To change teaching, change the metaphor

Dennis SparksPolicymakers and administrators try to improve teaching through legislation, teacher evaluation, and professional development.

But because teaching is profoundly and often unconsciously affected by the language we use to describe it, the most direct and powerful way to change teaching may be to change its dominant metaphor.

The metaphor of “teacher as performer” for the most part continues to dominate the thinking of educators and the general public.

A powerful replacement metaphor—one that I owe to Phil Schlechty—is to view teachers as “leaders of knowledge workers” whose primary responsibility is the design of engaging knowledge work. (I say more about that here.)

Here are several implications of this metaphor:

1. Instead of “performance evaluation,” principals and teaching colleagues would meet with teachers to learn more about the design of the knowledge work assigned to students to consider its rigor and potential for meaningful engagement.

2. Classroom observers would assess students’ engagement with their work. They might also sample a few students about their understanding of the work’s purpose and clarity.

3. Observers would also pay attention to teachers’ leadership skills—their ability to clearly communicate a purpose for the learning, to place it in a larger context, to manage the flow of the work process, and to provide clear directions for the work with which students will engage individually and in small groups.

4. Formal professional learning would be focused for the most part on enabling teachers to design engaging work, on structuring student group work for maximum engagement, on real-time assessment of student engagement and learning, and on skillfully managing students and the flow of classroom procedures and processes.

Some school systems, I know, have made progress in this general direction, whether or not they have applied the “teachers as leaders of knowledge workers” metaphor. But in many schools the teacher as performer metaphor is as dominant as it was decades ago, which locks into place a teacher-centric view of the classroom and of learning.

Question: Do you agree that metaphors affect what we think and do? I have heard teachers described as performers, designers, gardeners, and architects, among other metaphors. What do you think is the best metaphor for teaching?

3 Responses to “To change teaching, change the metaphor”

  1. 1 G. Michael Abbott January 28, 2013 at 9:57 am

    “The sage on the stage as opposed to a guide by your side.” That’s the saying that guided me while I taught. Your advocacy for seeing teachers as “knowledge workers” goes a major step beyond. It indicates direction for professional development, reminds teachers of their specific responsibilities, and engages thinking toward new ways to help students.


  2. 2 Mike Phillips January 28, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Sorry, I’m not going to answer your question. Instead, I’d like to express an assumption and ask two more questions.

    When we move away from the “teacher as a performer” metaphor to a metaphor that assess student learning which looks for student engagement and learning in mearningful contexts, we are challenaged to move away from quantitative measures like standardized testing and credit accumulation. When we look at a bigger picture that includes qualitative measures like; creativity, engagement and meaningful real-life connections there are new issues to address.

    How do we communicate worthwhile qualitative measures to students, parents, communities, employers, colleges and governments?
    How do we ensure accountability to these same groups when concentrating on these qualitative measures?

  3. 3 Dennis Sparks January 28, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    I really appreciate you sharing your assumption before asking your questions, Mike. I want to give your assumption more thought, but my initial reaction to it is that focusing on the student work doesn’t stipulate the kind of outcomes that will be pursued or how they might be measured. Put another way, new methods might be used to pursue existing outcomes. Whether that’s desirable is another issue.

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