The Magic of Metaphor

Metaphor is used extensively in A Living Laboratory: Volcanoes to "stretch" students' thinking skills, to enhance the learning process by creating vivid imagery that establishes powerful connections between the concept and the student's prior learnings and personal experiences.

The use of metaphor as a teaching tool has a long history. As teachers, we use metaphor regularly (often unconsciously) to explain ideas, insights, and abstractions. Metaphorical thinking is the ability to make connections between two unlike things, by recognizing an inherent similarity or a common trait.

For example, in Teaching to the Two-Sided Mind, Linda Williams likens the right hemisphere of the brain to a kaleidoscope. This single image serves to illustrate the critical attributes of the right hemisphere; i.e., simultaneous, nonlinear processing that creates meaningful patterns out of unconnected bits and pieces of information.

Williams then compares the left-brain hemisphere to a digital computer, representing the linear and sequential processing skills identified with this portion of the brain.

Metaphor is an excellent technique for introducing unfamiliar material. It is a proven aid to retention and recall. Through the use of metaphor, students are able to connect new information with something they already know or have experienced, attaching it to existing "schema" in the mind.

The second essential step in this learning process is what Gordon and Poze, The Metaphorical Way of Knowing, call "making the familiar strange." This is where students break known connections in order to discover something new about what was previously learned. "Breaking connections" to form new metaphors is an effective way to move from recall to the higher-order levels of cognitive activity: synthesis, integration, and evaluation of the learning.

Metaphors also may be used to evaluate students' ability to comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. Williams suggests using metaphors in test questions. She offers as an illustration this question used to evaluate students' understanding of the French Revolution: "How was the period leading up to the French Revolution like the building up of a thunderstorm? Be sure to include in your analogy the major events that led to the revolution." Following a question posed in terms of a metaphor, students are asked here to demonstrate their understanding of a concept by creating metaphors of their own.

When planning a lesson around a metaphor, the following steps are necessary:

  1. Decide what is the general principal or concept underlying what you are teaching.

  2. Brainstorm possible metaphors, and select the one which best communicates the concept. Make sure the metaphor is one to which your students can relate.

  3. Once you have identified the metaphor, consider its possible discrepancies (the ways in which it does not fit the concept), so that you can note and/or clarify those discrepancies as you introduce it to your students.

  4. Introduce the new lesson or information using the metaphor you have selected. At the conclusion of the lesson/activity/unit, allow time for students to generate new, original metaphors that also communicate the concept learned.

The lessons Vulcan's Vocabulary and A Place in Time illustrate the use of metaphor.

Another way to use metaphor in the classroom is to approach it integratively or thematically. The following steps are suggested by Donald and Judith Sanders in Learning, February 1987:

  1. Establish a specific objective for the lesson and the broad concept to which you will relate it.

  2. Choose an appropriate metaphor that illustrates the concept.

  3. Write a guided fantasy or plan an activity that actively involves your students with the metaphorical image.

  4. Introduce the lesson using the metaphor you have chosen.

  5. Read your guided fantasy or engage students in the activity that allows them to "experience" the metaphor in their imaginations.

  6. Ask students questions about the experience (What did it feel like? What did it look like? What feelings did you have? What new ideas/realizations occurred to you?)

  7. Tie the metaphorical image to your original lesson goal, such that students "get the connection": the "A-HA!" moment of creative recognition or insight.

Guided fantasy or imagery techniques promote both visualization and relaxation, encouraging students to open "the mind's eye" to an experience as it is described to them. It is a means of integrating the rational with the creative mind, freeing the listener from some of the emotional barriers to learning. It has been shown to be particularly effective in cases of undue stress, a history of repeated failure, compulsive perfectionism, and other sources of blocking and anxiety. It is even credited by some with inhibiting acting-out behaviors and increasing motivation.

Like other forms of imagery, guided fantasy helps to make the abstract familiar, and aids learning and retention by establishing memorable mental connections. (For an example of this method, see lesson Evacuation Simulation. This lesson to be on line in the future.)

Memory Aids

Learners must often remember unfamiliar words and lists of words that are not related to their daily lives. Some "tricks" can be used to aid our memory. These are called mnemonic devices. If you aren't already using them, try some of the mnemonic devices below to help you remember vocabulary and lists in A Living Laboratory: Volcanoes.

  1. Give it a name: "Caldera Rivera," "Basalt Rathbone," Ashley Ashfall," etc.

  2. Use a simile: "A caldera is like a witches cauldron." "Basalt flows like ice cream from a volcanic cone." "It looks like . . . . . .," "It sounds like . . . . . ," etc.

  3. Use a metaphor that creates a mental picture: "The witch, Caldera Rivera, stirs a bubbling cauldron of magma."

  4. Draw a picture to represent it.

  5. Pair it with a familiar word that rhymes: "You can't throw a discus that's viscous"

  6. Create a nonsense acronym:


"The debris avalanche at Mount St. Helens was composed of SWIRT."

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