Learning metaphors ad infinitum

H800 Notes on metaphors

Hager 1 (p.679) lists four ‘practice points’ in relation to metaphors for learning:

  • Metaphors inform thinking about learning.
  • Metaphors can sometimes mislead thinking.
  • Acquisition and transfer are the most common learning
  • Alternative metaphors offer fresh ways to think about

Hager (p.679) states that ‘acquisition and transfer are easily the most popular metaphors used to understand learning.’ Both of these metaphors are described below, along with the social-participation metaphor and the knowledge-creation metaphor.

Individual-Acquisition Metaphor

Individual metaphor – ‘the conception of the individual learner emphasizing the acquisition of knowledge and cognitive skill as transferable commodities (e .g., Anderson Reder & Simon 1996).’ Salomon 2

Acquisition metaphor (AM) – learning as a gain in knowledge, skill or understanding; constructed; the mind as a container to be filled with knowledge 3.

Acquisition assumes that knowledge can be constructed, or organised into a structure for learners to assimilate.

Knowledge transfer metaphor

Once learning has been acquired it can be transferred to our bodies (action) and reproduced. According to Hager, acquisition and knowledge-transfer are inextricably linked as education traditionally involves supplying knowledge (acquisition) and then the testing of that knowledge (transfer) via tests etc.

This metaphor is supported by main frameworks such as the Common Inspection Framework for Further Education and Skills 2009 4 and the RARPA process 5 both of which emphasis the need for gain and assessment of knowledge and skills as integral to teaching and learning.

Hager (p.680) describes how the individual-acquisition-knowledge metaphors treat learning as a separate ‘thing’ that be contained within people and moved from place to place – a seperate entity.

Hager (p.681) extends this to consider skills acquisition and transfer – gaining skills, use or lose them!  This correlates to the pre-ponderance of skills frameworks and competencies which should be transferrable across fields. However, there is a counter argument that most learning is contextual and does not easily transfer. Hager uses the example of how employers have been disappointed by new employees who still need input before they become effective employees despite apparently having the required knowledge and skills. A further relevant example here is the Common Induction Standards for Health & Social Care 6

– a set of induction standards accompanied by certificate that is a legal requirement for care workers. Once the standards have been completed and certificated, should a care worker change employer in theory all that is needed is for the certificate to be seen by the new employer and then only the standards in bold re-addressed at induction (these are the ones specific to that workplace). This rarely works for a number of reasons, not least being the fact that how the standards are delivered and measured varies from employer to employer and the context varies substantially which affects all of the performance criteria, knowledge and skills in the standards.

Social – Participation Metaphor

Social metaphor – ‘the sociocultural conception of learning as a collective participatory process of active knowledge construction emphasizing context, interaction, and situatedness (e.g., Cole & Engestrom 1993).’

‘Thus, one can speak of the “cognitive, acquisition-oriented” conception of individual learning versus the “situative, participatory” conception (e.g., Greeno,1997; Sfard in press).’

Quotes above are from Salomon.

Participation metaphor (PM) – learning as knowing – active, doing rather than having. Mastery by a community.

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.’ Paalova & Hakkarainen 7 describe participative learning as ‘as a process of becoming a member of a community and acquiring the skills to communicate and act according to its socially negotiated norms. The focus of the participation view is on activities, i.e., on ‘knowing’, and not so much on outcomes or products (i.e., on ‘knowledge’ in the traditional sense).’ (p.538)

Participative learning is also referred to as situated learning as it is highly contextualised. Hager (p.683) describes how with ‘this approach, learning, both as a process and as a product, is inseparable from the socio-cultural setting in which it occurs.’ Paalova et al 8 describe how within the participation metaphor, ‘Cognition and knowing  are distributed over both individuals and their  environments, and learning is “situated”  in these relations and networks of distributed activities of participation. The argument is that knowledge and knowing cannot be separated from situations where they are used  or where they take place.’ (p.558)

Networked Learning

This is more of a form of participation rather than a metaphor.

‘Learning in which ICT is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners; between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources’ (Goodyear, Banks, Hodgson & McConnell, 2004 in Goodyear 9) At the heart of networked learning is connectedness.

Knowledge-creation metaphor

In her paper Sfard concluded that both acquisition and participation were required and that the two metaphors were not mutually exclusive. Paalova et al argue for a third metaphor – knowledge-creation – that ‘shares common aspects with both the acquisition approach and the participation approach, and is thus a promising way of softening the contrast between those two perspectives’ (p.558).

