Warwick, I. (2019, May 13). What teachers can learn from Leonardo da Vinci. The Times Educational Supplement. http://search.proquest.com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/docview/2331806814?accountid=10361
In a recent episode of the educational podcast #EduDuctTape, the host mentioned several times “the adjacent possible” as the space where teachers could expand their learning as they dabbled in new technologies for teaching and learning. This concept of the adjacent possible was made popular first by biologist and systems theorist Stuart Kauffmann in the early 2000s, and subsequently expanded by others in business, technology, and education since then.
Kauffmann stated in a 2003 article in Edge magazine:
“It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast [though], they would destroy their own internal organization…”
What this means is that systems stay healthy by expanding outward, but not too fast. And so it is with learning: To use a Goldilocks metaphor, our learning is most sustained when we take on new things neither too quickly nor too slowly. Of course, the world can be unpredictable and challenging to the personal habits that make us comfortable with “the way things are.” To wit, the global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown most everyone’s routines for a loop, and the old ways of doing things just don’t work any more. For educators and learners used to in-person education, stay-at-home orders are a shock to the system. Yet everyone is adapting to this new reality by taking what they thought worked in education and grafting new innovations onto this “pre-2020 knowledge.” Bye-bye confirmation bias!
The expansion of personal and collective knowledge is nothing new: It’s what we do as humans. And a poster child for the expansion of knowledge is Leonardo da Vinci — pick any field of study, and someone could probably connect this 15th century polymath to it. Leonardo has a special fan in British educationalist Ian Warwick, who posits in this article that Leonardo was never satisfied and thus constantly expanded himself into the adjacent possible to create imaginative ideas that impress us to this day. Warwick states, “Leonardo’s notebooks and the ideas and drawings they contain open doors to reveal 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.”
Unfortunately, Warwick fails to address the flipside of Kauffmann’s notion of the adjacent possible: It is possible to go too fast or too far into unknown spaces, such that we are thrown into a disequilibrium we may not recover from easily. To bring this analogy back to the learning process, we can say that it is good to encourage learners (including ourselves) to have a growth mindset and to look for opportunities for continuous improvement. Yet, it is possible to become so disregulated in learning new technologies and processes that we actually become less efficient in our learning. Diving into an adjacent pool of water might seem like a great way to force one’s self to learn how to swim, but will likely be better off starting by wading in at the shallow end of the pool. Equally, trying to embrace all the different educational technologies that have been made widely available to us — particularly since the COVID-19 shutdowns — might seem tempting, but we educators and learners are better off by relating these new technologies to what we already know, then expanding one step at a time into greater possibilities.