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Metaphors for Learning

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Edited by Anna Greathead, Tuesday, 20 Feb 2018, 15:30

The main activity I have been engaged in on Week 3 of H800 is reading a paper by Anna Sfard about metaphors for learning. I have been quite gratified to see that my reading, reflection and learning thus far have already led me to similar thoughts as those expressed in the paper albeit with a different vocabulary.

The two 'metaphors' described as 'Acquisition Metaphor' (AM) and 'Participatory Metaphor'.

Acquisition metaphor characterizes knowledge as a 'thing'.

"the growth of knowledge in the process of learning has been analysed in terms of concept development. Concepts are to be understood as basic units of knowledge that can be accumulated, gradually refined, and combined to form ever richer cognitive structures."


"The language of "knowledge acquisition" and "concept development" makes us think about the human mind as a container to be filled with certain materials and about the learner as becoming an owner of these materials."

It is easy to identify how this metaphor is used in education at all levels, and even more broadly within learning. Even the most ‘immersive’ of learning environments such as a young child acquiring language I am reminded of how life with a young child involves a lot of answering ‘what’s that?’ kind of questions. Parents usually continually ‘transfer knowledge’ for their offspring to acquire – “Look at the car. It’s a red car. It’s going fast.” The child is taught the words and concepts car, red and fast (aside from the connections and associated grammar).

Schooling seems to be very rooted in the AM. Especially in the contemporary ‘data driven’ atmosphere of league tables and Ofsted reports. Children are taught facts, methods and concepts which can be easily quantified and tested. The test results are compiled and the schools compared to one another (not to mention the children themselves) based on them. The danger is that schools will teach children to pass the test to acquire the right data to be compared favourably. (My personal view is that this has already happened).

Our familiarity with the AM means that we (or maybe it is just I) gravitate to this kind of education after school as well. When I go into ‘learning mode’ I seek out experts who can inform me of facts. The expert may be a person, a book, a journal, a website – but I want the information to be presented to me in easily digested bite size chunks. My early experience of the Open University has been slightly alarming in its open approach to learner initiated learning. Where is the text book? When are the lectures? What ‘facts’ should I be memorising?

I found it harder to identify specific examples of my own learning by PM. Maybe that is because I have conflated ‘education’ with ‘learning’ and have undervalued the skills and knowledge I have gained outside of a formal educational environment. In feeding back in the student group forum the example I gave for this kind of learning is kind of embarrassing! I used the example of learning to be a parent and housekeeper. So parochial! However – it is well known that children don’t come with a text book (or at least not one single text book!) and that cooking for a family is a significant task which requires skill, knowledge, planning and flexibility. Like almost all parents I felt like I was making it up as I was going along and certainly I had more coherent theories and strategies of child rearing before I actually had children to rear! However – 20 years on the task is in hand and going ok!

Others in the group have suggested areas of PM such as driving and using a smart phone which I think are good examples. Skills you simply cannot learn without actually doing them. Skills where trial and error are a key part of the learning process. I would also add swimming, playing a musical instrument, dance and sport. There are facts one must know, things to learn and acquire – but without participating in the activity you cannot master the skill.

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