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?