M is for Metaphor

20 11 2011

As part of the interview process for candidates wanting to do the CTEFLA (now CELTA) course at IH Barcelona, we used to ask them to discuss the following question:

In your opinion, which of the following jobs would best prepare a person for language teaching? (Choose one only).

  •         sports coach
  •         actor
  •         social worker
  •         tour group leader
  •         lecturer
  •         sales person
  •         nurse
  •         driving instructor

What's your metaphor?

The idea (fairly obviously) was to try and tap into their mental image of a teacher, on the grounds that the trainee teacher’s (often implicit) conceptualisation of teaching will impact on the extent to which they identify with the program’s goals. For example, the metaphor TEACHERS ARE LECTURERS clearly doesn’t sit comfortably with the more facilitative teacher role that the CELTA promotes. (Note that it is customary in metaphor studies to represent metaphors using the convention X IS Y).

This interest in teacher’s metaphorical representations dates from a task that was set on my MA at Reading: we were required to experience a series of foreign language lessons (in our case, Japanese) and then – both as a group and individually –  to draw some teaching implications.  Discussing the experience with my fellow ‘students’ , I was struck by the amount of metaphorical language we were using, such as:

“I don’t think the message got through there.”

“I got lost in the amount of information.”

“It was quite difficult to hold on to both structures.”

“You start to see how it falls into place.”

“I couldn’t process it.”                           ¦

“One should’ve focused on the bits of grammar.”

These metaphors became the focus of my assignment, which in turn evolved into an article (Thornbury 1991: you can read it here).  Put simply, I concluded that the metaphors that teachers use to construe learning offer a window into their belief systems, which, in turn, might impact on their teaching. If, for example, you employ the metaphor LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS CODE-BREAKING you may, as a teacher, focus more on the code than on communication, and, by extension, on the way that knowledge of the rules of grammar helps ‘crack the code’.  A recent talk of mine – 7 ways of looking at grammar – takes a similar approach to the history of methodology: the ‘big theories’ of grammar can be captured in different metaphors for the mind.

Other researchers have gone in pursuit of similar quarry.  In an article published in 2001, Rod Ellis used metaphor analysis to compare the way that language learners are construed by researchers and the way that language learners construe themselves. To do this he analysed a small corpus of academic articles on SLA, and found that two dominant metaphors were LEARNER IS A CONTAINER, and LEARNER IS A MACHINE, both of which ‘position learners as lacking control over what they do and how they learn’ (p. 73) . He then looked at learner’s metaphorical constructions of themselves (based on their diary accounts) and found that learners used metaphors of suffering, struggle and of journeying. These metaphors highlighted the affective nature of language learning that the somewhat de-humanised metaphors of the researchers seemed to overlook.

In another very small-scale study (Thornbury 1999) I used metaphors to access learners’ expectations of what a good lesson is like. Using the formula A good English lesson is like [a story, a symphony, a meal, etc)] because…. I found that A LESSON IS A FILM was a popular choice, one reason being that “in a good class there have to be changes of rhythm, it has to be agreeable, amusing, and it has to take place without you realising it. Another student opted for A LESSON IS A PLAY “because one moment you can be enjoying yourself and then at another you have to pay attention to how the play is developing.” I argued that these ‘performance genre’ analogies offer useful pointers to effective lesson planning.

Why is language learning is like ...ing?

All this suggests a useful classroom idea that might raise learners’ awareness about the language learning process: ask them to complete the sentence Learning English (or Japanese or Swahili etc) is like …… because…..  which they then discuss in small groups and in open class. Some picture prompts might help trigger their response.

Finally, as I argued in Thornbury 1991, metaphors offer a potent instrument for teacher development. By reconfiguring classroom practice in terms of novel metaphors, teachers might be assisted in re-imagining their craft.

Rather than, for example, asking “What would be the effect if I did this instead of that?” a more generative approach to problem-setting might be: “What would be the implications if I thought of learning as, say, empowering? Or mythologising? Or as the sonata form? Or as barter? Or as government? Or as dance?”