Paalova & Hakkarainen describe the individual-acquisition metaphor as a monological approach, the participation-social metaphor as a diaglogical approach and argue for a third approach – a trialogical approach of knowledge-creation. They argue that knowledge-creation is emergent – ie has arisen, rather than being something new.

Paalova & Hakkarainen (p.535) describe how there is a modern focus on creating knowledge as opposed to creating products, ‘Productive participation in knowledge-intensive work requires that individual professionals, their communities, and organizations continuously surpass themselves, develop new competencies, advance their knowledge and understanding as well as produce innovations and create new knowledge.’

Knowledge-creation draws on both acquisition and participation:

‘ … to examine learning in terms of creating social structures and collaborative processes that support knowledge advancement and innovation; in this sense it becomes close to the participation view. Further, the knowledge-creation approach addresses the importance of generating new ideas and conceptual knowledge. In this sense, it has commonalities with the acquisition view because conceptual knowledge is emphasized.’ Paalova & Hakkarainen (p.539-540).

Three models of knowledge-creation referred to by Paalova are:

  • Carl Bereiter’s theory of knowledge building
  • Yrjo Engestrom’s theory of expansive learning, and
  • Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi’s model of knowledge creation

Paalova & Hakkarainen (p.542) ‘Bereiter characterized knowledge-building processes that involve working at the edge of one’s competence, progressively setting up higher standards of performance, and seeking collective knowledge advancement beyond individual learning.’

Engestrom’s notion of learning as an activity places learning as an activity within a larger context of cycles of development. ‘The cycle starts by (1) individual subjects questioning and criticizing of some accepted practices; which is followed by (2) analyzing the situation, i.e., analysis of those (historical) causes and empirical inner relations that are involved in the activity system in question. Then participants engage in (3) modeling a new solution to the problematic situation. And they are (4) examining the new model, experimenting and seeing how it works, and what potentialities and limitations it has. Participants undertake (5) implementing the new model in practical action and applications, and then, (6) reflecting on and evaluating the process. Finally, participants engage in (7) consolidating the new practice into some new pattern.’ Paalova & Hakkarainen (p.543)

Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model of knowledge creation is about innovation in organizations and examines tacit and explicit knowledge. It considers how ‘Tacit knowledge can be used to facilitate knowledge creation through a ‘knowledge spiral’ Paalova & Hakkarainen (p.544) through four types of knowledge conversion: socialisation; externalisation; combination; and internalisation.

Productive participation in knowledge-
intensive work requires that individual professionals, their communities,
and organizations continuously surpass themselves, develop new
competencies, advance their knowledge and understanding as well as produce
innovations and create new knowledge.
  1. Hager, P. (2008) ‘Learning and metaphors’, Medical Teacher, 30(7), pp. 679-686, (online) Available from: http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=34168110&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed 5 April 2011).
  2. Salomon, G. and Perkins, D. N. (1998) ‘Individual and Social Aspects of Learning’, Review of Research in Education, 23, pp. 1-24, (online) Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1167286.
  3. Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’, Educational Researcher, 27(2), pp. 4-13.
  4. OfSTED (2009) ‘Common Inspection Framework for further education and skills 2009’, OfSTED, (online) Available from: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/content/download/9740/107839/file/Common%20inspection%20framework%20for%20further%20education%20and%20skills%202009.pdf (Accessed 27 March 2011).
  5. QIA (n.d.) ‘Themes – Assessment – Drivers for change’, National Teaching and Learning Change Programme: Improving teaching and learning in Adult Learning, (online) Available from: http://resources4adultlearning.excellencegateway.org.uk/themes/assessment/driversforchange.htm (Accessed 5 April 2011).
  6. SfC (2010) ‘Common induction standards’, Skills for Care, (online) Available from: http://www.skillsforcare.org.uk/cis/ (Accessed 6 April 2011).
  7. Paavola, S. and Hakkarainen, K. (2005) ‘The Knowledge Creation Metaphor – An Emergent Epistemological Approach to Learning’, Science & Education, 14, pp. 535-557, (online) Available from: http://www.uio.no/studier/emner/matnat/ifi/TOOL5100/v08/leseliste/F11/fulltext.pdf (Accessed 1 April 2011).
  8. Paalova, S., Laponnen, L. and Hakkarainen, K. (2004) ‘Models of Innovative Knowledge Communities and Three Metaphors of Learning’, Review of Educational Research, 74(4), pp. 557-576.
  9. Goodyear, P.  (2005) ‘Educational design and networked learning: Patterns, pattern languages and design practice’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(1), pp. 82-101, (online) Available from: http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet21/goodyear.html (Accessed 1 April 2011).

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