Metaphors we live by


October 6, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

I’m very much in favor of a having a handful of analogies and metaphors as means of portraying our lives. Recently, I’ve also grown very fond of metaphors regarding teaching and learning and other things related to education, from doctorate studies – such as the talk my compatriot Chris Lima gave at IATEFL Harrogate this year with thoughtful historical background, from the gods of the Olympus to Adam and Eve being kicked out of paradise – to blogposts such as the one Paul Braddock wrote yesterday comparing coursebooks to running shoes, and such as my forthcoming post comparing coursebooks to condoms.

A good creative exercise is to ask your students or trainee-teachers to create a metaphor for the classroom they’re all in and discuss the similarities and disparities of the metaphor, you can also ask them to draw it (I saw that in the Chris’s workshop mentioned above). You’ll be amazed by how each one feels and puts oneself in the learning context. From science labs to national parks you’ll witness a great exploration of awareness, creativity, identity, and all those beautiful words we so much adore.

One common example I’ll illustrate here is the idea that the classroom is a ship, students are the crew and the teacher is the captain, which frankly is not at all a new metaphor and it’s not one I live by for sure.

However, I thought I could amuse you for a moment with the following.

(I have put my analogies in green)

He had bought a large map representing the sea,  (map=coursebook / sea=second language)

Without the least vestige of land:    (land=first language)

And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be

A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,

Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”   (grammar terminologies)

So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply,

“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!

But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”

(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best –

A perfect and absolute blank!”  (a blank coursebook! yeah, that’s right!)

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

If we are attentive enough,we’ll be able to co-relate basically anything in life, whether it makes sense or not to other people, I think we shouldn’t care. Metaphors are first and foremost  Art.

Art is singular, subjective and highly personal. Hence, it should be present in any form in any classroom.

And you, what’s your favorite metaphor for your classes? I’d love to hear about it.


11 thoughts on “Metaphors we live by

  1. […] Metaphors we live by « Authentic Teaching (under refurbishment) RT @vickyloras: RT @willycard 'Metaphors we live by' What's your metaphor for classroom? #ELT #BELTfree #ELTchat (tags: ELTchat BELTfree ELT) […]

  2. There is a similar activity in Drama & Improvisation. Methaphors for learning English are posted around the room. Students then walk around and stand by the one they like. The conversation then develops as students explain and defend their choices.

    • I like it!

      You know, I tend to naturally avoid walk-around-the-room activities, whereas in theory I really like them.
      I think it’s like a bird that’s been in a cage for so long that when it’s free it has to learn to fly again. <- my metaphor for having taught 1-to-1 in corporate cubicles for so long.

  3. Lovely! However am also thinking that might be a bit difficult to do this with lower levels, however possibly be adapted to idioms or common phrases, perhaps…but not sure with what… an unfinished idea.


    • If drawing the metaphor is the first step, I believe the rest gets easier. Learners can more easily identify the vocab they need and look it up on a dictionary. Actually, I’m not sure either, I haven’t done that with lower levels. However, the point is to get them thinking about learning and the classroom environment, and for the teacher (if sensitive) to have a better picture of how to they see it. It’s by no means a language lesson, but a learning awareness lesson. (which I have to say, many think is pointless, both teachers and learners)
      thanks for dropping by!

      • katia shimada says:

        Willy what do you mean to be a sensitive teacher? Well, during my classes I have to change my planning lessons, , according to the students behaviour. , reaction, etc .. I sometimes need to guess , how the students will react from that activity for example..

      • that’s it, you’re right.
        to be sensitive is to perceive, be aware of, and responsive to the feelings of others.

  4. Darren says:

    You might be surprised, actually, at how accessible metaphor activities can be. I have been playing around with this area with a while and I’m working towards conducting some real research (gasp!). I have an inkling than metaphors can be very helpful as shorthand for learner beliefs, as part of a needs analysis….

  5. Very nice, I love metaphors too. I’m sure your interest in Chaos is linked to this. There are nice metaphors on Tao Te(a)Ching

  6. […] days later I wrote about metaphors, something that I’m admittedly not so knowledgeable about when it comes to teaching with, but […]

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