Metaphors About Teachers Role and Didactic Interactions in Primary School
In a major book in cognitive linguistics,
Keywords: Conceptual metaphorsmetaphors for teachingteacher's roleteacher-student interactions in primary school
According to the traditional view in linguistics and language studies, metaphors are mental
constructs used mostly in poetry and creative writing for artistic and aesthetic purposes. Probably this
perspective is still prevalent today outside the linguistic domain: most of us tend to view metaphors
primarily as figures of speech, elements of poetic imagination, contributing to the aesthetic force of the
text and discourse. The seminal work entitled
and M. Johnson, challenged this traditional view, founding the
In the main corpus of cognitive linguistics, language is viewed as a part of human cognition and as
an expression of thinking, embedded and situated in the external environment. Thus, from a cognitive
point of view, metaphors are primarily a matter of thinking and secondarily a matter of language. Lakoff
and Johnson (1980; 1980/2008) argue that metaphors are primarily units of every-day thought, not only
elements of figurative language. "Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence we have found that most of
our conceptual system is metaphorical in nature", claim the two authors (p. 92/124). Mental concepts are
basic units of thinking, fundamental knowledge structures that shape the way we perceive the surrounding
reality, reasoning and understanding, the way we act and relate to the others. Assuming that our
conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then we must agree that metaphors are "pervasive in every-day
life" and "the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of
metaphor" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980/2008: p. 92/124). Abstract concepts we use in everyday life - like
time, change or beliefs - are understood metaphorically (e.g. time is space or resource, change is motion,
beliefs are possessions or loved objects).
Conceptual metaphors allow us to express and understand an idea or a conceptual domain, usually
one that is more abstract and ill-structured (
Conceptual metaphors involve a set of correspondences between features or constitutive elements of the
source to the target domain. Conceptual or metaphorical
correspondences established between constituents elements of the source and the target domain.
Metaphorical mapping preserves "the cognitive topology of the source domain [...] in a way consistent
with the inherent structure of the target domain" (Lakoff, 1993). All metaphors highlight some aspects of
the target domain and they hide or elude other aspects. A number of elements of the target concepts are
not pre-existing, they are imported from the source domain through metaphoric construction (Deignan,
2005). For example, if we metaphorically conceptualise the learning
(source domain) we will tend to focus primarily on the results and secondarily on the process itself
(including here methods, obstacles, social interaction, etc.). If we conceptualise the learning
to the target domain the idea that academic success is mostly a matter of abilities (as when we try to reach
a real target) and, in the second case, we tend to import the idea that academic success is mostly a matter
of determination, perseverance and personal implication.
The analogical mapping between domains involved in metaphoric construction is mainly an
implicit/automatic process and metaphors are integral parts of our ordinary thought and language.
social interactions, emotions and actions, beliefs about life and death. "Metaphors are so commonplace
we often fail to notice them" said Lakoff and Turner (1989). The proponents of the conceptual metaphors
theory argue that metaphoric thought is not a peripheral form of thought since "few or even no abstract
notions can be talked about without metaphor" and the only option to understand them is "through the
filter of directly experienced, concrete notions" (Deignan, 2005).
By metaphoric construction we ground abstract concepts in meaning indirectly through more
concrete mental representations or units of knowledge, mostly derived from experience. In a frequently
cited example, the
comes from our knowledge about
Conceptual metaphors typically involve an abstract concept as target and a more concrete concept as their
source. Lakoff and Johnson (1980; 1980/2008; Johnson, 1987; Lakoff, 1987) adopt an embodied
cognition perspective in cognitive linguistics, arguing that our complex and most abstract conceptual
system comes - at an ultimate level of analysis - from
interactions with the world. For the two authors "concrete" experience in the world means sensory,
perceptual and motor experience as we interact and move through the world. Image schemata are
multimodal, dynamic, pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual structures, consisting of recurrent patterns of
experience structured in our mind, providing the basis for understanding and reasoning at more abstract
levels. Image schemata are pervasive in language and the socio-cultural context (Johnson, 1987). For
example, at the origin of the
a path and a direction (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980/2008, Lakoff, 1987; Johnson, 1987).
schema is another basic common image schema and it consists of a boundary distinguishing an interior
from an exterior. When we say "I have many ideas in mind" or "I have an empty mind", when we advise
somebody to "keep in mind" something or when we declare ''I don't know what is in her/his mind", we
conceptualise the human mind through a container schema.