Dogme ELT represents just such an attempt. By construing learning as emergence, and teaching as scaffolding, teachers are encouraged to shift the focus from knowledge transmission to ‘assisted performance’ (Tharp and Gallimore 1988) with all the methodological implications that such a view entails.


Ellis, R. (2001). The metaphorical construction of second language learners. In Breen, M. (ed.) Learner Contributions to language Learning: New directions in Research. Harlow: Longman.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (1991) Metaphors we work by: EFL and its metaphors. English Language Teaching Journal 45/3: 193-200.

Thornbury, S.  (1999).  Lesson art and design. ELT Journal, 53, 4-11.

Illustrations from Granger, C., & Hicks, T. 1977. Contact English 1 Students’ Book. London: Heinemann Educational.

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24 responses

20 11 2011

Using metaphor to guide ones teaching reminds me of the role of a SCOBA in Concept Based Instruction. Sounds like a useful part of any learning experience, especially when one is learning a skill like teaching and not just a bunch of facts.

Perhaps that was one of the many missing pieces in my CELTA course. Seemed like we were presented a bunch of isolated bits and pieces of conventional wisdom (CW); the sorts of things you might use to *evaluate* a lesson. A good metaphor gives you something extra, something more generative, something that can generally be used to guide our actions and decisions in a classroom.

In light of my classroom teaching experience, I’m not sure the CW bits were either valid or useful. I can’t say that Dogme ELT has helped me in “re-imagining (my) craft”, but that’s only because I didn’t leave my CELTA course with a concept that could guide my teaching. I had to get that from Teaching Unplugged and hours spent applying that in the classroom.

21 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris, for the comment. I’m not sure what SCOBA stands for (and you explain if you have a moment?) but the idea of Concept Based Instruction triggered an association with something that I heard about at the Task-Based Language Teaching conference last weekend. Virginia Samuda was talking about Threshold Concept Theory (Meyer & Land, 2003, 2006, 2010), which distinguishes between ‘core concepts’ – something like ‘received knowledge’ – and ‘threshold concepts’, which open up a different way of thinking about something, and are essentially transformative. Tallking about it afterwards with Virginia, we both agrteed that, for many teachers at least, Dogme ELT has been a threshold concept.

21 11 2011

Scott, do you think that ‘received concept’ and ‘threshold concept’ are more or less synonymous with how Widdowson describes training and education, respectively?


22 11 2011

A SCOBA in this context means “schema for the orienting basis of action” [1]. On re-reading my reference I got something wrong. It isn’t part of Concept Based Instruction after all. SCOBA is part of Gal’perin’s Systemic-Theoretical Instruction program. Here’s a relevant quote:

“Gal’ perin argued that students tend to memorize explanations as rules rather than understand concepts well enough for them to guide practical activity. He … proposed (a) second phase … in which (a) concept is represented visually as a model, graph, or other synthetic depiction. (He) called the materialization of a concept a “schema for the orienting basis of action (SCOBA).”

It seems to me, that a good teacher-metaphor is a model, and “guide(s) practical activity”. Teacher training focusing on “explanations and rules” is easy to do, and is useful in correcting or criticizing. However it’s not really very useful when synthesizing is called for.

[1] Lantolf, J. P. (2011). Sociocultural Approach, In D. Atkinson (Ed.), Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (p. 38). Routledge

23 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris, for that explanation. Now that you mention it, I have read about SCOBA in another book of Jim Lantolf’s (co-written with Steve Thorne), and have even seen Jim give a talk about it. The problem with acronyms – unlike metaphors – is that they lodge less easily in the memory!

20 11 2011

Hi Scott,

Thought-provoking post, as usual!

On our Celta, because it’s unplugged and we don’t give trainees coursebook material to teach from (unless they want it, but most don’t, and only then after the first week), I find that we can get to the belief system underlying their teaching much quicker than if we were to dictate what to teach by opening up a book and selecting a page from it (perhaps even before we have met them or the students!). Their first lesson is simply based upon getting the students talking. The simple construct of the lesson “plan” allows a lot of space for the teacher to exhibit their metaphor, rather than say it. Now, I know this can happen even if given a page from a coursebook (a lecturer will always lecture, a comedian will always tell jokes etc…), but I would argue that we can get to the root of their metaphor in action and much quicker by them not having to fit into the shape provided by the course book writer, but rather having to find their own shape.

