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.