DigiLitSunday: Exploring Adjacent Possibilities

Adjacent Possibilities

My good friend and creative partner on many an online writing adventure, Terry Elliott, has been using the term “Adjacent Possibilities” for some time now. The term first originated by scientist Stuart Kauffman, I believe, but Kauffman’s insight was centered on scientific inquiry and discovery. Terry has been mulling over Kauffman’s ideas in other realms beyond science, such as writing and creating. (And Steven Johnson has written extensively about it, too).

As I understand it, the idea of the Adjacent Possible is that one kind of creative idea spills over into another kind of creative ideas, and that spills over into another creative idea. And so on, so that what happens when you explore something new is that your ending point (if there ever is one) is a few, or many, steps away from where you started, and perhaps miles away from where you thought you were going in the first place. It’s sort of like Six Degrees of Separation, but with ideas and not with people.

Terry brought the term up again the other night during the Q/A session of my keynote presentation for the 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing as he took the mic, and then later, in a private message, he expanded the notion even further.

What he hopes — what I hope, what many of us hope — is that the attendees of the conference and the keynote session do not replicate the kinds of Digital Writing that I shared out. Instead, they will be inspired to make their own kinds of writing. The Adjacent Possible is the notion that we don’t just replicate what we see. Instead, we riff off our discoveries and shift into something new.

Adjacent Possibilities

I’ve written about this from another angle, too. It has to do with bringing in Mentor Digital Texts to my sixth graders, and then noticing how many of them just clone what they saw me share out. Of course, they do. We all start there. Hopefully, then we branch out. For example, I began playing guitar and then shifted into writing songs by ripping off the chords and melodies from bands I loved. Eventually, I began to make my own moves, and left those recognizable chord structures behind. I found my own muse.

Helping my students as writers find and then make their own moves, to discover what is not yet visible, is part of why I got into teaching, and why I still love being in the classroom with 11 year old writers.

Adjacent Possible

And I tangled with this tension of the adjacent possible the other day, when I wrote about how so many of them are afraid to take chances with their writing. I was frustrated by their confusion over an open-ended writing prompt, but hopeful in what happened. I believe in my heart that I can help my students discover what they can’t yet see. That belief of possibility is the ballast in this age of frustration with the tightening educational systems around us.

In the notion of the Adjacent Possible, it seems to me, the skill we need to nurture above all is Flexibility. We need to discover the wiggle room between one idea and the next, and then dive into that gap with possibilities — both that something will be unearthed and that our path may become a dead end (so, start over and try again). Being here is not enough. Being there is where we need to be.

A flexible view of the world — not just in writing but in everything — opens up the unknown, and in that unknown, we may find something new about ourselves, about others, about the world. I know this sounds like gobblygook but it rings important to me. It underlies why we write, and why we teach, and why we learn.

Peace (in the possibility),
Kevin

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5 Comments
  1. Kevin,
    So much of this reminds me of what I’m introducing to my students:the True Essay based on Katherine Bomer’s new book The Journey is Everything. It’s all about writing to think. That idea seems to be touching on the same idea of adjacent possibilities. I love that quote from Eddie Smith. Thank you!

  2. There are several concepts like this one, the adjacent possible, that I have been exploring over the past few years simply because I had fine folk like you around me bend their ears and eyes my way. Legibility and permeability and feldgang and margin and curation…well. all the usual suspects come to mind over and over as we spiral around and around them in a dance that moves us from practice to theory and back again. That is why you call your post ‘gobbledygook’ right? It never feels perfectly right does it? No, but the approximation of it, that is what is given to folks like us who know deep in our hearts that everything we know is only partly right. Or perhaps we know it is wholly wrong but can’t quite scratch the spot that would 100% satisfy that itch. Thanks for your courage in continuing to play the ‘infinte game’ of learning. O, right, that another one of those concepts, isn’t it.

    antispamiprobality: uproo eye In the pen were at least a hundred baby kangaroos. I turned to Magnus and asked, “Are you sure it’s OK to go in there?” He turned to me and said, “Done it every day for the last year. C’mon.”

    In the cage I could see them and what was truly spooky was that two hundred eyes swiveled toward me. Two hundred uproo eyes. The nearest me hopped over and tugged on my pants leg and looked up. Then another and another until I was totally surrounded by them. All those uproo eyes with some vague longing in them. I turned toward Magnus and he wasn’t there. He was already on the other side of the gate, smiling.

    They began to crawl up my legs, to pull me down. I cried out to Magnus, “You said it was safe. You’d done it a hundred times.” I felt them drag me.

    And the last thing Magnus said was, “Why do you think they let me go every time?” And he laughed so coldly as I went down, “I always leave behind a meal. They’re so cute.”

  3. Love this Kevin quote, “We need to discover the wiggle room between one idea and the next, and then dive into that gap with possibilities” It’s all about those possibilities that we have to be willing to explore and allow to be explored by our students. Thanks for this intriguing post. Going back to read it again.

  4. Always enjoy ambling through the posts to see what you, Terry and others are writing. Never know what I’ll discover.

    Since this is Halloween eve, make an acknowledgement that this trip into the unknown is scary for many, would be timely.

  5. Thanks! This so beautifully reflects the space of change we’re in today, where the solutions lie in emergent practice. Will share and use this in learning meetings to help some teachers feel more comfortable in the gap and be willing to move from the here to the there!

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