Use at Your Own Risk: 10 Educational Change Metaphors & Illustrations

Do you ever find yourself having to defend the importance of an educational innovation in your organization? Are you trying to spark some lively discussion about what needs to change in your learning organization? Skeptics argue that things are working fine now.  Why change?  Or they might point to the metaphorical garbage dump of educational trends and “innovations” that failed to deliver in the past.  They may well have good and valid points to discuss, explore and consider.  At the same time, many of us find ourselves speaking to people, large groups or small groups; trying to articulate why we consider it important to innovate, and why it is important for us to think about what might need to change.  Toward that end, here is a collection of ten quotes, analogies or metaphors that I’ve used to start the discussion. Use them at your own risk.

1. “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson


This one speaks for itself.  While we do not promote change for the sake of change, living and vibrant institutions change, adapt and respond to the world around them. This quote can serve as a useful discussion starter. Are we changing? How? Is it for the better?  How can we promote positive and needed change?



2. Educational Malpractice


This comes from a post early in 2013 where I wrote, “The first time that I heard this was from Chris Dede at a Distance Learning Conference a few years ago.  The time is coming, he argued, when failing to use the current and best teaching and learning technologies will be a form of educational malpractice.  It will be like a medical professional who insists on using outdated technologies when we they have more effective ones at their disposal.  If technologies are tools (I’m not especially fond of that metaphor, but I’ll go with it for now), then it is important to use the best and proper tool for the job.  Would you go to a brain surgeon who insisted on using an 18th century skull saw?  What is the equal in our education system today?

I fully support respecting and valuing diverse perspectives, but there comes a time when we need to acknowledge some limits to that respect…like when we are sitting in a surgeon’s (or teacher’s) office and she is preaching to us about the superiority of the time-tested skull saw over these new technological trends.  We can appreciate his nostalgia for the “good old days” while respectfully insisting that we put the well-being of the patient (learner) ahead of our own comfort and preferences.”

3. The Mr. Potato Head Analogy 

mr potato head

I wrote about this one in August of 2013. The original Mr. Potato Head was a potato with some push pins.  Over time, we regulated it into becoming the mass produced and standardized product of today.  That is sometimes our risk in education.  We formalize, add policy after policy, and we eventually have something safe, sterile and far from the original goal or vision. This can serve as a warning for us as we think about gradual change without occasionally challenging the entire system. How have we sanitized, sterilized, and strayed from our core mission?  How can we respond to address this?

4. “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” 


I’ve used this illustration a few times at the beginning of talks to different groups. When Dorothy arrives in Oz, she looks around and then says to her dog, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Then the Good Witch of the North comes down from the sky.  After seeing this, Dorothy adjust her first statement to, “Now I know we’re not in Kansas.”  I sometimes use this as an introduction to a talk about what has changed in the world over the past decade.  It serves as a useful way to start the conversation about how schools need to respond to the changing world.  We are not in Kansas anymore and our students will not be living in a Kansas-like world. How do we best prepare them for life in this strange new world?

5. The Post-Factory School


This one is sometimes overused, but it still serves a useful role in conversations with many educators.  As some note, much of the modern schooling model comes from an industrial age that sought to prepare people for life in industrial life and work. The school model included bells, rows, and even a grading system that we also see in the rating of different meats and products.  However, as many note, we live in a post industrial age, which calls for new knowledge, skills and abilities.  That calls for a different type of school system.  This can be a helpful discussion starter as we consider the future of formal education. How is our school sort of like a factory? What would it take to make it a post-factory school?

