I’ve always said that I’m a sucker for a good metaphor. I love both the elegance and efficiency of analogous thinking; for me, it’s one of the most sublime things about our language. But whether we realize it or not, we’re all suckers for a good metaphor! In fact, there isn’t a whole lot of the language that we use that isn’t, in some way, metaphorical.
Metaphors are more than just cool ways to make connections between the world of the known and the less known. When we stop to think about the metaphors that we use, we come to realize that they can also colour the way we see things. The metaphorical choices we make—especially the ones that quickly roll off our tongues—reveal a great deal about the boxes in which we find ourselves. (Even the metaphor of stepping out of the box speaks volumes, doesn’t it?)
Lately a great deal of discussion has taken place here and elsewhere around the role of basic skills in the education of our children. The metaphorical language that almost automatically emerges in many conversations relates to building. Many folks will claim that students need a “firm foundation” before proceeding to “higher levels” of thinking. The construction image is powerful and seems to resonate with our perception of the way that learning takes place. In many cases, it is the mind of the learner (whatever that means) that is being built and, for many, teaching basic skills is like pouring a solid foundation on which other knowledge and skills are added. Without that foundation, the project falls to pieces.
Other thinkers (you may be one of them) use phrases like co-construction, presenting images of students and teachers working together to create, not so much the mind of the learner, but the knowledge being learned. Here basic skills are often seen as the “tools” used in the process as opposed to something “poured into” the learner.
Some may argue that focusing on the metaphors that we use just draw us into semantics and is not really that important. I would argue that trying to understand the metaphors that we live (and die) by is essential precisely because it does draw us into semantics—the study of the meaning of language. Quite literally, metaphors allow us to package meaning, carry it around, and communicate it.
So, what if we were to begin thinking about teaching and learning using different metaphors. Would our perceptions of the role and the design of schools be different? Could a “metaphorical turn” change the way we think about things like basic skills? Creativity?Critical thinking? Collaboration?
What if we put our “construction” metaphors aside and started framing (!) our conversations in terms of agriculture, ecosystems, networks (as Nancy does here), exploration or relationships. What elements of these concepts could help to shift our thinking or open up new ways of looking? Would the thinking that we grasp so tightly be loosened a little, or would the same attitudes, priorities and beliefs still prevail? What place would our current ideas about schooling have in our newly adopted metaphor?
I’m’ going to try it; today I’m going to try to carry a new metaphor of teaching and learning around with me. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Give it a shot, and let us know what you come up with!