Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

How Do Metaphors Influence Transformation?


s we begin our discussion of what it will take to transform, rather than reform, education, it will be valuable to revisit the topic of metaphors. For this discussion, the word metaphor is used to mean any circumstance in which one conceptual category is used to describe or define another. (Significant metaphors will be italicized to help the reader become aware of them.)

In their book, Philosophy in the Flesh, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson(1) argued that, because the mind is "embodied"—that is, it experiences the world through the body in which it resides—people can't help but conceptualize the world in terms of bodily perceptions. Our concepts of up-down, in-out, front-back, and warm-cold are all related to orientations and perceptions acquired through our bodily senses.

The metaphors people use offer insight into what people are unconsciously seeing, hearing, or feeling as they conceptualize an abstract concept, such as top students or leaving no child behind.

When a person is confronted with an unfamiliar or complex situation, they unconsciously compare it to a situation with which they are already familiar. People joke about "the meaning of life." The humor arises because life is so huge and complex a topic that expecting one to answer a simple question about its meaning is absurd. Therefore, we typically "simplify" the complex concept by unconsciously comparing life to some familiar but less complex process.

For example, Life is a journey. When we hear that statement, we immediately conceptualize people as travelers along the road of life. Their goals are destinations along the route. Plans for one's future are the itinerary for the journey.

Problems become detours or bumps in the road. Sometimes people have to find a way around a problem. They may reach a crossroads. They cross some bridges when they come to them while burning others.

Map and Compass

There is an inherent logic in this metaphor that makes it appropriate and useful. But what we often fail to realize is that it also limits the user from interpreting their lives in other ways. If you think of life as a buffet, or a box of chocolates, or an adventure rather than a journey, how do your perceptions change?

Each metaphor focuses our attention on a particular aspect of life, but no metaphor has a perfect one-to-one correspondence. Therefore no metaphor is ever complete in its "explanation" of the complex concept. Even when people use the same metaphor to describe a concept, they often focus on different aspects of that metaphor. They enable certain ways of thinking, while inhibiting others. And because metaphors are used unconsciously, their transparency makes them even more powerful. Metaphors have tremendous unconscious influence over the way people think about any issue.

Unearthing current metaphors in education—bringing them into the light of awareness—is essential before anything more than superficial change can occur. Some metaphors are more valuable in the insights they provide than others—they form a more appropriate foundation for change. Understanding the metaphors a person uses can give us insight into why they may support or reject ideas. They make us aware of how differently people "create" their realities. In essence, we must transform our thinking before we can transform our schools.

Metaphors of Schools


chools have been characterized by teachers as factories, prisons, gardens, families, teams, organisms, beehives, zoos, and more.(2) How would you complete the statement, "A school is like..."?

Metaphors of Schools

The diagram shows several of the metaphors that are currently used in the language of schools. Notice that each metaphor only overlaps a portion of the concept of school itself—that is, the points of correspondence only focus on certain aspects of the school and its functions. Therefore, each metaphor is a limited and often limiting perspective.

In this article, we'll briefly examine the first of the metaphors. This discussion is not intended to judge the validity of a particular metaphor. By recognizing the limits of the operating metaphors of an institution, it is often easier to see what works and does not work in that frame—and to understand why. In fact, it would be preferable if schools could be perceived through as many different relevant metaphors as possible because each metaphor will illuminate only a part of the process. The more metaphors we employ, the more ways in which we can think about schools and the more alternatives we will have to work with.

School as a Culture

In Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan explains that the word culture "derives metaphorically from the idea of cultivation." The factors within a cultural environment allow the growth of certain ideas but not others. Culture, says Morgan, is "the pattern of development reflected in a society's system of knowledge, ideology, values, laws, and day-to-day ritual."

Westerners often perceive the rituals of indigenous cultures as "primitive" or strange, yet give little thought to the rituals of their own culture. "For example, why do so many people build their lives around distinct concepts of work and leisure, follow rigid routines five or six days a week, live in one place and work in another, wear uniforms (think broadly here), defer to authority, and spend so much time in a single spot performing a single set of activities?"(3)

Within the larger culture, organizations such as schools create their own unique sub-cultures. There are "unique norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the 'persona' of a school."(4) The culture of a school can been seen in the way administrators, teachers, students, parents, support staff, and other members of the culture interact.

It is unwise to underestimate the power of the cultural metaphor. In many cases, the culture defines who its members are. In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye says that "Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do." Tradition is not easily overturned. And since many, if not most, adults in education had a similar experience in their own years as students, it is difficult to conceive of any other possibility!

