Metaphor and the learning landscape

abandoned power plant

Some years ago All in the Mind, a programme on radio 4 discussed the impact of using different metaphors to describe crime. They reported on an experiment conducted by colleagues at Stanford University which explored the impact of describing crime using the metaphor of beast or virus. When those who participated in the experiment were asked how best to manage crime, those working within the beast metaphor placed emphasis on responses that favoured enforcement or punishment. Those working in the virus metaphor placed more emphasis on social reform.   The metaphors impacted on how participants in the experiment saw the problem and what they saw as the solution.

I have no idea how seriously this experiment should be taken and the results are not as stark as my re-tellng suggests. But, it does offer a sharp, simple and neatly focused illustration of what critical discourse analysts have for a long time demonstrated. There is a connection between discourse processes and social structures. That language simultaneously inscribes and describes the world.

Those of us who spend our lives flitting between different ideas about quality – quality as required by OfSTED and quality as demanded by a particular situation or circumstance – are used to navigating these language games. We counter impose the inspection framework on a series of activities that we feel need to be done while complying – superficially, strategically or tactically – with hard-to-resist requirements imposed on us.

But how do we think and talk about learning. It’s possible to accept the dangers of choosing a single metaphors for learning – learning is not acquisition or participation – it is both (Sfard 1988), at the same time. It does not matter that these two things seem to be a contradiction.  The metaphors we use impact upon how we see our role as teachers or lecturers

What has made me curious enough to write about this (think out loud) is my listening to colleagues talk about her inevitable and upcoming OfSTED visit. In a moment of self-reflection about her teaching, my colleague began to critique whether she – as a trainer – had got as much as she possible could do out of her trainees in a particular session. I am used to, comfortable with and frequently engage in such reflections.

What struck me as she spoke was her implied metaphor was of learning as a mineral obtained through excavation. Teaching is a matter of technique. Using the right equipment, preparing and treating the ground. Teaching is an event; if efficiently conducted it leads to the extraction of the required amount of learning.

This bothers me.

I frequently have analytical daydreams. In the summers of my teenage-hood, my sixth form English teacher used to lay on the grass in our school grounds writing poetry. A thin, bearded, man in stained t-shirts and jeans – he once read us girls one of his poems. Something about emerald green eyes. We loved it and we loved him and were stunned into silence. He mistook our silence for disapproval – and scarpered.

Learning at its best does not always fit into 45 minute scripted episode. Is not always measurable. It sometimes simmers for years, hours or days. What I have been taught becomes learning only when I need it or have learnt something else that helps me make sense of it.

I can hardly imagine a time when the discourse of derision that teachers have been subject to for far too long will dissipate. When will the myth that suggests a poetry writing slightly scruffy ex-hippy English teacher has more impact on the global economy that an elected government be finally busted. There might even be a time when education finally manages to replace learning.  In these days teachers will be allowed to discuss plays, credos and empathy. If it happens, I do wonder – after years of onslaught – in what state will the professional landscape will be left.

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational researcher27(2), 4-13.



  1. I love this piece, particularly the bit about education replacing learning. So right! Yes language is also inscription and description and if we know this power it has then we must continue to resist the ‘inscription of bad descriptions’, so yes learning must never be allowed to be replaced by education?

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