Metaphors about learning can be used to explain to people how learning happens.
They can also show how learning is hard work but ultimately rewarding.
This article outlines 29 great learning metaphors that explain the complex ways we learn new things.
Some of these ‘metaphors’ are written as similes. A metaphor says that learning is something, while similes say that learning is like something.
Both similes and metaphors for learning have the same effect: they draw an analogy between learning and something else to explain some features learning and how it happens.
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Inspiring Metaphors for Learning
1. A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step.
This metaphor means that a student who wants to learn something big (like a new language, or getting a degree) must start somewhere: so go out and start learning. Little by little, you’ll get toward your learning goal.
2. Learning is like building a house.
Similar to the ‘journey of 1000 miles’ metaphor, this one shows that learning happens one step (or in this case, brick) at a time. I like in this metaphor that you get something at the end: a strong, sturdy building built on solid foundations of knowledge.
3. A new idea is the spark that lights an eternal flame.
I like this one because it reminds me of the value and importance of education. Education can be the catalyst for improving people’s lives and empowering them forever. This couldn’t be more true than for the poor and, around the world, educated women.
4. Learning is like climbing a mountain.
If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know that it’s hard work. You’re often taking it ‘one step at a time’. But, when you reach the top, you get a great sense of ecstasy. You can look down at the views and enjoy the fact that you conquered a great challenge.
5. Learning is like a search for hidden treasure.
This metaphor shows that learning doesn’t necessarily happen in a slow, steady fashion. It might take you a long time to find the answers you’re looking for. But, with persistence, you’ll eventually find the ‘treasure’ you’re after.
6. Learning is like collecting seashells.
While the above metaphor of searching for hidden treasure implies there’s one great ‘nugget’ of knowledge you’re after, this one takes a different angle. This metaphor says that there are dozens of unique, interesting things to learn and we collect new interesting bits of knowledge as we go through life.
7. Learning is like making new friends.
Friends provide advice, input, and humor in our lives. When we learn new things, we get some similar benefits. We get advice from books and movies we learn from; and when we learn new things, we can get that same excitement that we can get from new friends.
8. Learning is a Gift
This metaphor reminds us that learning is something we shouldn’t take for granted. There are people all over the world who would love to have the opportunity to further their education, but barriers to education are preventing it.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to get access to education, we should remember that it’s a gift: something we should appreciate and cherish.
Metaphors about the Struggles of Learning
9. Learning is a roller coaster: it’s full of highs and lows.
Many of us can relate to the highs and lows of learning. When it’s hard going, it feels like a low. But, moments later, you might finally have had that ‘light bulb moment’
10. Learning is like housework: It’s never done!
This metaphor points to the idea of ‘lifelong learning’. In other words, you’ll never know everything. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn. It means that once you’ve learned something, more questions are going to emerge.
11. Learning is like walking through a maze.
Sometimes when we’re in the middle of learning something new, we just don’t know how to get past our confusion. We’re like a person stuck in a maze, not sure which way to turn.
12. Learning is like cracking a code.
The metaphor of cracking a code implies that learning involves problem solving and critical thinking. We might also need patience as we work on our ideas and try to figure out the right answers.
13. Learning is like drowning in too much information.
Have you ever felt like you were drowning? You’d be flapping your arms about trying to grasp for something solid to grab hold of. Sometimes we feel the same sensation when learning. The information is all too hard and we’re trying to grasp at anything that seems to make sense.
14. Learning is like wrestling a lion.
Wrestling a lion would be tough. Just when you think you’ve got control over it, it’ll buck its head and cause you even more trouble. Learning is similar: just as you think you understand something, you’ll be presented with a new piece of information that will mean you’ll have to keep struggling to learn and understand.
15. Learning is like eating an elephant: it’s hard to digest the information.
The idea of “digesting” information is great. Sometimes when eating a big meal, we need to pause, sit back, and let the food settle. Similarly, when learning, we may need to pause to think things over for a while before continuing.
16. Learning is like solving a puzzle.
I love jigsaw puzzles. You sit there and slowly work away at them while a picture slowly emerges. Learning is just like that: it requires time, patience and hard work to slowly build knowledge in your mind.