Steve Andreas suggests that "A culture is the accumulated wisdom of a group of people…but culture also contains the accumulated stupidity of a group of people."(5) Sadly, traditions are not always conducive to needed change.

Case in point. Teacher education professor Judith Newman tells of a new teacher who is filled with enthusiasm about her teaching assignment. Bursting with excitement, the teacher stands in her classroom thinking about how she can transform it into an exciting place. A colleague drops by and the new teacher excitedly shares her ideas. When she is finished, the colleague finally speaks.

"We don't do stuff like that here. We'll hate you if you do because then we'll have to start doing the same thing."(6)

Several months later, this new teacher admitted that she still hadn't done much of what she had planned. As a new teacher, she "couldn't afford to make waves." And this is not an isolated case. Similar stories can be found on various teacher forums.

The culture of a school is, of course, influenced by the larger culture. Neil Postman(7) suggests that, earlier in our history, the stories told by our culture honored the gods of family, social responsibility, humility, democracy, and hard work. But a "chicken in every pot" eventually became a car in every garage, a TV in every room of the house, a smart phone in every pocket, and computers in the hands of every student.

The gods we now worship, albeit unconsciously in most cases, include economic utility, consumerism, efficiency, and technology. The story now defines "success" as high grades, a college education, and a high-paying job in a white-collar profession, whether or not this reflects the goals of many individuals in our society.

If we don't know what gods we worship—what values the school culture promotes—if we unconsciously pass along our belief in those gods to the next generation, then we are responsible for the persistence of those gods in our culture. Awareness of our cultural values is the critical first step.

Here's an example of why some in education have begun to recognize the importance of a school culture. When theorists tout a "scientifically proven" program or a new approach "that works," they often cite exemplary schools in which that has proven true. The implication is that, because it worked in those schools, it will work in all schools—assuming that it's done "right"—read, "the way we do it!"

What is seldom mentioned, or even examined, is the culture of the schools in which the program "worked." Attempting to implement something new, even if has proven spectacularly effective elsewhere, without factoring in the school culture, is an invitation to disaster.

Many educators have probably heard (or even spoken) comments such as these about a proposed change:

When the majority of staff engages in this type of conversation, it is indicative of a negative school culture—one in which meaningful change is difficult, if not impossible. It should come as no surprise that schools with a positive culture, characterized by cooperation, collegiality, and self-efficacy, provide a richer growth medium.

I'm not suggesting that many of the things teachers are now being forced to do in the name of "accountability" are not valid targets for criticism. However, criticizing what's wrong, no matter how valid, evokes negative emotions. A more effective approach would be to identify proven methods to replace the burdensome tests and standards. This puts people in the more hopeful state of moving toward an outcome they want rather than away from something they don't want.

The first step in any attempt to transform a school must be to examine the culture in which that transformation is to take place. If the culture is negative, further efforts to promote change are costly in terms of wasted time, money, and effort. The inevitable failure of the proposed change will merely enrich the stories of failure that often circulate within a negative school culture.

When the majority of staff engages in this type of conversation, it is indicative of a negative school culture—one in which meaningful change is difficult, if not impossible. It should come as no surprise that schools with a positive culture, characterized by cooperation, collegiality, and self-efficacy, provide a richer growth medium.

But all is not lost. In his book, Leading in a Culture of Change, Michael Fullan refers to the process of "Reculturing." You can find more about how to influence the cultural metaphor of schools in this article. Although it was written more than a decade ago and doesn't address the types of fundamental changes that will lead to transformation, the need to begin with a positive culture has not changed and the methods are still appropriate.

In the next article, we'll take a look at the insights we might gain from the next metaphor of schools—school as community.

  1. Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.
  2. cf Inbar, Dan E. (1996). The free educational prison: metaphors and images. Educational Research, Spring 1996, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp 77-92.
  3. Morgan, Gareth (1998) Images of Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 112- 113.
  4. Peterson, Kent D. (2002). Positive or Negative. Journal of Staff Development, Summer 2002, 10-15.
  5. Andreas, Steve (2002). Transforming Your Self: Becoming Who You Want To Be. Moab, UT: Real People Press. 4
  6. Newman, J.M. (1998, December). We Can't Get There from Here: Critical Issues in School Reform, Phi Delta Kappan 80, No. 4 (December 1998): 288-296.
  7. Postman, N. (1995). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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