The Adjacent Possible, Or What an Education Researcher Learned from Evolutionary Biology

Susan Fairchild

For the last 3 years I've been involved with fast-paced, on-the-ground educational research here at New Visions for Public Schools. We work with thousands of educators and tens of thousands of kids in NYC.  As director of program analysis and applied research, I balance getting our educators, students, parents the data they need to make decisions and sharing our findings with other practitioners and researchers across the country.  

Blogging is as an opportunity to exchange ideas and thinking in real-time and complements our more extensive research reports.  We're hoping this blog will draw you into the different streams of thought that inform our research. To date, much of our research has been centered around early warning data systems, designed to help schools track and identify students before they fall off track.

For me, being in the flow of research involves moving across different disciplines. Prior to joining New Visions, I was involved in healthcare research. I'm deeply interested in what my colleagues in nursing and public health are up to.  For instance, I love hearing what my friend and colleague Sabina De Geest at University of Basel is doing for the Swiss Transplant Cohort Study and Nurse Forecasting Study  -- and how the frustrations associated with the lack of integrated, real-time data isn't just limited to the field of education. How other fields approach early warning work may well inform how we approach ours. 

I also believe that creativity is absolutely essential to research.  Art, music, literature all open up space. Frequent trips to museums inspire a lot of the work that we do.  I'm a huge Alexander Calder enthusiast. I have mobiles in every room in my home.  This, in part, explains my passion for systems thinking maps and the movement that those maps convey.  You will see a lot of systems thinking maps here!  And, though I have yet to draw explicitly on dance or opera -- who knows, that day may come.

Bringing creativity into the research we do opens up possibilities -- it informs our adjacent possible.

The Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is a concept first introduced by biologist Stuart Kauffman and made accessible by Steven Johnson in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From.  Johnson uses the evolutionary process as a useful metaphor for understanding the adjacent possible. It goes something like this:

  1. Key molecular structures-- the basic building blocks of life-- emerged out of the primordial soup.
  2. Next, these core structures combined in multiple, sometimes random ways such that a new set of combinations were generated. 
  3. Then those new, first order combinations combine in new and multiple ways.

These first, second, and third order combinations represent hierarchies; and they evolve from a simple cell to an organ to a whole organism. Evolution can only happen in the presence of what Donella Meadows calls "stable intermediate forms." That is, evolution didn't create a giraffe out of an amoeba because certain structural combinations at a particular moment in time are, in Johnson's words, "outside of that circle of possibility." The adjacent possible, then, is really speaking to these intermediate forms that permit us to step across some sort of threshold and enter into new evolutionary space. 

I like how Johnson puts it: "The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries.  Each new combination ushers in new combinations into the adjacent possible.  Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open."

Thus, there is an exponential quality to the adjacent possible (i.e., combinations building on preceding combinations); there is a constraining element (first generation --> second generation --> third generation ...); there is a slightly random quality-- something a little like ordered chaos -- as you are tinkering and playing with combinations. Not all combinations work; and, there is, of course, the creativity that underpins it all.

So what does all of this mean for early warning data systems?  A lot, actually. 

  1. Our past data work underpins our future data work.
  2. Our present data work is a little chaotic as we open new doors and test out new ideas --  as we explore the boundaries.  It means we have to be comfortable making mistakes.
  3. Our present and future data work benefits from all the tools and ideas available to us. The work happening in healthcare and the art going up in museums -- they co-exist in this primordial data soup. Creativity and ingenuity play a vital role in dreaming up next generation early warning systems.

It means, early warning systems don't just expand, they potentially explode with possibility.

Susan Fairchild is director of program analysis and applied research at New Visions. Follow her on Twitter at @SKFchild.

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