What’s your teaching metaphor?

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors lately and how they help faculty describe their instructional roles. While we refer to ourselves as “teachers” or “instructors,” those titles encompass a wide pedagogical landscape. The term “teaching” can invoke images of the chalk and talk instructors who lecture to their students.  The term can also be applied to those individuals who foster student-centered classrooms where active learning strategies are employed.  To avoid the confusion, many faculty members use metaphors to better capture their roles.  Some faculty members use terms like “guide” or “coach” when they see their roles as cultivators of learning.  Others may describe their roles as being the “spark” for learning.  Either way, the use of metaphors helps to clarify what we do as teachers.

While these metaphors can be helpful in describing one’s instructional role, they also can offer others a window into an individual’s beliefs about teaching and learning. The Annenberg Foundation website Metaphorically Speaking offers a series of metaphors commonly used to describe the act of teaching.  Metaphors are important, they write, because teaching is “very complex. Metaphors offer a great way to provide images for others of what teaching means to you.”   More than describing one’s role, however, Northcote & Fetherston (2006) write that the metaphors individuals offer also identify how they see the interrelationship between the teacher and the learner. Building on this work, Badley and Hollabaugh (2012) identify three clusters of metaphors that people use to describe teaching: teaching as transmission, teaching as facilitation and teaching as catalyst. For instance, those instructors who typically use “transmission” metaphors see knowledge and information as the main commodity to be shared in the teacher/student relationship.  Faculty who gravitate to “facilitation” metaphors see the teacher’s role as “creating opportunities for the student to learn.” (Badley and Hollabaugh, 2012).  For facilitators, knowledge and learning comes from guiding students along an educational journey.  Lastly, catalysts see themselves as creating dissonant moments that spark deeper inquiry and questioning by the learners.

I’ve been reflecting on metaphors after a doctoral class I had this weekend.  Two students offered teaching metaphors that deviated from the traditional ones I’ve encountered.  After the class read the Horizons Reports published by the New Media Council, I asked them to consider what schools would look like twenty years from now.  I prompted the students to consider what the schools of the future would look like and how students would learn.  During the discussion, many of the doctoral students agreed that “personalized learning” was an emergent field in education and would be more widespread in schools twenty years from now.  The class wonder what the teacher’s role would look like when students are learning in more personalized ways. This created the larger discussion about teachers’ roles and the descriptions we use.

One of my doctoral students offered the metaphor of “broker.” While building on the “facilitation” metaphor, the term broker also captures how teachers can help individual students develop.  It also reflects an “investment” on part of the student and the growth incurred through expert guidance.  Another student described teaching as “stewardship.” In his description, teachers help students develop to their individual potential.  While the term has some religious undertones, stewardship connotes the “caretaking” role that teachers play with regard to student learning.  I’m still mulling these new (for me) metaphors and how they reflect my views of teaching and learning in my classroom.

What metaphors do you use to describe your teaching role? I don’t know if you’ve ever consciously considered this but take a moment and attend to the words you’d use to describe your role.  What does this say about how you view student learning? While this may seem like a simple activity, it may be an helpful way to reflect on your instructional role and possibly even foster change in your classroom.


Badley, K. and Hollabaugh, J, (2012). Metaphors for Teaching and Learning. Faculty P
ublications – School of Education. Paper 49. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/soe_faculty/49
Northcote, M. and Fetherston, T, (2006). New Metaphors for Teaching and Learning in a University Context Education Conference Papers. Paper 18. http://research.avondale.edu.au/edu_conferences/18

4 thoughts on “What’s your teaching metaphor?

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