T is for Transmission

13 01 2013

teacher dixon 01“I do agree that it takes multiple aspects of learning L2 with frequent reviews for learners to absorb information”.

So wrote one of my online MA students on a discussion board last semester. The course I was teaching was on second language acquisition, and the tasks that they were asked to engage with focused on their reading (of the core texts), their teaching experience, and their experience themselves as second language learners.

What I started to notice (and then couldn’t stop noticing!) was the persistence of the metaphor of language learning being like absorbing information.  In one form or another, it came up again and again. Here’s a sample:

1. I figure out what the teacher wants/requires then take the info she/he provides and jumble/distribute/ teach it to myself in the way I know I’ll absorb the information then come back to class.
2. I like to think there’s just a few broad types of ways students will absorb/process/react to the information and refine from there as needed.
3. Spending time around Spanish speakers, absorbing information incidentally while being able to produce the language…
4. While students must be active during input for acquisition to happen, it nonetheless has a more passive nature to it, something along the lines of absorbing the information.

(Note that the students used the ‘absorb information’ metaphor to describe, not just language teaching, but their own experience of second language learning).

This prompted me to see if there was anything else, apart from information, that is ‘absorbed’. In fact, there’s a lot: pronunciation, grammar, language in general. Again – a few items from my ‘corpus’:

5. The students that already knew how to write became much better speakers than I was because they just needed to absorb the pronunciation.
6. I learned syntax, grammar and vocabulary in school but I found that communicative interaction was a key factor in absorbing the language.
7. I like the idea of not stressing the order of which students absorb input fully

Interestingly, if you check the principal noun collocates of the verb ‘absorb’ in a corpus of general English, this is what you get (in order of frequency): water, light, heat, energy, shock, moisture, information. That is to say, information is the most frequent non-physical entity that is absorbed, and it does this, it would seem, because it shares conceptual space with fluids and energy sources. A metaphor of information absorption construes the mind as a kind of sponge.

The idea that information is a physical substance, either liquid or solid, was instantiated in a number of comments:

8. I agree that a good teacher does make all the difference as to whether the information sticks.
9. Drilling stores that information somewhere
10. At least my mind holds on to information I can associate with real life application better than abstract ideas.
11. Each method has some effect on each kid, but for each kid, one of those methods would really cement the information in their minds.

Alternatives to absorbing information included taking it in and retaining it:

12. If you [find] that the students are learning and retaining information, there is no need to change how they learn that information
13. Students intake information based on their individual needs or circumstances.
14. [I] find this interesting from a teaching viewpoint because you see how different information is garnered by the students
15. I subscribe more to the connectivist idea that you learn by taking in information over and over again

teacher dixon 02.jpegAnd, it’s hardly surprising to note that this somewhat passive view of learning was matched by an active, transmissive view of teaching, whereby information is delivered in some form or other:

16. It is my role to present information about the language, whether it be grammatical rules, vocabulary, or cultural situations
17. I have since learned to trim up my syllabi, as well as the information that is directly given to students so as to lessen anxiety
18. We are given a textbook and it is up to us to convey the information in whatever manner we choose.
19. Teachers then have to get that information out using other mediums such as handouts or PowerPoints

Teaching-as-transmission is a way of conceptualizing education consistent with the so-called ‘conduit metaphor’ of communication (Reddy 1979: 288), in which information, encoded in words, is transmitted from speaker to listener who ‘must find the meaning “in the words” and take it out of them so that it gets “into his [or her] head”’.  Likewise, as Barnes (1976: 142) described it, the transmission teacher ‘sees it as his [or her] task to transmit knowledge and to test whether the pupils have received it. To put it crudely, he [or she] sees language as a tube down which knowledge can be sent; if a pupil catches the knowledge he [or she] can send it back up the tube’.

The question is: are there other ways of thinking about (and hence talking about) language, and about the teaching-learning process, that don’t presuppose a conduit metaphor?

What I found slightly dispiriting about the ‘absorbing information’ comments on the discussion board was that they persisted the length of the course, even after we had spent some time looking at alternative models of language acquisition, including the ‘participation’ metaphor (Sfard 1998). Which left me wondering: Is the transmission model so inextricably lodged in the minds of teachers? What alternative metaphors are there? What might it take to ‘change the chip’?


Barnes, D. (1976) From Communication to Curriculum, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Reddy, M.J.  (1979)  ‘The conduit metaphor: a case of frame conflict in our language about language’, in Ortony, A. (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one,’ Educational Researcher, March, 4-13.

Illustrations from Dixon, F.G. (n.d.) Método Práctico de Inglés: Primer Libro, Barcelona: Massé, 15th  edition and 33rd edition.



69 responses

13 01 2013

A belated welcome back to the blogosphere! Sundays are suddenly much more interesting again.

(Slightly aside from the view learning as information collection)
As I read this I was thinking of the distinction between “learning” and “acquiring” and wondering if “absorb” sort of fits along with what many people might be thinking of when they talk about acquisition.

Just a thought probably one that doesn’t do much to answer the big questions that you have asked here.


14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mike!

You are “wondering if “absorb” sort of fits along with what many people might be thinking of when they talk about acquisition”.

Yes, I think you’re right, and maybe I would have reacted less negatively had my students said ‘acquired’ rather than ‘absorbed’. After all, ‘acquisition’ is the technical term for it, and, as you suggest, has been tweaked (by Krashen) to exclude formal instruction.

(It still doesn’t get round the ‘information’ issue, of course).

13 01 2013
Chris Ożóg

Hi Scott,

I really enjoyed this post while absorbing my morning coffee here at work. It is very interesting that the majority of your students make use of this metaphor of absorbing language. It’s one I personally don’t like – though I have a friend who will rant at you for half an hour if you even so much as suggest a child has a mind like a sponge – as it suggests knowledge is an entity which I, as teacher, provide for my students to consume, like a waiter bringing a diner a pizza. I’m no solipsist, but I don’t see this as working in language learning, and more probably in all learning.

For me, the principle risk of this metaphor for teachers is a related tendency to explain or lecture, rather than to create the conditions for natural interaction between learners in the target language. I’ve experienced this as a learner, a teacher and a trainer and I don’t like it. I see language as a means to communicate; that is, it is not subject knowledge that is being transmitted from me to learner in my teaching, and so I see my role as more that like that mentioned above – creating conditions for interaction and then working on the different skills required to help learners improve their skills for communicating. In a nutshell, I’m helping my learners use English, rather than teaching them what it is (I did that at uni when I studied English Language or electives in Linguistics – that’s completely different to language teaching/learning) and this requires interaction (or participation in the learning process, if you prefer). Of course, I have to input various things as we go along, but that’s more as a means of helping the learners improve their skills rather than transmit knowledge (the idea of ‘the better other’, basically).

I sometimes try to help CELTA candidates who have problems with simply lecturing the students by explaining something relatively difficult and then asking if they’ve got it and can do/use it. I usually use something like the Spanish subjunctive to really make the point that, unless they are actively involved in what I’m talking about, they’re highly unlikely to accurately form – let alone actually use – said maldito subjunctive and they won’t retain it the next day (this sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but one does what one can). In short, I think replacing transmission with participation would do the world of good to people’s subconsciousness opinions of what both teaching and learning are.


14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Chris writes “the principle risk of this metaphor for teachers is a related tendency to explain or lecture, rather than to create the conditions for natural interaction between learners in the target language”.

I couldn’t agree more, Chris, and it seems to me that any metaphor of transmission (and I accept Declan’s point below, and Mike’s implication above, that the ‘absorption’ metaphor needn’t necessarily imply active transmission) runs this risk. By extension, any change in actual classroom practice might be contingent upon a shift in ways of thinking about learning – a metaphor upgrade, if you like.

13 01 2013
Jane Purrier

With the (truly) deepest respect I think you might have lost sight of the wood for the trees. We’re talking about teaching here, surely the transfer of knowledge from those who have to those who haven’t. I suggest the problem is the word ‘conduit’ which, at least to my mind, implies linearity and, secondarily, single directional flow. Very teacher-centered and static. For adults and teenagers who come to the ELT classroom (or any classroom for that matter) with all sorts of educational baggage and expectations the dynamic towards a ‘conduit’ comes as much from them as from the teacher. In the pre-primary and primary ELT classroom not only is the physical narrative dynamic and various (ie teacher and students tend to dance around the classroom a lot) but because the students are in full language learning mode any linguistic information they receive from the teacher, or anywhere else, triggers some sort of exponential brain activity and somehow they end up building on that information, and creating more. I used to think of what we primary ELT teachers do as akin to throwing up handfuls of multicolored confetti and watching as the students rush around gathering it up; but now I see it as more akin to sowing seeds. Nothing mystic, just pushing on an open door really, not a conduit in sight.

