Teacher Education – Changing How We Think in Metaphors

Some new research looking at how our daily language, and use of metaphors in our language, can influence ideas, concept building and create limitations is developing into new educational theories. We all use metaphors. They are a powerful way language can create ideas because they are so easily understood by most humans. What research has shown is the impact the use metaphors have on how we learn and how we identify with the metaphor. Teacher Education programs should have teachers in training challenge themselves by looking and listening to the metaphors they use and how their intended meaning and possible literal translation may influence K-12 students.

Metaphors are an important part of English language. We create meanings and conceptualize reality in many ways by looking at relations or specific meanings from seemingly unrelated situations. Metaphors actually draw from our human ability to create meaning from stories. Because of the efficacy of metaphors to draw meaning, teachers and teacher education programs could use this overlooked technique to improve their teachable moments.

When story telling is being used, metaphors enable the audience to better understand concepts by making connections and allowing the student to draw conclusions from their experience of the ideas and images from a metaphor. Metaphors are also an incredibly creative form in English and are so appealing, and effective and often used because they take us on a bit of a connection journey. Teachers who use metaphors effectively can make the curriculum much more interesting.

The resource page at Teachersmind.com looks at the limitations commonly used metaphors can create in our minds and sites some examples of how we identify with metaphors and how that can influence how we or our students perceive themselves and their abilities.

A Problem

Metaphors can place limitations on thinking by creating perceptions that aren’t real or that allow students to identify with a meaning in the metaphor that may not be accurate. Students may limit their ability by how they identify with a metaphor. Teacher Education programs may perpetuate the “limiting” use of metaphors just because they are such a common and easy to use language form. By not challenging the ideas of the metaphors we use because they are common and easy, we may be creating limitations in how we present information.

Children in particular can understand the meaning of a metaphor and whether or not the connotation from it is negative or positive. The TeachersMind.com article sites “my classroom is zoo” and “a beehive of activity” as examples. The teacher that uses the “zoo” metaphor is probably a bit exasperated and wanting a more controlled classroom and probably includes comments on what a relief recess is. However, as real as this experience may be, it is the responsibility of the teacher not to make the students feel they are contributing to a negative classroom. This is the example of how a metaphor is limiting. If a student feels he or she is “bad” because they are like an animal or feel the class is “bad” because the teacher compares it to a zoo, their perception of the experience in that classroom is being limited by that metaphor.

Alternatively, “beehive of activity” connotes a working and orderly classroom. Students recognize the positive connotation of the metaphor and feel good about being a student in this classroom. These are brief examples, but show how we should look at our use of metaphors, especially on those days when the classroom feels “like a zoo”! One moment of teacher exasperation can influence a student in ways the teacher will never know-so it is important to keep a positive outlook for your classroom and your students.

Reforming Your Mind and Education

Metaphors in are considered barriers to reform in the educational system. Why? Changes are trying to address the realities in the classroom. Unfortunately, the overwhelming responsibilities of a classroom teacher and the ever-limited resources of most public schools tend to prevent change and perpetuate the status quo.

Often, teachers create a climate in the classroom that is based on self-generated knowledge as a result of specific learning, experiences and perceptions that their metaphor use reinforces. Some of these metaphors find their origins in teacher education and are carried into professional life. When this happens, these metaphors take on a life of their own and become the teacher’s reality and set the tone of the classroom. This reality then limits teaching, learning and reform.

This is not an easy approach to take, especially with more seasoned teachers (picture that metaphor!) who are fully set in their ways of teaching, which is why Teacher Education programs should address this part of teacher thinking. Teachers-in-Training can learn how to analyze their metaphor use and how to use metaphors positively in their classrooms. Not to rule out changes for “seasoned” teachers, professional development and personal inquiry can help teachers challenge their metaphor use.

Some More — Additional metaphor examples from TeachersMind.com:

The Standards – This factory-based metaphor really has no place in the classroom as it deals with objects and raw materials. Standards are used to identify products that are made of uniform materials that can be molded and shaped. This metaphor is inconsistent with the realities of the classroom and actual student learning. Students are not factory-created objects that should be measured against some external standard for a grade.

Raising the Bar – Automatically raising the academic bar does not necessarily raise teacher expectations to give all students an equal opportunity. Before a student can attain this level, she must first possess and refine the fundamental skills involved in the learning process of a specific subject. Raising this bar for all students may challenge some, but put success out of reach for others.

Equal Starting Position – While this sounds like a good idea and most people would want this for their children and their students, it is realistically impossible. The starting line for all humans is conception, with much development and learning happening before they ever enter the educational system.

If reformers hope to change the educational system, they must first start with teacher education, training teachers to get past the common metaphors to understand the realities of human development and learning. Once this occurs, it will be much easier to make the necessary changes and see the measurable results.

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