3 Dangerous Metaphors for Education You Should Avoid

Because the Quality of Your Metaphors Determines the Quality of Your Thinking
Aug 24, 2015

In a different post, I explored the importance of metaphor and the idea that the metaphors we carry in our hearts change the way we experience life. In this post, I would like to explore some of the common, but dangerous, metaphors that form the way we understand school, teaching, and education. 

Avoid these metaphors at all costs.  

Metaphor to avoid # 1: A school is a business [The "Consumer" Metaphor]

This metaphor shifts the center of educational authority from a schools' teachers and administrators to the parents and their children. As I understand it, in the past, parents sent their children to a schoolmaster or teacher and fully trust that the teacher knew best what the pupil needed to be taught. I doubt, for instance, there were many disgruntled parents scheduling meetings to discuss Aristotle's teaching methodology or his tardiness in getting grades posted.  Though people have always paid for their childrens' education in some way, it wasn't viewed as a business transaction. In our consumer culture, however, we think that just because we are paying for a service we are therefore a customer. And as we all know, "the customer is always right."

There is a difference between the business side of schooling and viewing a school as a business. The goal of a business is to make money. Schools will of course make money (and they should!), but it should not be their ultimate goal. This unfortunate metaphor causes a school to make a means into an end in itself. In other words, this metaphor defines the central purpose of a school from something that should be peripheral. The purpose of a tool or system always guides how it will be used. If our purpose is to make money, then we will run our schools differently than if our purpose is to instill wisdom, truth, and beauty into our students' souls.

Of course, most people would not actually admit that the main goal of their school is to make money; but in practice, this metaphor is often what actually guides the decisions, policies, and day-to-day form of a school. It is easy to say that money is not our main goal in education; it is another thing entirely to create and maintain a school that really resists the pull of our culture towards consumerism and instant gratification. It might mean actually turning "paying customers" away; it might mean declining cash thrust into our face. It might mean doing school so drastically different that our culture finds it impractical, outdated, and undesirable.

I'm sure there are many better metaphors, but here's just one alternative to consider: a school is a human body with various parts designed to fulfill various specific functions. The skeleton, the organs, the skin: every element can be used to helpfully understand the school and the way disparate parts must harmonize together. A body must eat, it must take in sustenance, but "life is more than food."

Metaphor to avoid # 2: Teachers are factory workers [The "Industrial" Metaphor]

You may have never actually visualized a school as a factory with conveyor belts and such but it is likely that this metaphor nevertheless colors your vision of teachers in some way. This is easily forgiven, though, considering the origins of modern American schools: the form itself was designed to crank out factory workers. Literally. 

This industrial metaphor can color our thinking about education and the role of teachers in startling ways: I once spoke with a very concerned parent who informed me that she had been shocked to hear that "several of the school's past graduates are no longer Christians!" It seemed to me that she held a basic assumption that a teacher is able (and responsible) to produce a standardized, controlled, predictable product that can only be what its conditioners have created it to be, as if sending your child to a Christian school was a mathematical formula for guaranteeing that they would be Christians later in life.

I was speaking with a friend recently who told me a story about his garden that is of great help in finding a better metaphor for teachers: He had a tomato, he said, that had half-developed, but its growth had suddenly stagnated and it made no progress for over two weeks. He was concerned, thinking that perhaps he should pluck the unproductive fruit in order to save the plant from unnecessarily wasting nutrients on a lost cause. But my friend has small children and so he knows a thing or two about patience. So he let the thing be. In due time, the fruit suddenly grew plump, blushed with red, and was no doubt delicious when finally picked.

Of course you can't push this metaphor too far. I'm not advocating eating our students.

But you can see, I hope, that seeing a teacher as a gardener – or even a caretaker (think Treebeard in  Lord of the Rings) – provides a much more accurate picture of what a teacher actually does. A teacher must know when to prune and when to let grow wild, when to water and when to refrain, when to harvest and when to let ripen. This is a rich metaphor that can be explored deeply and is far more true than an industrial one.

Metaphor to avoid # 3: Learning is storing data [The "Technological" Metaphor]

This excellent podcast touches briefly on the metaphors that we use for memory and some of them apply to learning in general as well. Our constant use and dependence on computers has conditioned us to draw analogies between "learning new information" and "downloading digital information." As with most dangerous metaphors, there is a degree of truth in the analogy it creates: the acquisition of new knowledge and the acquisition of new software data do share some similarities. The fundamental flaw of this technological metaphor is, however, that humans are not machines.

Here's a metaphor that I prefer: learning is grafting.

When you download data onto a computer you generally deposit that information into a digital storage space; when you store a box full of files you stick them into a darkened closet. In both instances the information is left isolated until it is needed and summoned forth for use; it is compartmentalized. I have some files on my computers that haven't been opened in decades. Useful information might be stored there, but it is ironically forgotten in the slew of stored, unorganized data. Our technological ability to process unimaginably large amounts of information hasn't helped our ability to integrate it into our lives in a meaningful, organic way.

Speaking of which: almost any organic metaphor for learning will be better than a technological one. I know very little of the actual process of grafting trees and plants together, but the picture itself is a striking image of what real learning is actually like. When you really learn a poem by heart, for example, and take it into your soul, it becomes a part of you. It isn't something you have to consciously go and look for to summon forth only when you want it. The poem becomes a blossom that hangs gracefully from you. When you really learn something, it becomes a part of you; when you really memorize something (the kind of memory discussed in the aforementioned podcast) you don't have to worry that it will be lost in a flush of information or data that might very well be lost, deleted, or corrupted.

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I was talking with one of my classes today about philosophy, and to help them visualize how our philosophy effects us I picked up my sunglasses and put them on. "What do these lenses do?" I asked. My students replied, "They darken everything you see."

Our philosophy, like sun-glass lenses, colors what we see, but this metaphor could also be applied to metaphors themselves: the metaphors we use and carry within our hearts will color the world we see and change how we experience it. You might even describe a person's philosophy as the sum of the metaphors and pictures they hold as true in their imaginations. We cannot do without metaphors and pictures, the question is which ones we should use.

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Joshua Leland

Josh Leland is a humanities teacher at Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC. He earned his BA and MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He and his wife, Rebekah, also a teacher, and their four little children, Ransom, Calvin, Alethea, and Mary, live in Charlotte, NC. [Editor's note: He's also quite a good poet]. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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