The thingness of things

Give a ball to a baby and they’ll throw it.  It’s that simple.  Even though the child may have never seen a ball, she’ll throw it.  It’s kind of crazy.  Some may say that it’s how we’re wired as humans or something embedded into our DNA.  People with design backgrounds, however, see the situation differently.  It’s all about design and affordances.  The shape and design of the ball afforded throwing so the baby threw it.  There’s nothing primeval or innate.  It is just good design.

In his book, The Design of Everyday Things (1988), Donald Norman introduces the concept of affordances. An affordance, Norman writes, describes “the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used.”  In a presentation I gave recently, I defined affordances as “the thing that gives a thing its thingness.”  I probably picked that up somewhere in my readings but it captures the idea behind affordances.  Good design makes a stool afford sitting and a mug afford holding.  Bad design also affords behavior.  For example, I’m constantly turning on the wrong burner of my stove because the designers arranged the knobs in an unnatural way.  The arrangement affords misuse.  Or at least that’s how I explain it to my wife.

Because of an increased focus on the design of learning spaces, the term “affordance” is making its way to education.  Just like any designed object, classrooms can afford different uses.  A lot of attention is being paid to what types of instruction are afforded by different learning spaces.  A study conducted at the University of Minnesota examined an instructor who taught in two different spaces.  One was a formal lecture room; another was an informal classroom.  While the courses were identical and the instructor tried to teach the two classes similarly, the instructor began to incorporate more discussions and active learning strategies in the informal space.  The classroom afforded different use so he changed his practice.

People are starting to focus on the affordance of learning spaces as a possible catalyst for instructional change.  “Change the classroom and practice will follow,” they argue.  Educause recently introduced a comprehensive rubric called the Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) that can serve as a tool to assess whether a space supports and encourages active learning strategies.  Designed as a fifty-item questionnaire, the LSRS can serve a critical tool for examining the affordances of learning spaces.  The tool is broken into different subgroups that let users examine factors such as integration with campus context, planning process, support and operations, environmental quality, layout and furnishings, and technology and tools.  The LSRS stands as a critical tool for examining whether a space can afford collaborative and creative learning.

But there’s more at work than just the affordance of the space, however.  Instructors and students play a role in how space is used.  While the baby introduced earlier may throw a ball because of the affordance of the ball, it could learn other behaviors.  Maybe she’ll learn to sit on it.  Or bounce it.  Or dunk it in a basketball hoop.  Through experience, we learn and unlearn how to use the items we encounter.  And that’s the real challenge with relying on affordance to promote wholesale change in education: our own learning can get it in the way.


Whiteside, A., Brooks, D. C., & Walker, J. D. (2010). Making the case for space: Three years of empirical research on learning environments. Educause Quarterly, 33(3), 11.



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