Metaphors we learn by

Understanding the metaphorical nature of teaching.

During this Covid-19 lockdown, I’ve been managing the migration of our Pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes online. I’ve been extremely busy – busier than a one-armed paper hanger with the itch. In order to make you understand just how busy I’ve been, I have to link this general adjective to a contextualised image that I expect you to recognise as an example of exceptional busyness. In other words, I’m using a metaphor to link a general concept to a real world instance. In their seminal work, Lakoff & Johnson (1980). pointed out that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, in language, thought and action. Our conceptual system, i.e. how we make sense of the world and relate to other people in it, is fundamentally metaphorical. The key to becoming aware of the system is through language.

Metaphors are essential in helping the general public to understand abstract scientific concepts in terms of their own real world experiences. Academics who promote the public understanding of their discipline use them all the time, e.g.

  1. Carlo Rovelli on research             ‘I think that physics is about escaping the prison of the received thoughts and searching novel ways of thinking the world.’
  2. Brian Cox on black holes              ‘The Sun is a small star really, and when it collapses […], there’s a sort of pressure which is caused by the fact that electrons don’t like each other […].’
  3. Adam Rutherford on DNA            ‘You ‘carry an epic poem in your cells. It’s an incomparable, sprawling, unique, meandering saga.’

At university, metaphor is used by researchers to reconceptualise a phenomenon they are studying in order to think about it in new ways. They link aspects of a familiar phenomenon to a new concept so that they can try out comparisons or mappings that lead to new insights. An example is the early conceptualisation of electricity as a fluid (Kuhn, 1962 cited in Beger and Jäkel, 2015), which led Dutch engineers to the creative extension that this fluid might be bottled in a container, resulting in the invention of the Leyden jar, an early type of capacitor for storing electrical charge.

Metaphor is also used extensively in teaching to help students understand academic ideas. A relatively recent sociological theory of knowledge, Legitimation Code Theory (Maton, 2014; Ingold & O’Sullivan, 2012), is relevant to the way that metaphor can help to teach new concepts. LCT explains how people become experts in their fields and how they teach others. It examines the world from a variety of perspectives, one of which is semantics, i.e. meaning. The theory looks at how much meaning something contains (semantic density) and how close to a specific context you have to be to understand it (semantic gravity). In terms of metaphor, a general (semantically dense) concept, independent of context, can be mapped onto a specific (semantically weak) example that is grounded in a real world context. The key is that there should be a wave-like movement between the general and specific domains.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

In Access EAP: Frameworks my co-author, Sue Argent, and I used metaphor in a variety of ways. In explaining academic concepts such as research, we used the typical metaphors found at university, e.g. research is a journey, and asked students to explore the limits of the metaphor, thinking about mapping the start of a journey, having a destination and a plan but also the freedom to explore unchartered territory along the way. In LCT terms, the concept of research is semantically dense but independent of context, so the metaphor links it to a grounded real world context. The explanation waves down from the general concept to the context dependent metaphor but then back up again through a series of Study Smart boxes, which summarise the kind of learning taking place.

We extended the link between general and context-specific domains using a group of imaginary students as case studies, grounded in the context of a virtual university. Their experiences illustrate in personal detail the often problematic situations and challenges students will encounter at university. The students’ context-specific activities are related to graduate attributes, semantically dense concepts, which form the themes of the units.

Beger, A. and Jäkel, O. (2015) The cognitive role of metaphor in teaching science: Examples from physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and philosophy. Philing Philosophical Enquiries, 3/1. DOI:

Ingold, R. and O’Sullivan, D. (2012) Riding the waves to academic success. Modern English Teacher 26/2.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors we live by. Michigan: University of Chicago Press.

Maton, K (2014) Knowledge and knowers: towards a realist sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm a teacher and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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