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How Do You Use Metaphors for Learning? Open Thread

"If You Behave Like a Disease, People Develop an Immune System"

Plants_and_animals_2 Very interesting post from Kevin Marks on how the "viral" model we use for thinking about spreading information on the web may not be the best way of thinking about how to reproduce ideas. As he suggests, "when you act like a disease, people develop an immune system."

In reading through his examples of alternative metaphors for reproduction (which he uses to explain different ways of spreading software), I started thinking that there were some applications to using these ideas to spread social media for learning.

r-Strategy - scatter lots of seeds--Dandelions, frogs and other plants and animals produce many seeds with the assumption that at least some of them will stick. Most die off, but enough survive to perpetuate the species. Applying this to social media for learning, this would be the equivalent of making many tools and processes available to people, hoping that at least a few of them would catch on.

The disadvantage is that this approach can be time-consuming and wasteful. Not to mention that social media thrives on other people using it, so unless you have enough uptake on the same tools/processes, things could die off rather quickly. At the same time, the "costs" of social media can be relatively low, compared to "scattering the seeds" of an LMS, for example. The 23 Things model would be an example of an r-Strategy.

k-Strategy--nurture your young--This is how mammals do it--have only a few young and then concentrate all their energies on developing those offspring. This would be the equivalent of deciding to focus on using wikis or and gearing all efforts in that direction. This allows you to structure a learning environment that is very focused and supportive of the particular tools and behaviors you're trying to develop. Stewart Mader is doing a nice job of creating this kind of environment with Grow Your Wiki.

Of course the down-side is that if you have the wrong tool or don't use the right "parenting" techniques, you could spend a lot of time and energy on something that won't turn out well in the end. While labor-intensive, this could also be the strategy that has the most pay-off in the end though.

Fruiting--wrap your seed in something sweet--Some plants wrap delicious fruit around their seeds so that  animals will eat them and spread the seeds. In terms of social media for learning, this would suggest "wrapping" some kind of reward around your social media initiative--adding to the wiki gets you a prize or the best blog post is featured on the organizational website.

I'm of two minds about this. I recognize that a lot of people tend to respond to extrinsic rewards. At the same time, I have to say that I'm an Alfie Kohn fan who would prefer it if we could focus on using intrinsic motivation to support learning.

Rhizomatic--start from the roots--Another reproductive strategy favored by plants like strawberries and ginger, is to send out shoots or runners from the main plant. This suggests using more of a grass roots strategy for spreading learning through social media, perhaps finding the pockets where things are already happening and then nurturing those. Or taking "cuttings" from those pockets and planting them elsewhere in the organization by having someone who's already using social media successfully for learning share with other individuals or units. Britt Watwood, Bud Deihl and Jeff Nugent seem to be pursuing this idea at VCU where they are continually experimenting and sending out the shoots of their experiments through their blogs. 

Another way to think of rhizomatic learning comes from David Courmier (free sign up required to access the full article):

In the rhizomatic model of learning, curriculum is not driven by predefined inputs from experts; it is constructed and negotiated in real time by the contributions of those engaged in the learning process. This community acts as the curriculum, spontaneously shaping, constructing, and reconstructing itself and the subject of its learning in the same way that the rhizome responds to changing environmental conditions:

The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight. (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 21)

With this model, a community can construct a model of education flexible enough for the way knowledge develops and changes today by producing a map of contextual knowledge. The living curriculum of an active community is a map that is always "detachable, connectible, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits":

This is clearly a more sophisticated way of thinking about the rhizomatic model, one that's more comprehensive and, I think, might offer a lot of promise. I have to confess, though, that I need more time to absorb the implications.

While we're on the topic of metaphors for learning, you might also want to check out Jacob Vakkayil's article (PDF via Gary Woodhill), where he reviews 8 ways to think about learning. Each has its own assumptions and limitations, but there's probably something there for everyone.

For myself, I find that using metaphors to think about concepts is one of the more powerful ways for me to both learn and to get creative. The more I think through the implications and applications of a particular analogy, the better able I am to understand the concept and think of new ways to use it. How about you?

