The importance of metaphors

students as empty vessels
Image source:

I’ve always thought that metaphor is a literary device used by writers who want to decorate their fiction, and by people who struggle to explain a complex notion properly and have to resort to a simplified analogy with something familiar.  But recently, I’ve discovered that metaphors are a really serious thing indeed.  In fact, you can be concocting metaphors as a full-time job!  Metaphor designer, it turns out, is a legitimate profession.  And it’s not some frivolous occupation like Instagram promotion: it requires a degree in linguistics and advanced research skills.

Here is an example of one such professional: Michael Erard of Frameworks Institute, an American think tank that helps non-profit organisations frame their ideas and messages so as to effectively communicate them to the public.  Distilling the most important features of a complex or abstract concept and mapping them onto a familiar everyday object helps to present this concept in a new and comprehensible way, raise public awareness, and generate and frame a discourse.  In order to come up with an effective metaphor, researchers at this institute have to conduct extensive qualitative and quantitative studies, including questionnaires, interviews, focus groups and linguistic analyses, in order to gauge the public’s perception of an issue and find a way to frame it in a new and engaging way.  This page, for instance, contains a video description of how they approached designing metaphors for higher education reform.

One interesting project of Frameworks Institute was designing a metaphor for learning.  You are probably familiar with the famous “students as empty vessels” metaphor (see the image above) describing the traditional, teacher-centred conception of education.  But what about the more fashionable, constructivist paradigm?  Erard’s answer to this was the “weaving ropes” metaphor outlined in this report and graphically presented in this animation.  I think rope weaving is a great way of explaining the progressive view of learning a skill, such as a language.  For example, it emphasises the learners’ agency in the process, recognises the significance of both talent (cognitive strand of the rope) and acquired skills (emotional and social strands), illustrates the importance of developing and integrating all the subskills (weaving all the three strands tightly together) and explains the failure in case of relying on just one of them.  This metaphor can be used to explain the skill-learning process to teachers, students, and parents; stimulate their critical thinking; and inspire to learn.

It made me think that our education policy makers would greatly benefit from engaging in this type of activity.  If you ask anyone from the Ministry of Education to explain, say, the concept of trilingual education, you will probably hear a long and vague speech about national unity, economic modernisation, innovation, and global competitiveness.  (NB: interestingly, a Framework Institute’s study showed that global competitiveness is perceived as the least important value of education by most US respondents).  I believe that the biggest threat to the success of the trilingual education today is a widespread opposition to this policy among many of the stakeholders – parents, teachers, and students – due to poor communication.  Clearly, a nationwide implementation of this policy would be a feat requiring a huge amount of enthusiasm.  Maybe a clever metaphor for this policy would succeed in communicating its goals and strategy, persuading people of its benefits, and inspiring them to make the great leap forward.  I wonder what this metaphor could be…  Have you any ideas?

1 thought on “The importance of metaphors

  1. Right on, Andrey! (5/5) Very skilled and effective writing throughout. You really have delved deep into this topic to find a central topic worth discussing. Trilingualism as cosmopolitanism? Trilinualism as a chameleon? I can’t wait to hear the responses to your post.


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