I am currently carrying out some research into how much control I have/take over the trainee teachers I work with. (You can read a bit about it on my blog). It’s not my place to make them into the teacher I think they should be, but I think it certainly is my place to make them aware of the teacher they are.


20 11 2011
Language Garden (@DavidWarr)

“…but I think it certainly is my place to make them aware of the teacher they are.”
That’s a very nice statement.

21 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

I concur, David. Very nicely put, Jem.

I’m afraid I can’t give as much attention to these comments as they deserve, as I’m sitting in a café in Te Kuiti, New Zealand, taking advantage of the free wifi access, as I head south. (Te Kuiti, incidentally, is the town in which I watched the moon landing in 1967, footage that had been flown in by jet from Australia, and – although three or four hours old by the time it was screened – was suffiicently ‘live’ not to matter. I don’t know what that might be a metaphor for, but it’s the only coherent thing I’m capable of writing right now, after a gruelling three-hour tramp through the New Zealand bush [= forest]).
More later.

20 11 2011

As usual I hesitate to respond, because my comments are invariably tangental and perhaps I respond to clarify my own thoughts rather than to add to those above. Sunday morning intellectual therapy :-)

My PhD is about teacher autonomy and specifically the reflexive, social ontologies of the teacher-self. As part of this study I have been looking at the embodied self and also the narrative self. The narrative self is a particularly potent (metaphor?) means to capture the metaphors teachers live by. Only this morning I came across this:

‘What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to people to be fixed, canonical and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten as illusions; they are metaphors that have been worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal ands no longer as coins’
Nietzsche, Will to Power.

Daniel Dennett calls metaphors ‘the tools of thoughts’ and argues that ‘it is important to equip yourself with the best set of tools available’.

The metaphors of ecology, emergence, scaffolding, and performance all offer very fruitful and interesting ways to (re)imagine teaching and learning.

What happens, though, when they are no longer novel? No longer evoke a new way of perceiving teaching and learning?
Are we condemned to continually search for new metaphors to make sense of teaching? Does this go some way to explaining why TESOL/TEFL appears restless and forever shifting to new metaphors?

On a completely different note I am reading ‘Minima Ethnographica’ (Michael Jackson) and in it (it is a beautifully written book BTW) he discusses Merleau-Ponty’s idea that silence isn’t the contrary of speech but ‘envelops the speech anew’ and then discusses the use of silence in the Bamama tribe where speech builds the village, silence regenerates the world, speech disperses and silence makes whole, speech burns the mouth and silence heals it. The BaMbuti regard quietness with social cooperation and harmony and noise destroys them.

Are we, perhaps, a little blind in TEFL for the uses of silence? Are we sometimes a little obsessed with conversation and noise? This is why the metaphor of performance troubles me.

20 11 2011
Steve Kirk

I think you’re right about the restlessness of TEFL, Alex. Just when the metaphors have become conventionalised and thus rick slipping below our notice, we try to shake them up with a less embedded way of thinking, with a new metaphor. A strength or a weakness? No doubt the image of the rhizome as a metaphor for connectivist type learning, quite current on many blog discussions of #Change11, will soon become common currency in TEFL too…