6. Fishing Lessons vs a Fish Distribution Center


I started using this one over the past year as I shared about thoughts and research on the role of self-directed learning. As a way to illustrate the change that we want to promote in our learning organizations, I contrast a fish distribution center and a father teaching his son to fish.  The first is a place where people can go to buy or receive fish that were caught and cleaned by others.  It is easier and requires less of the recipient.  The fishing lessons are  qualitatively different experiences.  The father nurtures the boy, teaches him the details and skills needed to fish, and eventually the boy can catch, clean, and eat as many fish as he wants.  He can even pass on this skill to others.  Applied to schools, the first model leaves the person persistently dependent upon others to teach them. The second seeks to help each learner become self-directed, a self-teacher, and a self-learner.  This is the type of change and innovation that we want to promote in our schools. Traditional teacher-directed models risk failing to meet such a goal. What would it take for our school to shift from fish distribution center to a place of fishing lessons? What would that look like?

7. The Remote Control 

remoteHere is another illustration that I use on occasion as a discussion starter. Imagine that you are listening to me give a presentation and you start to get bored. You stare down at the ground and notice a remote control. Out of boredom and curiosity, you pick it up.  In a playful moment, you press the pause button.  To your amazement, I pause. Recognizing the power in your hands, you experiment with the other features on the remote. You fast-forward me, rewind, stop, and even try the picture in picture (allowing you to watch your favorite game in the corner while I present). You then click record. When you get home at night, you find that you can reply parts that interested you and skip over the ones that do not.  Now imagine a learning environment where such an experience was possible. What would be the benefits and drawbacks of it?  Now consider that we have all the tools and technologies to do this.  Consider the possibilities! How can we empower each learner with their own personal remote control?

8. Students as the Audience, Actors, Directors or Playwrights 

theatreI wrote a short blog post about this in early 2013, when I reflected upon what role our students play in school, and what roles we want them to play in life. If our goal is for students to grow into people who can perform, lead others, create, and design; how will they develop those skills by always playing the role of the audience in school. When do they get a chance to practice, developing their competence and confidence in these other roles? What educational changes or innovations can we make to help students progress toward these other roles?

9. Weight-Bearing Walls

loadbearningwallI learned this one from Inevitable: Mass Customized Learning in an Age of Empowerment, and you can read my review my review of the text here. Among other things, the authors use this idea of weight-bearing walls to understand the challenges of change in a schooling model. These walls are what keep the roof from falling down on us in a building.  They bear the weight of the structure. Similarly, we build our schools upon certain ideas and practices that become integral to the overall school structure. Careless changing of these elements can cause the school to figuratively crumble. As a result, if we want to move one of these walls, we need to add reinforcements and have a clear plan on how to add new and improved weight-bearing walls. This can be a great discussion starter about what we consider the weight-bearing walls, what sort of remodeling is in order? How we are going to make sure the integrity of the system is maintained amid those changes?  Of course, we also want to get into why this remodel is worthwhile in the first place. By the way, the authors of the text argue that most schools have the following weight-bearing walls: grade levels, students assigned to classrooms, bell schedules, courses, textbooks, a traditional letter grade system, report cards, and a nine-month school year. If you plan to replace one or more of them, make sure that you plan carefully.

10. Giant Slaying

Screen Shot 2013-12-21 at 12.07.56 AMWhile this last one might be a bit violent for some people’s taste, the comparison to education is growing on me. It is a rooted in a question that challenges us to think about the types of experiences that we are giving young people as they grow and learn. How are we helping students grow into dragon or giant slayers…in the figurative sense? These are people with courage, skill, character and conviction. Does sitting in a desk in straight rows cut it?  I like to think of the story of young David defeating the giant Goliath with a sling.  How did David prepare for that? Did he get an “A” in giant slaying 101 in school?  No. He tended sheep. Amid that work, he had to protect the sheep from lions and other predators.  He probably spent hours practicing with that sling while passing the time as a shepherd boy. Of course, if you read the biblical account, he also seemed to have a little divine assistance. What are the parallel’s for how young people learn today? Are they getting the opportunities needed to gain the confidence and skill to take on and defeat the figurative giants that they will face in their lives?  If not, what do we need to change to help them? What sort of learning organization nurtures people like this? The group might want to list off some figurative giants that young people are likely to face in their lives, and then think about how to give them the experiences needed to prepare.