Reflective Metaphors


In recent years, more emphasis is being placed on understanding teacher's thought patterns, or the reflection that occurs about the teaching-learning process. Thinking about this process in different ways is crucial for teachers to most effectively understand and carry out their roles in the classroom and school more broadly. Roles are most effectively carried out when they are consistent with a coherent educational philosophy.

Metaphors may be used as a powerful tool for determining and expressing one's educational philosophy. Often other professionals and lay people are more receptive to ideas when they are expressed indirectly through symbolism. Metaphors use symbolism to link ideas about teaching and learning to something more familiar. Through analogies, ideas that are relatively abstract are compared to ideas that are more concrete. The comparison may use one or more mediums, including but not limited to, a story, poem, simile, or word picture. Regardless of medium, the main thread running through all metaphors is that they contain "an implicit comparison, one which calls attention to similarities between two things by speaking of one thing as if it were another" (Petrie, 1980). Or, as MacCormac (1990) put it, "To describe the unknown, we must resort to concepts that we know and understand, and that is the essence of a metaphor--an unusual juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar" (p.9).

Chen (2003) classifies metaphors as a way to facilitate self-reflection of teachers. Personal dynamics-oriented metaphors, for example, may be expressed by comparing teaching to a journey, or by comparing learning to a roller coaster ride. Although not exhaustive, other classifications identified by Chen include art-oriented metaphors, business-oriented metaphors, science-oriented metaphors, and power-oriented metaphors.


Carlson (2001) studied metaphors actually written by preservice teachers to determine the predominant themes targeted. While half of the preservice teachers (16 of 33) focused on the role of the teacher, other emergent themes dealt with classroom climate, teacher growth, and making a difference. Themes, of course, are not mutually exclusive, meaning that the same metaphor may focus on two or more themes. That being said, other themes may include:

Purposes of the school

Characteristics of the teacher and student

Nature of the curriculum

Scope of the curriculum

Writing metaphors

Teachers are encouraged to reflect on the classifications and themes for metaphors noted above, and then incorporate selected ideas into one or more metaphors. Considering the importance of metaphors, and selecting ideas of particular relevance contributes to the effectiveness of metaphors. Interestingly, preservice teachers who wrote metaphors with particularly meaningful ideas, accurately recalled details of them 18 months later (Carlson, 2000). In addition, those who considered metaphors important reported that the process of writing and reflecting deepened their understanding of why and how they wanted to teach.

Teachers need only look to their everyday experiences to find relevant content for metaphors (Hagstrom et al., 2000). Chen (2003) describes the following strategies for reflecting about everyday experiences: journal keeping, sentence completion, and metaphor identification grids.

Examples of metaphors

Several examples of metaphors are given below. The candle, consultant, dancing, leaf, and sculptor examples are Dreamweaver documents containing stories and pictures. Clicking on the link "Analysis of selected examples" reveals an interpretation of the leaf and sculptor examples. The recipe and wanted poster examples are Powerpoint slides that need to be downloaded to the desktop before viewing.


Carlson, T. (2001). Using metaphors to enhance reflectiveness among preservice teachers. JOPERD, 72 (1), 49-53.

Chen, D. (2003). A classification system for metaphors about teaching. JOPERD, 74 (2), 24-31.

Hagstrom, D., et al. (2000). Teaching is like...? Educational Leadership, 57 (8), 24-27.

MacCormac, E. (1990). A cognitive theory of metaphor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Petrie, H. (1980). Metaphor and learning. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and thought (pp. 438-461). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

© Steven A. Henkel, 1/05

Candle Consultant Dancing Leaves
Wanted poster

Analysis of selected examples


Class examples, Fall, 2006

Bridget Nate Sarah Ted