Please take a minute to undertake the following little linguistic task. Grab a pen and a piece of paper.
Write down a few sentences that describe yourself in a good mood.
Now, write some sentences that describe yourself in a bad mood.
Do you notice any patterns of language? Do you employ any clichés or common idioms almost despite yourself? Are metaphors springing up in all their linguistic glory?
Crucially, do you notice an orientation for each group of descriptions? Were you consistently ‘up‘ when you described your good mood? Were you flying high, or on cloud nine? Were you physically ‘down’ when you were mired in a bad mood? Dwelling in the depths of depression, or stuck in the gutter?
In their classic book, ‘Metaphors We Live By‘, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson unpick how our very understanding of the world is shaped by the language of metaphor. So much so, we often miss and take for granted metaphors in our everyday talk and writing. The authors start with the example of arguments. Arguments are expressed and understood in terms of war. Consider these examples: your arguments are indefensible; she was under attack from his barrage of questions; he defended his position.
This language (our very mode of thinking) is so integral to our understanding of the world it is hard to make explicit something which is so common and implicitly embedded in everything we say, read and write. Record any explanation you may give to students and listen back to it. How many metaphors did you use? How many times did you describe something abstract in concrete terms? I bet there were more than you expected. It is habitual. They make meaning and they help smooth the process of learning.
Indeed, the ideas in this post may well be going over your head, or more likely my attempt at an explanation is falling flat!
Metaphors are essential for good writing. They provide the backbone to rhetoric. They are the stuff of imagination and they transform our stories. They can illuminate information and make explanations comprehensible. In short, they are essential.
In English therefore, metaphors are very much a threshold concept. These can be simply described as concepts that are integral to a body of knowledge that, once known, transform our degree of understanding and thinking about a subject. This knowledge can be transformative and can make many aspects of the subject area subsequently easier to understand. For the subjects of English Literature and English Language, to understand metaphor is to understand one of the fundamental elements of knowledge.
We therefore need to make metaphors visible at every opportunity. They don’t just appear in poetry – they are woven into the very fabric of language. See, I can’t stop myself!
Last week, at NTEN ResearchEd York, I gave a talk on, amongst other things, the importance of metaphors in teacher explanations. Metaphors, I hope we now agree, aren’t just the stuff of English teachers. To understand and use metaphors effectively is important for every teacher. They make our explanations sing and mark in the memory of our students essential knowledge.
Teachers in every subject area should look to isolate their best metaphors. Those apt comparisons and images that make crucial concepts clearer and understandable to our students seeking out understanding. Try it. Sit down and consider the key threshold concepts that define your subject and attribute your best metaphor to ensure understanding. We should share our best metaphors as subject specific gems. Have a think, what are your best metaphors for learning?
If you want some homework, just take a week to record the metaphors you use in your subject. Is there any patterns? Do you have any gems to share with your department colleagues?
James Geary reckons we all use six metaphors a minute. Consider that for a moment. Give James’ short TED talk a listen:
For English teachers, we should lead the march. We should unmask the metaphors that we use, often unthinkingly. We should get students to write with original and striking metaphors, whilst training them to read with a keen eye for metaphor. We should model this magic of metaphor for all to see.
Metaphors are for life, not just for English teachers.
Note: any metaphors used in this post were entirely intentional.
My post on Threshold Concepts explains the idea in greater depth with an excellent array of links – see here.
BrainPickings has a fantastic article on metaphors (with the same title as mine) – see here.
There is an excellent post on metaphor as a threshold concept in English, by Mark Miller – see here.
Rob Ward has written a really useful post on metaphors, with helpful classifications – see here.