Learning Metaphors

Learning is a highly complex process about which we know very little. But one thing we know for sure is that people learn in different ways. How can we have a sense of the way our students learn -- just by listening to what they say? A very practical approach is to take note of the metaphors in their language.

What is a Metaphor?

In the innovative and mind-expanding book Metaphors We Live By, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson say:
The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. [Note 1]
We like this definition for a number of reasons. First, it recognises that metaphor is about capturing the essential nature of an experience. For instance, when a student of ours described his situation as "It's like I'm banging my head against a brick wall." the sense of the repetitive, painful and self-defeating nature of his experience was instantly apparent. Second, the definition acknowledges that metaphor is an active process which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and the world about us. Third, metaphor need not be limited to verbal expressions. For us, a metaphor can include any expression or thing that is symbolic for a person, be that nonverbal behaviour, self-produced art, an item in the environment, or an imaginative representation. In other words, whatever a person says, sees, hears, feels or does, as well as what they imagine, can be used to produce, comprehend and reason through metaphor.
Metaphor is not an occasional foray into the world of figurative language, but the fundamental basis for everyday cognition. Lakoff and Johnson state:
In all aspects of life, ... we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor. [Note 2]
Andrew Ortony has identified three characteristics of metaphors that account for their utility: vividness, compactness and expressibility. [Note 3] In short, metaphors carry a great deal of abstract and intangible information in a concise and memorable package.
In addition there is a fourth property, and it is the one which most impacts the way students learn. Because metaphors describe one experience in terms of another, they specify and constrain our ways of thinking about the original experience. This influences the meaning and importance we attach to the original experience, the way it fits with other experiences, and the actions we take as a result.

Clean Language

There is a very simple way to discover your student's metaphors for learning -- just ask them:
And when you're learning, that's learning like what?
Whatever answer they give can be further developed by asking:
And is there anything else about that 'X'?
And what kind of 'X' is that 'X'?
[Where X' is the metaphorical or symbolic part of the answer to the original question.]
These 'Clean' Language questions are taken from a method of exploring a person's metaphors devised by David Grove, and are fully explained in our book MetaphorsinMind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. [Note 4]
In the 1980s, psychotherapist David Grove realised that many of his clients naturally described their symptoms and outcomes in metaphor. He discovered that when he enquired about these metaphors using the client's exact words, their perception of their problems began to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a method of asking simple questions of clients' metaphors which neither contaminate nor distort them.

Metaphors for Learning

Using the above clean questions, we elicited a metaphor for learning from ten adult students:
1. Planting flowers -- A seed is planted in my mind which I nurture with water and sun in the faith that it will sprout and grow.
2. Playing cards -- I divide things into four categories and look for patterns across the suits until the logic and meaning emerges and I know which card to play.
3. Savings account -- I invest the time to accumulate data and information until there is enough interest that I can roll it over into the next idea.
4. Switching on a light bulb -- It's not until the light switches on that I have an insight or an 'ah ha'.
5. Eating -- You need to take in the basic meat and potatoes before you get to the mouth-watering dessert.
6. Being a detective -- It's all about uncovering the facts, looking for clues and asking the right questions until the whole mystery makes sense.
7. Peeling an onion -- I peel off a layer which reveals the next layer to be peeled off. Each time something teIls me I'm get closer to the core of the matter.
8. A quest -- I'm searching for that illusive something and every step I take brings me closer to what I need to know, but I never get there ... it's a continuous journey.
9. Sculpting -- You start with the raw material and shape it into a form that's pleasing to the eye.
10. Wrestling -- I struggle with the ideas until they're pinned down and I've captured them.
These metaphors reveal the diversity of student's symbolic representations for how they learn. They also suggest some interesting contrasts. For example the 'savings account' student steadily accumulates knowledge, whereas no learning will appear to be happening for the 'light bulb' student until the light is switched on. The 'playing cards' student presumably wants all the cards dealt so they can start looking for patterns, but giving the 'detective' student all the relevant information in advance will probably take the fun out of their investigation. The student on a 'quest' needs to discover new things at each step of their journey, while the 'planting flowers' student will want to stay with and continually tend the seed of an idea.
Although we obtained the metaphors for learning through asking Clean Language questions, students are speaking in metaphor all the time. Research shows that everyday conversation makes use of at least four metaphors per minute. [Note 5] Below are examples of metaphorical expressions which are 'hidden' or 'embedded' in language. Can you match the above ten students to the following problems with learning?
a. I've lost my way.
b. I can't digest all this information.
c. There's not enough in the bank.
d. It's got me beat.
e. Just when I think I understand, it all gets shuffled around.
f. I can't make anything out of this.
g. It makes me want to weep.
h. I'm clueless.
i. I'm wandering around in the dark.
j. We can't learn in these conditions.

