New metaphors for learning

Once you start thinking in terms of metaphors for learning, you find them everywhere.

At the beginning of this year Mariana Funes, Frances Bell and I had a paper published about the use of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning. Our research findings were that this can be a problematic metaphor for learning, depending on how it is understood and interpreted.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Then at the Networked Learning Conference in Lancaster last month, Caroline Haythornthwaite suggested that we need new metaphors for networked learning. She went through the many metaphors that are already used. I blogged about this at the time, but here is her presentation again from which these two images/slides below are taken.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.47.57

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 17.49.19

This week, or maybe it was last week, I noted on Twitter that Thomas Ryberg, one of the organisers of the Networked Learning Conference, used patchworking as a metaphor for learning in his PhD dissertation and Frances Bell has often written of knitting as a metaphor for learning and tweeted a link to her blog post. Donna Lanclos added to this discussion by tweeting a link to an article by Katie Collins who writes about needlecraft metaphors for academic writing. The Materiality of Research: Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive material metaphors in academic writing.

Also at the Networked Learning Conference, Sian Bayne asked us to think about learning in terms of space. Although she didn’t use the word metaphor, there were plenty of them in her keynote, smooth and striated space, fluid and fire space, code/space. I blogged about this at the time too. 

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 20.27.23

I have recognised space as a metaphor for learning before, when I visited the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. At the time I felt we could learn a lot from how architects think about space.

This week Stephen Downes has used the metaphors of time and space to talk about how we might perceive changes in learning brought about by the internet, digital and connected learning.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 19.45.16 

This was an interesting talk. Stephen pointed out that our education system is geared to linear, time-oriented, objectives and outcomes driven ways of thinking and learning. He suggested that space metaphors might be more appropriate for learning in a digital age, referring us to Carrie Paechter’s metaphors of space in educational theory and practice.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 18.01.05

The space metaphor aligns well with my own interest in emergent learning and viewing learning environments as being on a spectrum between prescribed and emergent learning.

I can also see connections to Nick Sousanis’ and Ian McGilchrist’s work.

In his book Unflattening Nick Sousanis warns against becoming stuck in the ‘flatlands’ and not being able to see the whole picture. In a recent post about this book I wrote:

The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

Ironically this week Nick Sousanis reported that a library in France couldn’t categorise his book.

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 18.12.51

This is another example of the dominance of linear thinking which want to fix ideas into ordered categories. Matthias Melcher has developed a think tool for overcoming this categorisation problem where an idea/object must be allocated to just one category. In his tool it is possible to assign an idea to multiple categories. He explains how it works in this video and I have described how I have used it in another blog post.

Ian McGilchrist is also concerned with the narrowness or in Sousanis’ terms ‘flatness’ of our thinking. He puts this down to attentional asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain and the dominance of the left hemisphere, which focuses attention, unlike the right hemisphere which sees the whole picture.

McGilchrist has also highlighted the importance of metaphor. In this article he is reported as arguing that

“…. metaphor is a primal facet of human thought, that it “is the only way of understanding anything.”

In August I will be attending a 4-day course  in which I am hoping to learn more about Ian McGilchrist’s views about the relationship between these different ways of thinking and the future of education. I know his next book will be about education and will have the Title – The Porcupine is a Monkey.  Like Stephen Downes, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Sian Bayne and Nick Sousanis, Ian McGilchrist writes about the need for new ways of thinking.

“My suggestion is that we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.” (McGilchrist, 2014, The Porcupine is a Monkey)

Thinking in terms of metaphors seems an interesting way forward.

5 thoughts on “New metaphors for learning

  1. lenandlar June 6, 2016 / 12:59 pm

    Thanks for putting this together with all the references.

  2. Glenyan June 7, 2016 / 3:41 pm

    Thanks for this post, Jenny, I love metaphors for learning & the is a great reference post. I remember attending a presentation several years ago where the speaker talked about a weaving metaphor for learning, because the two opposing directions create the whole. It stuck with me.

    Like you though, the space metaphors really appeal to me, especially the ideas of grouping and clustering. A while ago I came across the concept of “background independence” and this triggered a string of thoughts and deeper metaphors about learning.

  3. jennymackness June 7, 2016 / 5:39 pm

    Thanks Len and Glen for your comments.

    Glen – the weaving metaphor makes me think of Deleuze and Guattari’s smooth and striated space and presumably it was based on warp and weft.

    In my early days of teaching I seem to remember metaphors related to gardening were popular.

    I’d like to hear more about your thoughts related to space, grouping and clustering and if you have any more information about background independence, I’d like to hear about that too.

    When I think of space in relation to learning, I think more in terms of the invisible spaces – what is it that we can’t see, that is not concrete. I’m not so interested in how furniture should be arranged – although I have seen really good research on that too.

  4. Glenyan June 8, 2016 / 4:28 pm

    Uh, read at your own risk: (I don’t think I ever edited this & probably haven’t looked at it in 4+ years)

    I wish I could remember more exactly the metaphor of weaving he was describing. (Searching more info now…) The metaphor was based on the concept of praxis and “the unity or fusion of opposites”, ie: the unity of “consciousness and action”. It was also a heavily language based metaphor of learning.

    What do you mean invisible spaces? Psychological space…?

  5. jennymackness June 13, 2016 / 5:04 pm

    Hi Glen – thanks for your comment and for the link – which made for interesting reading. I have just watched this video – – in which I can see some connections to your ideas.

    And yes – I was thinking psychological space when talking about invisible spaces

    – but I am also interested in the work they are doing at Lancaster University into Thresholds of Imperceptibility –

    – and the Materiality of Nothing –

    I am intrigued by the idea of the influence of what is not seen on how we learn and behave.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s