Education without metaphors?

We love metaphors don’t we? They can help us to express new or complex ideas in term of more familiar ones. They can add richness and drama to our explanations. Good metaphors can help us to understand, organise and interpret things. They can reveal truths and sometimes even help us construct alternatives. What’s to dislike about a good metaphor?

Some metaphorical conventions are so familiar that we hardly question them: up / above as more important or more powerful than down / below, argument as war, change as motion, ideas as objects and the mind as a container.

But metaphors can also mislead and obscure meaning or cover up for a lack of understanding. A particular metaphor can reinforce a particular, partial, view of a complex concept. Also, we tend to choose metaphors which suit our own assumptions or prejudices so there is plenty of room for bias.

“Metaphors [in education] have all the advantage over explicit language as does theft over honest toil” R. M. Miller (1976)

Education is rich in metaphors and each contains a kernel of descriptive truth wrapped in a shiny wrapper of belief about what is really going on and what we value most. So, amongst other things, learning can variously be described as being a transaction or a journey, as growth, discovery, training, construction, performance, consumption, enlightenment or liberation.

So, which of these appeals to you most? And what does that tell you about your beliefs?

Learning as a transaction: Education is a thing of value, worth a great deal, something precious handed on from person to person as a gift or reward. Knowledge is intellectual capital, an asset which can be accumulated, cashed in, exchanged or redeemed. We invest in our education, acquire knowledge and pass it on as an inheritance.

Learning as a journey: Education takes us to undiscovered places as part of a personal adventure, an exploration. We navigate our way, moving in a particular direction. We can be steered or follow guides who open doors for us and show us the right path which might be long and winding and difficult to follow.

Learning as growth: We get bigger and stronger as we learn and we need to be carefully cultivated. We are tended by gardeners or shepherds who nurture us and help us reach maturity. The tiny seed grows into a great tree and the helpless baby grows into an adult.

Learning as discovery: education helps to uncover what is already there within us, to draw out our natural capacities and fulfil our potential. We can find ourselves and learn about ourselves through learning.

Learning as training: We need to be tamed and channelled to get our wild side under control. We need to practice the standard routines, disciplines and habits which will help us function as useful members of society.

Learning as construction: We are engaged in building ourselves and our understanding of the world piece by piece and school is a factory for learning, an assembly plant for personal and social production. We use learning tools from toolkits, we scaffold our knowledge and become ‘hard wired’ for learning.

Learning as performance: Education is a sporting event, a competition with winners and losers. We need determination, fitness, efficiency and stamina to achieve high performance, beat other learners and win the top prizes.

Learning as consumption: We are hungry and thirsty, maybe even insatiable, for learning. We are empty vessels to be filled with nutritious knowledge which should be delivered as fast as possible like a take-away on a scooter.

Enlightenment: Learning shines a light in the terrible darkness, illuminating our world, making things clearer and leading us to light more fires. We have ‘light bulb’ moments and flashes of inspiration.

Liberation: Learning frees us from the shackles of ignorance and the control of others, allowing us to take control of our lives, shape our destiny, escape our cages and fly.

Many of these metaphors are used in a comforting way to reinforce our particular world-view. If we regularly use a metaphor as our model of what education is this can blind us to other ways of seeing things and get in the way of objective evaluation and genuine debate.

So, what if we decided that education doesn’t need metaphors? What if we agreed that it is too important to require definition in terms of other processes? Would it aid our comprehension to strip away some of the unnecessary layers? We could still talk about learning, knowledge, skill and understanding while agreeing to use language as unencumbered by metaphorical baggage as possible. See how hard that is?

Maybe learning is universal enough not to need to be ‘like’ anything else. Maybe we should try to dispense with metaphor and give education a chance to stand on its own sometimes.

‘Metaphor-free Mondays’ anyone?

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
This entry was posted in Education, Philosophy, Teaching and learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Education without metaphors?

  1. CristinaM. says:

    It is practically impossible to live without metaphors. They are pervasive in our very thinking and they structure our conceptual understanding of the world in extremely subtle and unnoticed ways. They are NOT a matter of language but of thinking, as Lakoff put it in Metaphors We Live By.
    From everyday language (i.e. “time passes” – conceptually time is linear; “I have no more time” – time as content to be given/taken; “I spent time on that.” – time as a commodity in Western culture; “He came down with the flu”/”He is at the peak of his health.” – up/down as physical references to our body; “He is under my control” – physical constraint etc.) to what we want to call “reasoning” (“He defeated his thesis”/ “She won the argument.”/ “Your claims are indefensible.” – argument as war), our thinking is ruled by metaphors. In as much as we wish to appear objective and neutral to this mode of thinking we cannot.
    All these types of metaphors (ontological, structural etc.) are part of the scientific thinking as well (i.e.”cognitive strain”, “messenger DNA” and so forth) so that give us no privilege over pure, rational thought. We just attempt to map the world as best as we can using insufficient language tools that shape our very understanding of it… Education makes no exception.


  2. dancingprincesses says:

    Interesting take (& my preferred options from your choices are discovery & liberation). But I think metaphors can work to progressive advantage as well as being problematic:

    “Metaphors function both positively and negatively. They have the power to help create meaning and understanding and to improve how we lead. They also have the power to manipulate, to shut down thinking, to deflect creativity, and to harm. Their very ubiquity, their indispensableness, lends metaphors great power.”
    (Lumby and English, 2010: 3)

    See also if interested my take on “Cinderella” metaphor for FE:


  3. Thank you both for your great comments and I certainly drew on the excellent Lakoff & Johnson. I also agree with the quote from Lumby & English. Metaphors can both help and hinder our understandings and they are socially, culturally and historically shaped. I guess what I’m saying in my post is that it’s important to be aware of this and to be able to stand back from our usual metaphors sometimes in order to open up our thinking to different perspectives.
    I don’t feel I know enough about the language / thought relationship to have a view on whether one is possible without the other and this is something I definitely want to read more about. I wonder if rather than one being prior to the other, increased sophistication and abstraction in both thought and language develop simultaneously? Perhaps someone can point me towards a good introduction to this issue.
    Thanks again for the discussion.


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