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Teaching Stories

Metaphorically speaking!: Metaphors and educational research (Part 2)

In my previous blog I explained how metaphors offer a way of making that which is unfamiliar or hard to understand appear more familiar and knowable. In this blog, I’d like to continue this discussion of the role of metaphors but with reference to metaphors in educational practice and educational research.  

Understandably, metaphors are routinely used in all levels of education, from primary to higher education. The instructional value of metaphors is multiple and varied. Metaphors can aid learning as an aide memoire, e.g. “A caldera is like a witches cauldron,”1 or relatedly, as a device to help bridge conceptual gaps and comprehension (e.g. comparing the left hand side of the brain to a computer.2 ) Metaphors can also have a constructive role, allowing students and researchers to generate new or novel directions for research or theoretical development. One such example is how the ‘brain as computer’ metaphor has spawned decades of debate within neuroscience.3-5 

There is also a longstanding recognition of the value of metaphor in educational research itself. Here, students and educators are asked to share their own metaphor or respond to a range of metaphors about teaching and learning.6(pp1-2) The key assumption being that the metaphor constructed provides an inference about the person’s individual belief system, revealing their ‘mental map’ or construction of teaching and learning,6(p.2) and whether it denotes individual differences to learning (deep or surface learning). 7,8 Educational research has already accrued a catalogue of metaphors about teaching and learning in HE. These include, but are not limited to: different conceptualisations of educational policies (e.g. students as consumers, banking model of education) to models of learning (e.g. learning as being a sponge, learning as growth) or teaching practice itself (e.g. teaching as pottery or gardening, or teachers as entertainers, policeman, scholars, guides, coaches, sculptors, conductors and midwives etc).9(p.431) While useful, it is important to remember that the metaphors students and educators use may be specific to their disciplinary background, and so have meaning that is specific to the signature pedagogies of their discipline. 8,10 

What type of metaphors do you use to describe your teaching? Do you use one of the metaphors listed above, or have your fashioned one that is specific to you? For instance, at this busy time at the start of the academic year, the metaphor of being ‘a traffic controller’ resonates strongly with me, as I try to safely land a myriad of tasks to get ready for the new term. With regards to my teaching, I have always been struck by the quote attributed to Plutarch, that “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled,” helping me to frame my teaching role as that of an inspirator, an encourager of new ideas and instilling a sense of curiosity about the world.  What figurative language do you associate with your curriculum? Educational research has documented the use of mechanistic metaphors to describe curriculum, such as ‘system’, ‘mechanism’, or ‘organism’,9,p.433 Does your thinking on curriculum follow a similar line?  

To help us connect more with the metaphors we use in/about our teaching and curriculum, post the metaphors you use in the comment feature of this blog post. If you’re a bit unsure what your metaphors are, take a look at the list provided here ( for some inspiration. These metaphors will remind us of our teaching philosophy and why we do the work we do and reaffirm the communities of practice we belong to.  


  1. Oregan State University. Volcano World [website],similarity%20or%20a%20common%20trait 
  1. Williams VW. Teaching for the Two Sides of the Brain, Simon and Schuster, 1986. 
  1. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. Current topic: Current Thoughts on the Brain-Computer Analogy – All metaphors are Wrong, But Some Are More Useful (14 articles)(2021-23).—all-metaphors-are-wrong-but-some-are-useful#overview  
  1. Cobb M. 27 February 2020. Why your brain is not a computer, The Guardian, Accessed 6 July 2023 
  1. Littlemore J. Metaphor use in educational contexts. In E. Semino and Z. Demjen(eds) The Routledge handbook for Metaphor. Routledge Handbook in Linguistics, Routledge; 2016. 
  1. Wegner E, Burkhart C, Weinhuber M and Nückles M. What metaphors of learning can(and cannot) tell us about students’ learning, Learning and Individual Differences 2020; 80, 101884. 
  1. Entwistle N. Reconstituting approaches to learning: A response to Webb. Higher Education 1997; 33(2), 213-218. 
  1. Vermunt JD, Vermetten YJ. Patterns in Student Learning: Relationships Between Learning Strategies, Conceptions of Learning, and Learning Orientations. Educational Psychology Review 2004; 16, 359–384. 
  1. Botha E. Why metaphor matters in education, South African Journal of Education 2009; 29, 431-444. 
  1. Shulman LS. Signature Pedagogies in the Professions. Daedalus 2005; 134(3), 52–59. 

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