13 01 2013

But do we have the seeds to sow? And how do you know that what emerges from the soil has anything to do with what you pushed into it?

It strikes me that what all educationalists do is not best captured with images of planting, nurturing, pushing, pouring etc.

What I think we do is participate. As humans we are engaged in a process of joint discovery every time that we work with other people. As we move forward in our discovery, we have access to a number of tools that our students do not have. Teaching, I think, is really the process of putting students in situations where the need for tool use becomes obvious and then helping them build the tools that they need.

Rather than a stock of knowledge that can be pulled on from time to time, it seems to me that learning results in a stock of experiences that can be drawn on in future situations. Teachers have only very limited ability in shaping these experiences because they are only one (often highly insignificant) shaping factor. Other factors include mood, volition, motivation, family, location, weather, nutrition…well…everything else.

What then is the teacher’s job? To facilitate activities that result in language use; to be able to help students in their exploration of their own particular language systems; but, above all, like doctors, to do no harm.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jane, for the comment. I can’t add much more than what the ‘thesecretdos’ has already said, except to say that I would query your definition of teaching as ‘the transfer of knowledge’. While this may be the case for some subjects (math? history? – although even here I doubt it), language learning seems to be a special case, where there is little or no causal relation between knowledge and use. That is to say, the knowledge that is transferred (the ‘information’, as my students might put it) remains inert unless put to communicative use. As Brumfit (2001) put it, ‘We may learn the tokens of language formally, but we learn the system by using it through reading or writing, or conversing’.

13 01 2013
Karenne Sylvester

Excellent, thought-provoking post which makes me really question what I “do” say rather than what I think I say or even really do think about this. Nonetheless, as I’m pressed for time and know that if I don’t comment now, I’ll forget to come back… When Elementary level students ask me if they can move up to the IELTS level class, and I have to tell them they aren’t ready yet – I generally try to explain language as being like building a new house, that they can’t yet start making decisions about which colour curtains to buy until the foundation of the house has been built. In other words, I try to use a “construction” metaphor, that their knowledge is built brick by brick… Does that help?

13 01 2013
Neil Harris

I’m with Karenne both in terms of the construction metaphor and the disconnect (at least in my case) between what I hope /say that I do and what I fear that I do.
The transmission and conduit metaphors surely see the language classroom as a system in which knowledge passes from the knowing teacher to the unknowing/less knowing learner? In that case what about knowledge co-construction? How happy are we with the possibly unconscious discourse of student as empty milk bottle to be filled?
I work in EAP where content as well as language count and this forces me to address the issue of the students knowing more than me about content areas. In turn, for them, language both transmits and at the same time makes the content itself. I certainly don’t claim to be successful all the time in facilitating sessions where knowledge is co-constructed by the students, but this is my aim. Likewise, when I have my CELTA hat on, I really try to engage trainees in an understanding of Vygotsky and how handing over to students to struggle with concepts and “getting it” collaboratively in their own terms rather than receiving information passively from the teacher is a valid option.
The disconnect? When my students and I looked at Google searches last week for their research, was my initial lecture no more than knowledge transmission? Very probably! Should we have gone straight into the follow-up, practical problem-solving workshop in which the students experienced for themselves the success or otherwise of their search strings? Almost certainly! It is hard, especially in my view with lower level EFL classes, to achieve co-construction even most of the time, but I suspect this may be to do with what we teach most of all. If the focus is shifted away from “today I’m teaching you the present perfect” to “today is about nature and nurture and identical twins”, maybe things would look different. And Cutting Edge does that for us in the Jim Twins activity (I have a copy to hand but either Int or Pre-int)

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Karenne, it would seem to a ‘knowledge construction’ metaphor is perhaps a better reflection of how skills are developed, especially if we think of it as ‘joint construction’ (where the co-constructors could be anyone – siblings, parents, teachers, fellow students…).

I’m not so sure about the ‘brick by brick’ part of the metaphor, though – which – in construing language (in this case) as discrete items of knowledge – rather plays into the hands of the grammar syllabus designers, and, (worse!) the examination boards. Can you have a construction metaphor that doesn’t involve bricklaying!?

13 01 2013

There’s an old anecdote which one of my DELTA teachers told us that I remember fondly. It goes something like this: A teacher was asked what they did one lesson and replied: “Well, I did the present perfect. I’ve no idea what the students did though.”

Of course, our wise teacher knows that there is no easy relationship between teaching and learning; one does not simply cause the other to happen. That is to say, teachers cannot magically transmit learning to their students, no matter how talented they might be.

In line with the implication of this anecdote, I think that ultimately it is the student who largely controls their education, ironically. I see the teacher’s role in terms of helping to create good conditions for learning to take place and training students to become effective self-assessors, rather than beaming knowledge straight into learners’ heads.

You ask: “What alternative metaphors are there?” Well, I view the teaching-learning relationship through a botanical metaphor: the teacher, if they are successful, can give students “a seed of learning”, let’s say, but it is up to the learners themselves to plant this seed and then water and cultivate it.

It is no accident that some of the most talented speakers of foreign languages are the ones that mainly taught themselves.

Is is a depressing and retrograde step, therefore, that the current conservative Government in the UK are planning to bring back the transmission-model of learning, which they consider to be much more “rigorous” than (what they view as) limp-wristed, left-wing, “facilitator” models of teaching.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Nice comment, Wes – and certainly metaphors of ‘gardening’ sound less transmissive, and therefore more learner/learning-centred, than the conduit metaphor. Nevertheless, even here there are problems, since the implication that the teacher ‘gives’ the seed still suggests what Freire (in Pedagogy of the Oppressed) called an “act of depositing … in which the students are the depositeries and the teacher is the depositor”. Moreover, a ‘seed of learning’ could be considered just another way of ‘reifying’ knowledge – maybe not as clunky as Karenne’s ‘bricks’ (sorry Karenne!), but still congruent with my students’ ‘bits of information’ metaphor.

13 01 2013
Carol Goodey

While I’d agree that teaching language is not simply a matter of transmitting knowledge about the language from one head to another, I’m fairly convinced that we do absorb language, and information about language, when learning or acquiring it and I’m not certain that we necessarily need to participate actively in the process as we do, as long as the language around us has some meaning for us or we can start to assign meaning to it.

As I read through your post, many examples of when people appear to have learned or improved through absorbing information came to mind. My three-year-old daughter in kindergarten in Flanders didn’t speak a word of Dutch for over a year. She didn’t have to. The teacher could speak English. But then when the teacher unfortunately ‘forgot’ all her English one night, my daughter had no choice. At that point, the extent of what she had absorbed from what was going on around her was clear. A greater proportion of people who live in areas where television programmes and films are broadcast in the original language do seem to be better at using those languages than those in areas where such programmes are dubbed into the local language. Extensive listening such as this, as well as extensive reading are thought to be excellent ways to develop your language abilities and my own personal experience as well as my discussions with learners reinforces this for me.

So, I’m not surprised that the comments about ‘absorbing information’ persisted. I think we do absorb information. I also think we learn by participation and that participation can be an excellent motivator as well as a source of information to be absorbed. Perhaps there is room for several metaphors since people learn (and prefer to learn) in different ways.

13 01 2013

Hi Carol
For me the issue is one of action: absorption is passive; participation is about active meaning making. Research has -probably quite unnecessarily- suggested that we don’t learn from things that we don’t notice. What makes us notice something is clearly then worthy of some investigation. I suspect that it is because the “something” is of temporary benefit to us.

At the back of my mind is the feeling that language learning is really about gathering together the raw materials that we need to help us achieve some concrete timebound goal. The metaphor that I would like to be smart enough to capture is one that would include this disposable nature of learning. It comes, it serves its purpose, it gets recycled. I have the feeling that we are not receptacles for an ever-increasing body of knowledge but we are a waiting room for all sorts of experiences that are in transit. They arrive; they wait for their train and they move on to other places. As they travel, they sit next to other experiences and chat about whatever is most appropriate: like people, they take on completely different identities depending on whom they are chatting to: they are lotharios, football experts, deep and reverent thinkers, mundane and blithe, stuttering fools, loquacious bores, wet wannabes and ideological fundamentalists. To all external appearances, they are the same unchanging experience; but the value of external appearance, as anyone who has tried to judge a book, is questionable.

