The Pedagogical Power of Metaphor
“Imagine those train track toys you played with when you were little.” I draw two train tracks on the board. The connecting piece from one juts out towards the corresponding hole in the other. I point to that space and tell my students, “This is how we create cohesion in a paper.” I go on to explain that just like the smooth transition between train tracks relies on that joint overlap, so too we create smooth transitions in writing by beginning precisely where we ended in the sentence before. I give examples and talk about how coherence between paragraphs and the paper as a whole is a similar concept. And as I explain, I often hear my students “Ohhh” and nod their heads in comprehension. They find this metaphor useful in understanding an otherwise abstract principle of writing.
I first used this metaphor as a writing tutor and found it to be successful there as well. That success piqued my curiosity. What about metaphors was effective in helping students to understand the writing concepts I was trying to communicate to them? Now as a first-year composition instructor, I find myself turning to metaphor more often than not to reinforce my lesson material. In an effort then to better understand why metaphors seem to be a successful pedagogical tool, I have researched theories of metaphor not only in composition studies but in creative writing and education generally. My research reveals some clear patterns of how metaphor can function in the classroom. As in the example shared above, it is useful in making concrete the abstractions all students must deal with in their disciplines. But the power of metaphor extends even further. Metaphor is essential to cognition, shapes the way we perceive our environment and our interactions, builds bridges to community, and ultimately shapes culture. Thus, understanding metaphor in as much depth as it affords and then utilizing it as a pedagogical tool becomes an invaluable resource for instructors. My focus centers on first-year composition instructors, but it is clear in reading the scholarship on metaphor that it is not limited to composition studies.
The purpose of this paper then is to first synthesize the various capacities of metaphor in order to then draw connections between metaphor and transfer theory. An understanding of metaphor theory has clear parallels to transfer theory, and because transfer theory grapples constantly with the question of how to help students actually achieve transfer, finding more ways to encourage transfer is vital. The transfer of learning beyond the classroom is what makes learning truly successful. As such, a combined study of metaphor and its ties to transfer aims to realize pedagogical practices that will benefit our students long after they have left our classrooms, serving them as they become participants in their communities and contribute to the shape and dynamics of their respective cultures.
Perceptions of Metaphor in the Classroom
First-year composition students enter our writing classrooms with a limited understanding of metaphor, due primarily to how they encounter it in their elementary and secondary education. The Utah Common Core Standards for Language Arts require teachers to teach metaphor as early as Grade 4. Under Language Standard 5—“Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings”—students are required to be able to explain the meaning of similes and metaphors in their contexts (“English Language Arts Grade 4”). This first introduction to metaphor asks of students that they simply master recognition and definition. While such a task is appropriate at the 4th grade level, it is also important to note what exactly that acquired skill constitutes in terms of a student’s holistic knowledge. According to Bloom’s taxonomy, which has been a foundational model of knowledge categorization for more than half a century, the task of explaining falls under the category of comprehension. And while comprehension means that students can understand what is being communicated and “make use of it,” it also means that students do not recognize “the fullest implications” (Armstrong). In other words, when it comes to metaphor, they get only a surface-level understanding of the concept. The Grade 5 CC Language Arts requirement does little to build students’ understanding of metaphor: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes” (“English Language Arts Grade 5”). Again, the CC standards focus on metaphor as something to be defined and identified in association with figurative language. While these are arguably the most 4th and 5th graders can be expected to do with metaphors, one would hope to see students progress upward through Bloom’s tiers as they progress in school. However metaphor is not addressed again in the CC Language Arts standards until the 11th-12th grade bracket—indicating little follow-up to that initial exposure to metaphor—and even then, the requirement is that students “[i]nterpret figurative language, including similes and metaphors, in context” (“English Language Arts Grade 11-12”). Interpretation only moves students up to the third of six tiers in Bloom’s Taxonomy, meaning they are still lacking a full understanding of metaphor. Additionally, since high school Language Arts students will encounter metaphor within the context of literature, that also limits their understanding of metaphor to that one scope of knowledge.
