3 Simple Methods to Explore the 'Adjacent Possible' in the Classroom

The Adjacent Possible is a metaphor for what exists at the threshold of our knowing. It is always present and often goes unnoticed. It is a subtle opening or opportunity into something new, personally or professionally. According to Stephen Johnson (2010), “the strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries” (p. 31).

As an educator, mother and regular human being, I am continually curious about my own personal and professional adjacent possibilities. Recently, I became more curious about how I might expand this idea and apply it to the classrooms in which I teach.

First off, why even think about exploring adjacent possibilities? How is this meaningful for an individual or a group?

According to leading cognitive science researcher, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman (2013) a “hungry mind” (intellectual curiosity) has significant influence upon student’s academic performance in school. Exploring the adjacent possible naturally induces a hungry mind, which in turn expands horizons of joy and achievement for all involved.

How might we apply this to educating students in a traditional system?

1. Induce Curiosity

Curiosity is a visceral sensation, a somatic response that induces a longing to know. This bodily reaction is different from a purely cognitive thought. This physical sensation nurtures an internal urge to learn.

One simple example to induce curiosity in your class today, is to offer a sealed envelope labeled, “Do Not Open” to each of your students at the beginning of class. The contents will be revealed at certain time. Students must wait in anticipation. In the meantime, students’ dwell in this curiosity and it pervades their consciousness. The urge to “know” is activated and suddenly they are engaged.

The content of the envelope need not be complicated. Instead it can be very simple and the response is the same.

2. Bodily Movement

Our bodies have their own consciousness. According to Levine (2010) unconscious material is held within the body and yearns to express and integrate itself. To limit movement in our lives is to limit a facet or our innate intelligence. Find ways to incorporate movement in your class. Maslow encouraged bodily training and self-expression through movement suggesting it augments traditional cognitive education (Frager & Fadiman, 2005). This is part of self-actualization.

Inviting a science 9 class full of 30 rambunctious students to move about requires a set of ground rules regarding personal space and safety. I found this out the hard way. The physical body and external world can be known only as psychological experiences. What we experience with our physical bodies percolates into our cognition and is often interpreted as emotion.

As educators we can heighten physiological responses in our classrooms by incorporating movement. Recall a moment in your life, where you attempted something daring, like jumping out of a plane. To this day, you may easily recall this moment, the people present, or sensations felt. This is pure biology. I could write a whole article on this subject alone. Heightened physical sensations lead to heightened emotional flow, which in turn imprints upon our consciousness.

3. Favourite Music

Dr. Oliver Sacks (2007) in his book, Musicophilia stated that regular exposure to music involving active participation stimulates development of many different areas of the brain. As an educator I strive to teach the whole student, in a brain-based way and music has proven to add an element of joy and fun to the classroom as well.

Create a class playlist. Begin each class listening to one or two songs encouraging movement with your students. You may notice resistance. Some students will opt out. This is how we can start. Over time, the climate will change and students will welcome this movement alongside their favourite music. You will begin to notice spontaneity emerging as you continue to organically use this method.


Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014) of Stanford University conducted an important study on walking and creativity. There is strong empirical evidence that adding body movement, as simple as walking, enhances creativity and idea generation. Movement, walking and music offered together in a classroom are powerful physiological experiences. With this, our intelligence expands into adjacent possibilities far beyond what sitting in a desk and completing worksheets could ever do.

In conclusion, there are many other ways to explore the adjacent possible in our classrooms. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, public education often puts relentless pressure upon it educators and students to perform and act in certain ways. Taking some simple “steps” within the constraints of our classroom is an important start in beginning to embody a new way of doing things; A stride into the Adjacent Possible.


I was blessed to share in conversation with Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman at the recent Learning and the Brain Educational Conference in Orlando, Florida. Thank you for your work in this world Scott!

Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman
Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman and me at the Learning and the Brain Educational Conference


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Kris Krug.

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