Why metaphors matter

Last Updated : 18 April 2023, 04:15 IST
Last Updated : 18 April 2023, 04:15 IST

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Why do we feel miffed after an argument with a friend? If someone finds a flaw in our reasoning, why do we get ‘defensive’? Why do we shut ourselves in our rooms rather than get into an argument with our parents? A reason why arguments make us roiled is that there is a cultural assumption that an “argument is war”. As a result, the act of arguing evokes adversarial instincts in us.

Let’s consider another metaphor that is pervasive in urban, industrialised societies. When we equate time with money, we feel that time is scarce, and can be saved, unevenly distributed, budgeted, accounted for and spent. Time then becomes a prized ‘commodity’, something we can run out of and engenders a scarcity mindset.

In their classic book, Metaphors We Live By, linguistic philosophers George Lakoff and Mark Johnson analyse how metaphors shape our thinking and behaviour. Metaphors are not just a feature of the language, they argue, but are the basis of our “conceptual system.” Thus, what we experience, think or do is often guided by metaphor. Given how powerful metaphors can be in shaping human experience, in the context of education, perhaps, it is worth analysing how metaphorical thinking influences teaching and learning practices.

Arguing vs dancing

Before we dive into metaphors related to education, let us revisit the “Argument is war” comparison. Instead of war, if we, as a culture, conceptualise an argument as a dance, how would it impact the act of arguing? Rather than seeing the two parties involved as opponents, we may regard them as members of a troupe. Instead of attacking each other, participants may embellish each other’s gestures to build a more wholesome composition.

A war entails winners and losers; whereas, a dance simply ends without anyone being declared a victor. Reconceptualising an argument as a dance allows us to see how entrenched metaphorical thinking is in our psyches.

Coming to education, what are the more common comparisons we make regarding teaching and learning? Is a teacher a gardener, sculptor, coach, tour guide, army general, compass or candle? Is a learner a lump of clay, a sponge, a building being constructed, a traveller, explorer, collector, seedling or sieve?

Answering these questions is not just a linguistic exercise. As we saw, in the argument is war versus dance comparison, metaphors influence how we think, feel, act and relate to one another. Though no single metaphor dominates the educational space, some are more pervasive than others.

Wards aren't lumps of clay

That teachers mould students’ characters is fairly widely accepted with teachers being sculptors working with lumps of clay. Viewing students as lumps of clay or sponges suggests that learners are passive recipients of a teacher’s actions. While most people wouldn’t see teachers as army generals, images of students sitting still or standing ramrod straight in perfectly parallel lines do evoke this metaphor.

When discipline, in the strictest, military sense, is prioritised in a school, the army general comparison is not that far-fetched. The importance of giving students a strong foundation in the early years evokes the building metaphor, which, again puts students in a passive role if we see the teacher as the builder.

However, if we envision students as constructing their own buildings, then we are granting pupils more agency and autonomy. Likewise, imagining students as travellers, explorers, collectors or even sieves implies that children play an active role in their own learning.

In an article in Psychology Today, author Steven Stosny argues that we need to pick our metaphors carefully. Chosen right, they can impel growth and learning. In contrast, poorly selected metaphors can derail us. He provides the example of the phrase “letting off steam.” According to this metaphor, a person’s anger is like a steam engine that needs to cool down by giving off some heat. Consequently, this idea spawned ineffective anger management practices like “punching pillows, dolls or dummies,” which, studies revealed only exacerbate a person’s anger.

Stosny points out that human emotions do not function like steam engines. Rather, they are more like muscles. The more you use or focus on emotion, the more reflexive it becomes.

As education is a complex, lifelong process influenced by myriad factors, no single metaphor can capture what teaching or learning entails. While different metaphors may capture various facets, we need to unpack the assumptions underlying each metaphor. Do we want students to be in the “driver’s seat” with the teacher providing “a map” or do we see teachers and students as “nodes in a vast network”, making connections with themselves and the world beyond?

Published 18 April 2023, 03:56 IST

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