What we see, then, in the CC Language Arts standards is a surface-level proposition of the function and importance of metaphor. It is associated primarily with identifying and understanding figurative language as well as interpreting literature. Defining the function of metaphor as pigeonholed in figurative language relegates it to the position of pretty language that serves little else than aesthetic purpose—one more writing tool that many students feel is irrelevant to their goals. So as students enter first-year composition, they enter unaware of the larger ramifications of metaphor in their own thinking and the culture they live in.
Cognitive Role of Metaphor
While metaphor is taught as a figure of language that captures abstract ideas in concrete images, its cognitive role extends far beyond the limits of poetry and prose. Some scholars argue that it would be impossible for human beings to think abstractly at all were it not for metaphors, that metaphor is a “vehicle of thought” (Getner, Kovecses; Ox 86). In other words, we cannot even begin to communicate our ideas until we package them as metaphors, and the same is true of learning to absorb new information. When students encounter unfamiliar abstractions in class, it is like trying to understand a foreign language—frustrating and labor-intensive to grasp, if not impossible. In these scenarios of total unfamiliarity with or struggle to comprehend the abstraction, metaphors can function as scaffolding, enabling students to take some sort of concrete familiar thing and extrapolate its characteristics and purposes to understand an abstraction. In other words, metaphors can provide ports of access to abstract principles. In my own experience, metaphors allow me as an instructor to explain for instance what cohesion between sentences means to students who have often never encountered that principle outside of an Elmer’s glue context. The use of metaphor as a pedagogical tool gives students handles almost to hold onto as they process and synthesize new information about theories, concepts, abstractions that they are unfamiliar with.
While metaphor facilitates moving up and down the ladder of abstraction, it also moves laterally as a tool to reframe what we otherwise see as fixed knowledge. Marie Foley’s article, “Unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay,” lays out her method of teaching students to revise their understanding of essays as a standard formula and instead adopt the view of them as a journey. Her description of breaking her students out of the five-paragraph mold and into the potential of journeying is an example of the power in metaphor to facilitate reframing and thereby new understanding. By teaching her students to challenge their understanding of writing via metaphor, Foley invites her students to reconceive what it means to write entirely. She shifts the framework they use to define writing, a shift that empowers students to see what they were incapable of seeing before. A new frame means a new perception. Metaphors can have that kind of power in helping students to see the world in ways they never have before.
Sociocultural Roles of Metaphor
Alongside metaphor’s essential role in cognition is its capacity to build relationships, especially between divided groups. Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By includes a chapter in which they argue for the power of metaphor to close gaps between individuals. They present the idea that two parties without mutual experiences and world perspectives can communicate those differences through metaphor in order to establish common understanding. “Metaphorical imagination is a crucial skill in creating rapport and in communicating the nature of unshared experience” (231). This idea of using metaphor to fill in the gaps of unshared experience may seem pertinent only to those of different nationalities or socioeconomic or racial identities. But there is also a significant gap of unshared experience between a writing instructor and her students. They exist to some degree in different realities in terms of academic knowledge and agility within the academic sphere. Therefore one of the instructor’s objectives is to bridge the divide between them. Metaphors used in classroom then work to create shared meaning and to build rapport and community.
So far, I have focused on ways metaphor can inform a classroom setting where an instructor is communicating knowledge to students. However, the reality is that metaphor permeates every aspect of our lives. This paper itself is an example of how frequently metaphor occurs in describing, analyzing, and generally communicating. Metaphors lace our everyday conversations, instructions, reflections, etc. As such, it characterizes not only our ability to think and to communicate in interpersonal relationships, but also our culture as a whole.
The social benefits of understanding and using metaphor therefore can not only revolutionize our individual relationships but our culture as well. Earl Mac Cormac’s article, “Metaphor as a Knowledge Process,” suggests that metaphors actually shape our culture which can over time impact our biology. The scope of the current paper stops far short of biological impacts, but Mac Cormac’s idea of metaphor as a cultural-shaping force resonates with metaphor’s cognitive reframing role. The way we employ metaphor dictates how we perceive our society and our culture. Lakoff and Johnson concur that metaphor shapes culture in their examples of how metaphor so easily characterizes our day-to-day lives: argument is war, time is money, etc. (4, 7). These metaphors pervade our culture and in turn our own internal dialogue as well. The metaphors our culture gives us play a major role in how we see the world around us. So as Cormac and Lakoff & Johnson point out, changing those metaphors we live by can constitute not only personal reframing and reconceptualization but sociocultural change as well.
