When I taught foundations courses for undergraduate teacher education students, there were times I asked students to come up with a metaphor for what teaching and learning was like -- we would usually revisit those metaphors as the term went on.  I am sure that many of us have either asked others or been asked to do something like this over the years.  Some of the more typical metaphors that came up were about "conducting an orchestra," "tending a garden," or "planting and nurturing a tree."  The conducting a symphony usually came up when the person was thinking about a whole classroom.  Likewise, the idea of tending a garden.   The planting and nurturing the growth of a tree came up most often when the person was thinking about education in terms of individual children.  

------Before I go on, I must say here, how much I love getting older, for the opportunity to revisit ideas over and over and over until I find something that settles in "just right" for a while.  I have, you see, revisited these metaphors over and over again, in part, because they are raised for me over and over again and in part, because they just never sat well with me....for reasons I could never really articulate.  I admit to identifying more easily with the "school as prison" metaphors that also came up or the "school as factory" comparison that scholars write about.------------

Anyway, on the other day, out on a run, I was reliving a jazz concert I went to recently.  And it all became clear ---- I figured out why I am generally nonplussed with the orchestra, gardener, and tree metaphors.  And, as I got more clear about my metaphorical thinking, I also go more clear about my current ideas of teaching and learning.  

The aforementioned metaphors generally assume an individual in charge -- dispensing, or providing, or nurturing, or otherwise transmitting something that comes back to them, which they are ultimately in control of.  The orchestra follows the precise directions of others -- the composer and the conductor/teacher.  The garden, while a bit more organic and tentatively "wild" -- is usually in these metaphors, a well tended, cultivated garden that has been carefully planted and tended, weeded, and clipped, perhaps even Round-UPped by the gardener, without whom there would be no "growth."   

While these metaphors can also been seen through a lens of nurture, acceptance, and beauty, they have in common, this sense of teacher as orchestrator, students and the nurtured...the learners as those doing the growing.   And, that is just not really how I see it.  So the jazz idea started becoming more useful.  Teaching and learning, to me, is interactive and fluid, and flowing, and a sense of wild, free-moving passionate motion within structure.  There is give and take and change.  There is start and stop and inbetween there is the timing.  There is rhythm and collaborative communication.  There are tempo changes, and tone changes and volume changes.  There is usually a play list and some notes and a key.  There are times built in for playing all together and times built in for individuals to shine.  There is usually a leader (so and so's quintet or trio) but, in another setting the drummer, for example, might have his/her own group.  Leadership changes based on purpose and on context.  With jazz there is a "live" part to it.  There is no expectation that it will sound the same, night after night after night.  Instead, the expectation is for surprise and delight and joy.  And, there is ongoing invention, reflection, and revision.  

And, the audience....the more interaction, the better.   Clapping and uh-huhing, and Alright! and dancing and moving and listening.....white space in the interaction.  All acceptable.  Not so much in a symphony where astute and appreciative silence is expected.... in fact, in the orchestra metaphor the audience is not usually included in the explanation.  

I think of jazz when I think of the kinds of educational conversations that can go on here.  
I think of jazz when I think of my classroom and teaching and learning in the 21st century vs. teaching and learning in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I think the orchestra and garden metaphors were useful in 19th and 20th century models of teaching and learning.  

What do you think? 
What metaphors have you and/or your students played with in the past? 
What metaphors are you and/or your students messing around with currently?  
What metaphors have you revised or throw aside? 
Do you even find metaphorical thinking useful? 
Do you take metaphorical thinking for granted?  

Tags: and, learning, metaphor, teaching

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I think jazz is a great metaphor, Janet. Indeed, we've played some improvisations on that teme here a while ago. Let me see...

Aha, here it is.
That's really cool. Thanks for finding that connection. Glad I'm in line with such creative minds...
I really enjoy the jazz metaphor - it truly does WORK! When I am with friends and we are playing music and learning from one another by asking each other about our instruments and using each others talents and learning more about what will enhance our own sound by coming together as community while learning as an individual - AH, it's good stuff. Actually, when Phil and I were in the Netherlands, he did some beatboxing one day and I did some improv on the piano and it was a similar experience. In other words - I love this metaphor!

For some reason, planting and food metaphors do come up a lot in education. I think it may have to do with the romanticism of a garden and perhaps the food one deals more with the horror that is school food and the dreams of a better culinary world!

