Metaphors and Language of Learning

Oak Tree Seedling
Oak Tree Seedling

The discussion around whether learning grows or is built has been terrific. I can definitely sympathize with Sarah Stewart’s comment about enjoying the conversation even if I’m not sure I understand it all. I’ve got a nice collection of metaphors for learning now:

  • Building: This is the classic constructivist language, constructing and building your own learning.
  • Growing: From Stephen Downes’ What Connectivism Is
  • “Learning As Advancement Of Ideas”: George Siemens’ suggestion to find a middle ground and avoid the conflict between building and growing
  • River or Stream: Virginia Yonkers’ metaphor, shared by Ken Allen, is about the process of change as well as learning. Her idea is that we have a “river path” where the river of learning flows. The paths generated are the connections in the brain. One a path is made, it’s hard to redirect the river.
  • Connections: At the chemical-physical level, learning is the connections between neurons in our brains. This is a literal description rather than a metaphor, but is we think of connections as the essential element of learning, it might affect us differently than if we think of learning like bricks in a building.
  • Browser Plug-Ins: This isn’t so much a metaphor for learning as a whole, but for what the idea of neural connections actually tells us. As long as the plug-in is working, we don’t need to actually understand how it works to be able to use it. By the same token, we don’t need to necessarily understand the brain at a chemical-physical level in order to learn or help others learn.

Virginia made this observation related to my tag clouds:

It appears to me that you are expanding your “words” to use through the connectivism course.

This really resonated with me. It does seem like I’m looking for a different set of vocabulary to talk about learning.

And I think that’s why the metaphors matter–the metaphor we use to understand learning influences the language with which we talk about learning, teaching, and education.

Build implies structure and order. Ken suggested it seems linear, although Diego Leal disagreed, saying structure isn’t necessarily linear. Virginia pointed out that “building” carries the image of a systemic, external plan. In her comment, Gina Minks used the words “scaffold” and “bridge,” both “building” words. Her language choices reflect the metaphor that makes sense to her.

So what language would we use if our central metaphor for learning was “growing” rather than “building”? Would we say we nurture instead of scaffold? Connect instead of bridge? Feed instead of support? Deeper roots instead of a solid foundation?

What metaphor for learning makes the most sense to you? How does it affect the language you use when you talk about learning?

Image: ‘Oak Tree Seedling

10 thoughts on “Metaphors and Language of Learning

  1. @Virginia, We don’t know absolutely. We just have to do the best we can with the knowledge and experience we have available. I think we do this now with what knowledge we have, but keep in mind that we aren’t perfect. In 10 or 20 years, who knows what we might learn about learning that changes all our theories? We don’t understand the mind at the level of fact; we understand it at the level of metaphor (to echo Ken).

    @Gina, A combination of different words–especially different metaphors for different types of learning–does make sense. I think we all tend to gravitate towards one central metaphor for learning, the one that is our first choice and fall-back plan. But just like good learners have multiple strategies to understand & apply content, good instructional designers & teachers can have multiple strategies and metaphors for helping others learn.

    @Ken, Models always simplify reality. That’s both why they are useful and why they sometimes fail. A complex model might be better at predicting a wide range of behaviors, but be too complex to be useful. A collection of different models and metaphors, some of which overlap at times, it probably our best solution.

  2. Kia ora Christy!

    I think Nancy White has it in her hand when she says in her comment on your post that the power of the metaphor is in how we make sense of it.

    Really, the mind can only be regarded through metaphor, for even if we know how the neurons connect in the brain, it does not explain how we learn the things we do.

    If I may revert to Science – the model in Science has always been a transient thing. Yet its power is forever useful. Whenever a model falls out of use, it is modified, or discarded in favour of a better model. Good Scientists know that whatever model is adopted is transitory. It is simply a way of looking at things – for the time being.

    Sure, models can permit us to predict things. Good models permit this with reasonable success. It’s when the best model falls down in its use as a prediction tool that we know that we have to rethink the model.

    Learning is too important to believe that no model is any use unless it fits every requirement. So what, if we have several models for learning?

    We know that model A works best applied to a child learning to walk. We realise that model B is better applied to acquiring reading skills. A different model C works best when applied to arithmetical learning. That’s how it is – for the time being, till we dream up a better model 🙂

    Ka kite

  3. What if it is a combination of all of these words? I will write a post and link back, I have lots of ideas around your ideas, autism, class, etc that I need to percolate.

    I am afraid of the woods (ok BEARS), but I’m not afraid of this class. 🙂

  4. I don’t think we will ever “know” what the mind is (as opposed to how the brain works). Back in the middle ages, they “knew” that the sun rose in the morning and set in the evening. We can gain more insights into the brain which will help us understand more of what is happening in the mind, but with new insights come new questions, understanding, interpretation, vocabulary, “truths”. This happened with the “sun” which we know a lot more about than we did in the middle ages, but we also have a lot more questions.

    It reminds me of what a friend say to his teenage niece, “Enjoy knowing everything, because when you grow up, you won’t know anything.”

  5. @Sarah, This helped me sort through it all, so I hoped it would help you too. Someone else had a wonderful metaphor for this CCK08 class–walking in the woods. You can’t expect to know everything in this vast a course any more than you would expect yourself to know every leaf in a forest. Just go for the walk and enjoy the trip. Go read the post for yourself; I can’t do it justice in two sentences.

    @Diego, I think you’re right that we have to work with what we have based on the knowledge we have right now, regardless of whether it’s perfect or not. We should be skeptical of pushing our knowledge farther than it really is though. Even if we understand what’s happening in the brain, our guesses as to how to apply that knowledge in a classroom aren’t always very effective.

  6. Hi Christy, thank you very much for your summing up of the various metaphors – has made things much clearer for me. I think this post will be the first stepping stone I will use to find my way across the raging river of discussion and information. cheers Sarah

  7. @Karyn, funny thing:

    You say “Problem is, we still don’t even know what/where the mind is, in relation to the brain”.

    However, we have built our whole society and our educational systems based on how we ‘believe’ the mind works (even though we don’t really know what/where it is)…

    Go figure… 😉

    If ten years from now we discover what/where the mind is, maybe then we’ll have the chance to propose the ultimate learning theory. For now, our only hope seems to be to keep working with metaphors…

    Then again, isn’t that a point in the “is it a learning theory?” discussion? We don’t have THE theory now, and there’s a chance that neither connectivism is it (I mean, in perspective)…

    Just thinking aloud…

  8. Well, I do think we know some of this, about what’s chemically and physically happening in the brain with neurons etc. We don’t know which thought creates which connection in the brain, but for at least some tasks we do know what region it is.

    But I don’t think I need to know it at that level. I’m not really interested in the literal, chemical-physical right now. I’m interested in the metaphor and how that shapes our language and how we approach learning.

    I think our central metaphor influences how we address learner control, for example. When our central metaphor is all about something planned and structured from the outside, I think we’re fighting that metaphor when we try to ask learners to be more self-directed. I’m also not sure how useful the metaphor and language of building is when you’re trying to support informal learning. Informal learning doesn’t seem very much like a building to me.

    I’m not sure, but it may also be that we need different metaphors for different types of learning. It’s an idea I’m playing around with; I’m not sure whether it will have lasting usefulness for me.

  9. My own view is that until we can paint a dot on the abdomen of a packet of information and track its progress into/around/through a person’s mind and the minds of their network(s), we don’t stand a chance of knowing the answer to this riddle.

    Problem is, we still don’t even know what/where the mind is, in relation to the brain.

    Apologies for the mixed metaphors, but that’s its current state in my head!

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