It's easy to find the correspondence, isn't it? [Note 6] Why? For two reasons: first, we generally use common and well understood experiences as the metaphorical basis for complex and abstract information; and second, there is a consistency and logic to the metaphors each of us uses.
You can see that if you want to teach in a way that corresponds to the metaphors of a group of students, you will need a highly flexible approach.

Using Multiple Metaphors

One way to appeal to a wide range of learning styles is to make sure that you use a variety of metaphors. These should have as diverse a structure as possible. For instance, in addition to saying to the class "Can you figure this out?" and leaving it at that, you might also offer a few other metaphorical alternatives, such as:
Who can solve this?
See what you make of this.
What conclusions do you draw?
Who feels they can work this out?
Tell me when you get somewhere.
What can you construct out of this?
Take your time and see what emerges.
Tell me when you've come up with an answer.
Play around with the ideas and see where you get to.
Chew over the information until you've digested the ideas .
Spend some time considering this and it will all become clear.
You'll need to dig below the surface to get the nub of the issue.

In conclusion...

Metaphors embody and define the intangible and abstract, but this process inevitably constrains perceptions and actions to those which make sense within the logic of the metaphor. Metaphors are therefore both descriptive and prescriptive. As students become aware of their own metaphors for learning they can recognise how these limit or liberate them. In this way they can learn from their own learning process!
It also pays to know your own preferred metaphors because they have such an influence on the way you teach. Once you are familiar with your preferences you can begin to stretch yourself by employing new metaphors. For some students your new metaphors will say the same thing in a different way -- but other students will need to engage in a different class of mindbody processing. In addition to teaching the subject matter you will be training your students to process information via a variety of metaphors. The result will be an enhanced ability to think more creatively.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p 5.
2. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.158.
3. Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought (Second edition), p. 622.
4. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind.
5. Susan R Robinson, Birkbeck College, University of London, 11 November 2000.
6. We pair them: a-8, b-5, c-3, d-10, e-2, f-9, g-7, h-6, i-4, j-1.

(article by  James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, pulished in The Clean Collection)


Preparing for Evalt Work Meeting in Spain

From 6 to 10 of May 2013, the Evalt team will meet in Spain, region of Guadalajara-Castilla La Mancha, for the 5th work meeting. During this period the participants will attend in Guadalajara the Provincial Seminar about women and employment, in Molina de Aragon the workshop on theatre and dancing held by the Portuguese association Contempla Trilhos (coordinator of the project) and in Tartanedo the workshop on creative writing held by Fepamuc-Guadalajara (host of the meeting).

To prepare for the travel, here some shots of the beautiful places.

 Guadalajara - The Municipality Hall


 Molina de Aragon

 Molina de Aragon - The Castle


Obviously we cannot miss Madrid, the capital, where we will land and from we will fly off.

Madrid - Plaza Mayor

The Hunt for the Creative Individual

Creativity can quite simply be defined as the capacity to come up with new ideas to serve a purpose. Creativity is thus one of the most important sources of renewal. Creativity contributes to innovation and improvements in working life, commerce and industry.
No wonder employers want creative employees in areas where it is essential to come up with proposals for new products and services, and new ways of doing things.

The creative personality
Professor Øyvind L. Martinsen at BI Norwegian Business School has conducted a study to develop a personality profile for creative people: Which personality traits characterise creative people?
The study was conducted with 481 people with different backgrounds. The segment consists of various groups of more or less creative people.
The first group of creative people consists of 69 artists working as actors or musicians in a well-known symphony orchestra or are members of an artist's organisation with admission requirements.
The second group of creative people consists of 48 students of marketing.
The remaining participants in the study are managers, lecturers and students in programmes that are less associated with creativity than marketing.
The creativity researcher mapped the participants' personality traits and tested their creative abilities and skills through various types of tasks.
Seven creativity characteristics
In his study Martinsen identifies seven paramount personality traits that characterise creative people:
  1. Associative orientation: Imaginative, playful, have a wealth of ideas, ability to be committed, sliding transitions between fact and fiction.
  2. Need for originality: Resists rules and conventions. Have a rebellious attitude due to a need to do things no one else does.
  3. Motivation: Have a need to perform, goal-oriented, innovative attitude, stamina to tackle difficult issues.
  4. Ambition: Have a need to be influential, attract attention and recognition.
  5. Flexibility: Have the ability to see different aspects of issues and come up with optional solutions.
  6. Low emotional stability: Have a tendency to experience negative emotions, greater fluctuations in moods and emotional state, failing self-confidence.
  7. Low sociability: Have a tendency not to be very considerate, are obstinate and find faults and flaws in ideas and people.
Among the seven personality traits, associative orientation and flexibility are the factors that to the greatest extent lead to creative thinking.
"Associative orientation is linked to ingenuity. Flexibility is linked to insight," says the professor. The other five characteristics describe emotional inclinations and motivational factors that influence creativity or spark an interest in creativity.
"The seven personality traits influence creative performance through inter-action," Martinsen points out.

