Two Metaphors for Learning

To understand what learning means, we use metaphors – ways of helping us to think.

Sfard 1 describes how two metaphors have come to dominate the field of educational research: the acquisition and participation metaphors.

Acquisition Metaphor (AM) – learning as a gain in knowledge, skill or understanding. Emphasis on ‘what is learned’. Key phrases: schema; knowledge acquisition; concept development; conceptualisation. Theorists that fit this metaphor: Piaget and Vygotski.

Participation Metaphor (PM) – learning as knowing – active, doing rather than having.  Emphasis on ‘how it is learned.’ Key phrases: activities; situated; contextualised; social; cultural; practice; discourse; communication; communities of practice.  Theorists that fit this model: Lave, Wenger, Brown, Foucault, Salomon.

According to Sfard, ‘While the AM stresses the individual mind and
what goes “into it,” the PM shifts the focus to the evolving bonds between the individual and others.’

Sfard also goes onto to conclude that both metaphors have value and should not be used exclusively to examine learning.

Surely common sense would support this – you cannot have a ‘what’ without a ‘how’; are they are not two sides of the same coin.

  1. Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’, Educational Researcher, 27(2).

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