20 11 2011
Steve Kirk


20 11 2011
Steve Kirk

I love the jobs metaphor task, Scott. I recently did something not dissimiliar with a group of university lecturers in Engineering, with pictures of a mountain climber, a car mechanic, an orchestra conductor, etc. What was insightful (though not unexpected) was that the professed this-is-me metaphor was largely not in line with what later emerged as their teaching approach (almost universally ‘chalk and talk’). Teacher metaphors for learning and teaching are crucial to what ends up happening in the classroom, I think. I alluded to similar things in relation to Dogme in my (rather long) posting to your TBLT discussion last week. Is it not likely that teachers with different underlying metaphors of teaching will enact Dogme in quite different ways, while assuming they are all ‘doing Dogme’? Is this OK, Scott? How much room for different teacher metaphors does Dogme allow for? If teachers have a mind-as-machine metaphor, are they still Dogme teachers? How many teachers perhaps work with a classroom-as-ecosystem metaphor, but retain notions of language as ‘acquisition’ (having), rather than (e.g.) language as ‘participation’ (doing)? Does this matter, I wonder? Learners learn ‘in spite of’ methods / approaches, of course (I think I am a relative success story of French through PPP!). However, if Lakoff & Johnson are right that metaphors frame the very way we think, at what point might our metaphors of teaching begin to work against what we think we are doing in the classroom, even when we claim we are enacting a Dogme approach?

Meeting Sfard (1998), Diane Larsen-Freeman (in particular, her brilliant 2003 book on ‘languaging’) and Joan Bybee were threshold experiences for me as a teacher. Seeing that usage is grammar and grammar is usage (the participation metaphor again) transformed how I see my own practice and that of my students. This is now one of my own central metaphors. In a notional, in-service Dogme teacher development ‘course’ or collaboration with ‘critical friends’ (presumably observation and discussion based), how essential is it that such underlying teacher metaphors be unearthed and made conscious? Do emergentist / sociocultural / ecological views of language and learning need somehow to be on this ‘syllabus’ for development, if they do not emerge naturally? Would you ‘push’ these views as being most consonant with a Dogme approach? If the idea in itself is not an aberration, what are the metaphors of a Dogme ‘teacher trainer’?

21 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Steve, for another thought-provoking comment. I’m glad you mentioned Sfard, because her distinction between ‘the participation metaphor’ and (I think – but I’m on the road at the moment so can’t check) ‘the acquisition metaphor’ is a crucial one, and seems to underpin a lot of current debates about pedagogy. Clearly, dogme subscribes (implicitly, but often explicitly) to a participation metaphor of learning, not least because of its allegiance to sociocultural theory, and the idea that language learning is both socially motivated and socially mediated. But Sfard herself (if I recall) cautions against a wholesale commitment to one metaphor over another, and suggests that some degree of traffic between the two might be a wiser option.

20 11 2011

What does Dogme ELT have to say when serious mismatches occur between teachers’ metaphorical constructs and students’?

21 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good question. I think Dogme has always taken the line that it is an approach that shouldn’t be imposed, but that it has to be negotiated with learners, and this negotiation process could certainly include some metaphor sharing, and, hoperfully, metaphor alignment. Doing the kinds of explicit metaphor tasks that I suggest in my post might be a way in.

21 11 2011

This year I have done some workshops that reflect my curiosity in the empowerment of metaphor, not so much for us as teachers, but in this case more for our students “If a picture paints a thousand words…..ours or theirs?” In this case the rationale is that working with students to create their own images using a series of activities that inevitably tap into a multi-sensory experience for them, renders the learning process more meaningful and memorable, which is what I am mainly concerned with. We also went on in the same workshop to see how fundamental it is to access metaphor in order to understand where we are at, how we feel about it and where we are going, a technique widely used in coaching. I thought to include a few quotes that spoke to me very clearly of precisely how fascinating and liberating the world of metaphor can be:

“Remembering by metaphor is an ingenious technique that allows us to remedy weaknesses by capitalising our strengths, using things that we CAN visualise, to think, talk and reason about things we CAN’T” (Daniel Gilbert – Stumbling on Happiness)

“Images are essential for us to get meaning out of language, to construct meaning from text and it has even been said that those who cannot imagine, cannot read” (Eisner 1992:125)

“Language is a translation of something else, a conversion from non-linguistic images which stand for entities, events, relationships and inferences…and IMAGERY can help us to reconstruct in the present what we experienced and learned in the past” (Damasio : 2000:107)

“An exchange of words is communicative only when it causes some modification of the IMAGES in the hearer’s mind” (Stevick: 1986:16)

