Not long ago I ran across an academic paper that examined high school students’ beliefs about math, based on the metaphors the students used to describe it. Here’s what some of the students said. What does each metaphor tell us about learner attitudes, and the accompanying likelihood of persistence and success?

  • Math is a puzzle, and satisfaction comes from figuring it out.
  • Math is a journey, like floating in the ocean … the deeper you wade in, the smoother the water becomes.
  • Math is a tool, helping you complete certain processes.
  • My favorite: “Sometimes math is a public restroom. You don’t really want to use it, but you find yourself in a position where you have to.”

Metaphors can speak volumes, can’t they?

Our metaphors

Reading this brought back graduate school memories of hours spent “unpacking” metaphors about teaching and learning, many tied to my own interest in understanding classroom trainer resistance to technology and eLearning. In anticipation of a #lrnchat discussion on this topic I created a Pinterest board (since supplemented by Jane Hart) showing some common metaphors about teaching and learning. Check it out at What do these metaphors say about our mental models? How do they affect our approaches to teaching, learning, and designing instruction or learning experiences? How do they reflect the way we engage with learners or interact with “teachers” or other vehicles for delivering instruction?

Metaphors about learning

In looking over the metaphors I saw several—very different—themes about learning emerge:

  1.  Learning is about connecting data. A number of metaphors view learning as something mechanical, often through connections being made entirely via neural pathways; images include paths being followed, dots connecting, circuitry, wiring, gears turning, synapses firing, discrete pieces of data making connections, and pieces of a puzzle fitting together.
  2. Learning is about connecting people, not connecting objects. While some see learning as joining networked pieces of data, others believe it is dependent on networks of humans.
  3. Learning happens not along a complex pathway but as a spark, or serendipitous moment: a light bulb coming on, an ah-ha realization, a sudden connection between two things, all in a more happenstance way than the complex-network view.
  4. Learning is the acquisition of items—ideas, facts, figures—that may remain unconnected.

How would different beliefs about learning affect our practice? What is the prevailing belief in your own work culture? In thinking of my own past and present workplaces, and the types of instruction I’ve most often been asked to build or facilitate, the belief seems most often to be that learning happens as people acquire discrete pieces of data—which we hope they’ll apply as needed. This in turn affects the way in which the instruction attempts to tap into prior learning and tie to other, related pieces of instruction.

Metaphors about learners

Metaphors here showed several views of the learner: as an empty vessel to be filled; as a child to be entertained; and as highly individualized and personal, with the perception of each learner determining what is “learned” and what we “know” (for instance, with the blind men and elephant metaphor).

Metaphors about instructors and the role of instructor

Where do your own beliefs fall? Whether you are a stand-up trainer or an eLearning designer, how does your choice of metaphor affect the tone of your work? Are you a partner in learning or a sage on the stage? Are you a facilitator of learning or a schoolmarm with a ruler (don’t laugh; I know plenty of “schoolmarms”). Or are you an entertainer? Or how about a gardener, planting seeds for growth?

What of our learners? What are THEIR metaphors?

I didn’t set out to explore this specifically, but if there is one thing I found most poignant and striking about working on this board, it was the video clip of the high school valedictorian who described her years of education as “enslavement,” at developing skill at giving the right answers rather than actually learning anything. “Perhaps you only learned to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test … the focus on goals like passing a test keeps us from learning at our fullest.” How many of us deliver “mandatory” training, holding adults hostage so the HR department can cover itself? How many of us still, in our adult lives, encounter ruler-wielding Miss Groby, putting people in assigned seats, taking away their smartphones, and telling them what time to go to lunch?

What next?

What are your own metaphors, the ones that appeal or make sense to you, saying about your practice? Are they still current and relevant for you, or are they grounded in old ideas brought along from years of formal schooling and perhaps poor, okay, or great workplace training? Spend a little time unpacking your own metaphors and decide whether they are still useful; or consider, as we continue to move into the 21st century, whether it’s time to find new metaphors.


Schinck, Amélie G., Henry W. Neale, Jr., David K. Pugalee, and Victor V. Cifarelli. (2008) Structures, Journeys, and Tools: Using Metaphors to Unpack Student Beliefs about Mathematics. School Science and Mathematics 108 (7) 326-333.