To come up with a more productive metaphor, perhaps the secret is to see things as less discrete: don’t look at the teacher and the student, nor the classroom and the outside of the classroom. Make the unit of analysis much bigger and see what happens to the whole when just a minute little part of it is manipulated.

Eh? If human knowledge is the whole, what happens when an atom of that knowledge (perhaps a classroom) is manipulated by allowing something as small as an neutron (perhaps a teacher) to manipulate an electron (perhaps the topic of conversation)? Oft-times, nothing happens. But sometimes, the organism registers some small change. As we look at the nature of the proton (the neutrino, the anti-neutrino, the quark etc), we can see other variables. We can also submit the electron to further examination.

Early on Sunday morning and here I am wondering if I am the first person to use sub-atomic physics as a metaphor for language learning. If so, I am going to spend the rest of the day planning how to spend the winnings of my Nobel prize.

13 01 2013
Carol Goodey

Okay, if absorption is too passive, perhaps we could think of what happens in the examples I gave as gathering – a bit more actively. Through exposure to lots of language, we gather those bits that will be useful for own needs, purposes and contexts – these purposes could be to understand and participate in what’s going on around us, to enjoy ourselves, to learn etc – while maybe not necessarily being fully aware of what we are doing.

At times there will be specific contexts where we need particular words or phrases. For these we can go hunting in the dictionary, on Google, in a grammar reference book, in a classroom, etc

Therefore, language learning can be seen as hunting and gathering. I like this, because it emphasises the need for students to do the learning.

The role of teachers then would be to help learners locate what they are hunting for or want to gather, tell them what to look out for and avoid, and perhaps even have a stock of emergency supplies that they can hand over to the learner to use in particular contexts or for particular purposes.

Or, it COULD be like subatomic physics….

15 01 2013

Scott writes:

“However, there’s another sense of absorption that I wouldn’t want to lose, and that is what we mean when we say that someone is ‘absorbed’ in an activity. Again, this seems to suggest a greater degree of attention and engagement, not dissimilar to ‘flow’ perhaps.”

I think this is important, but not to be separated. Continuing the thread of sociocultural theory, I think we could say that appropriation (or internalisation) can really only occur when a learner is absorbed (or engaged, or participating) in object-oriented, collective and culturally mediated human activity. Rather than the teacher (expert other) transferring knowledge, she/he is leading the activity and modelling (in many forms) so that the learner can creatively imitate and “take over” (to return to your earlier post on imitation.

Thanks for returning to your blog and stirring up the pot!

15 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for joining the discussion, Phil, and contributing that succinct summary of Vygotskyan learning theory. It’s worth underscoring the fact, perhaps, that Vygotsky wasn’t talking so much about internalizing ‘knowledge’ (or, as my students might put it, ‘information’) but of the psychological tools which would allow them to regulate their own thinking.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Carol – ‘there is room for several metaphors’ – indeed! And the title of Sfard’s paper (‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’) is telling. The whole business of language, of language learning and of language use is just too complex to be packaged into a neat metaphor – or two. I guess what was at issue with my students is that the ‘absorbing information’ metaphor seemed to be so dominant, almost to the exclusion of any other metaphor, and – more worryingly – so entrenched.

You also add that you think “we do absorb information”. If you mean (and I think you do) that a lot of learning is incidental, even subliminal, I think most scholars would agree, although the jury is still out as to how much conscious attention is necessary to transfer input into intake (see my post on A is for Attention, for example). In the end it’s an issue of terminology and register, perhaps: ‘absorbing information’ not having the right academic ring to it, as compared to ‘learning incidentally’, say.

14 01 2013
Carol Goodey

I’m trying to identify why I’m so drawn to concept of absorption. I returned to your students’ statements and there is a sense in some that absorbing the language is not simply a way of learning or taking in information, but a deeper stage of learning where the language becomes part of the person (it soaks in) and it’s available to be used when needed without much effort. This is probably the same as acquiring the language but as a metaphor there is something very appealing about absorbing.

I also think it can be useful in thinking about the stages of learning. I think people possibly do need to let the language they’re learning soak in. They need to relax with the language, use it, enjoy it, not fret about it or work too hard at it all the time.


14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Carol, I can see where you’re coming from (people always use this expression when they’re about to disagree with you, don’t they?! Like: ‘I take your point’. Meaning they don’t).

I suppose I would call this deeper level of internalization something like ‘appropriation’, in the original sense of ‘making something one’s own’. And I would use ‘appropriation’ because it situates my ‘metaphor’ within a sociocultural paradigm. As Jim Lantolf (2000: 13-14) summarises it: ‘Internalization… assumes that the source of consciousness resides outside of the head and is in fact anchored in social activity. At first the activity of individuals is organised and regulated (i.e. mediated) by others, but eventually, in normal development, we come to organise and regulate our own mental and physical activity through the appropriation of the regulatory means employed by others. At this point psychological functioning comes under the voluntary control of the person’ (emphasis added).

However, there’s another sense of absorption that I wouldn’t want to lose, and that is what we mean when we say that someone is ‘absorbed’ in an activity. Again, this seems to suggest a greater degree of attention and engagement, not dissimilar to ‘flow’ perhaps.

14 01 2013
Carol Goodey

Thanks Scott. Appropriation does seem to cover what I was trying to express – and what your students might mean in some of the statements above. Good job you could see where I was coming from 😉

14 01 2013
Emma Herrod

Scott and Carol,

It won’t seem to allow me to reply below Scott’s response below, so I’ll pop it in here and hope it makes sense.

I am right with you here Carol, and Scott’s observation regarding the need for initial organisation and regulation by others, followed (hopefully) by an ability for self-regulation, is precisely one of the ‘nurturing’ metaphors I like so much in an image of L2 acquisition being akin to plants. The teacher is allowed to tend to the process of learning at the outset, stepping back as and when the learner feels ready, but always ready to lend support and extra advice when needed.

I’m not sure it actually matters who brings the seeds at the outset. Some will be teacher-provided, others will come from the students or from outside. Other may just be found lying around the class room.

I’m sure it’s possible to go too far with a metaphor, but this one is kind of fun 🙂 I’d like to get a “frost protection” reference in, but it feels tacky!

All the best,

13 01 2013

“language learning can be seen as hunting and gathering” – there’s definitely something here and it is redolent of Leo van Lier’s ecological perspective. Hunters and gatherers operated in a landscape that they were only able to influence minutely and they were dependent upon the environment for their survival (and, indeed, for their actions – no point in hunting and gathering if there is no environment for hunting and gathering in). What they took from their environment either sustained them or killed them.

I’m not sure about the role of the teacher as you see it: there’s too much deliberate agency tied up there, I think. I think (as in I suspect) that the teacher IS rather than DOES. The teacher is the person who seems to be better equipped to do whatever it is that needs to be done. This perception, I venture, suggests that even a “student” can be a teacher: if they are capable of finding the roots, catching the critter etc effectively, all will follow their example. This then changes the experience that is being undergone and a new set of strategies and skills is incorporated into the existential waiting room.

13 01 2013
Carol Goodey

I’m not sure I understand the problem with deliberate agency. If the teacher is the one who is better equipped to do whatever needs to be done, then until they DO something to help the other be better equipped, they can’t BE the teacher, can they? If we see the positions of teacher and student as being roles people take on in a learning situation, then the one who helps the other become more competent in whatever they’re doing, IS the teacher because of what they DO. These roles could even switch as different challenges are encountered.

So, I’d agree that the ‘student’ can be the teacher. Peer learning and education sees this as a useful way to approach learning. But I think there is still a place for a teacher who not only knows how to do something – and can demonstrate and lead by example – but who also understands the steps and processes involved in developing the requisite knowledge, skills and understanding – and the different ways of doing this – and therefore in a better position to guide others.

13 01 2013
Ann O'Nymous

I think I mean that we should be wary of imbuing the teacher with too much agency in case we are prevented from seeing the agency of students. Believing is seeing, as the saying doesn’t go. The teacher is whoever is teaching – not just the designated manager.

I think there is something very important to getting beyond the roles and REALLY seeing all the individuals as belonging to the one unit of the community. If this can be achieved, a wholly new outlook on teaching and leading is obtainable.

The employee “teacher”is really there to control the variables. Their job is to contrive activities and exchanges that allow students to live experiences in L2 and to help the, understand how they lived these experiences. Part of their job is also to create the illusion that change is capable of falling under our control.

