Multiple Metaphors for Learning

by Gary Woodill on June 10, 2008

A recent article by Jacob Vakkayil in the academic journal Learning Inquiry (Vol. 2, 2008, pp. 13-27) is a good review of the various metaphors that surround the concept of learning. Each metaphor gives us some insight, and taken together they show what a complex concept learning really is. No one metaphor is “correct”, but each represents a different understanding. This makes subscribing to only one or a limited set of these metaphors a dangerous practice. As Lakoff and Johnson outlined in their book Metaphors We Live By, much of our understanding and communications are founded on base metaphors that are combined to achieve complex abstract concepts. Each metaphor has implications as to how we view knowledge and the processes of teaching.

Jacob Vakkayil is oriented towards organizational learning in this article, so his examples are particularly relevant to people in corporate training. The eight metaphors that he lists (with my comments) are:

  • Learning as transfer – implications: knowledge is portable stuff that can be passed around and the learner is a container
  • Learning as corrective change – implications: observable behaviors can be changed and the instructor needs to have objectives in terms of the desired end behaviors from the learner
  • Learning as computing – implications: the mind is a computer that processes large quantities of data and the learning is a process of reprogramming mental structures, scripts and algorithms
  • Learning as building connections – implications: the human brain is like a neural network where learning is the strengthening or weakening of pathways of neurons
  • Learning as self-organization – implications: humans are self-organizing adaptive systems that continuously produces its own components and organization in the context of being embodied, and embedded in a culture and history. Learning is the emergence of new knowledge based on all these contextual factors
  • Learning as propogation – implications: cultural ideas (“memes”) are transmitted through humans who act as hosts and transmitters of these ideas. Humans are robots under the evolutionary influence of both genes and memes.
  • Learning as coordination – implications: knowledge is distributed and doesn’t reside within any individual. It is partially held by each learner, and is found in collective artifacts made through collaboration
  • Learning as participation – implications: learning is also distributed, but is found in the social interaction among individual learners. Learning is always associated with a community, and happens through joint action

Each metaphor offers unique perspectives and, at the same time, limits understanding in various ways. Disagreements within the learning industry and its critics may be a result of each group talking past each other while using different metaphors. Change can happens through the introduction of “disrputive” metaphors that challenges old thinking and bridges the gap between conflicting metaphors.

This article is very useful for clarifying some of the dominant metaphors for learning in use today. An online copy of the article can be found here.