Metaphoric construction means much more than transferring knowledge from one domain to
another; in fact metaphors play a central role in defining our everyday realities (Lakoff & Johnson,
1980/2008). Metaphors are a common presence at all levels of discourse - even in the educational
discourse - and people, students and teachers as well, use them almost automatically. The presence of
metaphors in the educational discourse and their influence on teaching, learning and related processes -
including here didactic communication, classroom interactions and affective climate, teacher's values,
attitude and actions, learning strategies, etc. - have been illustrated by Badley and Brummelen (2012) in a
book entitled: Metaphors We Teach By: How Metaphors Shape What We Do in Classrooms. For example,
a teacher who views the student mostly as a
primarily on the
strategies/methods. Teachers who conceptualise classroom communication according to the Shannon-
Weaver model - as a process of sending and receiving information - are prone to view the teaching
process mostly as a process of transmitting knowledge to the students. Metaphors, present at all levels of
the educational discourse (Block, 1992; Ben-Peretz, Mendelson & Kron, 2003; Chen, 2003) can help
teachers to articulate and construct their professional experiences (Kramsh, 2003; Nikitina & Furuoka,
2008) and guide their teaching practice (Cortazzi & Jin, 1999; Tăușan, 2011; Cook-Sather, 2003; Badley
& Van Brummelen, 2012).
Rationale and aims of the study
The language in the educational field is rich in metaphors (Badley & Van Bummelen, 2012).
There are metaphors
most cases automatically, without being aware of their use, and deliberately when they want to express in
a vivid and condensed form an idea which is difficult to explain in detail. Teachers use metaphors as
instructional tools, with the intent to: facilitate conceptual understanding in mathematics or science,
express complex knowledge, construct alternative interpretations of events, promote critical thinking and
inquiry in order to find personal meaning, organize and make sense of a large amount of data (Lakoff &
Nunez, 2000; Beger & Jäkel, 2015). Metaphors are sometimes used as tools for enhancing creative
expression, with the intent to facilitate social and emotional communication, to obtain dramatic effects or
to enhance the persuasive force of the message (Cortazzi & Jin, 1999; Deignan, 2005). Several popular
about the "educational offer", "educational costs", learning is "acquisition" of knowledge),
metaphor (schools are "greenhouses", teachers are "gardeners", students are "fragile plants"),
metaphor (schools are "families", teachers are "parents"),
Metaphors in/of education are pervasive outside and inside the classroom: in official documents
and textbooks, in the instructional discourse, in the parents' and students' personal reflections, in students’
creative writing and drawings, in dedicated and popular media. Even if people use them mostly at the
implicit level, these metaphors exert a significant influence on the learning process, teaching practice,
classroom climate, teachers’ attitudes and students' behavior, assessment policies, curriculum
development, educational ideal, parental values and social expectations. Part of the school/classroom
culture, some of the most prevalent educational metaphors are desirable - for example "learning as a
knowledge construction" is an adequate mental representation in a constructivist classroom or "teacher as
conductor for an orchestra" is a good illustration for an efficient classroom management. Some other
metaphors are undesirable, implicit and probably difficult to overcome - the "container" metaphor for the
human mind or the "teacher as an absolute knowledge owner" - and others are simply overused - a book
as a symbol of knowledge, learning as a light bulb or the primary teacher as a mother (Duggan-
Metaphors we teach by can serve as an important instrument of analysis (Oxford et al., 1998) for
classroom practices, teachers' beliefs and educational ideologies, classroom climate, students' experiences
and expectations, and learning strategies (Nikitina & Furuoka, 2008). If the teachers are aware of the
conceptual metaphors they use in/of education, they will be able to structure and to give signification to
their classroom experiences and to ameliorate their classroom practice (Bowman, 1996-1997; Nikitina &
Using cognitive metaphor analysis, this study aims to investigate the mental representations of
teachers' role and teacher-student classroom interactions in primary school. The study focuses on the
education-related metaphors produced by a sample of primary school teachers selected from Romanian public schools. The results are discussed in relation to their potential relevance for creating more reflexive
teachers and for the optimization of the teaching practice.
The study sample consisted of 105 primary school teachers, selected on a voluntary participation
basis from Romanian public schools (Alba and Hunedoara counties). The age of the participants was
between 25 and 59 years, all of them being females, all having a BSc degree in Preschool and Primary
School Education and the majority having, or pursuing, a MSc degree in Education. The majority of the
participants (N = 86) teach in public schools situated in urban areas.
In order to investigate the teachers' conceptual metaphors about their roles and about classroom
interaction with the students, I used a quantitative method, a questionnaire. The questionnaire listed 32
metaphors organized around several conceptual domains (Table 1). The participants were asked to
express their agreement or disagreement with each of these metaphors on a 5-point Likert-type scale
(possible ratings ranging from 1 - "strongly disagree" to "5 - strongly agree"). The participants provided
some socio-demographical data (age, years of experience in teaching, education, urban/rural location of
the school) and they completed the questionnaire anonymously.
