I would like to talk today about something that has been percolating in mind since I read Steven Johnson’s latest 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 Ridgway Area School District? 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” (something that Race to the Top failed to take into account). 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.
At the Ridgway Area School District the district has moved closer to an adjacent possible in a few areas and I will use one area for an example. The Ridgway Virtual Academy provides an alternative educational setting for students so they can access classes for enrichment, credit recovery for seniors, alternative placement, and use for classroom teachers. The adjacent possible for the RVA involves a “school without walls” that can complement the “brick and mortar” schools that we currently occupy. As the district continues to innovate more “doors” open to more possibilities to help the school district serve our community and students.