Learning and Teaching Metaphors


The use of metaphors can be a helpful tool in describing our concept of the teaching and learning enterprise. There are instructors who are able to write wonderful philosophy statements that use metaphors thematically throughout the document, continually tying the components back to that metaphor. Others use metaphors only in the philosophy development stages, using it as a tool to help them better articulate their ideas, rather than actually writing the metaphor in the final document. Either way, this tool provides your audience with a solid understanding of how you see your role in the teaching/learning process.

In the literature teaching metaphors tend to fall into 4-5 main theoretical groupings, as outlined in the following research paperby Kim McShane, who explored metaphors of teaching in universities. At the beginning of his paper he lists the following: the transfer theory, the shaping theory, the travelling theory, and the growing theory. His paper explores his study of teaching metaphors and arrives at a fifth grouping. This paper is a really good one to read first to arrive at a good understanding of teaching metaphors.

Activity--Stuff For You To Do

  • Check out this website on learning metaphors to get a better understanding of how metaphors can be used to think about how we learn.
  • Check this site with many images for learning metaphors. Do any of these images relate to how you learn? Could you create a personal image for how you learn? Select one of these images, create your own image, or find an object that you think best represents how you learn. Share this image and how it relates to your learning with a colleague.

Some Things to Think About/Write

  • Thinking as a Teacher--(Apps, 1991).

    • Sometimes we need a bit of help when we are trying to imagine a metaphor that suits our teaching style.

    • It may be helpful to imagine a variety of objects such as a plant, a light bulb, a rope, an artist's palette, . . . If we say "a light bulb is like a . . . " this is not a metaphor but a similie. BUT, objects can help us get started, can trigger ideas for us. A rope makes me think of climbing and how I want to keep everyone together so that no one falls off the ledge, so that we all arrive at our destination at about the same time, going at the pace of the slowest climber. I have also taken part in orienteering climbing where everyone is on his/her own with nothing but a map and compass, you have to plan your own route, depending on your skills (physically and in map reading), you have checkpoints to go through (to be sure you're safe and also to make sure you're not cheating), you learn about the land, about the routes to take, about where others are on the trail, you eat when you want to, rest when you want to; basically all decisions are up to you to make. If you don't reach the final destination you don't win the prize and you only let yourself down. As a teacher, are you a mountain guide or an orienteering facilitator? Are you as a learner on a mountain climbing expedition or part of an orienteering activity? What does each mean for you as a learner, as a teacher?

    • If we say "I am an artist in the classroom" then this is a metophor and we can draw out from this the different aspects; for example if you see yourself as an artist, you may not have any idea what the final product of your work will look like (an Inuit stone carver for example follows the contours of the stone, almost as if the stone speaks to him/her, he/she works the stone at it presents itself, does not make it do something that it can't, goes with the natural lines, stone type, colours etc), but works with the canvas or clay and creates a work of art.

    • Or we might want to imagine ourselves as a gardener, a mountain guide, an artist. . . In each of these roles what is teaching? We may want to conceptualize our metaphor as follows: In my teaching I consider myself to be a gardener. I see myself preparing the ground, planting the seeds, watering them, nourishing them, trimming them, keeping them contained, weeding them, etc. In the end I have a strong plant.

  • What are OUR teaching metaphors?

The following resource-- Teaching Philosophy Sample Exercises can be useful as one (or more) of these exercises may help you think deeper about a metaphor that will work for you.

You may find that the "Jazz" metaphor article is helpful to you.

You may want to go out for a short walk and collect something that will help you in developing your teaching metaphor.

A great website called "Metaphorically Speaking" has many examples of metaphors and you even submit your own (to add to the collection). Once you click on a metaphor to read about it you will find 4 headings: 1. What metaphor describes you as a teacher? 2. Explain how this metaphor characterizes you as a teacher. 3. Provide an example from your teaching experience that illustrates your metaphor. 4. Do you think this metaphor will influence or guide your teaching? If so, how?


  • An example:

Edward, a participant in the 2010 Summer Institute for New Faculty, shared the following metaphor with us. He first came across it in the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. The text below was copied from The Butterfly."

In the beginning, the animals took care of the first Anishnabe children. The animals provided everything for these babies — food, warmth and companionship. While the larger animals guarded the children and kept them safe and warm, the smaller animals played with the children, kept them happy and made them laugh.
The children in return imitated the animals, their protectors and playmates, and crawled around on all fours. In fact, the children neither knew of nor tried other ways to get around.
One day, Nanabush watched these children laugh, roll and tumble with their friends. He knew it was time for the children to know who they were, to know that they were Anishnabe, to grow up. Nanabush scooped up a handful of pebbles and cast them into the air.
The pebbles turned into butterflies — butterflies of all sizes, of all colours, fluttering here and there. The children looked up and saw the beautiful celestial winged creatures. And for the first time, they stood up on their legs and ran laughing, chasing the butterflies.

~ Keeshig-Tobias, Lenore. The Trickster: Running for the People, Carrying Fire for the People. RCAP, 1994.

References and Extra Links


learning metaphors
images for learning metaphors

Teaching Philosophy Sample Exercises

"Jazz" metaphor article
research paper

Metaphorically Speaking
The Butterfly