Encyclopedia of Educational Innovation

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters, Richard Heraud

Affordance Theory in Relationship to the Learning Environment

  • Peter C. LippmanEmail author
  • Elizabeth Matthews
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_190-1


This entry provides an overview of the concept of affordances as it pertains to innovation in educational settings. The term affordance was coined by James J. Gibson in 1979. He proposed that an affordance in the built environment was “what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (p. 127). In contemporary educational settings, affordances can be considered as the resources, objects, and components of the built environment that influence behavior within this setting. Since affordance theory has emerged, it has been co-opted by innovative learning environments theorists for explaining the opportunities that these spaces provide for the learning community; however, this is often a simplistic view of affordance theory and how it works in the educational setting. Therefore, the goal of this entry is to present the range of theoretical perspectives of affordance theory while analyzing them in relationship to the learning environment. When planning schools’ affordances will be viewed as complementing features that exist in niche(s), where the affordances may be attuned by the learner(s) to support how they participate with others, acquire knowledge, and master skills.

Delineating Affordance Theory

Since Gibson (1979) developed his theoretical framework on affordance, it has evolved. This evolution offers distinct viewpoints for understanding and conceiving affordances as properties of the environment. These perspectives include, but are not limited to, understanding affordances as:
  • Functional properties of the environment (Reed 1996)

  • Dispositional properties of the environment (Turvey 1992) that only manifest in certain circumstances

  • Perceptual properties of the environment (Pederson and Bang 2016) that have been uncovered or yet to be uncovered in the environment by the learner

  • Cultural mediators of history and knowledge (Grice 1957)

Selectionist Perspective

The Selectionist Perspective recognizes that affordances are animal-relative (i.e., human) properties of the environment that have some significance to the inhabitant’s behavior. This view focuses on two things: (a) what kind of animal-relative properties of the environment affordances are and (b) what it is about animals to which affordances are relative (Chemero 2003). Hence, affordances are resources in the environment, objects that might be exploitable by some animal. Furthermore, this perspective, which links affordances to evolution by natural selection, embraces a functionalist perspective; for, functionalism ties the resources in the environment to the selection pressure on animals, causing them to develop perceptual systems that can sense, pick-up, those features that occur in the environment. Given the interrelationship between the animal and the resources available to them in the natural environment, affordances may be understood as functional properties of the environment.

While the selectionist framework considers the functionalist relationship of the organism and the environment, where the organism has evolved in relationship to their changing environment (Gibson 1979), this perspective doesn’t consider how the learner participates in active social and physical environments that she/he manipulates and, in turn, she/he is being shaped by them. Hence, the selectionist framework doesn’t acknowledge the actualizing circumstances (Heras-Escribano et al. 2015) created by the mutuality or complementary relationship of the organism with other organisms within their physical environments. For example, chairs may be placed in the space where the learner(s) is intended to sit and work; however, if the intention of the activity is also to write, the learner may also require a table, which provides a work zone where learners may place their writing pad, as well as a pencil case, a text book, and a tablet. Furthermore, the actualizing situations change and evolve when the activity involves a small social grouping that is planning to construct a diorama, the properties not only include the furniture (soft architecture), the location of this activity inside the classroom or outside the classroom (hard architecture), the location of this activity in relationship to similar activities occurring simultaneously in the space and how these similar activities may influence this social grouping, the additional properties needed to complete this project and the accessibility that learners have to these resources, and how these various properties are attuned by the individuals to support these small social groupings work through the project-at-hand (Lippman 2010).

Affordances as Dispositional Properties of the Environment

Affordances can be viewed as dispositional properties of the environment – that is the tendencies of physical resources to become apparent in relationship to the situation-at-hand. Therefore, dispositional properties are conceivable only when paired with actualizing situations, for example:
  • A dress may be worn and, if there are possible circumstances in which it might be torn, it is also understood as delicate.

  • The affordance of being edible is a property of objects in the environment only if there are animals that are capable of eating and digesting the object.

This framework acknowledges that even when the learner engages with the environment, depending on the circumstances, only certain properties may become manifest (Turvey 1992). Hence, the primary limitation of considering affordances as dispositions is that dispositions are only guaranteed to become manifest given the right enabling conditions. One potential limitation of this perspective can be seen in the constraints imposed by the social environment on the physical environment. For example, the dispositional properties of a table in a school includes sitting around it, standing next to it, and leaning on it. While learners can sit under it, on it, or stand on it, the conditions imposed on the classroom setting by the social environment may stifle these actions; however, this shouldn’t suggest that the actions around these affordances are not actualized by the learner, but rather the properties are suppressed in a particular setting, but emerge routinely in other places, settings, within the same school building. Accordingly, considering affordances as dispositional properties does not fully acknowledge that learners may be aware of and realize the inherent opportunities of the affordances, but are unable to make full use of them given the restrictions present within the social environment (Heras-Escribano et al. 2015).

