The Magic of Metaphor

by Harmony Button

“As it becomes easier to think metaphorically, we begin to see more metaphors around us; and the more metaphors we see, the more bridges we have access to, inviting our connection to other people, to other perspectives, and to other possible outcomes.”
— Karen Hering

The Thinking:

The problem with discussing writing across the curriculum is that we as teachers don’t often spend a lot of time thinking, let alone writing, outside of our own specific disciplines. Luckily, our students are often more adept at thinking in multiple disciplines over the course of the day — they have to be, seeing as this kind of multi-faceted educational experience is at the heart of the liberal arts education. When the bell rings, they have to shift gears: physics to poetry, geometry to geo bee.

As a result, our students are ready, able, and in some cases, even downright eager to draw connections between their various class experiences. We all know that it is that sense of the inter-connectedness of things that actually makes us feel as if our education has broken through the borders of the classroom and entered into our understanding of life, the universe, and everything. And yet, sometimes, locked away in our own little disciplines, we forget how to actively foster that feeling in our students.

If you are looking for a way to help your students make these kind of cross-disciplinary connections, you can encourage them to use figurative associations to explore the relationships between their various studies. Try this simple form to encourage students to think metaphorically about their educational experiences: _______________ is like _____________ because _________________.

The Practice:

Figurative associations (like metaphors and similes) draw comparisons between two things, and they often require the author to think about analogies of structure in order to show how the two things are related. Metaphors are most often used to explain, clarify, or give further insight into the nature of one of the things. For example, if I told you that Parent Teacher Conferences are just like a trip to Disney World, I would rely on your knowledge of Disney World in order to clarify my description of PT Conferences.

The beauty of metaphor is that it is subjective: insert your opinion of Disney World here, and the above comparison becomes tailored to your particular experience. It is this subjective (and occasionally reductionist) nature of metaphor and analogy that makes them tricky — they can be misleading, and they can be manipulative, but they can also make things “click” for students who need help developing mental schema: figurative comparisons give students some basic mental rafters around which they can build the architecture of their thought.

The hardest thing about creating a figurative comparison is letting go of the literal connections between the two subjects. For example, as a PE teacher teaching basketball, if you ask your students to compare basketball to physics, you’re going to get a lot of kids who will try to tell you how to measure projectile motion, given the gravitation constant and (etc). This isn’t really a figurative connection. This is an example of using one discipline to talk about another one, and while the physics of basketball would be a fascinating topic, that’s not really what you’re asking them to describe. Instead, try asking your students to compare the experience of playing basketball with the experience of studying physics. An example would be to say, “playing basketball is like studying physics because both require an awareness of multiple forces, the combinations of which are difficult — but not impossible — to predict.” The point is, you don’t have to know anything about physics in order to give your basketball players the opportunity to create the analogy.

The Habit

Students are already primed to see connections between disciplines, and they get pretty excited when there is a cross-over in curricular content or theme. Giving them the opportunity to describe your subject matter in the language of another discipline can be a way of building a bridge from something they know (or feel confident talking about) to something they are only starting to explore. Inviting students to create figurative connections between disciplines is also just a really interesting way for you as teacher to see your own curriculum echoed back through the eyes of unfamiliar experience, which can be as enriching for you as it is for your students. The more versatile students become in their ability to see structural associations across disciplines, the more they will see their own education as honing the tool of the mind for all future ventures, instead of the filling of a brain-bucket with information.

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