Teaching in Mind

Helping Teachers Mindfully Transform Education

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The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

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Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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Common Metaphors in "Teacher Talk"

"Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel."
~ Socrates

T

eachers typically use language such as this when they talk about their work. Each of the statements contains a metaphor. For the sake of simplicity, I plan to use the word metaphor to mean any circumstance where a person uses one conceptual category, experience, or thing to describe or define another conceptual category. "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another."1

Many of us were taught in literature class that a metaphor is a linguistic device used to add interest to speech or writing. Karl comes into the teacher's lounge shaking his head. "My classroom is a zoo today!" If what we learned in literature is correct, Karl is simply using a figure of speech—making his description of his classroom more interesting or unique. Other teachers recognize that Karl's classroom is probably noisy and unsettled. The "animals" may be on a rampage and difficult to control. But is this truly just a "figure of speech"—a linguistic device? Or do such statements spring from something much deeper—from Karl's conceptual system?

Why Metaphors Are Important

L

inguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson provide convincing evidence that metaphors may actually be our primary mode of mental operation. They argue that, because the mind is "embodied"—that is, the mind experiences the world through the body in which it resides—people can't help but conceptualize the world in terms of bodily perceptions. Our concepts of up-down, in-out, front-back, light-dark, and warm-cold are all related to orientations and perceptions acquired through our bodily senses.2

The "teacher talk" statements at the beginning of this article contain several such metaphors. A top student represents a vertical orientation, whereas falling behind suggests a horizontal orientation.

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that the metaphors through which people conceptualize abstract concepts influence the way in which they understand them. In Metaphors We Live By, they provide several commonly used metaphors for the concept of ideas. In these examples, we see many familiar expressions in which people describe ideas as food, plants, and commodities.

Ideas are Food

What he said left a bad taste in my mouth. These are nothing but half-baked ideas and warmed-over theories. I can't digest all of these new ideas. I just can't swallow that claim. That argument smells fishy. Now there's an idea you can really sink your teeth into. That's food for thought. We don't need to spoon-feed our students. He devoured the book. This is the meaty part of the paper.

Ideas are Plants

His ideas have finally come to fruition. That idea died on the vine. That's a budding theory. It will take years for that idea to come to full flower. He views chemistry as an offshoot of physics. Mathematics has many branches. The seeds of his great ideas were planted in his youth. She has a fertile imagination. He has a barren mind.

Ideas are Commodities

It's important how you package your ideas. He won't buy that. That idea just won't sell. There is always a market for good ideas. That's a worthless idea. He's been a source of valuable ideas. I wouldn't give a plugged nickel for that idea. Good ideas are currency in the intellectual marketplace.3

I

t should come as no surprise that humans attempt to understand vague, abstract, or complex concepts in terms of more familiar experiences. The critical point is that the metaphor a person selects to frame a concept/experience necessarily focuses attention on some aspects while ignoring others. For example, thinking of ideas as commodities focuses attention on how those ideas will be received (bought) by other people and whether they are salable. If ideas are commodities, then they must be marketable. Having an idea just for the sake of having it isn't consistent with this metaphoric structure. You want to crank out lots of ideas and get them out the door.

On the other hand, if ideas are plants, it's perfectly consistent to hold an idea for a while without trying to sell it. After all, plants take time to ripen and mature—to come to fruition.

It's interesting to consider the metaphors that underlie the present focus on the acquisition of knowledge that can be assessed on standardized multiple-choice tests. These tests require canned answers rather than unique new recipes. Traditional, time-honored products are highly valued while creative solutions are penalized. One-size-fits-all standards reward the development of fields of corn of the same variety rather than a botanical garden in which each species contributes its unique characteristics.

How Metaphors Shape Behavior

R

ather than having to describe a number of particular events that occurred in his classroom, Karl got his point across by saying that it was a zoo. Because people are familiar with zoos, they "get the picture." That picture would have been quite different had Karl said, "My classroom is a beehive." The important thing to note is that, under the influence of the zoo metaphor, Karl perceives student activity as negative—wild and uncontrolled. If he employs the beehive metaphor, he might perceive that same behavior as productive—students are busy as bees. Thus, Karl's unconscious metaphor directs his perceptions—and his resultant behaviors.

Discussing the influence of metaphors on behavior, Lakoff and Johnson state,

"Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense, metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies."4

Metaphors Create Realities

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ducational metaphors contain within them beliefs about knowledge and the expected role of the student. John Locke described the mind at birth as a tabula rasa—an empty slate on which all knowledge must be written by others. Similar descriptions of teaching reflect the belief that students' minds are empty vessels. Thus, we frequently hear teachers saying something like this. "If I'm teaching facts and the things that the ITSB (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) teaches, then I can open her up and pour it in—just open their little heads and pour it in."5

Unfortunately, many educators persist in perceiving students as receptacles for information despite extensive research demonstrating that knowledge is internally-generated. The quote at the beginning of the article suggests that, even without that research, Socrates believed education was about "drawing out" what was already within, rather than "stuffing in" as much "knowledge" as possible. In fact, as many of you know, the word "education" comes from the Latin word educere—meaning "to lead or draw out."

Other Common Metaphors in Education

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n recent years, educational researchers studying teacher metaphors have consistently concluded that the metaphors teachers use to describe their work profoundly affect their behavior and perceptions. Here are a couple of the more common educational metaphors. (Metaphors are shown in italics.)