Less sociable
The study shows that the artists who participated scored much higher on associative orientation than the other participants. They have a substantial need for originality and are not particularly stable emotionally.
The personality profile of the marketing students was quite similar to the artist profile and also differs from the other participants in the study. The artists in the study also scored lower values for ambition than the others and are not particularly sociable either.
"An employer would be wise to conduct a position analysis to weigh the requirements for the ability to cooperate against the need for creativity," Martinsen believes. He also emphasises that creative people may need help to complete their projects.
"Creative people are not always equally practical and performance-oriented, which is the reverse side of the "creativity medal.

Journal Reference:
Øyvind L. Martinsen. The Creative Personality: A Synthesis and Development of the Creative Person Profile. Creativity Research Journal, 2011; 23 (3): 185 DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2011.595656

Source: ScienceDaily


Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness

People in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population, there being a particularly salient connection between writing and schizophrenia. This according to researchers at Karolinska Institutet, whose large-scale Swedish registry study is the most comprehensive ever in its field.
Last year, the team showed that artists and scientists were more common amongst families where bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is present, compared to the population at large. They subsequently expanded their study to many more psychiatric diagnoses -- such as schizoaffective disorder, depression, anxiety syndrome, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa and suicide -- and to include people in outpatient care rather than exclusively hospital patients.
The present study tracked almost 1.2 million patients and their relatives, identified down to second-cousin level. Since all were matched with healthy controls, the study incorporated much of the Swedish population from the most recent decades. All data was anonymized and cannot be linked to any individuals.
The results confirmed those of their previous study, that certain mental illness -- bipolar disorder -- is more prevalent in the entire group of people with artistic or scientific professions, such as dancers, researchers, photographers and authors. Authors also specifically were more common among most of the other psychiatric diseases (including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome and substance abuse) and were almost 50 per cent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
Further, the researchers observed that creative professions were more common in the relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anorexia nervosa and, to some extent, autism. According to Simon Kyaga, Consultant in psychiatry and Doctoral Student at the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, the results give cause to reconsider approaches to mental illness.
"If one takes the view that certain phenomena associated with the patient's illness are beneficial, it opens the way for a new approach to treatment," he says. "In that case, the doctor and patient must come to an agreement on what is to be treated, and at what cost. In psychiatry and medicine generally there has been a tradition to see the disease in black-and-white terms and to endeavour to treat the patient by removing everything regarded as morbid."
The study was financed with grants from the Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Psychiatry Foundation, the Bror Gadelius Foundation, the Stockholm Centre for Psychiatric Research and the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research.

Journal Reference:
Simon Kyaga, Mikael Landén, Marcus Boman, Christina M. Hultman, Niklas Långström, Paul Lichtenstein. Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-Year prospective total population study. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 2012.

Source: ScienceDaily.com 


"Drama & Sailing" in Rome

The sunny weather of October second week has been the perfect climate for the third workshop of the Evalt project. The location, Lake of Bracciano, has been kissed by a bright and warm sun that facilitated all the outdoor activities of the transnational team of the project.

In Rome from 3 to 7 of October 2012, after 2 days of cultural exchange the group moved to Trevignano for the methodological practice of the workshop delivered by Tecnopras. The topic was Drama & Sailing.

The workshop combined the two activities in a continuuous base on the same educational metaphors, firstly developed by the Drama session (in the morning) and implemented afterwards by the Sailing session (in the afternoon). With the project management of Cristina Miliacca (psychologist, trainer, Tecnopras project coordinator), the training activities were delivered by Sabrina Lilli (educator, theatre director, actress), as regards Drama, and Stefano Bertoldi (trainer, sociologist, skipper), for what concerns Sailing.

Clicking HERE it is possible to download the educational materials of the workshop from Evalt website.

The initial briefing of the workshop

Dramatization of sailing metaphors

Dramatization of sailing metaphors

Sailing session


Preparing for the meeting in Rome, 3-7 October 2012

Giovanni Paolo Pannini "Capriccio panoramico di Roma con il Colosseo,l'Arco di Costantino e il Tempio di Castore e Polluce"

Canaletto "Veduta di Piazza Navona, Roma"

William Turner "Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino"

  Ettore Roesler Franz "Ponte rotto"


Meeting in Siauliai, June 2012

The third meeting of Evalt project has been held in Siauliai from 6 to 10 of June 2012. The agenda foresaw moments of discussion - in order to monitor what has been accomplished until now and to agree the next actions to take - and two workshop on expressive arts (decoupage and painting) and crafts (making soaps, bread, etc.) as tools for education of disadvantaged adults.

 The group at the opening moment of the meeting

The workshop on expressive arts: in blue jersey, the trainer

Liuda Radzeviciene (in red) and Lina Miliuniene (in black) of the Lithuanian team, coordinator of the meeting

Moments of the workshop

 Moments of the workshop