17. Learning is like wearing a sweater on a hot day.
This metaphor (okay, technically it’s a simile) shows that learning can be uncomfortable. When you’re wearing a sweater on a hot day, you’re not feeling relaxed: you’re a little squirmy, maybe. Well, when you’re learning, you might also feel a little uncomfortable. You might be feeling this way when something’s hard to understand or that you’re struggling to get your head around. You might even get ‘hot under the collar’!
18. Learning is like carrying a stone on your back up a hill.
When we understand something perfectly, we can talk and think about it without any effort. But, when learning something new, it’s hard to articulate our thoughts. It’s so hard, we might say it’s like carrying a stone on your back up a hill.
19. Learning is like setting across an open ocean.
When setting across an ocean, we can’t see our destination point. We have to have a little bit of trust that there will be an end point eventually so long as we set our course and keep on going. It’s a little bit about learning something new!
20. Learning is like swimming through mud.
This metaphor shows us the difficulty of learning. It can require a ton of effort but it still seems to be hard to make any progress.
21. Learning is like being tossed by the currents in the sea.
This is another metaphor that implies learning can be hard going. We try our hardest, but we can sometimes feel like we are being beaten by an impossible task like studying for a test or writing an essay.
22. Learning is like walking in the dark.
A walk in the dark is hard because we don’t know where we are going. Similarly, often we don’t know the answers to what we’re learning. We have to figure it out as we go.
23. That class was like being hit by a truck.
Have you ever felt like something totally overwhelmed you? Well, I’m sure you’ll feel that way when you’re hit by a truck. You might also feel like that when you come out of a class that was just too hard to understand: it was totally overwhelming!
24. Learning is like pulling teeth.
Pulling teeth is painful! So is learning sometimes. When you’re learning something that’s boring and uninteresting, the lesson seems to go on forever – you might even say the lesson was painful like pulling teeth!
Metaphors for Theories of Learning
25. Learning is scaffolded by great teachers.
‘Scaffolding’ is a metaphor famously used by education theorist Jerome Bruner. Scaffolds are the ladders and temporary platforms that builders place around a building during construction. They are there to help support the building’s construction until it can stand on own.
In education we use the scaffolding metaphor to explain how teachers provide supports to students while they learn. Scaffolds include prompting questions, educational toys and learning materials that help students learn. When a student knows the information, they can do related tasks without the need for teachers’ scaffolds.
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26. Knowledge is constructed in the mind.
We usually construct physical things like cars, houses or Legos. In education, there are people called “Constructivist Theorists” who believe we also construct things in our minds. Ideas are built up slowly over time as we think about our ideas and test them in the real world.
27. Children are blank slates / empty vessels.
John Locke came up with the term “tabula rasa” to describe a child’s mind at birth. This term translates into ‘blank slate’ or ’empty vessel’. A student whose mind is a blank slate is totally empty, ready for us to insert ideas into their minds.
Behaviorist theorists view students as blank slates, while sociocultural theorists believe students aren’t: instead, they believe children come into the classroom with lots of cultural and social knowledge in their minds already.
28. A classroom is a walled garden.
Friedrich Froebel came up with the metaphor to describe the ideal teaching environment. According to Froebel, children should be raised is natural garden-like environments away from the corruption of the adult world beyond.
Later, Holt came up with the phrase the ‘walled garden’ to explain how kindergartens should be gardens surrounded by walls. These walls will keep the bad out and the purity of childhood within the safety of those walls.
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29. The Lightbulb Moment.
Teachers love this term. We can picture a lightbulb hovering above a student’s head. We work hard at getting a student to understand something, trying multiple different angles and strategies to explain a topic.
Then, suddenly, something ‘clicks’ in the student’s mind. They understand! It’s like we can almost see the light flicking on over the student’s head.
Metaphors are a great way to help people reflect on what learning is and how it occurs. Here’s how this article can be put to use:
- University educators: Use these metaphors to stimulate thinking in your seminar. It could even be an ice breaker or opening activity in a class. Just print out this page and cut each metaphor into a strip. Share it among your class and get them chatting. Then, get them to come up with their own metaphors.
- Educators and School Principals: In a staff meeting, have a go at doing an activity involving metaphors for learning. See what people come up with, then end the session discussing what an educator’s role is in the learning process.
- College Students: Use these metaphors in your essays! Or, share your idea of what extra metaphors I should add in the comments section below.
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