Wednesday, May 28, 2014


In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff  and Mark Johnson consider metaphors as:

     … a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects…     Metaphors structure our most basic understandings of our experience ….shape our perceptions and actions without our ever noticing them.

The part that immediately captures my attention is without our ever noticing.

What does this mean for us as we live our daily lives?
What does this mean in our classrooms and our workplaces?

What metaphor might right now be shaping my perceptions?

One common metaphor routinely defines America.
We often hear America  referred to as a melting pot.

What does that mean?  Well, first it connotes assimilation, conforming, and....  melting away,  disappearing to create a final product.

More recently educators, social scientists, and others have preferred to speak of America as a salad, in which we each retain our distinct qualities, while visibly and identifiably contributing to the deliciousness of the final dish.

Other alternatives to the melting pot, which also suggest retaining our individual characteristics, are a mosaic, quilt or tapestry.

Is one metaphor wrong and another right?

What does each metaphor lead us to assume?
Who is empowered or privileged?
Who is omitted or disregarded or discarded?

These are questions we need raise with all metaphors.

As we raise these questions-- and think about the America metaphors and how they might shape our country in which we theoretically and metaphorically live, how they shape our thinking about each other-- a small research intelligence agency of the US government is quietly asking the same questions,

The Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity (IARPA) wants to use our metaphors to determine worldviews and, perhaps, ultimately to shape our thinking and actions.  This project is analyzing the use of metaphors in ordinary daily conversations of four groups: speakers of English, Farsi, Russian and Spanish.  The thought is to understand the beliefs and thoughts of the respective cultures by understanding the common metaphors employed regularly.  Where will this lead?

For more on this fascinating spy endeavor, see Why are Spy Researchers Building a 'Metaphor Program'? in the Atlantic May 2011.

Metaphors do, indeed, influence how we think, and more importantly, the policies we may create and the actions we may take based on these metaphors. The work of Paul Thibodeau and Lera Broditsky affirms this notion.

Their research shows that when groups of people were introduced  to crime as either virus or beast,  and then later given identical crime scenarios and statistics for a specific city,there were definite differences in each groups' suggested solutions.  Those considering crime as a virus suggested preventive, rehabilitative,  or educational interventions, whereas those considering crime as beast suggested capturing, caging, punishing, or even killing as solutions.

To read more about their work, see Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning at  PLOS One.

Metaphors determine not only how we think, but what we do-- what we will do, what we suggest others should do.

As we teach, what metaphors rule our thinking, our classroom, and our curriculum?

Think about the metaphors that are suggested by these movie titles:

  • Blackboard Jungle
  • Dangerous Minds
  • Up the Down Staircase
  • Freedom Writers
  • Lean on Me

If we think critically through each metaphor, what thinking... and actions does each title and extended metaphor suggest?

In the news and other media, in current professional literature, and in ordinary conversation, teaching is variously depicted as a science, an art, a craft, a business, and a clinical institution.

What does each metaphor mean for teachers, students, classrooms, curricula and the larger community?

In To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher,  Bill Ayers, additionally, depicts teachers as midwife, captain of the ship, or savior, as well, as performer or entertainer.


How do these ways of thinking position teachers and students? What actions and processes are suggested?

The metaphors we use determine how we think.

As educators, the metaphors we use determine how we think about our roles as teachers, the purpose of school, the nature and scope of the curriculum,  the way we arrange and manage our classrooms, and when, where and how we intervene in learning and behaviours.

These two excellent resources that will foster thinking about metaphors for you and your students.

What metaphors are running your classroom, managing your place of business.... controlling your life?

 See related post, Metaphors We Live By, Metaphors We Teach By Part 1

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Create a word cloud of all the words you associate with education, learning, teaching, the classroom, school and so on. (You may also choose to think about your place of business or another institution.)  Write as many words as you can think of all over your page with no consideration for order, placement, or correctness.

Do you notice patterns in your words?  Group related words together and assign labels to your groups.

Notice and name any  metaphor(s)  which emerge.

Discover, identify, define and describe your metaphor for teaching/education. (or other institution)

How does this metaphor determine your thinking and your behavior?

Write an essay, narrative or poem reflecting your thinking?

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