Connections between Metaphor and Transfer
While understanding the cognitive and sociocultural roles of metaphor is substantial and worthwhile in and of itself, that same understanding also lends itself to questions of transfer theory. It only takes a little research into both topics to recognize that there are strong correlating traits and functions between the two. The theory of high road transfer, developed by Perkins and Salomon, is of particular note as many of the defining features of how metaphor works are also those they use to describe high road transfer. Consequently, overlaying metaphor theory on transfer theory provides insights for instructors as to ways to model, encourage, and practice transfer with their students.
Perkins and Salomon’s work on describing types of transfer is seminal to the discussion on extending learning beyond specific contexts to other relevant scenarios. While they work to define the difference between low road and high road transfer, I focus on high road transfer. It is in high road transfer that students demonstrate the ability to abstract context-specific principles, transfer them to a new context, and then re-contextualize them in that new setting.
Metaphors are performing the same work. To create a metaphor, the individual has to identify principles, characteristics, or elements of a very concrete thing (toy train tracks), abstract whatever is identified (overlapping pieces that create connection/transitions), and then reapply those elements in the new context (teaching cohesion in composition). That cognitive flexibility is much like the abilities described in high road transfer. Students who engage in high road transfer recognize that knowledge is not restricted or isolated but rather can be extrapolated, stripped of context specifics, and reapplied to a different situation. The cognitive flexibility required in that transfer is very similar to what happens in using metaphor to reframe and rethink. By using metaphor to teach then, an instructor provides a model of high road transfer for her students.
But simply using metaphors and hoping students will draw the connections and begin high road transferring on their own is unrealistic. In her response to Perkins and Salomon’s ideas on transfer, Rebecca Nowacek contends that while they offer a helpful division between high and low road transfer, writing instructors often struggle to teach their students how to make that transfer happen. She claims that “too often, teachers assume that transfer will simply happen, in the way that if left alone, Bo Peep’s sheep will come home…Transfer will happen only when an individual recognizes similar elements” (15). Her solution is to encourage teachers to prime students and point to cues for transfer to other contexts, particularly through genre as genre can help students to recognize contexts in which prior knowledge could be applied.
Nowacek’s commentary on transfer is helpful in that it asks instructors to be mindful about how to encourage transfer and to do so explicitly. But explicit cues are only one way of encouraging transfer. Metaphor offers another. We encounter metaphor with the expectation of transfer already inherent in its construction and delivery. We know that some similarity, some overarching principle in one situation will be transferred to another. In a writing course, when I as the instructor introduce a new concept and then start talking about train tracks, students expect the tie back to writing principles. Metaphors inherently prime for transfer.
Using metaphor during instruction also allows the instructor to model the power of reframing an idea, which parallels one of the primary skills that high road transfer hopes to engender. Because metaphor is a reframing agent, it allows us to see concepts, relationships, etc. in new or different ways than we have previously. The objective of high road transfer is similar. Students learn about and/or gain skills in one context, and enacting high road transfer occurs as they reframe their understanding of those skills as flexible and adaptable, instead of rigid and isolated to one scenario. In watching an instructor model that flexibility of knowledge through metaphor, students can be encouraged towards high road transfer that asks them to see knowledge as flexible and adaptable as opposed to limited to one scenario.
Using metaphor to close gaps and build community also sheds light on how to engage in high road transfer. As instructors use effective metaphors that draw on past experiences to help students adjust to and understand their new environment, they ask students to enact high road transfer. They ask students to apply previous or familiar knowledge to the new context of the academic sphere. Thus using metaphor to bridge the gap between these two parties not only fosters community but also facilitates further high road transfer practice for students.
