Affordance Theory


Theory of Affordances


Possibilities for action and sense-making that arise for an individual in an environment

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations (in a specific setting)
  • Knowing is … coherently interpreting; appropriately acting
  • Learner is … an interactor (individual-in-environment)
  • Learning is … expanding possibility
  • Teaching is … designing (affordances), occasioning




Viewing the individual-in-environment in systemic terms, Affordance Theory attends to the range of possibilities that arise when an individual (with specific intentions and needs, and who is oriented by a personal history) interacts with an environment (with specific structures that help to channel perception and that enable some actions while constraining others). More concisely, Affordance Theory is concerned with “affordances”:
  • Affordances (Effectivities) – possibilities for action/interpretation that an environment offers to the individual
Associated constructs include:
  • False Affordance (William Gaver, 1990s) – a placebo or placebo-like option that does not have a material function
  • Hidden Affordance (William Gaver, 1990s) – a genuine possibility for action that is not perceived by the actor
  • Perceptible Affordance (Perceived Affordance) (William Gaver, 1990s) – a genuine possibility for action that is perceived by the actor. Perceptible Affordances typically lead to productive links between perception and action.
  • Social Affordance (Donald Norman, 1980s) – those affordances associated with social actions. The construct was developed to refer to human–computer interactions, and it is most often encountered in discussions of sociotechnical applications.
  • Usability – effectively, the extent to which a tool or system provides Perceptible Affordances


By framing personal action in terms of possibilities presented in and called forth by one’s environment, Affordance Theory offers an alternative to the causal logic that is encountered in much of educational thinking. That is, Affordance Theory acknowledges that what one learns is dependent on, but not determined by the environment. That shift has been taken up by those oriented by Design Thinking and is emerging as a major influence in research into technology-mediated learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

James J. Gibson

Status as a Theory of Learning

Affordance Theory aligns with Eco-Complexity Discourses, but it is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Affordance Theory can be construed as a theory of teaching, albeit a version in which teaching is about influencing rather than causing, conveying, or directing.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Affordance Theory meets our criteria for a scientific theory.


  • Affordances (Effectivities)
  • False Affordance
  • Hidden Affordance
  • Perceptible Affordance (Perceived Affordance)
  • Social Affordance
  • Usability

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Affordance Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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