Schools as Factories? Alternative Metaphors for Thinking about Digital Age Schooling

metaphorswelivebyIn Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson make a compelling case for the significance of metaphor in our individual and collective lives.  As they note, “Metaphors are powerful mechanisms of the mind.” They are present in almost any sentence that we speak or write, and they help shape what we think, feel, and do.  This is equally true when it comes to schools.  Consider the example of “schools as factories for learning.”  Rows, bells, standards, grades to measure quality (like grades to measure quality in meat or shoes), emphasis upon efficiency and productivity…  This metaphor for school is so pervasive that it is difficult for us to look or think beyond it.  Factory language is widespread, as is factory thinking about schooling.  For a thought-provoking critique of this metaphor, consider reading the article on Metaphors in Education at Teacher’s Mind Resources.

Courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives -

Courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives –

Much of this factory metaphor fits into what many refer to as the industrial age model of learning organizations.  As such, it is popular for proponents of new models to describe their ideas in comparison to this past, by talking about post-industrial education.  The problem is that there are limits to identifying one’s ideas by what they are not.  If one seeks to promote change, then it will require new ways of thinking, speaking, and acting.  It will require experimentation with new metaphors and ways of looking at schooling.

As a way to consider alternatives to thinking about schooling, here are some interesting metaphors or perspectives from past as present.  As you have interest, try them out on yourself and with your colleagues.  See how they shape or influence thought and action in new ways. I am not advocating for any one of these right now.  Some may well have even more limitations than the factory metaphor.  Nonetheless, looking at school through a new or different lens might allow us to see things in a new light or to notice new opportunities and possibilities.

  1. Jazz as a Metaphor for Education
  2. Schools as a Learning Commons (a 16th century metaphor for the 21st century)
  3. Schools as Learning Communities
  4. Schools as Networks
  5. Schools as Sites of Translation -From the provided link, the author defines translation as, “to bear, remove, or change from one place or condition to another; to change the form, expression, or mode of expression of, so as to interpret or make tangible…”
  6. Schools as Community Hubs
  7. Schools as Learning Environments – Since there are many different types of environments, this metaphor has a great deal of flexibility, but seems to have connections to the age-old gardening metaphor.
  8. Schools as Open Social Systems
  9. Schools as Change Agents in the Community
  10. Schools as Social Organisms – This one goes back to at least 1932, but it is also a frequent metaphor in Waldorf schools like this one.
  11. Schools as Families
  12. Schools as Learning Ecosystems
  13. Schools as Socialization Agents
  14. Schools as Places for Collaborative Works of Art
  15. School as a Shopping Mall – This one is a bit dated (popularized in the 1980s), but it might still spark some new thoughts.
  16. Schools as Laboratories

Please consider adding additional metaphors and ways of thinking about schooling in the comments.