In regards to personal metaphors for teaching, I think the one I connect most to is a child fishing. I have this memory of my entire family down by the river growing up and fishing. There are actual videos of various family members offering me advice on how to catch the fish, but I am the one holding the pole and reeling it in. The fish are like thoughts,ideas, or concepts that are being offered. Sometimes they can be elusive lil' buggers. I know this won't work for vegetarians and I apologize for that not making this inclusive. However, I think the decision on throwing the fish back or deciding to keep it for food is similar to examining the value of concepts and doing that as a group and an individual. I know that I kept fish that were too small and my family allowed me to do this. It's sort of like Calkin's ideas about "offering ideas" to students. The process of showing students ways to collect ideas or use ideas (ie. show children ways to catch fish and how to use them for food or just for fun if throwing them back) and yet allowing them to reel it in and if they miss it, then you throw the pole back in with a new worm (new method, perhaps using a different teaching style?) and go for it again....that's teaching! There is fun and joy and laughter and learning and it's just a good time!

Thanks for that - I wouldn't have considered it otherwise!
Pretty happy to hear that you and Phil were beatboxing and piano playing together....missing you both and smiling now...

So this fishing metaphor has me hooked -- ugh sorry. But, really. I like the the way you can use it to describe how, in some kinds of teaching and learning situations, ideas are offered and can be kept or thrown back. I think the way you describe how sometimes your family let you keep fish that were too small, is just beautiful. And, it allows us to talk about ownership of ideas, and readiness, and agency. I mean, we keep ideas, big or small, in part, because they have become "our ideas." We catch them. So your fish, big or small, become ideas for you to take or to leave, to understand or process or to toss away for a while only to be caught again, after you and they have changed/grown. It's interesting to think about tossing back an idea -- and that the next time we come across that idea, we will have changed and so to will the idea. I mean, we are not static. We change. And, the ideas change too. Isn't it Peter Senge who said, "you never step in the same river twice?" I know i heard it from Lois Hetland -- but I think she was quoting Senge.
Hi Janet,
Heraclitus is the originator of the saying!
But I'm interested in the picture Tom gives of 'offering ideas'. It does go back to a director idea, but that, in any environment will be part of a teacher's role. The image that lasts for me - coming from an induction sermon. The preacher (teacher of a new concept, if you need to skew it) is like a postman with parcels to deliver. The snag is, the labels, the addresses are missing. Our job, our delight, is "I have a package - and we unwrap a bit of it - is it for you?"
For some students, it is and they recongnise it, and they complete the unwrapping, and make progress. For some, the saddest group, it is and they don't recognise it, and it lies unwrapped - perhaps forever - perhaps until another postman notices the package undelivered. For some it isn't for them, and they recognise that, and leave it. And perhaps the second saddest group are those for whom the package isn't, yet they think it is, and toil away at an alien task, with little joy or accomplishment.

To carry the fish analogy a little further - once the art of fishing is learned, who knows what fish get caught - and the apprentice can bring their fish for identification in some cases, for revelation in others. The master fisher may have never seen this one before, or didn't know that they were to be found here, or that they would respond to this kind of bait.

A good exercise, thanks for reengaging it.
I checked out the link you added for Heraclitus. Thanks. From now on I am going to give the quote its proper due. I use it in my teaching a lot. It comes up sometimes like this:
Student: Said in a somewhat complaining tone, "We already read this article in another class."

Janet: Tone of joyful glee -- "Well GREAT! Now we have an ideal situation, because, you know, you never step in the same river twice."

Now I can punctuate this with "...same river twice, Heraclitus."

It appears from this site that I might actually need to give him his due in other quotes I use....
Ah, thanks to Ben Lockerd for teaching me this! It's interesting that Heraclitus writes more on "fire" having this quality, but he is especially famous for the river line!

I will always remember learning this because the entire class burst out in laughter because of a generational issue. We all know the line, "You can't step in the same river twice. The waters always changing - always flowing." from the song "Just Around the River Bend" - a Disney Pocahontas song! Ha ha ha! I think Professor Lockerd was a little lost at why we found it so hilarious...
This made me laugh out loud -- And, made me think about how quirky teaching and learning can be. We can talk all we want about the strategies for teaching and learning, and our philosophical underpinnings for those -- but how can we, as teachers, plan for such a brilliant moment as this, one we might likely not even identify, that helps students remember something. This kind of learning isn't a carefully tended garden, or even like a well played jazz tune or scout-ing for a wagon train or leading a bird watching expedition through the rainforest. It's so random.

It also makes me think about how deeper understandings might be what comes long after the course is over, if the ideas that come up in a class are worth remembering -- like the fish thrown back and later caught and reexamined. Each time something remembered is pondered anew, it has the potential to take on new meanings for the individual.

What metaphor fully captures the idea of teaching as the sharing of ideas that will be engaged with later, trusting that the ideas themselves are powerful enough that students will, on their own over time and space, return to them again and again, in ways that are meaningful to them in their contexts.