In the first phase of the construction of the questionnaire I selected an initial list of 40 metaphors
based on a literature review (Ben-Peretz, Mendelson & Kron, 2003; Block, 1992; De Guerrero &
Villamil, 2001; Oxford et al., 1998; Nikitina & Furuoka, 2008). In a second phase, a group of 30 students
in Primary and Preschool Education were asked to finish the sentence "The teacher is like ...." with their
own metaphor and to provide a very short explanation for the given metaphor (procedure adapted after
Nikitina & Furuoka, 2008). As a result, 3 other metaphors were added to the initial list (only 3 because
most of the metaphors generated by the students were already recorded in the first list). In a third phase,
the 30 participants were asked to analyze the whole list of metaphors (43) and to rate them on a 10-point
scale (0 - irrelevant/inadequate, 10 - relevant/adequate). 32 metaphors were maintained in the final list,
after the exclusion of those with very low mean score (below 2-points).
The collected data are centralized in Table 1. The mean score indicates the participants' agreement
with the metaphoric description of the teacher's role and her/his classroom status/activity (including here
teacher-student interaction). The conceptual metaphor analysis has been used as an instrument to
investigate the primary school teachers' perceptions about their role/status in the classroom context.
The data presented in Table 1 offer a sketch of "a hidden image" of the teacher in primary school.
Cognitive metaphor analysis allows us to obtain information from the teachers about their perceived
roles, status and relations with the students involved in the learning activity. At a first glance, this
emergent "image" of the teacher appears somehow contradictory - a mixture of
classroom, the primary school teachers view themselves mostly as
Data indicate a progressive transition from the traditional role of the teacher as "the owner" or
"depositary" of knowledge and wisdom (the mean score for the "teacher as an Encyclopaedia" metaphor
being considerably high = 4.23) to more complex roles promoted by the constructivist perspective in
education (manager of the learning process, mean score = 4.61; mentor, mean score = 4.57; facilitator,
mean score = 4.52; constructor of knowledge/competences, mean score = 4.42; provider of tools for
learning, mean score = 4.33). The view of the teacher as a
Items/metaphors with the highest scores (mean scores between 4 to 5, the possible scores ranging
in the interval 1-5) are in this order: learning partner (4.80), counsellor (4.66), manager of the learning
process (4.61), window to the world (4.61), sunshine (4.61), mentor (4.57), facilitator (4.52), friend
(4.52), expedition guide (4.47), mother/parent (4.47), provider of tools for learning (4.42), constructor of
knowledge/competences (4.33), encyclopaedia (4.23), potter (4.09), old brother/sister (4.09), gardener
(4.04), orchestra conductor (4), entertainer (4). Most of these metaphors reflect the roles for teachers
prescribed by the
learning process, mentor, facilitator, provider of tools for learning, constructor of
knowledge/competences) and roles related to
gardener). The high scores assigned to metaphoric constructions like
guided, an opportunity explored out of curiosity, in the former case, and more guided in the latter one.
Authoritarian classroom roles such as court judge (2.33), policeman (2.14) or boss (2.04) had the lowest
rating scores, being avoided by the respondents.
This study offers a sketch of the primary school teachers' perceptions, beliefs and intuitions about
their roles in the classroom and about their didactic rapports and interactions with the students. Because
of the small size and demographic heterogeneity of the study sample, this investigation should be
considered rather as a preliminary pilot study, a starting point for further in-deep investigations of the
topic, but it is hoped it successfully illustrates the utility of the conceptual metaphor analysis as an
investigation tool for the teaching and learning processes.
Some of the metaphors that teachers use in describing their roles and activities in the classroom
could be considered "good" metaphors (i.e. in accordance with the dominant educational theories; for
example: facilitator, manager of the learning process or orchestra conductor). These metaphors should be
emphasized, explained in detail, bought to the teachers' attention and eventually used as didactic tools in
the teacher training programmes. Other metaphors are simply reminiscent reflections of older
perspectives on education and usually they are "imported" from the school culture (e. g. the teacher as an
encyclopaedia). They should probably be acknowledged and overcome. And others are, although
pervasive, rather overused (e. g. the teacher as a mother). For in-service teachers, metaphor analysis could
contribute to a better understanding of their beliefs and behavioral patterns in the classroom and as an
instrument of reflection and progress towards more efficient teaching practices.
The conceptual metaphor theory developed by Lakoff and Johnson (1980/2008) offers a valuable
frame of analysis of educational processes. Conceptual metaphors could be valuable didactic tools and
instruments of investigation in the educational field. By conceptual metaphor analysis researchers gain
access to the implicit perceptions, beliefs and cognitive representation of the teaching, learning and
classroom processes. The results and conclusions of the conceptual metaphor analysis could become
starting points for enabling teachers to become more reflexive and for optimizing the teaching practice in
The author greatly appreciates the anonymous contribution of the primary school teachers who made this investigation possible.
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