The Everyday Metaphors of Teaching: Problems and Solutions

Elephant Funny

It’s an elephant guys – come on.

Metaphor is so deeply embedded into the language of teaching that Greene (1973) argues that it would be possible to organise a history of educational ideas around recurring metaphors. As early as 1553, the classical humanist view of educators was as ‘gardeners’ (Rabelias, 1991). Rousseau (1979) saw the teacher as a ‘liberator’, while more recently Piaget (1969) saw the teaching profession as ‘applied science’. Like Maxwell (2015) claims, it seems as though many of the ideas of philosophers of education of the past can be described using metaphors (Davis, 2004).

Beyond educational ideas, any brief reflection on teaching and learning in schools today would reveal several metaphors that are regularly used in the discourse of the profession. Maxwell (2015) helpfully identifies four regular domains of life that we as teachers draw from:

Exercise metaphors: We have to regularly do mental maths work out to keep brains nimble.

Environmental metaphors: There is a certain climate in that classroom that is not conducive to learning.

Carceral metaphors: Teachers are gatekeepers of knowledge.

Liberation metaphors: Great teachers can help kids achieve anything they want to, regardless of background.

Maxwell (2015) continues by explaining: ‘teachers regularly compare themselves to actors, coaches, cheerleaders, partners and guides. (p.88)”. What is puzzling, is that a profession that is so rooted in the concrete and making learning ‘visible’, we still, by choice or not, choose to explain our craft metaphorically. But it seems that it is in fact at the heart of the profession and the system at large. The etymology of the word ‘education’ provides two roots: ‘to breed or to raise’ (from the Latin educere) or ‘to lead or to bring out’ (from the prefi ex- + ducere). What this show is that at the core of word meanings in our profession there is even metaphorical ambiguity!

These observations are unsurprising to cognitive scientists who study metaphor, since a core tenet of metaphor theory is that metaphors can be found wherever we are speaking about topics that are remotely abstract (Maxwell, 2015). In ‘Metaphors We Live By’, George Lackoff and Mark Johnson make strong claims about the effect that metaphors have on our lives as human beings, with strong implications for education when applied (1980). Firstly, they make clear that metaphor is not just a literary device used to analyse the written language; neither are they merely used in linguistically rich conversations to describe reality. Instead, metaphors ‘systematically and unconsciously’ structure the way that we think and act in many domains of life. Lackoff and Johnson claim that this is achieved through the inference of the ‘source domain’, drawing comparisons to the ‘target domain’ (Lackoff & Johnson, 2003, p. 265). For example, in the metaphor ‘teachers are gatekeepers’, ‘gatekeepers’ is the source domain and ‘teachers’ is the ‘target domain’. By comparing these two things, the inferences that teachers could make will naturally impact reasoning and professional judgment in the classroom greatly, based on the comparison between aspects of their role as a ‘gatekeeper’.

It seems, if Lackoff and Johnson are right, that there is no escaping the metaphorical nature of our discourse as teachers, due to some of the abstract concepts and nature of our craft. However, this claim does not come without its problems. What Lackoff and Johnson (2003) highlight is the issues that these metaphors can cause in our understanding of reality. If the metaphorical language we use as teachers is inaccurate or does not emulate the nature of learning or evidence based teaching, it can skew our reasoning and professional judgment greatly. Put simply, there are two potential problems with the metaphors we use as teachers:

  1. Metaphors elevate and hide certain aspects of our profession;
  2. They can enforce false assumptions about the nature of teaching and learning.

The potential results of these two problems are that as teachers:

  1. We might be prone to neglecting aspects of teaching that may in fact be important to raising attainment in our classroom while continuing to do other things that may have no significance;
  2. We might end up doing things that actually have no evidence for contributing to improving student outcomes, while justifying them through the metaphors we use to describe teaching.

(Lackoff & Johnson, 1980)

So the questions are:

With what metaphors in mind are we to teach?


What evidence are we to base our metaphors on?

Through a clear serendipity, in my next post I argue for a new metaphor, found in a character in one of my favourite children’s novels.



Davis, B. (2004) Inventions of Teaching: A Genealogy (New York: Routledge)

Greene, M. (1973) Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age (Belmont, CA, Wadsworth)

Lackoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press)

Maxwell, B. (2015) ‘Teacher as Professional’ as Metaphor; What it Highlights and What it Hides’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(1), pp. 86-104.

Piaget, J. (1969) Psycholgie et pedagogie (Paris, Denoël/Gontheir)

Rabelais, F. (1991) Gargantua and Pantagruel, B, Raffel, trans. (New York, W.W. Norton & Company)

Rousseau, J-J. (1979) Emile: Or On Education, A. Bloom, trans. (New York, Basic Books).

3 thoughts on “The Everyday Metaphors of Teaching: Problems and Solutions”

  1. Look forward to the ‘cliff hanger’ you left of your awaited definition of teaching in your next blog! Very well explored.

    Just a thought:

    Can’t there be more than one metaphor for teaching? Isn’t it a bit of an undefinable profession? Can there be aspects of teaching that are as a ‘gardener’ and at other times ‘gatekeeper’? A bit like the Christian God – He is defined not in one word but many, to give aspects of His character (which is sometimes genderless too – just to make a point).


    whatever metaphors are used, they surely must not give the impression that the teacher carries the whole responsibility of educating the child/YP? At what point does the parent have a say in their education too? or other adults/peers or siblings or even inanimate teaching through nature for example? If the teacher feels that they are the ONLY ‘gatekeeper’ this I think is snobbery as often educating a child is not in a school at all. I learned a lot through a non-educated person – my mother in law who left school at 13 🙂

    One of my metaphors would be ‘enabler’ or ‘catalyst’ (not true metaphors I realise) which, like a ‘gardener’ is enabling things to happen rather than making them. It implies that by studying each child individually, understanding their nature, their early experiences and how they are uniquely made, the teacher can allow them (for the time they have them in school) to become all they are supposed to be. The parent could also carry the same metaphor.

    How fab it would be that these TWO ‘enablers’ could collaborate the education of the child! (Dream on me thinks)

    Food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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