I struggle with this as a teacher of teachers. The state has standards -- the things for which I am accountable -- some of them knowledge, or "known answer" bits and pieces that I must ensure that students "learn" within the unit of a semester. But, students do not all start at the same place, and frankly, do not all end the semester in the same place, knowing all of the same things. I'm stuck with wondering, what's good enough at this stage in their own personal progression towards knowing and who the heck am I to know this. Even so, I see my work as the art of providing knowledge bits and pieces, along side of content and core ideas within a powerful and enduring framework, so that students will indeed return to those ideas long after the course is over as they need/want/are compelled to/drawn to. A semester or a 'semester hour' is such an arbitrary, but yet enduring, unit of time set aside for learning.

Anyway, I can't get the image of a Chia Pet out of my head right now -- GAH -- as you might say, Tom.
Yes, the lesson had such value because I think information or concept was so cross-generational! We had connected to the idea in unique ways through our varying experiences and that bonded us all in a moment. It was a team taught class and the art professor in the class mentioned afterwards, "It is fascinating how these ideas truly endure and they surround all of us!" - and it really is!

I'm glad that this story "randomly" came up again - it makes me consider the value of knowing the generation we teach. I try to watch movies, shows, listen to music, etc. with cousins who are the age of the students I teach in order to have an idea of what may be on my students minds. I also talk to my students about what they enjoy to do....I think there are so many cultures that VALUE "elders" and "generational education", and I really think that teachers should take an interest in this...I know I need to think more on this and look into it some more...I'm wondering what others think. So - WHAT do people think? Ha ha - perhaps I need another discussion...What do people do to connect to their students generation? How do these metaphors connect to this concept? What do we not only learn from our elders...but from our youth? How can we get to know our students generation better and encourage their interest in our own and those older than our own?!

I'm really sorry - but the Chia Pet connection has really lost me...but I just came back from a long day at work! GAH! I never realized I said that as often as I do.
Hi Janet,

Well, I still have to be aligned with the gardening metaphor; it's one of my favorites. Do I get extra credit because I'm an "advanced and experienced" gardner, so I truly know what it means?

I have to work with the entire ecology of the setting--soil nutrients, sunlight, space, compatibility with neighbor plants, growth trends (needs for pruning and branching), disease, parasites, invasive species, trampling, flooding, temperature, wind--and try to make a micro-climate that's healthy and productive for all. That works for me, as a teaching analogy.

Ok other ones. I'll just throw these out, you've probably heard them before, they may seem simplistic, but just to play with your idea ;-)

Horse training. "You can lead a horse to water, but..." A horse is a thousand times more strong than you. You have to convince the horse that your wishes are compatible, you can't boss it around by willpower, demanding compliance. (Well, you can, but then you have a horse with a broken spirit, and no one wants that.)

Dog training. Ala Dog Whisperer, which is all about working with the physical energies in a situation.

Jungle-path carving. Being the leader on an expedition through the forest of knowledge. Weilding a machete. Asking everyone else what they'll do, like read the GPS and figure out where we are; plot it out on Google Earth via iPad; identify the species we see, dispense immediate pertinent information (poisonous, edible, indicating water nearby, etc); nurturing others on the expedition; storing information about the expedition; keeping a list of events and themes we need to return to to reflect upon and learn from... Leading an expedition. And dropping into the background a lot of the time, too.

Being a scout for a wagon train. I LOVE that image, and actually, it's my most frequently-returned-to metaphor for who and how I am in relation to the education world with my colleagues and friends.

I'm sure there are more--

Thanks for opening up a discussion that let's us play with images, metaphors...

I do love the fishing anologies. They're perfect, too. (My favorite show on TV is River Monstrers; wonder if that's relevant...)

What fun! Thanks Janet, Tom, and Ian!
Absolutely-- YOUR understanding of gardening is well beyond what goes into most gardening metaphors...and that's what's so cool about the potential of metaphors as tools for developing understandings. The more you deeply you understand the metaphor you are using to illuminate the other thing (i.e., gardening/teaching) the more deeply you can understand the thing.

You can be the scout to my wagon train any day of the year....lots of trust involved in that one. While I am not going to do this here and now, I'm sure today, I will be thinking about the commonalities and connections between and among the metaphors included in this post so far.
Ah, I do enjoy the jungle path carving and wagon train scout one as well. They are so unique! I love the overwhelming "newness" of these for me personally. That may be part of the reason I respond to this so strongly! For me, I have always been extremely annoyed by teachers that provide material that I've seen before and present it in a way they have used for years. I literally despised the "What did you do for summer?'' essays that we had to do each year...so thanks so much for that excitement!

Have you done either of these? I'd love to hear your experiences or perhaps what drew you to these analogies.


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