more, however, I’m thinking that I may just need to follow this innovation through the various stages of development, hoping that there may come a time when we my idea might bump up against someone else’s idea, and bang!
My only question is, do I have the resilience to stick around and help nurture this process? Hmmm…