Metaphors of education

A semi-recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Just Scoring Points“, explores the dominant metaphors that students and teachers bring to the education process. All parties reject the “empty vessel” metaphor, where teachers pour knowledge into the passive students. Students may nominally accept the “constructing a building” metaphor, but as the author, entomologist Walter Tschinkel, challenged his students:

“You do understand that to build an edifice, every brick you add must remain in place? That is, in your education, you have to remember what you learned before, so that you can build on it in the next phase of education. But we have repeatedly experienced here that you remember little from your previous courses — or, for that matter, from the previous test, or even from last week. Your behavior violates the basic requirement of this metaphor.”

Tschinkel finds that students operate, at least implicitly, under a “sports” metaphor: it’s all about the points, and once each game is over, it’s best forgotten. He does his best to require more synthetic and progressive intellectual work in the “constructing a building” mode from his students. He avoids multiple choice, testing instead through writing, he singles students out to explain things to the class, and he gives quizzes early and often (sometimes over the same core material repeatedly, until the students learn it).

I grant Tschinkel’s point about the importance of a participatory learning process; this is where so much university education goes wrong. But reading this article got me thinking about whether “constructing a building” is even a metaphor educators should be aiming for. Constructing a building, after all, follows a set plan from the outset, with a well-defined foundation and a well-defined pinnacle.

What are other educational metaphors we can consider?

A “dining” metaphor is something close to how I’ve approached my own education (at least as an undergraduate). College is a sort of buffet, with far too many intellectual dishes for you to try everything in one sitting. So you go along, taking whatever looks good; if you decide you don’t like something, you just stop eating it (or maybe push it around the plate so it looks like you made a good attempt). If you’re a conscientious eater, maybe you are going for a nutritionally balanced meal, but more often than not you just grab whatever is most appetizing at the moment. The buffet is the liberal education approach, but other meal genres fit other educational programs: one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized school lunches for one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized primary and secondary public education; a fixed set of meal choices from a restaurant menu for the fixed professional degree programs; snacking for informal learning.

“Games”, as opposed to “sports”, may be another worthwhile metaphor. We play athletic games because they are fun. We may try to score points, but the real goals of play (as opposed to competition) are more intangible: connecting with other people, and developing general skills and abilities that are not particularly tied to the game at hand.

What other metaphors are out there in other societies? If sports is a particularly American education metaphor as Tschinkel implies, is there hope for fixing education without radical changes in American culture?

3 thoughts on “Metaphors of education”

  1. :-O

    I so, so, so wish I’d read this about … 28 years ago. Age twelve, that would have been about the right time.

    The “sports” or “games” metaphor is excellent.

  2. Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. – Socrates

    I don’t know if Socrates ever said that, or rather, if Plato ever wrote that, but it goes to your point about metaphor and education.

    I’m not sure if I like the building metaphor. I like the idea of “sparking” curiosity, and on my list of things to do this summer is to write an essay or two relying on gardening metaphors.(!)

    For today’s students, however, maybe the idea of building a website might be a more engaging metaphor than building a building. Or maybe the metaphor should center around re-telling a story, or recounting a television show.

    One of the examples I give my students about writing an essay is compare it to relating a few episodes of Lost. Suppose your friend missed the last few episodes of a television show you both like. Describe to her what she missed. Your friend has also missed the American Revolution. Explain to her what she missed.

    I like the point about the sports metaphor. I think that’s right. How about war metaphors? Those are always popular. Ignorance is an enemy that needs to be conquered! We will shock and awe stupidity with our awesome intellectual firepower! In this war on error you are either with us or against us! If you don’t learn, the errorists win.

  3. The war metaphor I like. It’s so versatile. You can extend it to things like educational adventurism, and it gives room to bring in things like (wasted) funding, metrics, timetables, and the home front. (It’s hard to continue a long war without support at home, after all.)

    And many of the same people (ahem, W.) end up as draft dodgers, in spirit if not in letter!

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