What you see is what you get

Here is number 13 in my series of short posts on learning theories. I'm working through the alphabet of psychologists, providing a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In my most recent post I examined Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and its applications to education. In this post, we explore the work of James Jerome Gibson on the perception of everyday objects and his theory of  affordances. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

During the 80s and 90s there was a protracted debate between Richard Clark and Robert Kozma. Clark held that media were neutral and didn't influence learning whilst Kozma argued that media were laced with nuances that shaped our behaviour as we used them. Even before this, during the 60s, Marshall McLuhan had famously proclaimed that we shape our tools and then our tools shape us', but had then gone on to argue that 'the medium is the message'.  The waters were well and truly muddied and many were bemused by the entire discourse around media. Are they neutral tools or are they loaded with meaning - and do they actually influence learning in any way?

Even before any of the above discussions took place, James Gibson, a psychologist studying human perception presented an interesting theory that framed the entire debate.   In 1950 Gibson proposed that visual perception was direct perception. That is, what we see and the meaning we extract from it is directly obtained from the appearance of the object we are looking at. We see the object as it is. Correctly referred to as the ecological model of visual perception, we process the world we see bottom up, not top down.

Gibson later proposed that each object has affordances - the shape and design of the object suggests to us (possibly from our previous experiences) what we can do with the object and what we cannot do with it. A door handle provides us with the affordance of twisting and pushing (or pulling) and may also have a right-handed or left-handed affordance depending on which side of the door we are standing. A teapot and cups such as those in the image above also have affordances suggested by their shapes and their handles - and possibly even their relative positions to each other in space. Affordance theory represents the relationship between the design of an everyday object and its perceived purpose.

How it can apply to education

Some teachers might be surprised to hear that all children are creative. Most would understand however, that all children have wonderful imaginations, and can think divergently about almost anything if they are given the chance. Ask a young child how many uses there are for a brick, or a paper clip or a cup, and they will come up with hundreds of possible uses. This is because their creativity knows no bounds, and they are not influenced by a lifetime of learning that some things are not permissible or possible. Adults don't think of a paper clip that is a mile high and made of rubber, or a cup that can hold a million gallons of lemonade. As children grow older, this kind of divergent thinking sadly fades as they are indoctrinated into understanding 'the rules'. And yet Gibson's affordances theory implies that the use of the object, even if it is designed for specific purposes, can in fact be interpreted for other purposes by the perceiver. If this is true, then teachers have a huge opportunity to promote better learning through creativity. They could for example bring objects into the classroom as a part of a lesson to promote creative thinking and better problem solving skills.

Conversely, it is clear that good design makes the intended uses of objects much more explicit. The design of computer interfaces, software, games and even curricula, should be undertaken with affordances in mind. Designers can send direct messages to potential users simply by designing easily interpreted and unambiguous features into objects. These principles have spawned an entirely different approach to education which involves active engagement through design thinking, solution based learning, and even learning through wicked problems (a form of problem based learning).  For example, where do young people turn to when the answer to a question is not Googleable? And we would still like to know ... do media influence learning?


Gibson, J.J. (1950) The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning
Engeström Activity Theory
Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
Festinger Social Comparison Theory
Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory

Photo by Mori Masahiro on Wikimedia Commons

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What you see is what you get by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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