“An important component of motivation is personal meaning and one of the most demotivating factors for learners is when they have to learn something that they cannot see the point of because it has no seeming relevance to their lives. IMAGES, however, are always related to personal meaning, as they come from within us as we read or listen” (Dörnyei:63)

And looking at this from a coaching slant:

“When we find ourselves at impasse, we all begin to tell a story that explains our sense of being stuck or lost. We come bearing information about ourselves that is pre-cognition, pre-language and pre-story – it is that information we need next, al felt sense of “the implicit” (Eugene Gendlin). In order to take hold of “the implicit” we must develop it into the next level of awareness: it must become IMAGE. It is the first glimpse of a part of our reality that is just beyond our reach. Any real vision that can lead us forward can only be built upon and first experienced through IMAGES” (Timothy Butler – Getting Unstuck) – Harvard psychologist Mr Butler also goes on to say that “Crisis is the crucible for the work of making a larger self” so being stuck isn’t bad news in itself!

As a result of my delving deeper into this area, my conviction is that IMAGERY, specifically our students’ imagery, can play a hugely important role in our classrooms and one that is enormously in line with the whole Dogme ELT forum.

21 11 2011

Scott, this is probably my favorite post on the A-Z so far because your post and the ensuing thread, especially Fiona’s post about images, touch on a ‘movement’ that I’ve been exploring; namely, Soul in Education, which would involve re-imagining education as something other than training and information sharing.

Soul in Education would draw upon, among others, the work of the late James Hillman as summarized in a somewhat sloppy wikipedia entry here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Hillman

“The poetic basis of mind places psychological activities in the realm of images. It seeks to explore images rather than explain them. Within this is the idea that by re-working images, that is giving them attention and shaping and forming them until they are clear as possible then a therapeutic process which Hillman calls “soul making” takes place. Hillman equates the psyche with the soul and seeks to set out a psychology based without shame in art and culture. The goal is draw soul into the world via the creative acts of the individual, not excluded it in the name of social order. The potential for soulmaking is revealed in by (sic) psychic images to which a person is drawn and apprehends in a meaningful way. Indeed the act of being drawn to and looking deeper at the images presented creates meaning – that is, soul.”

Hillman is of course concerned primarily with archetypal psychology, but the breadth and depth of his approach leaves plenty of room for education. To me that begs the question: Is language learning education or training? Both? Well, that takes us back to the metaphors we live by, doesn’t it?

Thank you, Scott, and everyone else, for sharing your thoughts, which have illuminated an otherwise dark and blustery morning.


22 11 2011

What a wonderful platform to be able to contribute and share ideas and concerns with other like-minded individuals with common interests and seemingly similar questions keeping them awake at night…….

Thank you Bob for your reference to Hillman, which I have found hugely interesting. In dream analysis, where he talks of “sticking with the image”, i.e. exploring images from our dreams as opposed to letting them tell us what to do with our lives, is indeed a way of finding out where we are in relation to that image now. Therefore by refraining from classifying the image(s) we get though our dreams, which would mainly serve the purpose of putting them back into another box with the liklihood of dismissing them to unconscious oblivion, instead, though exploration, we can keep them alive, thereby offering ourselves a window of opportunity to understand our “psyche” – or “soul” as you also referred to it Bob.

The “soul’s code” that Hillman goes on to describe is an interesting concept, whereby he believes that a 3rd energy “the individual soul” accounts for much of individual character, aspiration and achievement – over and above the traditional “nature and nurture” concept that is often used to define who we are and what we become. I think that Ernest Becker was also referring to this when he talks of a “world of meaningful action”, related to the concept of “depth” in processing language and what it means to us. Stevick, (A Way and Ways) I believe goes on to interpret this as: a “world of meaningful action” is not a flat two-dimensional thing like a map. Its structure has many dimensions and some of its parts are much further from the surface than others….”

It is precisely this I believe that David Grove, and others like him, have set out to explore using “clean language” in coaching, where the world of the client’s metaphor is explored in all possible depth to get below that two-dimensional reality, uncovering a whole new world of meaning and new possibilities for change. This is a concept that I have certainly tried to put to the test in my own coaching training and practice and so far have been surprised by its potential.

