5 Reasons Metaphor Should Be Central To Education
By Claudia Biçen, Wayfinder Head of Design
Many cognitive scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists argue that metaphor, the process of understanding one thing in terms of another, is central to human thought and communication. In fact, it is argued, metaphor is so deeply embedded in our language that most of the time we are not aware of it all. Consider the following examples offered by Berkeley cognitive linguists, Lakoff and Johnson:
You're wasting my time.
This gadget will save you hours.
I don't have the time to give you.
How do you spend your time these days?
That flat tire cost me an hour.
I've invested a lot of time in her.
You're running out of time.
Is that worth your while?
He's living on borrowed time.
Without knowing it, our language constantly uses metaphor to draw a connection between time and money. Even though this relationship is not literally true (only figuratively), these metaphors define both how we think about time and how we behave with regards to time also.
Politicians and advertisers have long harnessed the power of metaphors to manipulate human thought and behavior. However, metaphor remains a largely underutilized tool in education. Below are five reasons why all educators should use more metaphor in their classrooms.
5 REASONS TO USE METAPHOR IN EDUCATION
- Metaphors help students grasp abstract concepts
The main function of metaphor is to ground novel concepts in concrete terms. A target concept, which is normally novel and abstract, is framed in terms of a source concept, which is familiar and concrete.
For example, let’s consider “life”. To help someone understand what life is like, you might draw upon more familiar and concrete ideas such as “life is like a race”, “life is like a garden”, or “life is like a journey”.
In education, metaphors can be used to ground lofty concepts (such as electricity, algebra, human evolution, climate change, justice) in much simpler terms that students already have an understanding of.
In my role as Creative Director at Project Wayfinder, I design curriculum to support students to develop purpose in their lives - education that involves novel and abstract concepts including purpose, values, emotions, meaning, and identity. Grounding these concepts in concrete, natural metaphors is central to the success of our curriculum design.
2. Metaphors enhance students’ ability to interpret
Using metaphors to ground abstract concepts not only make them easier to understand but allows us to recognize new aspects we might not have understood or noticed before. According to University of London archeologist, Christopher Tilley, the power of metaphors to expand our capacity for understanding and interpretation is one of their most important functions.
Let’s go back to our “life” example. If we thought of life like a “race”, we would be more likely to think of life as linear and competitive. In contrast, if we used a “garden” metaphor, we might focus more on the seasonal and growth aspects of life. Lastly, viewing life as a “journey” might invite us to notice the “twists and turns” and “ups and downs” of life.
Using metaphors to shift students’ attention towards novel conceptual elements invites them to creatively explore new perspectives and ideas.
3. Metaphors give students new ways to problem solve
The metaphors we use (both unconscious and conscious) play a strong role in our reasoning processes, the choices we make, and our consequent behaviours. This is because metaphors do more than allow novel interpretations of a concept, they provide us with an orientation toward future possibilities.
Let’s return to our “life” example again. If we think of life like a “race”, we might feel the need to move fast through a set of steps and focus on the finish life. In contrast, if we think of life like a “garden”, we might focus on the importance of nurturing and tending to it. Lastly, viewing life as a “journey” might encourage us to approach life as something that needs to be persevered and skillfully navigated.
The reasoning power of metaphorical thinking is supported by a Stanford University study that showed that people advocate for different solutions to crime depending on the metaphors they are given to describe the situation. When crime is described as a "beast preying on a city”, people are more likely to support stronger enforcement measures. However, when described as a "virus infecting a city”, people are more inclined to support social reform.
This highlights how crucial it is that we use appropriate metaphors with our students. For example, in our purpose curriculum by describing emotions as “sparks” we encourage students to notice them to understand what is important to them. In contrast, if we described emotions as “eruptions”, this might suggest that emotions are dangerous and should be pushed down.
4. Metaphors help students retain learning
Metaphor doesn’t just engage students intellectually, they are felt on an emotional level also. In fact, research shows that metaphors evoke stronger emotional responses in the brain than literal sentences containing the same content. More specifically, metaphors trigger stronger responses in amygdala, an area of the brain which typically responds to highly emotional experiences.
Since emotional stimuli tend to be remembered better than unemotional stimuli, researchers at Emory University argue that metaphors can be used to support student learning. In our Purpose Learning curriculum, we focus on a set of nature metaphors that students return to again and again throughout the year.
5. Different metaphors engage different learners
Lastly, it is important to remember that not all metaphors are linguistic – metaphors are often visual and even experiential, and depending on how you learn, some metaphors will land better than others.
Project Wayfinder’s curriculum actively draws up linguistic, visual, and experiential metaphors in each lesson. In fact, experiential metaphors can serve a particularly important function, offering students powerful and practical ways to uncover implicit ideas they may hold about abstract concepts. For example, at the start of the year, we invite students to explore how they think about success by building the “best paper tower”. The way students construct their towers offers a critical jumping off point to explore the implicit metaphors they hold around success.
Learn more about the full curricula journey designed by Claudia at projectwayfinder.com!
Metaphors in the Wayfinder Toolkit
Ex: “Living with purpose is like wayfinding”
Ex: “Learn a process of unearthing our values”
Ex: “Purpose is a direction, not the destination”
Visual Image Metaphors:
Ex: “Your values are like a cairn on a trail — they signal direction”
Ex: “Gratitude is like a dandelion — you pass the seeds forward”
Ex: Exploring personal ideas of success by building paper towers
Ex: Understanding interdependence by creating a web of string
- George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press, 1980)
- Tilley, Christopher. Metaphor and Material Culture (Blackwell, London, 1999)
- Reference: Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782.
- Citron, F.M. & Goldberg, A.E. (2014). Metaphorical sentences are more emotionally engaging than their literal counterparts. J Cogn Neurosci, 26(11), 2585-95.
- Hamann, S. (2001). Cognitive and neural mechanisms of emotional memory. Trends in Cognitive Science, 5(9), 394-400.