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Tips for Imaginative Educators: #4 Metaphors Matter

Posted by on in Teaching Strategies
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The metaphor is a super-charged tool of the imagination; it has novelty built right into it.

Metaphors matter for teaching because they spark our ability to envision the possible—they represent divergent or lateral kinds of thinking. They help us to learn by engaging our emotions, enriching meaning, and revealing nuanced ideas.  

When it comes to metaphors and learning I have good news, bad news, and better news to share. 

Metaphor: The Good News

All human beings use this cognitive tool—that means you, your children, and all of your students. Just read Lakoff & Johnson’s book The Metaphors We Live By (1980) to see how our language is infused with metaphor. Indeed, we so commonly use metaphor that we are hardly aware of it. Allow me to prove this point. 

There are at least 5 examples of metaphor in what you have read so far. For example: “post” compares this written text to a visual/post-it message, it's a form of "hey you! pay attention" which may lead you to envision online or blog communicating as looking over a shared bulletin or information board; “tip” compares the written message/idea to a pointer or something sharp, something useful or something that stands out/worthy of note; metaphor is described as a "tool of imagination" and, later a "cognitive tool"—the idea that metaphor is a tool helps us understand that it must help us to do something, specifically, to think; “novelty is built into it”—here the metaphor connects imagery of building/construction to learning; “infuses” suggests a flowing through, fluidly, like water. I’ll stop there. 

Here’s some more good news: The capacity to understand and employ metaphor does not need to be formally taught; we develop the ability to use and understand metaphor as we learn to speak an oral language. Hang out with kids who are learning to talk and you’ll know what I mean. Once, my increasingly verbal 2-year old said this to me when we were driving in the car (she was securely fastened in the seat directly behind me at the time): “Mamma, we are a pencil!”—I didn’t teach my daughter to employ metaphor or to take the qualities of a pencil to describe our alignment. But she was right. We were a pencil. She was employing this convention of language as she was becoming an oral language user.

Of course, a young child will not know the literary definition of “metaphor,” “simile,” “analogy”, or how these differ, but that’s not important. Here's the key: young kids are exceptionally good at making sense of the world in lateral or divergent ways. They constantly understand one thing by applying the qualities of another thing to it—metaphor is a source of their fantasy and play but also a lingering quality and learning tool for people of all ages.

Metaphor: The Bad News

A study done by Gardner & Winner (1979) revealed that our metaphoric capacity declines rather rapidly after age 5. Sir Ken Robinson makes the same point in an illustrated presentation called “Changing Education Paradigms”. He says we have to be careful that schooling doesn’t kill divergent, or lateral thinking altogether. Unfortunately studies have shown that schooling is doing just that. Robinson cites a longitudinal study in which 1,500 5-year olds were tested for divergent thinking. (They were asked a question that required them to think metaphorically: How many uses for a paper clip?). At age 5, 98% of those asked scored at genius level. Re-tested in 5-year increments after that, the number of participants scoring at genius level dropped off radically. 

Clearly, we have to be careful that schooling doesn’t kill the imagination. It can.

Metaphor: Better News

No reason to despair; we can teach in ways that preserve and enhance students’ imaginative abilities. We can educate in ways that nurture and expand divergent thinking. How? We can maintain and enrich children’s ability to employ metaphor by employing it frequently in our teaching to exemplify concepts and deepen understanding. We can assess student understanding by asking them to employ metaphor to imaginatively express their understanding of concepts or topics. In short, imaginative educators constantly employ metaphors and they encourage students to employ them in their demonstrations of understanding as well.

Kick Off the School Year with This Pedagogical Challenge


See how well your students do with a simple lateral thinking challenge.  It's easy. Challenge your students to think of all the possible ways metal binder clips (as seen in this photo) could be used. It's as simple as that. This would make a great group activity. Give each group 4-5 clips and let them go!  Please LEAVE A COMMENT--tell us how this activity goes! Once your students have thought of all possible uses of these clips you might show this fabulous example from youtube of metaphor at play.

Learn more about engaging your students' imaginations and emotions in learning from imaginED—education that inspires.  The Tools of Imagination Series describes many ways you can make your teaching unforgettable.


Gardner, H., & Winner, E. (1979). The development of metaphoric competence: Implications for humanistic disciplines. In S. Sacks (Ed.), On metaphor. (pp. 121-139). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Gillian Judson (@perfinker) teaches/writes/researches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in B.C., Canada, co-directs the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG), and coordinates Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE) research and practice. Her work is primarily concerned with the role of imagination in all learning.  She also investigates how an ecological and imaginative approach to education can both increase students’ engagement with, and understanding of, the content of the curriculum but can show it in a light that can lead to a sophisticated ecological consciousness. 

Gillian writes on a range of educatonal topics but especially about imagination, creativity, wonder, story, and ecological/place-based teaching practices. She is author of the books Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies For Teaching (Pacific Educational Press, 2015) and A New Approach to Ecological Education:  Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World (New York:  Peter Lang; 2010). She most recently co-authored a book called Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (New York: Teachers’ College Press; in press). 

She has also edited the book Teaching 360°: Effective Learning Through The Imagination (Rotterdam: Sense Publishing, 2008) and co-edited the books Engaging Imagination and Developing Creativity in Education (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press; 2015) and Wonder-Full Education:  The Centrality of Wonder (New York: Routledge; 2013).

She started a blog in 2016. Learn all about imagination-focused practices (K-post secondary) at imaginED: education that inspires.

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