Technological and Human Metaphors and Their Impact on Education

Recently, I woke up thinking about language, how it can reflect and shape our beliefs and values. When we use contemporary metaphors about technology, for example, to describe the human brain, some can look at that as what a missionary might call contextualization. We are using the language of the day to communicate an important truth. However, modern metaphors are not neutral. They don’t just help us explain. They also change how we understand something. As such, there are important considerations when we start to describe the human experience using technological metaphors, and when we begin to describe the technological using human metaphors or language associated with the human experience.

Cell phones do not die. Computers do not have memory. I’m sorry Descartes, but the human body is not a machine. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to use such metaphors, but they are also not without influence on our individual and collective understanding of self and the world. Such language might even contribute to our treating people more like machines, treating machines more like humans or living creatures, or finding ourselves increasingly content with technological substitutes for the fundamental truth about human needs implicit in the words, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are relational beings. Without creating some new set of man-made laws or moral boundaries, I suspect that we are wise to become more intentional about the use of language that draws us toward what it means to be human.

The same thing is true for our education organizations. To critique the contemporary education context on the basis of its roots in industrialization is so commonplace that many call it cliché, but this is a way of talking about education that continues to help people struggle with the challenges and opportunities in education. Whether you agree with claims that our contemporary education system emerged from a desire to produce a complacent and compliant workforce for the industrial age, it is hard to deny the ways in which the industrial age continues to influence our choice of metaphors in education. These industrial and technological metaphors influence our beliefs and values about education. Notice my use of the word “produce.” Consider how people speak about “delivering instruction.” Think about our great debates about standardization. Even when we begin to talk about differentiation, personalization, or individualization; it is often within the production metaphor, leading some to be champions for “mass customization.”

Technological metaphors technologize the way that we think about education, and metaphors associated with life and humanity offer us another opportunity to humanize education. This is true even as we explore the benefits of learning analytics and big data, metric-driven learning, competency-based education, computer-assisted education, blended and online learning, or a dozen other developments.

Like so many others, I began learning about the extent to which metaphor shapes our view of the world by sitting at the feet (metaphorically speaking) of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson when they published Metaphors We Live By. As the authors write, metaphor is “explaining one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5). This only makes sense that we use metaphor given what we think to be true about human learning. An ancient truth that continues to be supported by current and emerging research is that we use what we already know, what is familiar to us, to understand and make sense of that which is new to us. We learn a new math concept by comparing it to something that we already know and building upon that. We do the same thing across content areas and learning contexts. Metaphors are important to our religious expressions and how we think and talk about our thoughts and actions. We are creatures of comparison.

Coming back to education, there is the chance that using technological and industrial metaphors as the dominant means of discourse about the what, why, and how of education will push us toward technological and industrial values. Some aspire to put these technological and industrial systems to work for humans. After all, the Russian origin of the contemporary word for “robot” is the word “slave.” We enslave technologies to serve us. Given the incredibly emotional baggage of the word “slave”, I mention it with caution, but it is important, because it reminds us about the past hopes and dreams of about the role of technology, but this is something that certainly continues today. We think of technology as existing to serve us.

One problem is that this underlying metaphor for the technological, when applied to education as a whole, can just as easily draw us away from visions of a “liberal” education, an education that helps people grow in independence, agency, and ownership. Learners can become part of the technological system of education, which has the risk of leading us to think of them less as a group of individuals, each person with worth, gifts, abilities, and rights.

Again, I’m not trying to create some new set of moral boundaries, but metaphor matters when we speak and think about education. How can we deepen our understanding of metaphor so that it can be of better service to our aims of freedom, humanity, truth, goodness, and beauty? These are not popular subjects today, but they will influence what type of education ecosystem will flourish in the future.

Students are More Than Numbers on Grave Stones

While driving to a hiking trail, I came across a cemetery for an old residential mental health facility, what they called an “insane asylum” at one point in our history. I am far from an expert on the history of mental health facilities in the United States, but one need not be an expert to know that some of the past practices in these institutions are not our proudest moments.  I do not know how to explain what I felt as I looked at the thousands of numbered and name-less grave stones. At least one source claims that there are over 100,000 such graves throughout the United States.

  • What went into the decisions to strip away any sign of the people’s identities in their graves, leaving only unidentified tombstones?
  • Was it because of a public stigma associated with being mentally ill and family not wanting affiliation with their deceased relatives?
  • Was it a cost-saving decision from a government institution?
  • Does it reflect the institution’s or society’s lack value for people with mental health challenges at certain times in our history?
  • Out of all the options for “cataloging” and identification, why numbers?

People are more than numbers, but what happens when we replace a person’s name with a number? Does it lead us to empathize less? Does it drive us to sterile and less human thoughts about them. Does it give us permission to treat them or think of them differently? Does it dehumanize them?

As one who spends his day grappling with the challenges and opportunities in education, I cannot help but apply this reflection to schools as well. Each person is more than a number. They are not just one of twenty thousand in a University or school district. They are more than their class rank, their scores on tests and standardized tests, and their assigned ID number to which their school records are associated. They are people with unique stories and distinct names. They matter.

