Metaphors for learning

This post will be both ironic and trite. Ironic, because I am going to use a team sports metaphor in relation to learning, when I in fact have never been a team sports guy (I am a cardio and yoga guy). Trite, because thousands of people before me have used team sports metaphors in relation to learning.

Nonetheless, indulge me.

Here at Macalester College, our semester starts this week. As many faculty do every term, I am thinking about how to strike the right opening chord with my students. While I believe that teaching them math is important, my experience at a liberal arts college has convinced me that my even greater charge (a superset, if you will) is to teach them something about how to learn. This semester, I decided that to add on to my previous efforts, I should show an incredibly clear visual image on the first day of class that encapsulates the most important messages I have for my students. Here is my attempt.

A colleague of mine recently coined the brilliant term "anectotally," meaning, essentially, "with vehement conviction based on my completely anecdotal evidence." So anectotally speaking, most students begin my class subscribing to a metaphor for learning like the lefthand image in the link above. (Anectotally, and perhaps without realizing it, some faculty subscribe to this as well.) The professor is the bottle of water, each student is a glass, and learning takes place by the professor pouring knowledge (typically, via lecture) into the students. If learning is unsuccessful, it is either because the bottle isn't full enough or the glass isn't big enough.

Thanks to learning science research, we now know that this is not really an appropriate metaphor. The components of a successful learning environment are not a mystery. A wonderful, free book from the National Academies takes a scientific look at how people learn from multiple disciplinary perspectives. A wonderful chapter in that book discusses the design of learning environments. In the future, I'll post in much more detail about this topic. But for now, let me move on to the right-hand image on my slide.

I think a more effective metaphor -- and one that is anectotally surprising to many students -- is that of an athletics team. In the pouring water metaphor, the professor is the main attraction, providing the knowledge. In the team athletics metaphor, the student team is the main attraction. The professor is a coach who is not even always visible. In the pouring water metaphor, the student acquires knowledge passively. In the team athletics metaphor, the students are in action, sometimes as individuals and often as a cooperative group. The team is often on its own, only occasionally receiving guidance from the coach. The coach scaffolds an athletic experience, but the players go through the training regimen and play the game themselves. It is the players' hard work and dedication that are arguably the determining factors for success.

There are certainly many subtleties to this metaphor, and it should not be used too casually. But I am trying to go for simplicity-in-messaging on the first day of class.

Faculty and students, based on your anectotal evidence, what do you think is an apt metaphor for learning?

2 thoughts on “Metaphors for learning

  1. Andy Rundquist

    First of all, this is anectotally a great post! I really like the fact that it's a very chaotic soccer scene, but that everyone looks really engaged. The two really powerful ideas for me are 1) that the coach isn't always visible, and 2) that the coach scaffolds the environment. I like to think about that both in the sense of what topics are engaged (and how) and what happens in the classroom.

    What the heck, lets run with the sports metaphor: Are there analogies for subs? a single ball? halftime? fans? uniforms? away games? injuries?

  2. Chad Topaz Post author

    These are excellent questions, and ones which (per my introductory paragraph) reveal my total and complete lack of knowledge about sports. But I like your questions, and am sure I would learn from the answers. šŸ™‚


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