Teaching Through Metaphor

Metaphors are not merely literary devices used to spice up language, rather, they are the fundamental mental constructs we use to connect abstract thoughts to the tangible world we know.

Why Metaphors?


Where it seems that studying metaphor would be better suited to someone in the humanities as opposed to a geologist, research in cognitive linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy, conceptual metaphor theory over the past four decades has shown us that not only is metaphor a prominent and integral part of our everyday speech, but that it directs much of the way we think and reason scientifically. Copious research in the history of science has demonstrated how choosing a new metaphor during an investigation into a phenomenon in nature has led to rapid advancements in thinking about that phenomenon. History also demonstrates how these same metaphors, having been used for a long time, can also inhibit thought about these same phenomena.

With terminology like greenhouse effect, layer cake stratigraphy, tectonic plate, reading the rocks, and considering notions of time in terms of space (for instance, where rock thickness stands of a certain about of time passed), it should be obvious how important metaphor is in the communication of science among experts and from experts to novices. It is important to realize that metaphors, by their nature, highlight certain aspects of the target concept (the concept the metaphor is representing), while hiding others.

We also know that experts in a discipline think differently about that discipline than novices do. One of these differences is knowing what a metaphor highlights and hides about reality. Novices, on the other hand, might not differentiate what is highlighted and hidden by the metaphor, leading to unintended interpretations of the metaphor and leading away from a consensus-view understanding of the scientific concept.

Identifying the kinds of metaphors used in science instruction (both scientific metaphors and deliberate metaphors), and the possible limitations of the metaphors, can help maximize the efficacy of the metaphors used.