The sociocultural role of metaphor also aligns with the objective of transfer to empower students to make their learning relevant beyond the classroom. The implications of Mac Cormac’s argument—that metaphors shape culture—are precisely what instructors at every level want to see: students taking knowledge beyond class to change their lives and consequently the world around them. If instructors can learn to teach with metaphors, to expose the underlying principles of high road transfer, and facilitate their students’ personal cognitive flexibility, there is every chance that those students will alter the course of culture and feel empowered to address whatever incongruences or unproductive ideas they encounter in their communities.
The use of metaphor as a pedagogical tool is not without its limitations. In his article, “Conceptual Metaphor Theory,” David Ritchie points out that metaphors rely the resonance rooted in personal experience—we nod our heads at metaphors that confirm experiences we have personally had. So when a teacher deploys a metaphor that relies on experience a student does not have, the objective in using that metaphor is nullified. The student is denied full access.
Metaphors can also be challenging as students interpret and try to piece the connections together. Denis Lawton, author of “Metaphor and the Curriculum,” points out that metaphors become problematic when their underlying assumptions or implications do not make sense, undermine the principle being taught, or otherwise contradict reality. Professor Lad Tobin too points out that metaphors are ineffectual when students inherently disagree with the core assumptions of certain metaphors (he relates the example of describing writing as a journey to a student who rebutted that he had no desire to go on a journey).
Still yet some students (and instructors) may disagree with metaphors on principle. They may find them to be simply “extra,” the fluff, the surface polish to make the argument being presented sound interesting, sophisticated, or artistic. They would rather have the information straight. This is a perception dating back to Aristotle (). But any close examination of carefully crafted metaphor defies such a dismissal. For the aforementioned reasons of metaphor as a tool for reframing, connecting, and filling knowledge gaps, it would be a missed opportunity to disregard metaphor as a mere aesthetic glaze.
While instructors should consider the limitations of metaphors used in class instruction,
the benefits clearly merit some consideration as to how to overcome said limitations. Much of this work can be done in careful planning and intentional crafting of metaphors to be used in class.
It is true that Ritchie’s criticism of metaphor as failing when a student does not share the experience in which it is grounded is difficult to resolve. It is simply impossible for an instructor to have a complete understanding of the experiences her students have had and to subsequently select only metaphors that will align with those experiences. The answer, however, is not to abandon the use of metaphor altogether. The solution rather is to accommodate as much as possible the reality that a metaphor may rely on an experience that some students have not had. This begins with intentionally choosing metaphors based in experiences that an instructor can assume many students have had. Additionally, instructors might provide as much relevant context as possible. For example, I used a metaphor in my class that compared simmering a good Italian sauce with giving writing its time as opposed to pounding an essay out the night before it is due. In making this metaphor, I provided some background about my cultural experience with Italians and my synthesis of their approach to cooking. I provided the context I felt necessary and found that my students were receptive to the metaphor despite the fact that many had never been to Italy nor had they spent three hours simmering sauce.
Tobin also suggests the power in inviting students to forge their own metaphors. This empowers students to describe their own perceptions and beliefs about writing in ways that resonate with them. By creating their own metaphors, students are free to exercise the cognitive and transfer capacities of metaphor instead of simply observing those of the instructor. Just recently, one of my students composed her own metaphor impromptu in front of the class as she responded to a question about analyzing sources. Using the proposed metaphor of an Oreo we had been using to think about author vs. source, this student talked about the author being the two halves of the cookie and providing proper balance to the cream, or referenced source. Too much cookie, and it would not be an Oreo. Too much cream, and the cookie is overpowered and unappreciated. This student volunteered this metaphor of her own accord, but actually designing metaphor creation as an assignment would allow students to practice high road transfer in a low-stakes and fun way.
Tobin further discusses how he asks his students to describe their writing process through metaphor multiple times over the course of the class. In his findings, he observes how these student-created metaphors reveal that the students’ “conception of the writing process grows increasingly complex and flexible” (452). That finding mirrors the objectives of high road transfer in producing cognitive flexibility in students. As students not only encounter their instructor’s metaphors but create and revise their own, they learn how to see new possibilities and opportunities. Tobin reminds instructors to ask themselves, “What is the metaphor telling us about the student’s conception of and attitude towards the process…?” (455). This kind of reflection can help instructors be conscientious in their own use of metaphor as well as planning future material to challenge and/or facilitate students’ continued learning.
