January 10, 2019

Our education innovation journey involves more than adopting simple slogans or instituting a new “program”. True change for our learners (and their learning) occurs when we think about the “adjacent possible”.

I would like to talk today about something I read in Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. The idea is called “the adjacent possible”. This is basically the “space” that exists as a “next step’ in an innovation. In other words, what are the possibilities in the future for a particular innovation or good idea? As Johnson himself has written in an essay in the Wall Street Journal:

“The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. ….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…The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.”

What does this mean for education and the work surrounding innovation in education? First, I want to state that public education can be a place of innovation. I would further state that public education (and our society) must have innovation in public education if democracy is to survive. Second, I am using innovation as a term that means more than the politicized mumbo-jumbo that Federal programs like Race to the Top have turned the term into. True innovation can only come from a grass roots development of ideas that meet the needs of a local community and school.

The nature of innovation indicates that it must develop slowly and that it builds momentum as good ideas emerge and develop into the “adjacent possible”. Public school systems must start the process of building momentum by developing innovative ideas that address local needs. The first step is to ground decisions in a school district based on local values and needs. This will assure that the decisions reflect local “flavor” Once this is done, a list of issues that are threatening the values of the school district or community must be made. Solutions to address these threats are then developed. This is somewhat simplistic, but I believe that you must start at a basic, grassroots level. Action is important. You cannot move close to the adjacent possible if there is no action.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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