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Metaphors of learning (after Ivar Nordmo and the article by Sfard, 1998)

On Thursday, I attended a workshop by Ivar Nordmo, in which he talked about two metaphors of learning: “learning as acquisition” and “learning as participation”. He referred to an article by Sfard (1998), and here is my take-away from the combination of both.

When we talk about new (or new-to-us) concepts, we often describe them with words that have previously been used in other contexts. As we bring the words into a new domain, their meaning might change a little, but the first assumption will be that the new concept we describe by those old words is, indeed, described by those words carrying the same old, familiar meaning.

When concepts are described by metaphors that developed in a different context, or are commonly used in different contexts, an easy assumption is that all their properties are transferrable between contexts. On the one hand that makes it easy to quickly grasp new contexts, on the other hand that easy assumption is most likely not entirely correct, which can lead us to misunderstanding the new concept if we don’t examine our implicit assumptions. And usually we don’t stop to consider whether the words we are using that were borrowed from a different context, are actually leading our thinking on a separate context without us realizing that this might not be appropriate.

The way we think about learning, for example, depends on the language we use to conceptualize it, and there are two metaphores who lead to substantially different ways of understanding learning, with far-reaching consequences.

Learning as acquisition

Learning is commonly defined as “gaining knowledge”. Facts or concepts are building blocks of knowledge that we acquire, accumulate, and construct meaning from. We can test whether people posess knowledge or skills (we might even be able to assess someone’s potential based on their performance). Someone might have a wealth of knowledge. They might be providing teaching and knowledge to someone else, who is receiving instruction and might share it with others. We can transfer knowledge to different applications. We might be academically gifted. In all these cases, we gain posession of something.

We think of knowledge as something we posess, intellectual property rights clearly assign ownership to ideas, and stealing ideas is a serious offence. As any other expression of wealth, knowledge is guarded and passed on from parents to children, or maybe shared as a special favor, making access to those from less knowledge-affluent circles difficult. It is perfectly fine to admit to wanting to accumulate knowledge just for the fun of it, without intending to use it for anything, same as it is socially accepted to get rich without considering what that money could and maybe should be used for.

Learning as participation

Changing the language we use to talk about things might also change how we think about the things themselves.

An alternative metaphor to “learning as aquisition” is “learning as participation”. In that metaphor, learning is described as a process that happens in specific contexts and without a clear end point. The focus then is on communicating in the language that a community communicates in, in taking part in the community’s rituals, but simultaneously influencing the community’s language and rituals in a shared negotiation with the goal of building community.

When learning is about participation, it is not a private property but a shared activity. This means that the status that, in the acquisition metaphor, comes with being knowledge-rich, is now gone. Actions can be successful or failures, but that does not make the actors inherently smart or stupid. They can act one way in one context on a given day, and could act differently at any time.

While the participation metaphor brings up all the positive associations of a growth mindsets on the individual level and equal access to learning in society, it is hard to imagine it without preserving parts of the acquisition metaphor. If knowledge is not something we possess within us, how can we even bring it from one situation into the next? How do individual learning biographies contribute to the shared activities? Can someone still be a teacher and someone else a learner?

I find considering these two metaphors really eye-opening as to how much the language we use shapes how we think about the world. Which I was aware of for example in the debate on how to use gender-neutral language, but which I never applied to learning before.

The recommendation by Sfard (1998) is not to choose one metaphor, but to carefully consider what is inadvertently implied by the language we use. Meaning transported in metaphors between domains might be buried so deeply that we are unaware of it, yet it can lead us to think about one domain wrongly and unknowingly assuming properties or causalities from a completely different domain, and to making sense in that second domain based on a faulty, assumed understanding. So awareness of the metaphors we use, and reflexion on what that does to our thinking, is not only useful but neccessary.

I don’t claim to have gotten far with these thoughts yet, but it was definitely eye-opening!

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational researcher, 27(2), 4-13.