Flickr photo via Regard curieux   


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I want to thank you for such an interesting post. I really agree with your closing comments: learning by allegory is also a very strong method for me and I find that it works with those I instruct.

Thank you,

Kia Ora Michele

I think care must be taken when selecting a metaphor to assist in conveying a concept or idea. Contrived metaphors tend to fizzle out and can be difficult to relate to the actual idea. They simply don’t work. But misrelated and poorly mapped metaphors can also cause real problems in their use.

It is important that the mapping of the components of a metaphor is clear and accurate. This particularly applies to metaphors using analogies borrowed from the sciences.

In Gary Woodill’s Multiple Metaphors for Learning he gives Jacob Vakkayil’s exemplary metaphors, ones that are not borrowed from another particular discipline and therefore they do not carry across concepts that are misrelated or that can be misinterpreted.

A metaphor is only powerful if it maps closely onto the concept being conveyed without the need for re-jigging. A good rule is - the simpler the better.

In Kevin Marks' post he relates several scientific metaphors that cause problems for those who know about the item or phenomenon used in the metaphor and can see through the poor mappings that are suggested, leading to confusion instead of elucidation.

I think that there is a real need for understanding not only the concept that the metaphor is used for but also familiarity with the composition of metaphor itself.

Ka kite


there are interesting implications in your response here about 'the composition of metaphor itself' which would serve as source for a good exchange of ideas on the learning process through imagination.

I use metaphor and analogy all the time for learning. As I see it, the glue that binds the concept framework together is imagination, and I set about triggering student imagination as much as possible. In this sense the metaphor extends itself to be carrier as well as meaning.

And that is quite enough of that for one comment!


@Dimitri--thanks for your kind comment--I'd love to hear more about your thoughts on learning and metaphor.

@Ken--I agree that if we don't fully understand the metaphor against which a concept is mapped, that can actually impede learning. Do you think that the ones I wrote about have problems? I'm obviously not a scientist and as borrowing from Kevin's simple explanations--is there something in those that for those who really understand the science would cause an issue?

@Kate--I've taken your advice on starting a discussion about using metaphor in learning and started new thread. Would love to hear your thoughts!

Kia Ora Michele

I feel that your metaphors r-Strategy and k-Strategy are verging on the too erudite. They are at least twice removed from the already obscure origins of the terms. The relationship between the r- and the k- types are also not in keeping with the so-called r-k continuum, which, in one discipline, puts them as being opposites. There is a dichotomy here that is not necessarily apparent in the groups the way you have categorised them.

The use of the r- and k- prefixes seems to have lost any significance in the terms the way you have used them. So I’m left wondering why use the letters at all?

On the other hand, if you are looking for names for the categories, I guess there is nothing wrong with calling them r- and k-types, only, and again, what’s the significance of the letters?

‘Scatter lots of seeds’ alliterates s- to me, whereas ‘nurture your young’ certainly does not connote k-.

I guess one has to think of why the metaphor names are chosen. Are they to help an understanding in someone who has not met these concepts or ideas? In which case, the r- and the k- are irrelevant. But they are likely to confuse biologists and perhaps some sociologists who may be familiar with their use in different contexts that are not necessarily analogous. Why not just simply call them ‘seeding’ and ‘nurturing’.

Also, there is a further problem with r-Strategy for, as you say, it tends to be 'time-consuming and wasteful' while the analogous r-strategist organisms tend to be facile and productive in their propagation.

The dandelion that has been pounced on, apparently for the sake of the metaphor, is only one of a huge range of so-called 'r-selection' organisms, not all of which scatter their seed in that seemingly wasteful way.

Ka kite

Thanks for your reference to the work which Jeff, Britt and I have been doing. Along with the idea of metaphors, I use the one of existing plants (as existing ideas). Existing plants often crowd out the attempt to establish new ones. Like plants, it is difficult to change ideas and conceptual models. We are trying to send out "runners" and I must add that to be successful in the long term, I think we must have the tenacity of wire grass.


Some ideas grow out of control and need to be pulled up or sprayed with Round Up.:)

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