What is your metaphor?

Metaphors are powerful things for teachers.  They are the very building blocks of thought and allow us to see what isn’t there, to connect on a higher level to hidden realities.   Cynthia Ozick in her timeless essay, “Metaphor and Memory”  talks of metaphor as

“inhabiting language in its most concrete. As the shocking extension of the unknown into our most intimate, most feeling, most private selves, metaphor is the enemy of abstraction. “

Think of how powerful this famous metaphor of Shakespeare allows us to understand what life and the world we live in, is.

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

Metaphors can help teachers see who they are and where they are going, they are a driving force in our professional development. In my own teaching, I’ve borrowed an idea from Finney Cherian, asking my teachers to bring in an object that they believe represents themselves as a teacher. They explain to classmates how the object represents themselves as a teacher. I’ve had students bring in baseball gloves, Q-tips, medals and even toilet paper!  What’s crucial is that this becomes a metaphor around which they can clearly see themselves as a teacher. It helps them begin their life as a teacher on solid ground.  The object I chose was a chalkbrush.  It represents what I feel is the ephemeral, ever changing nature of teaching. Also, that we can begin each day with a clean slate, ever hopeful. We don’t accumulate but are in the act, we teach in the here and now.

What is your metaphor? 


As I mentioned, metaphors are the building blocks of thought, as argued by George Lakoff. He outlines how our thought and conceptual systems would break down without the concrete stickiness of metaphor. They link the real and the ideal. They are what makes us human, so human. His “Metaphors we live by” is a great read.  Metaphors have been the basis of all great inventions and breakthroughs in knowledge. With the proper metaphor, things become clear and what was hidden, revealed.  Think of Einstein imagining a man running through a telegraph wire and keeping up with the message. Think of Farnsworth plowing a field back and forth and imagining how an image could be scanned as a series of lines for transmission, the basis of electronic broadcasting and TV.  Think back further of Archimedes and his Eureka! in the bathtub as the water rose (and arriving at a way to measure the mass of an intricate object).  Think of  Faraday and his vision of lines of force which led to the invention of the electric motor.  Lastly (but we could go on forever concerning great advances and thought) Kekule who gave us the greatest discovery of organic chemistry ( that organic compounds are not open structures but chains or “rings”) after seeing a snake bite its tail.

Metaphors allow us to link “like to like”, to make x=y, to give a name of one thing to another. It is magical and like some kind of thought full homeopathic cure, we can build from two “likes”, a healthy, new, greater idea.

I think linguistics, education, learning how we learn language, needs a metaphor. A metaphor that will allow us teachers to understand how language takes birth and grows in a person.  Chomsky comes closest with his use of “growth” and that language isn’t built but is organic and grows like a plant. But we need more metaphors in language and about learning – metaphors to help us understand what we do and guide us teachers.

Michael McCarthy uses the geographical metaphor of “confluence” to suggest how two speakers engage in conversation and negotiate meaning (confluency). A wonderful way to understand this complex process, by analogy to two rivers meeting and mingling.

We might also ask how we could use metaphors in our own teaching, how they might allow students to conceptualize language and understand that which  is foreign. Metaphors are the means by which we organize information and we might ask how a knowledge of semiotics and metonymy might inform teachers and help learners in their study of English.  Imagine a course of English study where language was not just thematic but properly metaphorical?

I’d like to have more metaphors about teaching, about learning, about language acquisition …… do you have any to share? 

Here is a nice article detailing various metaphors about school/schooling


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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. steve hellmann says:

    You may want to try these



  2. ddeubel says:

    Steve, Thanks for these. Definitely describing and articulating Lakoff’s views. I often begin teacher training courses with a series of questions to teachers like Teaching is ……. Learning is …… etc…. it is a great way to get teachers making visible their implicit beliefs and attitudes about a topic by using metaphors.

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