Affordances as Perceptual Properties of the Environment

Regardless of whether affordances are viewed as functional properties or dispositional properties of the environment, these perspectives may be perceived as deterministic because they do not take into account the transactional interrelationship between the environment and the individual(s). These perspectives are somewhat of a deviation from the original understanding of the affordance framework, which was not deterministic. Rather, it was an opportunity for action (Gibson 1979). Affordances are relations that are individuated through two elements: the feature of the environment and the abilities of the agent. Hence, affordances are neither a property of the agent nor a property of the environment, but a property of both taken as a unity (Heras-Escribano et al. 2015).

This view of the organism-environment system recognizes that affordances in the surrounding environment work as possibilities to guide the action of the learner. These possibilities of action involve a looping process, which can be conceived as the continuous and dynamic transactions between an agent’s capacity for perceiving-acting and certain elements of his or her environment (Heras-Escribano et al. 2015). According to Heras-Escribano et al. (2015), this is a looping process which involves the following steps:
  • The learner acts upon the environment.

  • Some new information emerges and the learner is able to detect it.

  • By being aware of that information, the learner controls or coordinates their actions in response to that information.

This looping process helps to explain the embeddedness of the transactions and implies flexible behavior, since the learner can incorporate different means in order to achieve a given end. This flexibility is a distinctive feature of an environment-sensitive behavior which is largely socially mediated (Heras-Escribano et al. 2015). Since this perspective considers that both the learner and their environments are active, there must be opportunities for teachers and learners to attune (Greeno 1994) to their situations and acquire, through the perceptual properties embedded in the physical environment which are revealed from actualizing circumstances and social situations which mediate the learner, learning, and the things to be learned.

Cultural Affordances

Cultural affordances can be understood as the embedded perceptual properties which occur in the physical environment become revealed in social situations. Social situations involve patterned cultural practices, which direct the attention of students and modulate the acquisition of culturally specific sets of expectations – or cultural affordances which can be described as natural or conventional (Grice 1957):
  • Natural affordance indicates the possibilities for action, the engagement which depends on the exploitation or leveraging by an organism of natural information in its environment.

  • Conventional affordances suggest the possibilities for action, the engagement which depends on agents’ skillfully leveraging explicit or implicit expectations, norms, and cooperative social practices in their ability to correctly recognize the culturally specific sets of expectations of which they are immersed. These are expectations about how to interpret other agents, and the symbolically and linguistically mediated social world (Scarantino 2015).

A school building and its physical environs contain affordances that carry cultural relevance, but the natural and conventional affordances may evolve through social practice – the transactions that occur in the different settings. These social properties do not need to be viewed as separate from the physical environment, but rather can be understood as components of socially constructed ecosystems. The goal of these ecosystems is to support and reinforce the conventions of the learning community and society as a whole (Lippman 2010). This is likely to occur within school buildings that have been intentionally designed and constructed to support the distinct ways individuals acquire knowledge and participate with others. In order to create optimally planned school environments, planners should not consider affordances as singular objects that can be routinely rearranged, but rather conceptualize affordance as part of a complete system. One should be concerned with how the inclusion of a learning area, material, or built parameter will support learning and socialization.

The Niche as Intentionally Designed Settings in the School Building

While affordances within the physical environment have been the focus by researchers, the concept of the niche (Gibson 1979) in the environment, settings in the physical environment composed of various and complementing affordances, offers a deeper and more comprehensive view for understanding the purpose of the different learning spaces, i.e., classrooms, laboratories, offices, common learning areas, etc. and the associated affordances of these settings that make up the school building. Hence, in the school building, niches are planned to support and reinforce the shared practices and views of the school.

A niche is a place in the school or classroom that provides an organism the resources it needs to survive (Rietveld and Kiverstein 2014). At the same time, the niche plays a role that affects other organisms and their niches. These interrelationships constitute an ecosystem (Gibson 1979). A typical ecosystem, that is, a physical environment where organisms live or a school where learners acquire knowledge and participate with others, has multiple niches, which have internal structures. Each niche provides an entire set of affordances to support specific activities for learning. Hence, in school buildings, each niche occupies a particular place in the ecosystem and comprises the affordances available to the group of learners for specific actions.

For school buildings, niches should be intentionally planned learning spaces, since the design influences and shapes expectations and guide patterns of learning (Clark 2016). Schools, which are planned, constructed, and organized by human beings, conform to repeating applications of a rule and procedures to achieve successive results. These actions result with either aligning in the creation known ecosystems or creating new ecosystems which are dissonant to understood practice of teaching and learning. In either circumstance, teachers and learners are expected to fit into these settings where they acquire knowledge as well as uncover the opportunities, the affordances, in the environment.