As participants within the culture, students are as likely to be taking the lead as teachers are. Where students differ from teachers is that they do not need to be as conscious of the artifice of learning as the teacher does. The teacher IS responsible for developing their awareness of it because it is THEY whose presence is most likely to be disruptive of learning.

14 01 2013
Carol Goodey

I see what you’re saying and agree that it is important recognise the agency of students and what they can bring to their own learning and the learning of others.

13 01 2013
Declan Cooley

Metaphors are inextricable means of talking about abstractions and it is very hard if not impossible to escape them when discussing a subject such as teaching and learning languages. It may be that, as mentioned above, no one metaphor can capture all the aspects of the topic and like the six blind men and the elephant we approach the subject with six different metaphors, some more compatible with each other more than others.

There are probably some distinctions to be made even within the many general ‘conduit’ metaphors seen in the examples above.

METAPHOR 1: TEACHING IS TRANSMITTING A SIGNAL and LEARNING IS RECEIVING A SIGNAL seems to illustrate a situation where there is massive exposure but not all of the information can be utilized if the student is not ‘tuned in’ or ‘getting good reception’ or ‘on the same wavelength’. In other words, there is also the idea that the material received (radio waves) are meaningless without a radio apparatus (the mind as machine) to ‘unpack’ the waves and convert them into useful data. The MIND IS A MACHINE metaphor is very much prevalent in English (we say “I could see the cogs turning” “my brain was ticking over” “I’m a bit rusty” etc.) so this ‘invented’ educational metaphor simply takes advantage of a metaphor naturally occurring in the language.

METAPHOR 2. : LEARNING IS ABSORBING A LIQUID / THE MIND IS A (DEAD) SPONGE: this metaphor I think shares the idea of the previous metaphor with the picture of an all-encompassing exposure which can only be captured if conditions are right i.e. the lacunae exist for the liquid to be ‘absorbed’. However, the mind here seems to be a more passive ‘apparatus’ and, given that the sponge is no longer the living creature it originally was, can do nothing to increase or decrease its success at absorption. However, the sponge is closer to being an organic entity and in that sense is more identical in a biological way to the actual brain/mind than a radio. The liquid is not really differentiated and does not seem to have an internal structure (which the waves have to some extent) and is therefore seen as homogeneous – to use mixed metaphors for a moment- a ‘wall of sound’ coming from the teacher (‘white noise’ is some cases or is this in the ear of the beholder ?). It is worth mentioning that THE MIND IS A (DEAD) SPONGE is a flowery version of THE MIND IS A CONTAINER, part of the ‘conduit’ metaphor – so again an educational metaphor is an extension/elaboration of a conceptual metaphor already occurring in the language.

As hinted at above, these metaphors are rather unlike a ‘conduit’ metaphor as the information is not delivered by a pipe but rather propagated and dispersed. However, they share the idea of unidirectional flow.

To finish with conduits, Zoltán Kövecses (Metaphor, OUP, 2010) outlines these features of the conceptual metaphor:

In light of this, METAPHOR 1. chimes with this idea seeing as the radio waves are the containers of meaning which must be altered in some way to get at the meaning within – the student is more active here. For METAPHOR 2. the only way to reconcile all the features of the conduit metaphor as listed above with the idea of a sponge is if the sponge is a living object; in other words, if we change the metaphor to THE MIND IS A (LIVING) SPONGE it is more compatible with MEANINGS ARE OBJECTS & LINGUISTIC EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS FOR MEANING OBJECTS. In this case, the water is simply the container of nutrient particles which must be “extracted” from the medium in order to be utilised. This makes the student a slightly more active participant in the process.

Talking in metaphors can make life simple, but perhaps oversimplify complex processes. Both metaphors above can be seen as unsatisfactory in many ways – we are right to ask : what are the alternatives ?

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Declan – great comment, and thanks for teasing apart the different ‘transmission/conduit’ metaphors, which I had rather clumsily conflated in my original post, failing to flag a difference between teaching-as-transmission and learning-as-absorption, analogous to Krashen’s distinction between learning and acquisition, perhaps (as Mike sagely pointed out above). Either way, there seems to be an alternative view, which is neither transmission nor absorption, what Sfard calls the participation metaphor: ‘In the image of learning that emerges from this linguistic turn, the permanence of having gives way to the flux of doing. While the concept of acquisition implies that there is a clear endpoint to the process of learning, the new terminology leaves no room’ (1998: 6).

But (as Sfard says and as you say and as I said to Carol) it would be unwise to buy into just one metaphor. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a very human tendency to pigeon-hole, or to view reality through a very narrow lens, making multiple perspectives difficult if not impossible. How difficult it is to construe matter as both particles and waves, for example! But until we learn to see language in like fashion, are we compelled to teach it as if it were the former?

13 01 2013
Jonny Lewington

Partly, I think this comes down to the constant need which is impressed upon all of us to stop using the words ‘teach’ and ‘learn’. We have all been trained not to say ‘I will teach x, my students will learn y’. But without actually fully replacing the view of learning that this language involves, people just use lexical substitues instead. We would say the learners will ‘aquire’, but that term is loaded too. So we end up with ‘absorb’ as a substitute, but what we really mean is just ‘learn’. The shifting of terms being used only conceals the persistence of this ‘outdated’ view of teaching and learning.

I also suspect that part of the problem is to do with seeing language as ‘information’ in the first place- which implies that there is some sort of discrete item list which needs to be passed on to students item by item. So long as we stick with this view, we have no choice but to expect students to ‘absorb’ the information that we think they need to learn.

Perhaps an alternative metaphor might be one of ‘guiding’ and ‘discovering’. If we think more about a teacher being a guide, helping students learn their way around a difficult terrain, so that one day they may navigate it unguided.

possible examples:

‘I like the idea of not stressing the order of which students absorb input fully’ might become ‘I like the idea of not stressing the exact paths which learners take in finding their way to using the language’;

‘At least my mind holds on to information.’ might become ‘At least my mind remembers its way around the language…;, and

‘Teachers then have to get that information out ‘ might be ‘teachers then have to map the language points out’… etc.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

“I also suspect that part of the problem is to do with seeing language as ‘information’ in the first place- which implies that there is some sort of discrete item list which needs to be passed on to students item by item” – yes, good point, Jonny. The discussion has tended to focus on the ‘absorption’ aspect of the metaphor, but you are right, I think, in being suspicious of the LANGUAGE IS INFORMATION part of it. Here, for example, is another statement from my ‘student corpus’ that i didn’t include in the original blog post but which captures this viewpoint succinctly: “time constraints are always an issue and we as teachers try our best to cover the “important” information”.

The idea that grammar consists of ‘information’ to be ‘covered’ (rather than, perhaps, ‘meaning potential to be uncovered’) is an issue I attempt to address in ‘Uncovering Grammar’, as it happens.

13 01 2013
Jason West

Language is data. The more of the right kind of data your L2 learner ‘s brain can get the better for pattern recognition linked to meaning.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

A provocative stance, Jason! While it’s true that usage-based theories (with some support from connectionist modelling of the way neural networks are configured by input) suggest that we are hard-wired to abstract patterns from data, the fact is that – however much data you throw in the way of learners – they do not in fact abstract the patterns in anything like the way that they should, if it were simply a case that (SL) learning is purely induction. As I (shamefully) report, I read an average of 5000 words in Spanish daily, but cannot for the life of me squeeze out a subjunctive in face-to-face interaction!

14 01 2013
Jason West (@EnglishOutThere)

I agree Scott. But have you tried preparing some questions to use in conversation that require use of the subjunctive, then recording your conversations (try four or five with with different fluent Spanish speakers, some online using Skype and the free MP3recorder for Skype and some face-to-face using your phone to record). Then listening to the recordings two or three times again on your iPod or phone? Listening to the recordings dramatically increases the amount of relevant data at the right level and you should start to feel more comfortable. Let me know how it goes.

13 01 2013
Declan Cooley

Other metaphors often encountered are those popping up above – seem to be the LEARNING IS BUILDING A HOUSE and LEARNING IS GROWING A PLANT [with the teacher/classroom seemingly the supplier of building blocks (LANGUAGE ITEMS ARE BUILDING BLOCKS) and seeds for germination (LANGUAGE ITEMS ARE SEEDS) (?)] The conduit model is still here I would argue in the sense of the teacher supplying an object but perhaps differs from the radio/sponge metaphors in that the objects need to be arranged/altered to create a pattern for the construction of a dynamic system – buildings being perhaps less dynamic than plants.