We also cannot afford to dismiss metaphor because of its implicit presence in the way our students see and interact with the world. We cannot assume that they do not come into our classrooms without metaphors that define how they think and feel. Lakoff and Johnson’s classic example, “Argument is war,” is evidence that society establishes and reinforces metaphors that have allowed our students to grasp an abstract but in a harmful way. If a student, due to metaphor, cannot think of argument as anything besides a win-lose situation, that perception perpetuates a host of problems both in their interaction with our classroom and with other people and situations outside of class.
How do we combat unproductive metaphors? Again, a difficult question to resolve satisfactorily. The reality is that whatever metaphors students encounter in our classroom, they will spend much more time in other settings that most likely will reinforce those unproductive metaphors.
The first step is simple awareness. This traces back to Foley’s “Unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay.” If students do not even register that they are seeing the essay as this one formula, then of course they can never conceive any other way of writing an essay. So instructors have to begin with helping students recognize their own metaphors that determine how they perceive certain principles, topics, relationships, etc. In becoming more aware, students together with their instructors can pursue new frameworks that are productive and healthy.
Second, we take Novacek’s advice and be as explicit as possible in cuing students for transfer as we ask them to consider, design, and engage with metaphor. Our efforts to revise students’ implicit metaphors will gain little traction if we do not draw attention to the objectives, process, and potential results. But as we model taking context-specific knowledge, abstracting it, and reapplying it, we help our students understand the elements of high road transfer and prepare them to do the same.
Third, we follow Tobin’s recommendation and ask students to generate their own metaphors. We give them control and invite them to reframe the ways in which they will understand their communities and the society in which they live. As Tobin says, this process reinforces the cognitive flexibility that will allow them to challenge unproductive metaphors and instead find effective ways to transfer knowledge and interact with new challenges and situations.
What has been presented here is only a sampling of all there is to know about theories of metaphor as well as transfer. And, admittedly, there are still problems created when teachers use metaphors to try to communicate with students. Nonetheless, it is clear that the benefits of using metaphor are such that every instructor should consider it as an important resource. From here, more research could be done on the connections students themselves see between metaphors used or self-generated in class and their experiences in other settings. In theory, they make a difference, but more substantial research examining the actual impact would be invaluable.
Metaphors are so much more than pretty flourishes. They have the potential to change the way our students think, see, and interact with our classrooms and their own communities beyond. Because they are rooted in how we see the world to begin with, metaphors are not limited to one field or discipline but are of benefit to all. Because metaphor is so extensive in its reach, not only in our classrooms but our society and our identities, it is vital that we study it, utilize it, and encourage our students to do the same. Doing so may play a significant part in yielding the cognitive flexibility and adeptness that makes education worthwhile in the long run.
Works Cited & Consulted
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“English Language Arts Grade 4.” Utah Education Network, https://www.uen.org/core/core.do?courseNum=4240.
“English Language Arts Grade 5.” Utah Education Network, https://www.uen.org/core/core.do?courseNum=4250.
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Foley, Marie. “Unteaching the Five-Paragraph Essay.” Teaching English in the Two Year College, vol. 16, no. 4, 1989, pp. 231-35.
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Perkins, David N. and Gavriel Salomon. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education, 2nd ed., 2 Sep 1992.
Ritchie, L. David. “Conceptual Metaphor Theory.” Context and Connection in Metaphor, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 31-57.
Tobin, Lad. “Bridging Gaps: Analyzing Our Students’ Metaphors for Composing.” College Composition and Communication, National Council of Teachers of English, vol. 40, no. 4, Dec. 1989, pp. 444-458, https://www.jstor.org/stable/358243.
Williams, Amy. “Affecting Argument: Student Learning to Argue and Arguing to Learn.” 2019.