Cognitive tools: Metaphor

What are metaphors?

A metaphor is the cognitive tool that enables us to see one thing in terms of another. Or, to put it another way, metaphor involves representation of one thing as though it were something else: “I was walking on air”; “Feeling down in the dumps?”; “He pulled himself up by his bootstraps”; “The markets went south”; “My heart is a stone”; etc.  We constantly make this peculiar kind of substitution in order to give force and energy and richer meaning than can be managed by a simple literal phrase or sentence. (You can read a bit more about metaphor and how it works here.

This peculiar ability lies at the heart of human intellectual inventiveness, creativity, and imagination. We do not all use metaphor equally well, but we all can, and can’t avoid, using metaphors, but the use of appropriate and powerful metaphors can stimulate the imagination and creativity in all subject areas. It is important to help students bring this ability to energetic life, and to use it vividly by exercising it frequently; using it routinely in teaching will help students learn to read and write with energy and flexibility. Being able to use metaphor flexibly and fluently, and in a controlled way, is also central to becoming literate in more than the most limited sense.

In the imaginative classroom, then, teachers will not only use metaphors constantly––which we can hardly avoid doing––but will also call attention to them discuss them, encourage students to recognize their own and reflect on how they work. Just one or two daily––or even less frequently, as long as it becomes a consistent exercise––bringing metaphors to conscious attention and analysis.

Give me a couple of quick example of how I might easily teach about, and help students practice using, metaphors in literacy classes.

1. Try introducing a “metaphor of the week” competition. Begin by simply describing what a metaphor is, and give some examples. The rest is going to be easier than you imagine. Set up a blank sheet of paper on a wall, or use a white board with markers handy, and invite students to either write on the board, or have someone write on the board for them, a good metaphor they heard someone use, or one they invented themselves. Within a few weeks, you will likely have to begin using a larger sheet of paper, as the students’ examples quickly increase in number and cleverness. Every Friday afternoon take a vote on the best metaphor from the paper or the board. You will find quite quickly that the students all quickly understand what a metaphor is, and become enthusiastic in listening for unusual and surprising ones—the kinds that win the prize (and you can offer what you like, but the pleasure of winning will prove quite adequate.) You can have a special “Metaphor of the Month” competition also, in which each weeks top three are pitted against each other. Then, you may keep the winners on sticky notes, or pinned on printed strips, waiting for the concluding “Metaphor of the Year” event—for which an Oscar or something similar might be awarded. You will find hat all the children learn what a metaphor is; they all become conscious of other people’s uses of metaphor, and their own; they gain the benefits of increasing “metalinguistic awareness” and consequent increased flexibility in language use; they will also find it fun.

2. One of the funnier uses of language occurs when people mix metaphors in the one sentence. That is, they jump from one metaphor to another wholly inconsistent one.  For example: “He stepped up to the plate and grabbed the bull by the horns.” A metaphor derived from baseball becomes confused with something a cowboy might do. “That wet blanket is a loose cannon”; “Strike while the iron is in the fire”; or (said by a school administrator whose budget was slashed) “Now we can just kiss that program right down the drain.” What activity could you design so that students could consciously construct mixed metaphors, and have some fun in the process?

Well, try getting the students into small groups, in which they role-play different scenarios in which they would use language specific to the context (e.g. a baseball game (home run, striking out, sliding to base.), birthday party (blowing out candles, opening presents, playing games), watching a movie (exciting plot, frightening scene, magical worlds). They would select 3-5 expressions that are most “typical” of the context.  They would then combine their small groups to create skits in which the messages would be combined to create bizarre activities to be played out:  “In a frightening scene I blew out my candles and totally struck out!”  “My favorite present was a magical homerun!”  Likely the children will do better than these examples!

How else can we employ metaphors in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “metaphor” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

Some concluding words about metaphor

A focus on metaphor expands students’ minds beyond the routine and literal.  We will not want to do this all the time, of course, but for an enlivening ten minute change of pace, it can be valuable.  It can also help to expose something important about language—that we can use it in our own ways to express our unique view of things.

There is no right answer to finding a good metaphor to complete the sentence “My heart is . .”; there is an indefinite number of right answers, and each student can be encouraged to find her or his own. But, also, students will learn that an important part of finding effective metaphors is that they can be understood by others, even if occasionally an effective metaphor might need some explaining. Indeed, explanations can be powerfully educative moments. I recall vividly a group of students explaining why they had chosen to say that their heart was a thorn.

Aristotle, discussing the business of writing well, noted: “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.”