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Martin Blazey Metaphors of learning and how they affect results

In my last blog I mentioned that open pedagogy and social pedagogy are two possible development avenues though which to develop learning outside of a traditional theoretical narrative. But are they really outside of this narrative, or are they themselves an iteration of a deeper conceit found in education theory?

Both open and social pedagogy are methods to impart information to a learner, and they are both seemingly separate methods amongst a bunch of other previous and doubtless future theories. In all you could easily argue that learning theories are not unified – but if you ask the question about why these theories arise, what underlying assumptions are being made about learning that leads to their iteration? Can we understand them at a deeper level and then identify which of these theories may or may not be best in a given circumstance.

Human thinking and language is, for the most part, communicated through the use of metaphor and analogy. We use this linguistic and conceptual trick to describing the relationship of A to B, for example, describing how a computer processor is the equivalent to a human brain. I am not saying this is correct in terms of its accuracy, but it is an example of how ideas and information are shared between people in order to gain understanding of complex reality.

In her essay ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’ Anna Sfard explains the two core metaphors upon which gaining knowledge is based:

The Acquisition Metaphor

Knowledge is acquired; it is treated on a material level like an object or series of objects that need to be consumed or collected. Knowledge acquisition is achieved by passing it from one person to another, or obtaining from one person to another.

You can see this in the titles of journals or books where terms like knowledge, concept, conception, idea, notion, misconception, meaning, sense, schema, fact, representation, material and content denote knowledge firstly as concrete material. Then they denote knowledge as something to be owned through terms like reception, acquisition, construction, internalisation, appropriation, transmission, attainment, development, accumulation and grasp.

The educator helps the student to achieve their goal by delivering, conveying, facilitating, mediating and so on and once deemed successful this knowledge can be used by the learner.Metaphors of learning and how they affect results

The Participation Metaphor

This metaphor makes a simple linguistic change to describe learning as ‘knowing’ and drops the utilisation of terms like ‘concept’ or ‘knowledge’ in the description of learning. Learning through knowing becomes a process of doing rather than owning.

Whilst the learner may use some of the acquisition methods to learn a particular element, they do so in a way that sees learning as a process of becoming part of a community through taking part and being a part of something. The learning, rather than internalised into the brain and separate from everything, forms part of a larger entity connected to others for the greater good.


Both these metaphors seem incompatible with one another. One treats learning as a process of consumption and ownership of  knowledge that is static enough to be simply passed from one  person to another, whilst the other sees learning as a state of perpetual becoming in the context of a dynamic and fluid world.

The latter fits the current mood and conditions in which we see global businesses and employees working. The business operates in different cultural and regional environments, and the variability in the overall length of service for an employee in a single business has increased giving the more socially engaged and participatory model an advantage over the acquisition metaphor.

Whilst the former may not fit the perceived needs of modern business, it may still have a place in the context of learning where the required knowledge is centred on building something, for example, the employee needs to be able to physically construct a computer.

In essence both of these models have a use, and they must be understood in relation to the goal of the learning. A choice must be made based on which model will yield the best results for the learner and this must be constantly measured against their ability to be effective and provide insight to the learner. It would also be worth informing the user that these models are being used, particularly if the acquisition metaphor is taken, not as a fixed value but rather an education aid, an “as though” moment – much like the earlier metaphor of the computer process and the brain – though not accurate if this has been prefixed “think of it as though it were like a human brain”.

The participation metaphor is a positive approach to learning, treating people as active participants not passive consumers. It is a metaphor that promotes success by essentially saying that “Today you act one way; tomorrow you may act differently” [Anna Sfard – On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One, 1997] by creating an environment and philosophy in which people work together in solidarity through collaboration. I think this is where we should consider all our learning in the context of this model and see how it compares.


Martin Blazey, Senior eLearning Developer, Bray Leino Learning

In my blogs I will be talking about what to look out for in eLearning, what good eLearning might look like now and in the future, and what some of the most interesting ideas might mean for eLearning as well as a fixation on game-like technologies and how they might be good for eLearning.

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