To contrast these conceptual metaphors, the ‘building blocks’ are more homogeneous than ‘seeds’, the latter having an internal structure and internal blueprint as it were for development (DNA?). The building blocks do not suggest any particular structure and fit anywhere so it is left to surmise on the basis of what design the house will be built – perhaps it’s more like LEXICAL ITEMS ARE BUILDING BLOCKS and GRAMMAR RULES ARE A BLUEPRINT (which brings to mind the paradigmatic/syntagmatic view of language).

The seed is different – it contains a blueprint in the form of DNA. The idea may be that once given chunks of language (seeds), these contain internal structure which is then exploited (slow-release grammar) to create a more dynamic system which can grow in the mind/soil of the student. [The student’s MIND IS FERTILE SOIL (echoes of a parable?)].

Like the living sponge metaphor, the botanical metaphor appeals due to its organic nature. However they are subtly different. The sponge was the mind, the classroom the marine ecosystem and nutrients were language – which seem to feed the growth of the entire mind – but no change occurs here; the sponge was there before and simply grows bigger, unchanged by the type of things it absorbs. Here is where I feel the sponge metaphor reveals itself to be just a metaphor for communication (still quite a poor one). Communication is not the same as learning, the latter being a process of internal dynamic change.

The PLANT METAPHOR I think works better because here we see the mind is already an entire ecosystem (the soil) within a larger ecosystem (the savannah = classroom) which affords the seed the opportunity for growth. Similar to the sponge, the nutrients are selectively incorporated into the plant ( a very active process on the part of cell walls), but the seed has an internal pattern-maker (DNA IS UNIVERSAL GRAMMAR ?) to both select and exploit these to create a new plant – a new living dynamic system (a new language ‘module’ within the mind). In other words, the plant (language proficiency) is a dynamic system developed within the soil ecosystem (the mind) which is itself maintained within a larger ecosystem (the classroom).

The teacher as gardener is one that Tessa Woodward uses as an extended metaphor throughout her Planning Lessons and Courses (CUP, 2001) and I think appeals a great deal to teachers, esp. given its parallel to the role of teacher as facilitator.

I realise I am extending and analysing these metaphors to and beyond breaking point, but I believe it is worth examining them closely when we use terms such as the building blocks of language or sowing seeds in the classroom.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Declan – your metaphor analysis is much better elaborated than my clumsy attempts to respond to these metaphors in my comments above – I wish I’d scrolled down to you first!

As it happens, I myself am very well disposed to ecological metaphors (see E for Ecology), another (of the many reasons) to celebrate the work of Leo van Lier, and to mourn his untimely passing.

13 01 2013

I love reading the post and all of the excellent discussion that’s waiting here like a gift to unwrap! It was interesting to read a series of metaphors because, in their variety, they may have given me a better picture than any one alone could.

Even the transmission model is a good starting point. First, it’s still relevant in describing how many of us think of communication, at least subconsciously. How many times have I seen (or been in!) a discussion that went around and around because each person was “transmitting” but not feeling “received”, so each would send out their signal again and again — perhaps with different wording, etc. Both transmitting, neither receiving. And ultimately, quitting in frustration or escalating in volume, urgency and force!

Check the illustration in this article out:

It’s the famous sender -> medium -> receiver model of communication, published in 1948. Note that it goes one way! Later models introduce the idea of feedback and turn this into a loop, but typical illustrations STILL show a one way flow!! (Sorry, for the double-bangs — getting worked up here!) Skim the lovely illustrations at the entry for “models of communication” in wikipedia:


The idea that “communication” is a one-way flow is pretty entrenched. IMO, that’s transmission, not communication.

And then, there’s the notion that information is discrete little bits of something that just need to be encoded and decoded. It works for computers and their ones and zeros (bits!), but maybe that’s why computers aren’t fluent conversationalists — yet. I think maybe that’s worth another discussion?

My own conscious model of communication (as opposed to the unconscious one, which probably still has a transmission shape but is hopefully looking sort of rickety) is of two hearts and a two-way arrow between them. The hearts can be in varying stages of openness and this is dynamic. When either is fully closed, then communication isn’t happening. When both are fully open, communication is going great!

I know I was focusing on communication rather than teaching specifically. I see teaching/learning as a label for communication in certain contexts (intentions of the people involved).

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Kathy – and thanks for those links – great graphics, apart from anything else. As is pointed out, the simplistic conduit model of communication doesn’t really factor in what is NOT communicated linguistically but which is integral to successful communication, including the interlocutors’ assessments of the current state of each others’ knowledge, plus contextual, paralinguistic and affective factors that shape and determine understanding. As you say, lots of reasons why computers can’t really ‘talk’ to each other, apart from the most basic interchange of data. And, by extension, lots of reasons why they can’t ‘teach’ each other. (In fact, one of the problems inherent in many discussions about educational technology is the underlying assumption that ‘teaching is [information] transmission’ and what better means of transmitting information than digitial devices!)

13 01 2013

PS: get a load of that last illustration in the second link. Lecturer and audience … Gah!!

13 01 2013

Dear Scott,

I really like Anna Sfard’s work on metaphors, the participation metaphor and what you evoke here as ‘the language goods’ that are transmitted and absorbed.

Sfard also talks about our understanding of knowledge as something that ‘germinates’ and the ‘seed’ and ‘plant’ image has cropped up in the responses here, as has Vygotsky and the mediated socio-cultural connotations that his metaphor carries.

My intertextual contribution would just be to mention Lakoff and Johnson’s work on Metaphors We Live By (1980) which weaves very accessible ontological threads into all of this.

What comes to mind specifically is when they paint the image of the parrot who can be trained to say “it’s raining” despite not understanding what that means and that this would have the same objective meaning whether it were said by a parrot or a person… language is just ‘there’ as well and can be used and played around with regardless of its level of absorption.

I have always had, like your MA students, the tendency to fine-tune the metaphor of how the English language moves back and forth between me and my students. I try to measure its level of absorption and I suppose attach an objective meaning to the nature of language acquisition as a concept with a structure because this gives me (what I perceive to be) a quantifiable understanding of my competences as a teacher. Again the word competence (and performance) echoes the Chomskean building-blocks metaphor, which carries the same firmness of a conduit.

Is there another way of thinking about language acquisition metaphors beyond the conduit? I think your own post on ‘H is for Holistic’ has some answers, I won’t reformulate as it’s just a couple of clicks away but there is a very memorable quote from Leo Van Lier at the end about the learners skills and interests being the true driving force of a curriculum… and unpacking the metaphors in that statement alone plies the base of the conduit to affords the notion of ‘information to be absorbed’ some breathing space.

Thank you for the lovely Sunday afternoon read.

Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Divya, for joining the discussion, and for the reference to Lakoff and Johnson, the seminal text on metaphor construction (my copy of which seems to have been purloined, so I can’t cite it here and now!).

I’m glad you mention Vygotsky, too, because it’s really been the influence of his sociocultural theories of learning, including such notions as joint construction, and scaffolding (although he never used the term) that undergirds the ‘participation metaphor’ – that, and the work of Lave and Wenger, including the idea of ‘situated learning’, ‘communities of practice’ and ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.

But, as Lave and Wenger point out, even Vygotsky’s model of learning also assumes processes of ‘knowledge internalization’ – it’s just that the internalization process is mediated and scaffolded. However, as Lave and Wenger (1991: 47) argue, ‘Learning as internalization is too easily construed as an unproblematic process of absorbing the given, as a matter of transmission and assimilation’.

They continue: ‘In contrast with learning as internalization, learning as increasing participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting in the world. Conceiving of learning in terms of participation focuses attention on ways in which it is an involving, continuously renewed set of relations… The notion of participation thus dissolves dichotomies between cerebral and embodied activity, between contemplation and involvement, between abstraction and experience: persons, actions, and the world are implicated in all thought, speech, knowing, and learning.’

14 01 2013

I love the dissolving dichotomies between the cerebral and the embodied 🙂 Almost reminiscent of Steiner’s etheric bodies…

Wenger also talks about identity formation, which is pretty ‘internal’ as he problematizes what “participation” actually is. But I completely agree that assimilation seems to be a given.

It’s really interesting that you raise peripheral participation as the novice/expert distinction in this model is one that I’ve struggled to understand in my reading on social participation. It’s again the resurfacing of a conduit metaphor of a channel, through which access is transmitted and so on..

