Metaphor: Powerful imagery bringing
learning and teaching to life
Dr Lindy Abawi
Leadership Research International
Metaphors in education
What do you
consider to be an effective
metaphor that reflects your view
about learning and learners or
teaching and teachers?
Metaphor in theory
“Most contemporary metaphor theorists hold that the typical function of
metaphor, simile, and related figures of speech is to map
correspondences” across concepts or domains (Steen, 2008, p. 213).
Giddens (1976) sees in metaphor the power to shift paradigms by
altering familiar premises through metaphorical allusion to the old,
enabling comprehension of new frames of meaning which consequently
sees one of metaphor’s powers as the ability to bridge time and space
Chia (1996) noted the word metaphor is derived from the Greek word
‘metaphorikos’ meaning transportation, lending further insight into
metaphor’s inherent ability to connect.
• 1. What metaphors do prospective teachers use to describe the
concept of “teacher”?
• 2. What conceptual themes can be derived from these
A Powerful Tool
• Develop philosophy
• Challenge beliefs
• Reveal pedagogical content
• Develop identity as teacher
• Reform or Refine Practice
• Reflective Practice
From Vision to Voice
Metaphors can help in the
transition from vision to voice
Teaching is a wave forming in the deep
then journeying to set its own mark upon
the golden shore. Along the way the
currents support and direct, the winds hover
and guide and other waves bond and
strengthen till at last the wave peaks and
caresses the shore.
Sunflowers grow with the bright light of the sun. They also need some
shelter from the sun but not too much. Sunflowers need space to grow
and thrive but at times they need help, such as staking to keep them
straight and tall, plus shielding from the cold.
Sunflowers can bloom when they have good compost, plenty of space to
grow, well timed planting, and a generous supply of water. Although
sunflowers like a good quantity of water, if they are watered in the wind
they can tend to fall over with the extra weight of the water.
Interfering with sunflowers when they are planted can make them weak
and they tend not to thrive. To keep sunflowers happy, healthy and strong
year after year; nurturing and caring treatment is essential. Although we
make sure not to cut off the heads of sunflowers, to maintain the
sunflowers we must prune dead leaves and keep the beds weed free.
Sunflowers do not like any chemicals or pesticides. So to keep our
sunflowers remaining happy, healthy and strong; consistent, fair,
thoughtful and considerate tending of them is important.
Teaching is a piece of artwork. Each artwork representing the
learner has a different individual story which is shaped by
elements around them. The beginning of the artwork is the start
of the child’s life. As people, surroundings and events shape the
child, the artwork develops.
When the child reaches school these prior elements within the
artwork will assist the teacher. As they show the teacher where
the child has come from, elements that have shaped the child as
well as prior knowledge and learning.
As teachers it is our responsibility to recognise this prior
knowledge and learning and more importantly the uniqueness of
each child. This recognition will enhance, develop and shape as
well as add to the artwork.
A gardener facilitates plants to grow, it is not
within the gardener’s power to make them
grow, it is the flowers themselves that do the
growing. With the guidance, care and
nurturing of the gardener the flowers will
blossom. As teachers we cannot force our
students to learn, but like flowers who
naturally want to grow, students naturally
want to learn. It is our responsibility as
teachers to empower students to grow and
Teaching is a Jazz Band
This teaching metaphor accurately represents my current
principles of practice as I believe each child, like a jazz
musician, is a unique and capable human being. Jazz
musicians play engaging music that challenges and
speaks to them. Just like musicians children take part in
learning when it is authentic and important to them.
Learning is like playing jazz as it is a social, collaborative
experience where people learn with and from their peers.
Genuine feedback and reflection will improve a jazz
performance just as these elements will improve a child’s
performance. I feel teaching and learning in the 21st
century is like playing jazz. It is interactive and
collaborative, done in small and big groups. There is sheet
music that guides the teaching, however, it is a living
process, it is a jazz band. (Navarro, 2010)
“An institution is like a tune; it is not
constituted by individual
sounds but by the relations between
them” (Drucker, 1946, p. 26).
The use of organisational metaphor
Lakoff and Johnston (1980) state “we define our reality in terms of
metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We
draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all
on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously
and unconsciously, by means of metaphor” (p. 158).
However, “metaphor is inherently paradoxical. It can create powerful
insights that also become distortions, as the way of seeing created
through a metaphor becomes a way of not seeing” (Morgan, 1980, p. 5)
and Strenski (1989) agrees, suggesting that “metaphors have
consequences. They reflect and shape our attitudes and, in turn,
determine our behaviour” (p.137).
Consider Morgan’s metaphors of an organisation as a goal-seeking
machine with interchangeable parts compared to that of a biological
organism that continually adapts to change.
IDEAS and ideas...
...are embedded in a strong background of organisational theory:
• Newmann and Associates (1996) on building organisational
capacity in schools to achieve sustainable improvement
• Senge’s work on the building of the learning organisations
• Cuttance and Associates (2001) and the Innovation and Best
The use of metaphor in IDEAS school contexts
IDEAS is a process led by the Leadership Research International
group at the University of Southern Queensland.
It takes schools on a journey of self-discovery and collegial
collaboration which results in two significant artefacts which in
many instances are strongly metaphorical by nature:
A school vision
schoolwide pedagogical framework (SWP)
Riding the waves to success
Healthy body, healthy mind
Little waves, big waves
Finding your own balance
Keeping our world beautiful
There’s another wave coming!
... A schoolwide pedagogical framework (SWP)
A schoolwide pedagogy (SWP) is a school’s
expression of a set of agreed pedagogical
principles that will enable the professional
community of the school to create learning
environments for enhancement of the school’s
It is built upon shared personal pedagogies and
grounded within a school’s vision which reflects
the essence of its community.
Sunny Fields State School
Our school provides a wonderful family friendly
atmosphere where every child is recognised and treated
as an individual. Enrolment … is your child’s 'growth to a
beautiful future' and you can be reassured that you have
made a ‘bloomin’ fine choice’ for your child’s
education…there is a “valley of opportunities’" whether in
the classroom, the sporting field or in an artistic
endeavour for your child…Students learn in an
environment that is firmly grounded in community
values… now known as B.U.D.S. (School website)
Forrester Hill State School
Our Jacaranda Tree is the metaphor for the sense of
purpose we feel …as we develop a root system
embedded strongly in values education, a solid trunk
built on celebrating difference in learning styles, cultures
and backgrounds and producing flowers, seeds and
leaves representing achievements for all to see in social
skills displayed and through academic and cultural
achievements…The staff, students and parents … are
proud of our wonderful school and visitors are always
welcome. (School website)
I love the visual – that to me is a huge thing. I need the visual, I
am a visual person, I love that as I can see that and it is there as
something that sits in my head allowing me to be a part of it all.
The connections are made at all times and I think that means
that people truly believe in the importance of these connections.
If I had come in and I couldn’t see it all around me, then no it
would not mean anything to me. I think I would have thought that
this is something that is done at this school, not that this is
something that is a part of this school. Its strength did not
exclude me – in fact the opposite – I felt so much a part of it all
A New Teacher’s Perspective
Bringing the metaphor to life within literacy
• Metaphor linked to a school’s vision for the future is a
powerful means of creating relational, cognitive and
pedagogical connections. A schoolwide pedagogical
framework with aligned strong metaphorical links
strengthens cognitive and cultural connectedness
across a whole school community (Abawi, 2012)
• Metaphor assists teaching practitioners at all stages
in their career to reflect deeply on their current
practice in light of their espoused beliefs.