Enhancing understanding: the power of metaphor

James Geary beautifully illustrates the power of metaphor in this 10 minute talk. The learning implications this talk has for me is to reflect on the ability of teachers to present quality explanations as part of our creative-thinking pedagogy. After all, as Geary says, “metaphor is a way of thought before it is a way with words.” Geary reminds us of Aristotle’s definition of metaphor as, “the process of giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.”  Music, literature, drama, poetry and art all depend on the power of metaphor to (a) communicate depth of meaning and (b) enhance understanding of the audience, listener or viewer.


In our very own theatres of learning, how well we explain things is possibly the difference between whether a learner ‘gets’ something and enjoys the progression in their thinking that results or remains insecure in their understanding to the point of being lost and confused. To develop our metaphorical powers, therefore, is to develop our ability to communicate concepts in such a way that we can be assured that our teaching has a positive impact on learner progression.


As Geary explains, metaphor both DETECTS & CREATES meaning…so we need to use it to it greatest effect.  We instinctively both seek and find a relationship between ideas, objects, colours, sounds and so on. Often that relationship is anchored by our own experiences; a compelling argument for starting any learning experience with the learner and building out from here. So we need to make our learning environments safe enough to regularly bring students’ own loves, likes, dislikes, memories and so on, into our lessons.


Perhaps, then, metaphor is the way to reach learners who are struggling to understand and recall complex ideas, processes and concepts. Considering this against the backdrop of fostering creativity in learning, it would seem that taking time to develop our metaphorical teaching pedagogy the design of learning experiences would be a worthwhile endeavour.


If Geary’s reference to Einstein is anything to go by, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” (Einstein) there’s a whole dimension to the way in which we explain things that could be investigated and developed. At its simplest level, what additional props, links and connections we might make use of to enhance powerful learning experiences is certainly worth developing in greater depth. 


So what metaphors might we provide the next time we introduce a new topic? 

What images, music, experiences, or heroines might help learners grasp complicated processes? 

What skills in metaphorical analysis could we ask learners to undertake so that they deepen and consolidate their knowledge and understanding?

What metaphors can we use that both detect and create meaning?

What metaphors could our learners develop to enhance their understanding and push their learning on?


This one is a tough one but one that I’m going to give a lot more thought. Your comments would be appreciated…


James Geary has a new book out, “I is an Other: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world”.


James Geary’s Prezi presentation adds an additional layer of understanding to his talk by requiring us to both watch and listen to his talk. There’s also an interview with him on the Prezi blog.


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