Keep your heart with all vigilance,

for from it flow the springs of life.

Understanding Affordances

I was first introduced to affordances during a training workshop for ICT Mentors some years back. At that time, I remembered reading and asking about it, but no better understanding of it resulted. My conclusion was to regard it as an unnecessary academic jargon that would fall out of fashion eventually. Affordance kept appearing though - perhaps more frequently - in memos and circulars. It's a key term I've been unable to avoid and had to find out more. 

'Affordance' does not appear in any dictionary because it is a recent invention by Psychologist, James J. Gibson.

He defined affordances as all "action possibilities" latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual's ability to recognize them, but always in relation to agents and therefore dependent on their capabilities. ~ Wikipedia

Take for example, a piece of paper: it can be folded, crushed, rolled, torn and so on. The paper affords each of these actions. Conversely, a large cliff does not afford the action of folding, crushing, rolling or tearing; it can be climbed, rested and leaned on. Some actions are possible only with a piece of paper, some only with a large cliff, and some actions possible with both - stepped on.

It would seem my conclusion is justified - that affordance is an unnecessary academic jargon. However, I think 'allow' or 'enable' aren't suitable synonyms as it presupposes or at best suggests that the actions were prevented or unable to occur in the first place. Also, both terms are usually confined to a single action while affordance suggest possibilities. For instance, that I'm allowed or enabled to walk into the principal's office is more restrictive than to say that I can afford to walk into the principal's office. Despite my sympathies, it should remain as a technical jargon - useful for practical purposes.

When asked what are the affordances in ICT, we could think of the possibilities that ICT opens up. To ask what does ICT allow or enable is to adopt an iterative approach. It primes us to think of how ICT can be used to overcome problems and restrictions. To ask what does ICT make possible is to adopt an inventive approach. It's to think of new ways or to solve problems that do not exist yet. I don't think either approach is superior, but students would benefit if teachers used both approaches; transformation is a long drawn task but immediate needs should not be ignored.

Even if affordance is a technical term, teachers ought to understand the concept and its evolution. Note that Gibson defines affordance objectively, 'independent of the individual or user.' Donald Norman would highlight the subjectivity calling it 'perceived affordance'. Gibson does recognize that the affordance of an object is 'in relation to agents and therefore dependent on their capabilities'. With 'perceived affordance' Norman elaborates or perhaps, expands the capabilities to include subjective experiences and purposes.

Affordance undergoes further analysis under William Gaver who breaks it into: perceived affordance, hidden affordance, false affordance.

Affordances per se are independent of perception. They exist whether the perceived cares about them or not, whether they are perceived or not, and even when there is perceptual information for them or not. [...] Affordances exist whether or not they are perceived, but it is because they are inherently about important properties that they need to be perceived.


  • False affordance: affordance is perceived when there is none.
  • Hidden affordance: no affordance is perceived when it is present.
  • Perceived affordance: affordance is perceived and present.

I find this framework particularly useful for designing and evaluating the use of ICT in teaching and learning.

False affordance is a common mistake that we've all heard, seen or committed. As an example, I was once asked how to include animated gifs as the teacher firmly believed it would increase engagement and subsequently, learning. False affordance is an error particularly prevalent with new technologies - PowerPoint slides, computers, internet, smartphones, tablets. It's all too easy to associate novelty with improved learning. 

Conversely, hidden affordance is an error prevalent with older or mature technologies such as email. It is often used to convey information but I've found it to be the perfect platform for students to journal their reflection, for groups to manage and organise a project, for students or groups to report on the progress. Blogs and discussion forums pale in comparison. Email is most common, easy to use, and a direct form of communication.  

Perceived affordance is more useful when considering that students perceive and act differently from the original intent of the teacher. A significant number of students joined the Prezi fad, awed by its novelty. Instead of using Prezi as new way to organize and present ideas, students used it as a novel way to display information. Their presentations weren't any better, if not made worse by the vertigo.

Gaver introduces two new concepts necessary for complex actions.

Sequential affordances explain how affordances can be revealed over time; nested affordances describe affordances that are grouped in space.

A teacher ought to intuitively grasp this as it is necessary for learning to take place - what must the student learn first? To achieve understanding, the information and knowledge needs to be organised in space - a mental map (schema).

A performance task - arguing for a particular stand or investigating a phenomena - is likewise a complex action that requires careful design such that the sequential and nested affordances successfully leads to student accomplishment. 

Through careful  and thoughtful design, Apple created the iPhone that though complex and advanced, is one that little children easily use without formal training or instruction. It's not a play with words to move away from lesson plans and move towards understanding by design. How might students learn complex concepts like quantum physics as easily as an iPhone? Affordance is a key concept for teachers to start thinking like designers.