Knowledge is a Landscape—A Lesson is Journey

The word cover appears frequently in teacher talk. "I covered Newton's Laws last week." "We have so much material to cover before the test." Although the word cover has several definitions, the primary meaning in education is that of covering ground—moving across a terrain of some kind. In this metaphor, knowledge is a landscape across which the learning journey travels. We see this reflected in teacher language, such as:

Concepts and Principles are Objects

Many teachers unconsciously perceive the concepts and principles they teach—the bits of human thought considered "essential knowledge"—as objects. Concepts and principles are objects. "Did you teach grammar?" "Yes, I taught it last year." The knowledge objects have become "objective"—separated from the human thought processes and minds that conceived them.

In the learning is a journey metaphor, knowledge objects reside at various locations on the knowledge landscape. Teachers must move students quickly across this landscape, urging them to "pick up" the concepts until they have covered the landscape and arrived at their final destination—Testland. Here, teachers make sure that students possess the knowledge objects (concepts) acquired during the journey. Then it's time to move on to the next goal—to begin coverage of the next bit of territory on the map of human thought. In this interpretation, one might picture the journey as the teacher driving a busload full of students at full speed along a predefined road to reach the destination—the test—before nightfall! (Note that this was the metaphor embodied in No Child Left Behind!)

The lesson is a journey metaphor can have other interpretations. If a teacher believes that learning requires students to interact with their environment, the trip becomes a journey of discovery instead of a flat-out scavenger race across the landscape of a discipline. In this interpretation of the metaphor, the teacher and students travel more or less together, along a somewhat defined route, making frequent stops along the way as students notice something of interest that they wish to explore. There are occasional interesting side trips to unexpected places. At times, groups pursue different paths and, after returning to the main road, report to the class about what they have found.

In today's test-obsessed school environment, there is little or no chance for this interpretation to prosper because of mandates to cover the ever-increasing amount of content defined by the standards—making sure that students possess the knowledge objects they will need for the test. (By the way, the word curriculum is also a metaphor—in Latin, the word curriculum means "a race"!) Teachers are told that their job is to get the kids ready for the test. They can't take the time for leisurely exploration. This brings us to yet another metaphor—one shared not only by teachers, but by the Western mind in general.

Time is a Resource

Time is a resource is a metaphor that drives much of what teachers do (and don't do) in teaching. Generally, the resource to which the metaphor refers is money. Time is something that people can spend or waste, wisely invest in productive activities or squander in questionable pursuits. Thus, time becomes the cost of discovery—the side trips and exploration of ideas they find intersting on the part of the students.

Unfortunately, time is a resource that belongs to neither teachers nor students. The traditional content of a given course or school year allots specific amounts of time to accomplish certain tasks. Time is, after all, a scarce resource. Teachers must budget that time, spending only within the limits of what they have been given. Wasting time on material that isn't part of the assigned curriculum means that they will run out before they have covered all the material. Heaven forbid that time runs out before the test and the class hasn't covered everything!

In Western culture, time is a resource is so much a part of our shared metaphor that it rarely occurs to us there might be other ways to think about our lives. However, people in some other cultures don't necessarily think of time is a resource. According to Lakoff and Johnson,

"Cultures in which time is not conceptualized and institutionalized as a resource remind us that time in itself is not inherently resource-like. There are people in the world who live their lives without even the idea of budgeting time or worrying if they are wasting it. The existence of such cultures reveals how our own culture has reified a metaphor in cultural institutions, thereby making it possible for metaphorical expressions to be true."7

For example, rather than saying, "I didn't have time for that," a person who does not conceptualize time as a resource might say, "It wasn't on my path." In Western cultures, people no longer recognize time is a resource as a metaphor. They just assume that it is true and act accordingly.

Metaphors Create Roles

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ne of the most important aspects of a metaphor is the roles it creates for self and others. If I am a shepherd, my students are conceptualized as sheep. If I am a gardener, my students are plants. What unconscious expectations do these metaphors create in the mind of the teacher? Must the sheep be docile, feeding complacently in the pasture chosen by the teacher? Is the gardener tending a field of corn, where every plant receives the same care and is expected to mature at the same rate. Or is the gardener tending a botanical garden, where the the goal is the unique development of each plant?

Metaphors that focus on what the teacher does rather than what the students learn cast students as passive receivers. Such metaphors inhibit teacher behaviors that might encourage students to take an active role in their learning. Sadly, teachers will often condemn students for laziness or apathy when, in fact, they give the students no opportunity to assume responsibility for their learning. Examining the roles inherent in a teacher's metaphor can provide remarkable insights on these problems.

If reforms are to succeed, teachers must actively explore these critical components of their thinking. The unconscious cognitive processes of both theorists and teachers must be brought into consciousness if there is any hope of creating a meaningful change in education.

You will find several chapters dealing with educational metaphors and the role they play in teaching in Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education.


References

  1. Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 5
  2. Ibid, pp 56-60. See also Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York : Basic Books.
  3. Metaphors... pp 46-47
  4. Metaphors... p 146
  5. Noble, A. J. & Smith, M. L. (1994). Old and New Beliefs about Measurement-Driven Reform: "The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same." National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, Los Angeles, CA. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 378 228)
  6. Munby, H. (1986). Metaphor in the Thinking of Teachers: An Exploratory Study. The Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 18, 197-209.
  7. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh..., 165.

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New!

The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.


Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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