Anyone interested might be interested in the links I have included.



Thanks to this proactive mini discussion and great insight from many other areas of this blog, I have discovered the true joy, passion and reason for participating in a blog such as this…..and to even consider starting one…..food for thought! Thank you Scott and all the followers.

23 11 2011

Brilliant! Thank you, Fiona. I think ELT Dogme is all about that ‘third dimension’, that ‘world of meaningful action’ so marvelously described by Stevick (as cited above).


24 11 2011
Steven Herder

I love the way Scott challenges us all to think, and think and think. I can clearly see my teacher beliefs popping up all over the place as I consider each of the jobs, and why I agree or disagree with each metaphor. After two coffees (one hot and one cold) I’ve decided which job metaphor works best for me:
It must be the sports coach for the following three reasons:

1. She explicitly wants us to succeed and is focused on motivating us to reach our goal.

2. She has experience and expertise in what we are trying to do and can nudge us in the right direction with just the right amount of input at just the right time.

3. She knows how to build a team (of athletes or learners) and she understands the power of teamwork, cooperation and competition among the team members.

In my opinion, and certainly based on how I approach the classroom, The sports coach embodies what I aim to make happen with each team of learners that walk into my classroom.


24 11 2011

Definitely Steven – and I would also include that Scott together with other interested followers not only challenge us to think, think, think, but also to FEEL, FEEL, FEEL our way through the processes. THINKING about what David Goleman says about emotional intelligence:

“An emotion is a response to a stimulus. The emotion mobilises the senses, the intellect and energy that lead us to action” – so we are back in the familiar waters of the 3rd dimension again…………..

29 11 2011
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote to the above discussion, I’ve just taken delivery of Graham Hall’s excellent Exploring English Language Teaching: Language in Action (Routledge, 2011) in which he writes: “Dogme or unplugged teaching is interesting in a number of ways. As a metaphor, Dogme is both a way of teaching and an overt atttiude to teaching… The beliefs and values that underpin Dogme teaching and its associated literature seem clear – teaching should be materials-light and conversation-driven, with language said to ‘emerge’ given the right classroom conditions. The Dogme metaphor offers a shortcut to this set of principles and practices” (p. 40).

It’s both topical that Graham should see Dogme in metaphorical terms, and also encouraging to have been granted this ‘establishment’ recognition, so soon after the TBLT conference in Auckland.

21 03 2012

So is “Picture paints a thousand words” a metaphor

23 03 2012

Funnily enough this was the title of a workshop I gave last year at a number of conferences, to highlight the importance of tapping into our students’ images in order to access a deeper layer of meaning, indeed to connect to our subconscious minds. (I think that we all too often as teachers bring our own pictures or impersonal images into the classroom, thereby denying access to the rich tapestry of meaning that can come from the student’s own images and uses of metaphor). At the close I invited all those who had kindly attended the session to think about the second part of the line in the classic by Bread….then why can’t I paint you?

I recently found something interesting that Nick Owen says in his book “The Magic of Metaphor” when talking about the elusiveness of precision and the power of ambiguity.

“Sometimes, the very vagueness of the metaphor allows the listener-reader to do the very inner work they most need. If you want to know more about the power of artfully vague language and its power to heal, I suggest you read the works of the wizard Milton Erickson. It is not just the story and metaphor that are ambiguous”, the Master continued. “Ambiguity is at the very heart of language. After all, language is a representation of something, not the thing itself. You do not eat the menu in a restaurant, the words don’t taste the same as the food. Except of course in some fast food chains where the menu possibly tastes better than the food itself”.

He goes on to highlight the advantages of using “unframed” stories as a springboard to metaphor:

“Unframed stories leave interpretation open to chance. On the other hand, if a communicator knows the other person well, he or she will be able to predict the possible response of the listener-reader to the story. This is a particularly useful application for a parent, teacher, health worker, coach or a therapist. Although the storyteller leaves the metaphor unframed, the receiver provides their own frame as a result of their present preoccupation or the current situation”.

I wonder if this, to a degree at least, answers your question?

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