The first time I heard the word ‘affordances’ used to speak about management or education, I was confused – mostly because my understanding of the word affordances was very limited. I mean, it’s not something that had come up in any of my training or reading to date. After some digging, I discovered that an affordance is generally defined as a ‘quality or property of an object that defines its possible uses or makes clear how it can or should be used’. But what does this mean in practice? A good way to look at it is to first think about a chair. A chair is a thing you can sit on, so the affordance is a thing to sit on. And anyone who was able to sit, would be able to use a chair for the purpose it was designed for, i.e. supporting the act of sitting (the expected affordance). Of course, you could also use a chair to stand on if you want to reach something high up, or as a means of blocking a door, or as a place to put books. And for all of these alternative purposes, the affordance changes from what is expected to what is unexpected (unexpected affordances).

So, how can we apply affordances to education, and why should we? All will be revealed shortly! It’s easiest to explain if I tell you that I made the mistake initially of thinking when someone used affordances in education, we needed to look the practical things to echo the chair example, like the buttons and functions on online or blended courses as logically the practical elements of those should be straightforward to identify; however, as soon as you start looking into it the wide nature of reference they use (the expected and unexpected affordances) ends up getting pretty confusing.

This confusion increased when I heard about affordances in connection to management, but as I spent more time considering how affordances can provide learning opportunities for learning about management, and even how being in management or in a leadership position is an affordance, the concept started making a lot more sense to me.

Put simply, if management or leadership is viewed as a concept that consists of many layers, then we can learn about how to manage or lead by doing and observing actual managers or management/leaders or leadership. So, to explore how affordances in these areas work in practice (and to save yourselves from getting tied up in notes like I did at first!), let’s look at some of my experiences and how affordances have impacted and continue to impact my learning.

hammer and nails


Perceptible affordances

This is probably the clearest affordance, both in life and in management or leadership. A perceptible affordance is basically that the affordance is exactly what you would think it is – for instance, a hammer is used for hitting nails in. The more you hammer, the better you get at hammering and the nails go in straighter as a result.

So, in management, a good example of perceptible affordance is a budget or cash flow analysis. As you do the analysis, you actually teach yourself more about budgets and cashflow analysis, because budgets tell you what you are going to earn and spend money on, and cashflows tell you how much actual cash you will have at a given point in time. Just like hammering, over time the more you do whether you just do them in the school, or start doing them for yourself at home (and potentially improve your own financial position while learning more about them), your ability to do them will improve.

While many management jobs sometimes feel like chores, understanding why we do them and what their purpose is, allows us to do them better.


tip of iceberg


Hidden affordances

A hidden affordance means an object doing something that is not always expected. If we stick to the example of a hammer, then using a hammer as a paper weight would be a hidden affordance. It isn’t what it is made for, but it still works as such. I quite like the iceberg analogy here, as objects, people and processes can often do a lot more than what we expect initially, and it is important to be open to other affordances that are hidden. Certainly, you could use a hammer for many things other than just hitting a nail.

From a management point of view, I learned about dealing with people by observing lessons and how people teach, but sometimes it is the content of the lesson that makes me think. Quite recently, I observed a lesson for the Trinity Certificate TESOL where the teacher/trainee used Rubin’s Four Tendencies as the lesson content and an animated video to explain the four tendencies. The overall lesson was very good, but I walked away from it thinking about how to better deal with a specific person on my team. The person fit into one of the categories like it was designed and written for him, despite my general dislike about categorising people into four groups, and it made me reflect on previous interactions I had with this person, and how I could perhaps have better helped them to meet certain expectations. The lesson content provided a hidden affordance in relation to management and gave me something that I would not have expected from an observation.


bank note in water


Negative affordances

A negative affordance is when you expect an object to do something, and it doesn’t. For example, a hammer is made of wood (at least the handle is) and a bank note is often lightweight and made of plastic these days so you would expect both items to float, but they don’t. In very much the same way, you would expect someone who is very good at managing adult students in a classroom to be very good at managing people in a teaching team, but sometimes they’re just not. Or you might expect that someone will get better at doing the teaching schedule if you train them and they do it a few times, but sometimes they just don’t.

Being able to recognise negative affordances quickly and respond appropriately to them is very important. But also, remember that management and managing is a complex layer of skills and actions and there are many other ways of learning certain skills.

Another example, which doesn’t involve people, is when you have designed a certain process, for instance a new induction process, and you expect it to do something, but feedback on the process indicates that it hasn’t done that. Getting feedback is an important part of understanding your own development and effectiveness, but also an important part in learning what can and cannot be done.




Looking forward

This blog is by no means a summary of affordances, but rather a simple way of looking at your own development as a team leader or manager, or even a teacher or teacher trainer, by thinking about what you can learn from experiences when the learning is obvious and expected, what you can learn when the learning is not obvious and unexpected, and learning what someone or a process cannot do. By doing so, we create a much bigger picture of the multiple layers of our lives, and hopefully a better understanding of ourselves and the people and processes we work with. So, keep thinking about how you can use the hammer to learn and explore.