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Creative Teaching

What metaphor are you going for?

What terms can trainees use to describe learning? What metaphors are we drawn to? Learning as a road, a tree, a building, scaffolding, a journey, a river? Whatever – it is interesting to explain metaphors and to nut out their implicit meanings. What values can be detected? ( Nowadays it is common to refer to the brain like a computer – a machine analogy was very common in the 19th century.)

I often hear the term ‘scaffolding’ being used in relation to learning- often over-used. The term was apparently first used by Jerome Bruner in the late 1950s. This may be the most influential source: ‘Wood, D., Bruner, J.S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Psychology and Psychiatry. 17.’ In another source scaffolding is defined : ‘Scaffolding implies that given appropriate assistance, a learner can attain a goal or engage in a practice otherwise out of reach (Davis & Miyake, 2004).’

It is interesting to explore the metaphors that we use in training. Respect them, their origins, their meanings, but also remain sceptical about their over-use. Metaphors are very rich. In the wrong hands we deny language its meaning and depth. Over-use language and we deny our opportunity to be imaginative.


About inclued

I am a teacher/trainer, writer and photographer, with teaching experience in Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, Special Needs and Staff Development.


3 thoughts on “What metaphor are you going for?

  1. I enjoy the use of metaphor in learning, but I am keen to know what you perceive as an overuse, and what can we do to ensure that it doesn’t occur.

    Posted by Peter Smith | June 10, 2011, 12:22 pm
  2. Hi Pete, I certainly think that there are metaphors that are used in teaching/training that are rich yet somewhat over-used (De Bono’s Six Hats for example) is used a lot in education. Unfortunately when people package ideas – as metaphors- with good intentions of creating a new perspectives there is always the risk of others hijacking the metaphor ( seeing it as a good selling package) and running with it to the nth degree. Rather than being indicators and good starting points the ideas become over-prescriptive and deny training the very richness at its heart – the diversity in human nature. There have been instances of teachers using a ticky box model of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences in order to define students. Appalling.

    I think the art of being a good trainer is to have an artistic eye – or simply a sensitivity to decipher what is authentic and what is artificial – business shelves in bookshops are full of ‘clever model’ based books. One has to ask the question – ” Ok is this a good model, is there a sniff of authenticity about it?” ” Can we use the ideas here as a new perspective?” It is a question of separating the selling point from the truth.

    I think the truth is that trendy ideas often abound and often win in the marketing world. I can quote none other than that great song ‘As Time Goes By’ –

    ‘The fundamental things apply
    As time goes by ‘

    This is true for romance (in this song) as it is for the fundamentals of training/learning.

    Learning is complex and varied. It is never reducible to a key model.

    We need to remain very sceptical about surefire models. We can turn on our authenticity buttons, sniff out what feels real and what feels false – this is really a question of developing our critical acuity . And we need to remember the original value of metaphor in poetry – that which is subtle and allows us to see and feel something in new and indecipherable ways.


    Posted by inclued | June 10, 2011, 8:58 pm
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