13 01 2013
Thomas Ewens

You are making me doubt myself Scott. I would like to think that I’m not a transmissive teacher. I’m aware of some of the other models of language acquisition which you allude to. In terms of my teaching methodology, I ask questions in class, I set up lots of pair and group work activities and I’m aware of the need to keep TTT to a minimum. But is this enough? Intellectually I know that the transmission model is (at best) highly problematic, but am I, like Scott’s MA students, still believe in it subconsciously.

Furthermore, for Carol Goodey and her comment about her three year old daughter at kindergarten. She might have been noticing language rather than absorbing it. Also, when learners read and listen extensively they might be noticing rather than absorbing new vocabulary and grammatical patterns etc. In any case,this will only help improve receptive rather than productive skills. Nobody could say that we learn to speak and write simply by absorbing information!

Thinking about it, maybe the word ‘receptive’ (as opposed to ‘productive’ isn’t so helpful..

Thank you Scott for such a thought-provoking post, and thanks to others for their comments.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Thomas… I don’t think you’re alone in sensing that there may be a mismatch between your beliefs and your teaching style (which raises the interesting question as to how do we achieve ‘congruence’ as professionals, and which changes first – beliefs or practices?)

15 01 2013

“How do we achieve ‘congruence” as professionals, and which changes first — beliefs or practices?” A question I ask myself often, and not just in the professional realm. Maybe we’re in the same boat as our learners: with help from others I see a state that I aspire to, but actually moving in that direction requires repeated noticing and practice, noticing and practice …

14 01 2013
Emma Herrod

Hi Scott,
Yet again, another really interesting post. I really cannot add to the thoughtful responses you’ve had above, but I have done a little reflecting of my own over on my blog. I didn’t want to bore your readers to tears 🙂


All the best,

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Fabulous, Emma – and I recommend you all visit and admire Emma’s charming visual representation of the gardening metaphor!

14 01 2013
Laura Adele Soraco

I enjoyed the challenge of rethinking our language (and mindset, really) as it pertains to how we refer to the learning process. Perhaps an alternative to ‘absorbing information’ or, if referring to the teaching process, ‘conveying information’, would be to talk about coaching learners into discovering or appropriating language.

Regardless of how we talk about it though, as a recent MA in TESOL grad and someone who has a few years of experience teaching, I’d say my biggest challenge is trying to keep classes as student-centered as possible. If learning is truly about gathering useful tools for our personal growth, then I feel as an educator my job is to help students learn which tools they can use and how to use them so they can become independent learners for life. Having said this, I myself have to keep building my toolbox for the shared workshop which can be a student-centered classroom. Not an easy task when our own experience as learners and our surroundings portray teachers as people who ‘pass on’ knowledge.

Thanks for continuing to make me think about these issues. Like others, I’m definitely enjoying reading your blog again on Sundays.

Laura Adele.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Laura. Reading your comment makes me realise how pervasive metaphors are, so pervasive that we don’t in fact notice them when they are staring at us in the face: I’m thinking of your wording: ‘making the classes student-centred’, which is, after all, a metaphor too, because we don’t literally centre the class on the students (it would mean putting the students into a kind of flock-of-sheep formation in the middle of the room!): but it carries with it notions of a putative centre-periphery distinction (with the teacher on the periphery, presumably), although it is ambiguous as to where the source and direction of learning is – from the centre out, or from the circumference in? Mmm. Interesting!

14 01 2013

Hi Scott,

I think the problem lies in the fact that language is used as an almost unconscious influence and means of communication normally, so people may assume that they can teach a second language in the way the first language is used; by simply presenting it. The other reason may be that people see overly close similarities between L1 acquisition and L2, and thus idealise that nature will somehow ‘take its course’. The third reason is that transmitting may be a comfort zone for both the teacher and the student. Our lives would be so much easier if osmosis was all that was needed to gain a new skill and for some there may be a touch of wishful thinking in this regard.

Of course, the need for input exists but the issue is that its over-reliance, coming notably from course book and technology advocates, prevails because transmission remains the path of least resistance in language teaching, as well being the status quo in education generally. Obviously with effective skill learning, the emphasis has to be on conscious, active and, crucially, dedicated student participation and practice so that processes get truly internalised.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

All good points, Luan … and I think you’re right that ‘transmission is the path of least resistance’ – it’s certainly the ‘default’ setting for most education, and, as your rightly point out, it serves to justify the mass production of textbooks and educational technologies. What could be more transmissive – and less interactive – than an interactive white board?! (I now hold my breath)

14 01 2013
Willy C Cardoso

Hi Scott
You ask, “What might it take to ‘change the chip’?”

I can only answer based on what made ‘me’ change the chip (even though this is too computational of a metaphor) 🙂 — and it was reading the right people and ‘forcing’ myself to draw connections between their theories and my practice. I’m sure you’ve read them all, and some might be in your students’ reading list. Limiting the scope to applied linguistics/SLA, they are:

James Lantolf – on SCT
Claire Kramsch – on context and culture
Leo Van Lier – on ecological-semiotics
Diane Larsen-Freeman – on complex systems
and lately, again thanks to you mentioning it here:
Michael Breen – on social context and discourse.

In fact, Breen’s article The social context for language learning: a neglected situation? has a lot to do with this blogpost as it discusses metaphors as well.

I reckon that if we keep highlighting the theories that draw heavily on the social aspects of language and learning and less on the individual ones, we can change the chip, or plant a different seed, whatever the metaphor.

One thing that might slow it down, perhaps, and that we should consider is the insistence of courses to go over the whole history of ELT and SLA, to then in the end just briefly mention what you, and I, consider as ‘better’.

Exaggerating a bit, I would suggest courses skip everything that happened between grammar-translation and TBL, not excluding either; also not to even mention behaviorism, early cognitive psychology, structuralists view of language, etc – and move straight to what is current. History is good, but it slows us down sometimes.

14 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Willy – that’s a great little reading list. I also like your idea of a selective editing of the ‘grand narrative’ of ELT history – cutting to the chase, as it were! Like reducing scripture to the Book of Revelations. 😉

14 01 2013

Hi Scott,

Thank you for a most interesting post.
In some parts of the world (Southern Italy, for example) comparing students to sponges is considered hugely positive. In this case, the metaphor is not used to talk about passive students bored stiff by years of transmission but rather, to comment on a student’s high motivation, grit and commitment to learn.
Interestingly, one of the things this whole thread has made me think of is if this wasn’t, after all, just a matter of semantics, the meaning I tend to attach to this or that word, or indeed, to metaphors. One example: I’m certainly not in favor of lecturing in a L2 teaching context, but replace lecturing (which always has a negative ring) with input, and that should do the trick. Absorption? Well, that usually evokes passive, lifeless students. Get rid of that. Delete it and replace it with noticing, processing and making sense of input, surely a necessary step on the way to acquiring a skill, and voilà, job done. Drill is another one of those: say the word and images of the (in)famous Pavlov’s dog will appear to haunt you. Deliberate Practice (Ericsson) is a better word.

15 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chaz…it’s true that, even in English, it is said approvingly that ‘he/she soaks it up like a sponge’, with reference to gifted learners. And you’re also right, I think, in suggesting that an exercise in re-labelling can help us re-conceptualize old/tired/negative constructs in new ways. As far back as 1972, the visionary NZ pedagogue, Sylvia Ashton-Warner had this to say:

‘In the profession of growth in education, a term needs to prove itself in keeping up with change; to be as flexible, mobile and as open-minded as the young people it describes’.

And she goes on to give some examples:

‘Why can’t we call a child a child instead of a pupil or a student? “Pupil” was used in Dickens’ day and what is a student? Has it got arms and legs, tears and smiles and a mind with mystery? “Kids” used to be the aptest word, and still would be had it not gathered irritable overtones. Those damn kids! A pity. “Children” is a word which has stood up to what the years have thrown at it and come out heroically constant. In the probing and spearing of swift evolution, some words can take it and some cannot; it’s the way a language evolves.

Other words are up for sale… “Lecture” is one which has had its deadening day. “Teach” has been abused almost beyond its meaning, and so has the word “school.” I can’t coax my legs to walk out the gate if they think they’re going to school. I find myself saying,”Now come on, legs, you’re not going to school; you are taking me to a place where children are, where we’re likely to have a good time,” upon which they consent to move’.

(Spearpoint: ‘Teacher’ in America’, Knopf, pp. 186-7)

15 01 2013

SAW was a real visionary and thank you for introducing me to her…
Among the things she taught me was that if you fail to address the needs of your students you’ll be able to get away with it one way or another. But if you forget the needs of the people you’re with, you’ll be history.