However, if teachers and learners are unable to detect an affordance in the niches, this may not be about the affordance, but rather may be about the teachers and learner(s) who, because of a prior shared knowledge and socially constructed practices, are unable to create and/or perceive the possibilities of the niche m (Heras-Escribano et al. 2015). Hence, niches, classrooms, specialized learning areas, offices, as well as the different settings in the common learning areas outside classrooms ought to be planned to support the variety ongoing social situations that occur routinely in learning environments; for these spaces should be planned to encourage independent work such as research on the computer, writing, solving math problems, and reading to name few, or support small group meetings where learners brainstorm ideas, share what has been uncovered from their individual research, and assign activities to complete the project-at-hand (Lippman 2010). Within the school building, niches should be designed to support the different ways that students acquire knowledge and master skills. These settings have a role in the learning environment which is identifiable by the perceptual properties that are located within them.

Conclusion: Connecting Affordance Theory with Situated Learning Theory

Gibson’s (1979) theory of affordance provides a theoretical framework for understanding the mutual and functional interrelationship between the organism and its environment. According to Gibson (1979), an affordance is a resource that the environment offers any animal that has the capabilities to perceive and use it. Thus, affordances are properties of the environment but taken relative to an animal. The most enduring theme in Gibson’s work concerns the idea of direct perception. Gibson developed this concept to counter the dualism within psychology, the representational theory of perception. According to this scheme, humans do not experience the world directly, but by means of an internal, mental representation of the world itself. However, the limitation of Gibson’s work is its confinement to an essentially individualized conception of meaning. While his work is confined to the individual, this entry extends Gibson’s theoretical perspective to include human transactions as well as place the concept of the niche in the foreground.

Before attempting to bridge the notion of an active learner acquiring knowledge and participating with others within active and interrelated learning environments, this entry examined some of the differing perspectives on affordance theory that have developed over the past 20 years. These include but are not limited to the following: selectionist perspective; affordances as dispositional properties; affordances as perceptual properties; and cultural affordances. While each perspective provides a framework for understanding interrelations of the agent (animals, individuals, or learners) and their environment, these perspectives do not connect affordance theory, specifically the concept of the niche with actualizing circumstances nor the social situations that transform the learner.

Nevertheless, as learners transact within their school settings, they will encounter a variety of standards/structures which will require new ways of relating to the environment. As Gibson (1979) indicated, each learner is different, ethnically, physically, and culturally. Depending on season of the year, time of day, one’s location in the space(s), etc., learners are presented with different affordances in the environment from which to pick-up. Furthermore, depending who is in the setting may offer unique situations for the learner(s). Hence, being a learner in an elementary school, middle school, and/or high school learning environment is not merely a matter of biological maturation or adaptation to institutional standards, rather it is about the negotiation of possible self-understanding and self-realization options in concrete practice (Pederson and Bang 2016). Hence, institutionalized structures of the school are not one-dimensional determinant conditions; they are co-created and re-created by people participating in practice of teaching and learning (Pederson and Bang 2016). While these pedagogical structures stabilize and sanction subjectivity across contexts and practices, the design of the physical structures are intended to regulate the transactions of the learners.

However, the presence of an affordance in a setting does not imply that the activity will occur, although it contributes to the possibility of that activity. For the affordance to have meaning, additional conditions must be considered which include the activity, the situation, and motivation of the learner(s). For example, if the learner is engaged in a cooperative group learning activity in a classroom, then the action of moving from the hallway into the classroom is a functional part of that activity. The actions of the individual in relationship to the group will make the person attentive to aspects of their physical environment, such as the doorway from the hall into the classroom to the chair to sit around the table with his/her classmates which might be located in a corner of the room. Hence, motivation is situated as it results from the desire to engage in some action as it relates to what the learner is doing at a specific time.

Connecting affordance theory with situation learning theory is an initial step in creating a framework that views the learning environment holistically, as a series of ongoing transactions taking place in the physical environment, rather than as a fragmented and/or a single situation occurring in relationship to a particular affordance. Thus, the situations that unfold may influence and shape the learner’s perception of the features and/or object(s) available. Hence, the learner’s perception of a feature(s) and/or object(s) of the physical environment may be transformed in the context of an action or actions. To accommodate the notion of transformation, situation theory presents the notion of attunement to constraints and affordances for learners as conditions of their social and physical environments (Israel and Perry 1991). By grounding affordance theory with situation theory, research will uncover how the learner(s) and the social environment use the physical environment as well as determine which features and/or object(s) of activity settings in classrooms and complementary settings in common learning areas outside classrooms (Lippman and Matthews 2018) encourage activity, enhance learning, and engage learners.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.La Trobe UniversityBendigoAustralia
  2. 2.City University of New YorkNew YorkUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Peter Lippman
    • 1
  • Elizabeth Matthews
    • 2
  • Wesley Imms
    • 3
  1. 1.La Trobe UniversityBendigoAustralia
  2. 2.Interdisciplinary Arts & SciencesCity CollegeNew YorkUSA
  3. 3.University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia