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Rethinking the Metaphors We Teach By

By Andrew Wild — May 31, 2017 4 min read
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As teachers, teacher educators, and school leaders, we often discuss the implications of policies and working conditions on our ability to teach effectively. What we don’t say is that our common ways of describing teaching and learning—often metaphorical—pose hidden obstacles.

Teaching is riddled with metaphors. From Head Start to higher education, metaphorical expressions in teaching are so common that they are difficult to recognize. But it is precisely because we take these metaphors for granted that they warrant interrogation. As Herbert Kliebard, a professor and historian of education, wrote, “one who is not critically aware of the power of metaphor can easily become its victim.”

I previously taught high school science and recall conversations with my colleagues that were fraught with terms: “I need to cover bonding by winter break.” “Let’s go over the homework.” Typically, I left these conversations dissatisfied with our communication. We provided a vague sense of what and how we taught, but not much in the way of details.

Later, as a graduate student studying science education, I learned that metaphors communicate the foundational ways we conceptualize others, our actions, and ourselves. Consider the knowing is seeing metaphor: “I see what they are saying.” “Your answer was clear.” “The idea is murky.” This characterization makes it difficult to conceptualize alternative answers. In this sense, metaphors reveal the limits of our thinking.

The linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson write that “metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” Metaphors also tend to be rooted in physical experiences. Given the link between metaphor, thought, and action, what do these expressions say about how we think about teaching and learning?

Paying Attention to Specifics

Let’s take a look at two common metaphors teachers often use: the characterization of teaching as coverage, and going over ideas, assignments, and assessments.

We cover packages, gifts, hands, and feet. We go over bridges, land, and water. But we only interact with the object’s surface. While the use of these phrases may seem harmless, the terms imply a shallow interaction with the material.

In contrast, the Next Generation Science Standards call for students to understand core disciplinary ideas, as do the Common Core State Standards. Both feature important concepts rather than surface-level knowledge. If we “go over” a topic, we might not even touch the surface of the idea, let alone get to its core. Historically, we have gone over and covered the landscapes of ideas, providing students with limited opportunities to explore their depths and take in their beauty.

But new metaphors have the power to expand our horizons. By changing our words, we change our thinking, and by changing our thinking, we can act differently.

Putting New Metaphors Into Practice

So, what are some alternative metaphors that can help us frame learning in better terms? Try constructing knowledge, which is an accurate characterization of learning. When we learn, we build on what we already know to make something new. As with constructing buildings and bridges, learning is less effective when attempted alone. Students learn more deeply when they build on their prior knowledge and co-construct their understanding with peers. Whereas covering and going over imply doing something to an idea without changing its form, the construction metaphor suggests building the idea anew.

I know what you may be thinking: While the metaphor might characterize the kind of learning we want to promote, the expression itself is a bit clunky. It is difficult to imagine chatting with other teachers about how students will “construct” understanding of colonization or climate change.

But there are also many different ways of describing how students construct knowledge: synthesizing, representing, explaining, applying, and modeling. These verbs are probably familiar; they are included in the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reflect the way many teachers write objectives. By describing lessons in these terms, it is more likely that we will venture beyond the surface and help students understand the core of their ideas.

As a teacher educator, I now discuss the power of metaphors with preservice teachers. I combine suitable verbs that characterize effective teaching during a lesson or workshop (facilitating, guiding, inspiring, challenging, listening, pushing, or supporting). Using these verbs reminds me that the goal is for others—not me—to do the thinking. In turn, I ask more probing questions and ensure opportunities for teachers to build understanding with their peers.

Such discussions have ripple effects on the education system. Changing the way we talk about teaching helps us open our classroom to the insights of our colleagues. We can either perpetuate old metaphors, or we can begin to use better ones to advance our thinking and teaching practices and help our students see the fuller picture.

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