15 01 2013
youssef Tirizite

Insightful posts. As a teacher, I believe my job is to help my students learn the language. How? like a tour guide, I think of my students as people trying to find their ways around an unfamiliar territory. They might have a map but not the confidence to navigate the territory on their own. My presence will give them a sense of safety. My job is to take them wherever they want to go and make sure no one gets lost.

15 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Youssef – nice image. For more on ‘re-imagining’ teachers, see this earlier blog post: M is for Metaphor.

15 01 2013

Hi Scott,

Long time reader, first time commentator.

I have a confession to make, I am a conduit. A duct, pipe, channel, tube and a canal.

I have become one of those chalk and talk teachers this year. It hurts to admit it but I have been wanting to confess for a while now. After last years naked ramble through the Dogme jungle I have ended up taking the easy route and now walk aided with a pair of teaching crutches sponsored by cutting edge and global.

Maybe that last point is the most important bit, the easy route. Because delivering knowledge, whether it has been learnt through years of studying or during your coffee break, is easy. Its made easier by the fact that most students very rarely challenge this knowledge or the transmitting of it. This brings me to my other point.

The above discussion has talked a lot about how we see the teaching of language but not of how the students see it. Yes, you mention how your students who happen to be teachers describe it but they then go on to use words such as ‘absorb’ because that’s what they think we want to hear. Unfortunately, if we were to ask the students, the real ones, what they thought we would here the standard response of “we do lots of grammar and the teacher corrects us a lot. The book is boring but it explains the grammar” etc etc. This is what’s so sad. The students don’t know any different. They have been learning in the same way for years and therefore teachers continue to teach in this ‘conduit’ mode because it isn’t challenged and it’s easy.

In order to to break this cycle teachers should be teaching in the here and now, as Willy mentions above. We should be exploring new styles, methods and theories. More importantly, we should be exposing the students to it. Without resistance there cannot be change. I’m sure someone historical and far more important said this before me, but it’s true.

I feel I may have ranted a little here and quite possibly gone off topic, apologies. I would apologise for not throwing in another metaphor to the already overflowing metaphor pot, but the problem is clear without another one clouding the issue.

Good day to you.


15 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for your candid and heart-felt ‘confession’, Adam. It’s true that most learners have inherited a fairly unsophisticated ‘theory’ (or metaphor) of what language learning is all about (and this is nothing to do with innate learning styles, either, by the way!), and we would be unwise to ride roughshod over their expectations, however much we may disagree with them (but for a lusty defence of teachers, see Ken Wilson’s latest blog post here).

But your post does offer a germ of hope: ‘Without resistance there cannot be change’. I suspect you are in one stage of a cycle that fluctuates between submission and resistance, and hopefully it’s just a question of time.

15 01 2013
Ben Goldstein

First of all, Scott, an apology – I must admit to being the purloiner of your copy of “Metaphors We Live By”. I hope I can get it back to you while this T for Transmission is still going strong!

Anyway, thanks for a fascinating post which has encouraged such insightful responses. What is true is how all pervasive these metaphors of “absorption” and “transmission” of information really are, especially in non-academic contexts. I came across them both this morning as I was reading this article:


It’s about a US journalist, Paul Salopek, who is going to spend the next seven years walking from Ethiopia to the tip of South America, retracing the journey of early humans out of Africa and around the world. The idea of the walk is that every 100 miles or so Salopek will record his surroundings and interview somebody. He says: “There will be communications gear so that I can transmit stories and images…”

He argues that human beings evolved to understand the world at this “walking pace”. And he goes on to add: “You can make a pretty good evolutionary argument that this was how we were designed to absorb information at about 5km an hour (3mph). This “slow journalism” he claims will have more depth, “simply because I am moving more slowly through the story”.

Whatever you think of Salopek’s mission, I think his highlighting of this slow pace is revealing and appealing – a positive alternative to the overwhelming speed at which most information is transmitted and absorbed these days (in whichever field). “We miss texture. We miss colour. We miss flavour,” he says.

The connection I see with language learning is related to Carol’s comment about seeing “absorption” in this more positive light, not just as a default setting, a lazy layman’s term tossed around willy-nilly, but as an expression of a “deeper stage of language learning” where the learning may take place unconsciously (or incidentally as you say, Scott) but certainly slowly. As teachers (and as Carol says in her response), we can encourage such slow learning in class by allowing space for reflection and pressing the pause button from time to time.

Another metaphor to throw in the mix…!

15 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Wow, Ben – you’re completely forgiven for purloining Lakoff & Johnson! Such a great comment, and how serendipitous to come across a reference to ‘absorbing information’ in relation to a topic a million miles from ELT. Well, not a million miles, in fact – as you wisely point out. There’s something to said for thinking of language learning as a long slow (but absorbing) hike, rather than the breakneck sprint that some aggressively marketed language courses would have us believe.

15 01 2013

Belated responses to Scott’s three questions:

1. “Is the transmission model so inextricably lodged in the minds of teachers?”

No, but I do think such models uphold the hegemony of what Gee, et al. have called “The New Work Order” whereby “… alliances between business, educators, and psychologists [are] …more interested in preserving the status quo than establishing a new work order”

Accessed at http://books.google.com/books/about/The_New_Work_Order.html?id=QSEzYevW-PMC ) on 1/15/13

Here, I can’t help but recall Widdowson’s (1983) distinction between training and education, quoted here by Julian Edge:

‘ … that the difference between training and education (at least as far as language teaching is concerned) is … that training seeks to impose a conformity to certain established patterns of knowledge and behaviour, usually in order to carry out a set of clearly defined tasks … Education, however, seeks to provide for creativity whereby what is learned is a set of schemata and procedures for adapting them to cope with problems which do not have a ready-made, formulaic solution.’

Accessed at http://www.philseflsupport.com/development.htm on 1/15/13

Training keeps the hamsters spinning their wheels while education can lead to revolution. It’s just as important to know the difference between schooling and education; many are schooled, but few are educated.

2. “What alternative metaphors are there?”

Implicit in this thread is a discussion of power. Teachers, like it or not, have been handed quite a lot of it. Students, too, have their own, perhaps less overt, sources of power. James Hillman, in Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses, lists notions that converge under the growth metaphor:

1. Increase in size (expansion of getting bigger)
2. Evolution in form and function (differentiation or getting smarter)
3. Progress (improvement or getting better)
4. Conjunction of parts (synthesis, integration or wider networking)
5. Temporal succession in stages (maturation or getting riper, wiser)
6. Self-generation (spontaneity or becoming creative, independent)

He then proposes a second list of kinds of growth, which, I feel, provides the prima materia for alternative metaphors:

1. Deepening
2. Intensification
3. Shedding
4. Repetition
5. Emptying

3. “What might it take to ‘change the chip’?” [Or to flip the scrip’?]

Time for me to hold my breath now, Scott: “Don’t be limited by the fact-based myth of our time.” – Thomas Moore

Thank you for another interesting discussion.

16 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Rob… thanks for a another great posting. Not sure if this is synchronicity but I was about to respond to your suggestion that new growth metaphors might engage with concepts like ‘shedding’ and ’emptying’, when Matt’s comment came in (below), to wit: “I presently wonder if rather than depositing, or constructing, our job is to take stuff away”. Certainly, (language) learning does seem to involve processes of shedding just as much as processes of gathering, such as

shedding dependence on the L1
shedding inhibitions
shedding preconceptions/assumptions about the L2
shedding dependence on context
shedding dependence on teachers, materials
shedding prejudices & negative stereotypes (about L2, L2 speakers)
shedding fear of making mistakes
shedding reliance on declarative knowledge (e.g. rules)
shedding L1 identity, even
shedding accent, even

I’d love to finish this comment with some apposite Zen koan or Tao epigram, but I’m at a loss… maybe ‘thesecretdos’ can help out 😉

15 01 2013
Matt Ledding

Scott, it is great to see your blog up again, and you are inspiring me to crawl out of my shell. This post is very timely for what I am going through in teaching right now. As long as we are being metaphorical, a (not terribly original) metaphor comes to mind.

I presently wonder if rather than depositing, or constructing, our job is to take stuff away. Peeling the onion, as it were, and getting to the core. (Your focus on aspect and the -ing form, for example, cuts away a lot of croft, and is an elegant entry to language exploration, to be brown-nosey.) That could also include taking away student apprehension, fear of looking ridiculous, and horribly enough, I have to take away mistakes from their grammar based exams for my high school students trying to get into university.

