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Unlocking the Adjacent Possible In The Studio Space: Some Thoughts on Making Spaces for Our Students to Achieve Academic Success

Dr. Matthew Kim

Written by Dr. Matthew Kim

Editor of Learning Diversity Matthew Kim teaches composition and is cochair of the English Department at Eagle Hill School in Hardwick, Massachusetts. He received his PhD in English Studies from Illinois State University, where he studied writing studio pedagogy with Professor James Kalmbach. He received his MS in Rhetoric and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University, where he studied digital literacies with Professors Cynthia and Richard Selfe. At Michigan Tech, Matthew helped create and sustain sites of literacy instruction for college faculty and K-12 teachers. In 2004, Matthew received the NCTE ACE award for his research on the intersections of digital literacies and learning disabilities. In 2010, he received the Maurice Scharton award at Illinois State University for his community literacy project with students involved in the Community Colleges for International Development program. Along with teaching writers’ workshops, college writing, and technical communication, Matthew directs the Central Massachusetts Writing Collaborative, which is an organization he created in 2013 to bring innovative, fun writing programming to public school students in grades 6-12 and professional development workshops on writing studio pedagogy to public school teachers.

Mar 13, 2017

Over the last year, I have traveled across the United States touring studio spaces and makerspaces in high schools, colleges and universities, and community literacy centers. The objective in my traveling was to meet students and teachers and community leaders working with a variety of media in preparation to help lead our own school toward designing a new innovative, student-centered learning space. While each space I visited proudly showcased a variety of technologies, including 3D printers, laser cutters, cardboard, cubelets, raspberry pi, and more LEGOs than one person could ever count, the common thread among these spaces is the teachers and facilitators implement a pedagogy that advocates for the adjacent possible. The learning diversity model with which we approach teaching and learning at Eagle Hill emphasizes the adjacent possible both in and outside of the classroom as we purposefully engage our students and faculty in conversations and activities that move us toward recognizing and acting upon new ideas.

What is the Adjacent Possible?

The adjacent possible is a term coined by Stuart Kauffman and refers to what becomes possible when learning involves creativity, imagination, playing, making, and writing across modes and media. The adjacent possible, theorized by Kauffman in his book Investigations, involves “autonomous agents forever push[ing] their way into novelty” (22). Kauffman suggests that we live in a nonergodic universe, a universe that is “vastly nonrepeating” (22). Thus, as we continue to unlock the adjacent possible with almost infinite combinations, we move further away from where we began. The adjacent possible is not the actual but always one step away from the actual, and once the adjacent possible has been realized, a new adjacent possible becomes available (142). Kauffman explores the adjacent possible in relation to molecules and substrates joining together through chemical reactions to co-construct our universe. As teachers in the humanities, we can think about the adjacent possible as a conceptual tool for exploring the innovative writing, reading, thinking, and making with which students and teachers can engage in the studio.

In too many classrooms across the United States, the adjacent possible remains an unimagined and unimaginable potentiality for a variety of reasons, sometimes including a lack of materials or lack of professional development for teachers. More often, however, the exploration of the adjacent possible is closed off by the standardization and norming practices endorsed by many education stakeholders such as parents, teachers, colleagues, friends, government, and media. The short-term result is that students are required to produce rigid writing, often in opposition to the ways they learn best, to fulfill a writing task. The longer-term result is often that students graduate high school disliking and even fearing writing instead of engaging with the complexities of writing and recognizing that learning to write is a lifelong process. My experience as a studio practitioner in an English department shows me that the studio is a place where all students can write, read, think, and make for rhetorical purposes. While students may not always leave the studio loving English class, they do view themselves as writers, readers, thinkers, and makers.

The adjacent possible is as much about limits as it is about openings. At every moment in the timeline of an expanding biosphere, there are doors that cannot be unlocked (Kauffman 36), either because the keys have yet to be discovered or tried in the locks with insufficient imagination. We must continue making the argument to our colleagues that adjacent possible thinking can help us understand the learning with which we and our students are engaged. I see three primary reasons for locked doors between students and teachers and the adjacent possible in American education. A first reason is an emphasis at school on standardized testing. A second reason is a lack of resources, both classroom resources and professional development resources. A third reason doors to the adjacent possible remain locked for students and teachers is the failure to establish an innovative, productive learning space. I recognize that not every teacher and student has access to official school studios such as the ones we are imagining for our school; nevertheless, when I speak to my colleagues and students at English and education conferences across the country, I advocate for us to take the initiative and redesign our classrooms as studio spaces in which our students can explore multimodal composition and making.

So, what exactly is a studio space?

