I found myself beginning this New Year with what seemed to be two conflicting ideas running through my head—one inspired by our family’s New Year’s Eve trip to a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and the other by a re-reading of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.
The rags-to-royalty trope that grounds the Cinderella story, among other things, dares us to dream big and hold true to a belief in the power of possibility. No matter how large the leap, our imaginations can be the driving force behind significant change in our lives and our world.
As educators we are inspired by “big leap” stories where the lives of individual students, whole classes or entire schools were turned around by innovations in practice, changes in mindset or the adoption of a new set of strategies. They are great stories and we certainly don’t want to make light of them or underestimate their importance in the broader education narrative.
But, as Steven Johnson suggests, the ideas that really take root and end up transforming our lives, our institutions and, indeed, our cultures—in other words, the innovation that sticks—tend to follow a different path.
Borrowing from the work of evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Stuart Kaufmann, Johnson encourages innovators to look at the adjacent possible—the set of new combinations and reactions that present themselves at the edges of our current reality:
“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself”(p. 31).
Exploration of the adjacent possible invites us to look around our present reality with new eyes and, instead of dreaming miles into the future, understand that our next innovative idea is actually closer than we think. In fact, we’re likely standing right next to it! It encourages us to understand where the boundaries of our current reality are, and what possibilities for change might exist at the edges of those boundaries.
It also invites us to look at how the resources that are currently at our disposal might help us to support the creation of new ideas and practices. Instead of lamenting the fact that we don’t have what we need to achieve our big innovative dreams, we learn to ask how we might use what we have in different ways.
In a sense, an awareness of the adjacent possible can help us turn our dreams about someday into practical conversations about Monday. But, it doesn’t stop at Monday: moving into our adjacent possible means that existing boundaries are shifted and, as a result, we are faced with a brand new adjacent!
So, in looking around your own education context, what are some of the ideas that might take flight if you were to look at your particular adjacent possibilities?
A few ideas have been percolating in my own mind over the past several days. Each is inspired by conversations that I’m currently having with educators:
- As a member of your School Council, you have an idea that parents would have a physical space designated for meeting other parents, accessing resources, or simply stopping in for a cup of coffee. In looking around the school you notice that there is an empty portable classroom at the edge of the playing field. Unused by students, it has been appropriated as storage by the caretaking staff. Is it possible that this space could be repurposed to nurture your idea?
- You want to encourage your students to work more collaboratively: sharing ideas, developing group mindmaps and project outlines. Your classroom has been equipped with a new interactive whiteboard but there is a limit to the number of students that can gather around it at one time. But one day you discover several older whiteboards—ones that had been removed to make way for the electronic version—stored in the school’s boiler room. Is it possible that these can be transformed into whiteboard worktables for your students to use?
- You are a Principal who has been given the responsibility of building and opening a new school in your District. You have grand dreams for what 21st Century learning spaces and you’re excited about implementing these ideas in the school’s design. Unfortunately, you’re told by the District that you have very little control over the design features for the new school. The architectural plan is pretty well set in stone (!). But you recognize that there is one space on which you might have some influence: The School Library. You decide to use a Human-Centered Design process to discover how that single space might better reflect your vision for 21st Century design.
- You are an administrator in a school that, although built for 700 students, now sits at just over 1000. You have a strong commitment to quality phys-ed programming, but only have one gymnasium. Although you would love to see an additional phys-ed space built, you know that this is just a dream! The atrium space just outside the gym (adjacent, literally) is open and free for most of the day. It is used for choir rehearsals over the lunch hour, but there are no other scheduled uses beyond that. Is it possible that this space could present possibilities for phys-ed programming?
These are some practical ways that I’ve started to look around my own particular context and start to become more open to the idea of the adjacent possible—one of the seven patterns for innovation identified by Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From.
I’m not suggesting that we wipe the Cinderella story from our larger narrative. It’s important to dream big and be wide open to a sense that anything is possible. But tempering that story with an eye to the idea of the adjacent possible may just allow more of us to work towards the innovations about which we are dreaming in a way that is grounded in our current reality—whatever that happens to be.
What are your dreams for innovation in 2016 and how might the concept of the adjacent possible encourage you to work towards making those dreams come to life?