However, looking at the eternal intermediate English that the grammar based syllabus seems to be great at producing, the onion cutting metaphor takes on a different dimension: cutting down that always present gap between meaning transmitted and meaning intended. As we get new linguistic routes to get to where we want to go meaning wise, distances get shorter, points become easier to locate, the conversation becomes more precise and intentional. Holes punched through the onion get you from one point to another faster.

In Spanish, we can take the long route around the onion, and not use the subjunctive, like students who avoid certain preposition dependent verbs, and por and para are also generally easy to gloss over with adequate meaning. Also, we are from a “high status” language and our mistakes are tolerated, and almost appreciated up to a point. (I do all my immigration office conversations in English, as it is simply easier to get things done, as long as we are making oppressive confessions.)

How do we create a need to go through the onion? Is this perhaps a justification for the high stakes testing? Constraints, like Twitter? Drilling, like every time we go to sleep we think of 4 things we could have done differently today to get the subjunctive habit out and formed? I don’t know, and on our own, it is harder.

Young kids seem to copy language, and have a need to conform and please that might have something to do with their relative ease in punching through the onion. Us cynical ancient people (those over 12 years old) are our own mommy and daddy and have to fight apathy and peel away and punch away at the onion a little more vigorously. Perhaps a large part of being a teacher is wiping away the tears, and helping avoid blind stabs at meaning as students hone in on where they want to go.

16 01 2013

Hello Scott, hello everyone,
I‘d love to join the discussion., can I? First, I’d like to start with the following quotation, “Education is what survives when what has been learnt has been forgotten.” (B. F. Skinner). In the modern world any piece of information is just a click away. Why bother and store it inside your scalp when there is plenty of space on the www, really? Teaching is not about transmitting knowledge, but using knowledge (information) to develop cognition so in the long run the person gets equipped with the tools to get the knowledge (information) and use it when he needs it. Besides, when we talk about language instruction, can anybody clearly define the content (information) we are trying to pass on to our students? The content (information) can be anything, ranging from a greeting sequence, cooking recipe to economics or nuclear physics. What is meant by linguistics ( the study of language systems) it shouldn’t be (unfortunately sometimes it is) the main body of language instruction and that’s what unfortunately some language tests access. Linguistics, as any other study of nature (e.g., chemistry, physics, biology etc) is conceptually no less challenging than any of these subjects. Which is easier to understand: Einstein’s theory of relativity or let’s say reported speech or third conditional and I guess the Spanish subjunctive? I assume these are all equally challenging cognitively. And I often wonder who on earth created the dichotomy “science” vs “humanities”, Master of Art vs Master of Science. Linguistics is a powerful tool to develop cognition, but just a tool and besides, not always useable for language acquisition (age and preferred learning style constraints) , and it is something that can be safely forgotten after language mastery is achieved, yet the cognitive development, it helped to promote, will remain in the brain in the form of neuron networks. I am a Vygotsky follower: teaching is about interacting with the student within the scope of his zone of proximal development. My core argument for interaction is that any other animal will grow up to be exactly the same species as their parents without any species representatives around but when it comes to humans, a child will grow up to be human only if he is brought up by other humans (including teachers ) Won’t you agree?

16 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

I would agree, indeed, Svetlana.

And something you said – about information – reminded me of something Neil Postman said (and this was in the pre-Google days!): “Information has become a form of garbage. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness. We are swamped by information, have no control over it, and don’t know what to do with it”.

He went on to argue that, “if anyone is wondering whether or not the schools of the future have any use, here is something for them to contemplate. The role of the school is to help students learn how to ignore and discard information so that they can achieve a sense of coherence in their lives; to help students cultivate a sense of social responsibility; to help students think critically, historically, and humanely; to help students understand the ways in which technology shapes their consciousness; to help students learn that their own needs sometimes are subordinate to the needs of the group”.


His point about ‘ignoring and discarding information’ (rather than ‘absorbing’ it) chimes with the point that Matt made above, about needing to ‘go through the onion’, or what I called ‘shedding’.

19 01 2013
Declan Cooley

A metaphor that is quite fruitful is the ecological one of inhabiting a language – LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS LEARNING HOW TO SURVIVE IN A NEW BIOSPHERE/ LANGUAGE USE IS LIKE A JUNGLE LIFE (to pick a particular environment). If we conceive of language as a certain combination of patterns and chunks (to use another metaphor – we can construe these as the waves and particles of language) and the learning experience is finding our way to distinguish and combine these in a way that makes sense of our world and allows us to fulfil our needs.

In this metaphor, the jungle (language) at first can look alike a teeming mass of life-movement – all colour and life but chaotic. It can be hard to tell the difference between the dappling shadows of foliage and the dappled coat of a panther – and since our existence depends on knowing the difference (hence the oft-titled courses of “survival english”) – we need to attune our senses to the difference and separate the foreground from the background (the content words versus function words ?) and movement from stillness (very flexible usages versus fixed idioms for example). A native guide can be helpful here in helping us read the signs and may even draw a clear outline of a panther to bring it more in focus and help us identify it in the wild.
Evolution has led to the different placings of eyes on creatures in the wild – with predators having forward-looking eyes (lion) and prey with eyes placed on either side (zebra) to detect those predators; we can imagine that the human mind has also had to move its senses around into a particular configuration – and this ability is probably down to a preternatural ability to re-wire our neurons in the miniature internal jungle of the brain. Neuroplasticity must be implicated in both the evolution of language capacity, FLA and SLA (I recommend The Brain That Changes Itself Norman Doidge Penguin 2008 for a very readable account of recent thought on the ability of the brain to adapt to new uses).

The input-output language of SLA based as it is on the MIND IS A COMPUTER metaphor itself must be outpaced by new metaphors from experts in the field. As Daniel C. Dennett says in a recent interview (http://edge.org/conversation/normal-well-tempered-mind) he says

“Each neuron is imprisoned in your brain. I now think of these as cells within cells, as cells within prison cells. Realize that every neuron in your brain, every human cell in your body (leaving aside all the symbionts), is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived. When they joined forces into multi-cellular creatures, they gave up a lot of that. They became, in effect, domesticated. They became part of larger, more monolithic organizations. In the brain, I think the cortical areas, some little switch has been thrown in the genetics that, in effect, makes our neurons a little bit feral, and they recover their wild talents very fast. Maybe a lot of the neurons in our brains are not just capable but, if you like, motivated to be more adventurous, more exploratory or risky in the way they comport themselves, in the way they live their lives. They’re struggling amongst themselves with each other for influence, just for staying alive, and there’s competition going on between individual neurons. As soon as that happens, you have room for cooperation to create alliances, and I suspect that a more free-wheeling, anarchic organization is the secret of our greater capacities of creativity, imagination, thinking outside the box and all that, and the price we pay for it is our susceptibility to obsessions, mental illnesses, delusions and smaller problems. We got risky brains that are much riskier than the brains of other but I don’t think that genetics is the level to explain this. You need culture to explain it.
This, I speculate, is a response to our invention of culture; culture creates a whole new biosphere, in effect, a whole new cultural sphere of activity where there’s opportunities that don’t exist for any other brain tissues in any other creatures, and that this exploration of this space of cultural possibility is what we need to do to explain how the mind works.”

Musing on metaphors in general, I think all metaphors die a natural death once the process they were attempting to encompass and correspond to have been properly explicated. Atomic structure was once compared to the solar system with electrons like planets orbiting the nucleus of the sun – but once investigation yields a different picture, we need to abandon the metaphor but perhaps not entirely. When we are beginning to become familiar with a new field of study, an over-simplistic and imprecise metaphor (like the atomic structure = the solar system) can be useful until we are ready to shed it; now might be the time to shed the computer model and the teacher-is-a-transmitter idea for those that hew more closely to the workings of our own brains.

19 01 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Declan – once again, a very thought-provoking post. The jungle metaphor chimes with an analogy that (the late and much lamented) Leo van Lier used, in talking about affordances, when he suggested

that knowledge of language for a human is like knowledge of the jungle for an animal. The animal does not ‘have’ the jungle; it knows how to use the jungle and to live in it. Perhaps we can say by analogy that we do not ‘have’ or ‘possess’ language, but that we learn to use it and ‘live in it’ […] We ‘learn’ language in the same way that an animal ‘learns’ the forest, or a plant ‘learns’ the soil.

(van Lier, L. (2000), ‘ From input to affordance: social-interactive learning from an ecological perspective’, in Lantolf, J. (ed.) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning, Oxford University Press)

12 02 2013
David Warr

A nice language plant with “absorb information” http://bit.ly/Y7DC4W

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