The studio is a space at school and in communities that is co-facilitated by teachers and students and is a space that emphasizes writing studio pedagogy. Studio pedagogy affirms student-centeredness by creating productive interactions, intersections, and departures that arrive from prioritizing learning; it respects that the learning and writing contexts vary from school to school and community to community. Studio pedagogy also underscores the complexity of teaching and learning activities and the productive variations in learning preferences. Studio pedagogy focuses on mentoring students in composition and making as important rhetorical acts that provide students opportunities to be agents of social change at their schools and in their communities. Studios are an integral part of what Yook and Atkins-Sayre (Communication Centers) call the communication centers movement. Communication centers are for students and administered in large part by students, in that students comprise the majority of the staff and also are both part of courses and active in the studio apart from their courses as well. Studios, like other communication centers, are vital to retention, critical thinking, liberal arts curricular goals, student empowerment, and student growth. The visual, interactive, and collaborative nature of the studio, and of studio pedagogy, makes it readily adaptable across modes and media in addition to emerging student goals, needs, and expectations. Fundamental to studios and studio pedagogy are conversation and collaboration among students and teachers, opportunities to use multiple composing and making tools to create meaning, an acceptance of convergent and divergent thinking, spatial awareness, and playfulness. The studio must be a space that is defined by its users and a space that, in turn, defines its users. In my coedited collection Writing Studio Pedagogy: Space, Place, and Rhetoric in Collaborative Environments (2017), Russell Carpenter and I outline several objectives that teachers and students can meet implementing studio pedagogy in their classrooms:

Space implies attention to:

  • How students interact with a learning environment
  • Ways in which teachers assemble environments to help students consider relationships among texts, learning resources, materials, and activities
  • How designs of engaging learning settings influence processes

An attention to place helps teachers:

  • Complicate ways in which space is or is not democratic
  • Consider notions of inclusivity and learning equity
  • Rethink spatial learning contexts for all students

 A rhetorical lens builds on space and place to:

  • Prompt a critical stance on learning
  • Encourage reading, writing, thinking, and making that is based on understandings of context

What does finding the adjacent possible look like in a studio?

Here is a short but powerful anecdote. Last year, I had a writing course with six students. I began the course in an unusual way. Before I even told the class what materials we would be covering, I told them they were going to redesign this classroom—their classroom. As you might expect, they exchanged perplexed glances. I spent the next twenty-five minutes sharing with them my ideas about classrooms versus studios and showed them some pictures I took of the studios that I had visited. That night for homework, I invited my students to read several short texts about making spaces. The following day I invited the class to create a space, collaboratively, using only pencils and paper, a box of assorted LEGOs, and their imaginations. What took place over the next three class periods was these students demonstrated their investment in co-facilitating an interactive learning space: how the tables and chairs should be arranged? how the space might be separated into stations for different parts of the writing process? where they should sit? should they sit at all? what if they wanted to stand? where I should stand or sit? where bookshelves should stand? and, where on the walls my student artwork should hang? This activity went on for the first week of class. After each class period, we would redesign the classroom as they created it using their sketches and LEGO structures. Their ideal classroom was being brought into existence, and the impact this activity—and the students’ newly imagined and tested learning space—had on the energy of the class was profound. These students were more engaged in their reading, writing, and making, as well as in their relationships with one another. The papers these students wrote and the projects with which they engaged were produced with the energy that began when they were able to claim ownership of their studio.

Affording our students opportunities to co-facilitate their learning spaces may feel liberating for some readers and risky for others, but it is a risk we need to be willing to take. Several years ago, I researched what students take away from learning spaces where they are co-facilitators, and found that most often students gain interest in the subject being taught, self-efficacy skills that enable them to complete assignments and set the bar of success higher for themselves, empathy for their peers, and resilience after failure. And yes, occasionally we will feel burned by that risk when our students do not perform in the ways we want. However, it is, I believe, more likely that with their newly realized ownership of the classroom or studio, our students will rise to the expectations we put upon them and over time, they will continue to rise to the expectations they put upon themselves. I would like to conclude this post by putting forth four questions we can ask ourselves about our own teaching practices in a studio space. Meditate on these questions over the next few days while you’re teaching and then, if you are not satisfied with your answers, consider redesigning your classroom with a studio pedagogy in mind: 

  1. How does my current space reflect a democratic learning environment?
  2. What opportunities exist to adjust the learning space to reflect the ways in which all students can think differently about their learning?
  3. How might collaboration and creativity with colleagues and students inspire a sense of place?
  4. How might a sense of place enhance rhetorical developments in my own studio pedagogy?
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