A New Working Definition

The earlier definition of affordances is interesting, and 'well-formed' theoretically, but it is a bit cumbersome in practice : it lays on the ecological perspective a bit too heavily. So below are some thoughts in progress on how this might be built upon, and fleshed out with some more nuanced thinking.

0. Meaning and Learning
Meaning and learning are inherently social processes, but we nevertheless need to distinguish between:

Particular things that we learn
· The broader social affordances within which they are embedded (mastering affordances)
· The social positions and social space that we can take up and occupy, as we become more knowledgeable (mastering the immediate application of affordances)
· The ability to ‘read’ new contexts, and make good judgements about which affordance is or is not appropriate for which context (mastering the use of affordances in particular communities of practice).

So we need to proceed as follows:

2. At a general level
The overall definition of learning must acknowledge the active, social and embedded nature of exploring and consolidating meaning. So to begin with:

Learning is: The process of exploring, benchmarking and mastering new affordances, and an

Affordance is: The product of interactions between a person and their environment, each of which potentially affects their knowledge, competencies and identity, and potentially alters the (micro-) environment.

In more general terms, an Affordance is the capacity for effective action.

And at a broader phylogenetic level, an affordance would be defined as: The product of interactions between the organism and its environment, in a process of mutual adaptation, which has evolutionary and devolutionary potential for the organism and for the ecology.

Affordances, like signs, are the product of varying relationships between two other factors: in the case of the sign: the signifier and the signified, and in the case of affordances: the person and their environment. Importantly, this means that affordances, like signs, are based on a relational, and not a relativist ontology and these relations are socially/ ecologically constrained, even if they can be contested. Costall (2007) has an interesting account of the way in which many of the affordances that we acquire are introduced to us; i.e. they are already socially established and embedded.

2. At a micro-level
At a micro-level (in time and in space) we can, in principle, acquire new information and competencies, while our identity and our social context remains relatively unaffected.

3. Contexts
The distinction between these two types of context, the more ‘stable’ and the more ‘dynamic’, enables us to describe the way we explore, acquire, create, benchmark and master learning at two levels: the component level and the ecological level. Within an ecological framework, there is always the potential that any change, no matter how micro it is, may affect the macro environment, i.e. the ecology and everything in it. But it complicates and constrains our theory of affordances if we impose a blanket, macro ‘ecological’ framework on all aspects of learning, because this would make the use of ‘affordances’ unnecessarily cumbersome: we have to allow for a range of contexts, from the more dynamic to the more routine, within our definition of affordances and learning.

This can be achieved if we redefine learning slightly, as: The process of exploring, benchmarking and mastering new affordances, or new knowledge or competencies (or more interestingly as: the smile that arises from exploring, benchmarking etc...)

Likewise, we need to begin to disaggregate the notion of affordances in socio-ecologies, by distinguishing between different emphases within affordances:

· Affordances of roles and position
· Affordances of role awareness and selection, and
· Affordances of strategy.

3.3 Examples
Two examples might help: the story of the ‘Two Times Table’, and the story of the Millennium Bridge

3.3.1 The Two Times Table
Affordances are more than just passive, or objective 'opportunities that the environment or the technology offers (to) you'. For example, two scenarios: In scenario A, an adult comes into a room, and sees a table, chairs and a table cloth. The adult says: “That’s great, there’s a nice table and table cloth, so with a bit of rearranging, and some better lighting, I can invite some friends over and we can have a dinner party”. In scenario B, a four year old child comes into the same room, and says “That’s a problem. The table is too high for me to draw on it, but too low to walk under, and I’m likely to hit my head. But wait a minute, if I turn it upside down, and throw the cloth that’s on top of it over the legs, I can invite some friends round, we’ll have a great house to play in”.

The room, the table and the table cloth are the same in both scenarios. The affordances are radically different, and in practice they conflict with each other. The affordances are the opportunities that the room offers the
particular people in each scenario for making sense of, and acting in that environment, both using the same space and materials, but in quite different ways. The adult and the child’s individual and social identities are intertwined with the way they perceive the affordances, act on them, and use them within a micro-community of practice. And depending on the outcomes of the uses of the table in the two scenarios, the child and the adult’s identities will be enhanced or bruised afterwards. They may re-assess the table’s affordances.

Their learning and their identities are interdependent in more ways than one. Some of the affordances that they explore, benchmark and master will be put behind them as unfortunate ‘learning experiences’, while other affordances will become integral to their ongoing identities. They may also develop a community of like minded people who share and consolidate their affordances in this type of context.

From Williams, R.T. (2006) Innovative Approaches to Portfolios as Formative Assessment.

Teaching and Learning Conference, University of Portsmouth.

3.3.2 The Millennium Bridge