The startlingly experience that I described above came from a government-run institution, and this is not something from a hundred years ago. This is part of our recent past. If we interviewed people in those institutions, they might explain their decisions in many ways:

A Lack of Funding

It does not take much money to commit oneself to the concept that every human life has value, and every person has inherent rights, is a unique gift to this world, and is capable of being a blessing to others. We can establish policies and practices informed by such convictions.

Protecting the Family

Some argue that part of this came from the social stigma associated with having a family member in need of such care. I do not presume to understand the deep and personal struggles of the people involved, but I find it hard to believe that every single family  who had a relative in that field of nameless graves felt this way. Could it be true that not a single family member wanted a name on the grave? Even if that were the case, were there not more humane and personalizing alternatives? Again, I do not know the details.


Some might argue that this is just policy and standard practice. This is what we were told to do so we did it. This is why I write so critically about policy. Policies are important and have their place, but every policy reflects beliefs and values. We must commit ourselves to polices in education that are truly focused upon the dignity, rights, and value of every single student; not just the students collectively, but each one individually.

When we face policies that clash with this core ideas, we must have the critical mind and courage to do something about them. We might find ourselves in a context where everyone else seems comfortable with the policy and we begin to question why we are the outlier, but ultimately, it is always dangerous to go against conscience. As a poster said in one of high school classrooms, “Stand up for what is right, even if you are standing alone.”

This is not easy, especially today when many people in education are more interested in the promotion of their values and ideas by power instead of a humble and open pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. We subtly or directly try to shut down those who have positions that do not align with our own, and we justify it by demonizing the other position. In some ways, that is not unlike assigning a number to people instead of giving them a real name and valuing them enough to hear and interact with them.

We must be candid about our values and be champions for the policies that reflect them. In the United States, we have founding documents that give us a rather solid starting point. Yet, even basic freedoms in our founding documents often do not seem to inform our policies and practices in some cases.

The Questions

  • How can we be champions for schools where no student feels or is treated a number?
  • How do we make sure that students know that their worth does not depend upon the numbers assigned to them in this age of quantification?
  • How do we celebrate and nurture the lives and stories of learners, not just their ranks and ratings?
  • How can we make sure that our schools are deeply human and humane?
  • As the use of data an analytics becomes an ever-growing part of our lives and schools, how can we insist on practices and uses that amplify our core convictions?



You Teach and Learn With an Accent. Here is Why That Matters

I had an experience recently that reminded me of the fact that you and I teach and learn with an accent.

Wisconsin is my current home, but I am living in Connecticut for my semester sabbatical. We found a wonderfully welcoming church to attend during our time here. A couple of weeks ago, after the Sunday morning service, I was speaking with a woman who lived in New England most of her life. She proceeded to tell me how much she liked me talking during morning Bible study. I liked to think that she was referring to my great wisdom or something admirable like that, but she was not. She continued by explaining that my accept is so…cute (I think that was the word that she used). My immediate reaction, the one that I did not say out loud, was “I do not have an accent!” …especially not a Wisconsin accent. I mean, I grew up just outside of St. Louis. I say “don’t” not “do-unt.” I call it a “drinking fountain,” not a “bubbler.” I do not say “dem,” “dat,” “dis,” or “dere.” I do not call traffic lights “stop and go lights,” and when I travel to the northern part of the state, I definitely to not say that I am going “up Nort,” at least not seriously. As such, I do not have a Wisconsin accent. At least that is what I thought, but who am I to disagree with everyone in the state of Connecticut. They hear it so I have it. I have no doubt about it.

We are not very good at hearing our own accents. We live with them, and that familiarity makes it nearly impossible to notice. I like the way someone explained it on Quora, “We can’t hear our own accents, or even the way our voices sound to others, because we can only hear ourselves speak within the resonance chamber called our skulls.” If you read the response on that link by a New Zealander, it was only when that person got out of New Zealand, visited other places, and afterward heard the New Zealand accent of others anew that this person could hear the accent.

As I thought about this and read that post on Quora, I immediately resonated with idea. This is exactly what happens to us in education! We do not hear our own teaching and learning accents. We might think that we do, but we are still within the metaphorical “resonance chambers of our skulls.” I think of a few immediate implications for this.


This is just an illustration, not a proof, but it does remind me of the importance for feedback and accountability. Other people can hear and see things about me and my work that it is hard for me to see. They can give me valuable feedback that will allow me to grow and improve. Some might be afraid of what they hear, afraid of criticism or rejection, but if we can work through that fear, we are on the path to growth and improvement.

Exploring the Possibilities 

I write and talk about this one all the time, but in the example of the New Zealander, that person could not hear an accent until leaving, living around people with other accents, and then returning. There is similar value to broadly exploring the possibilities for teaching and learning. It is why I often encourage people to read widely, talk to others who do things differently in education, and if at all possibly, go see for yourself (even if it is just watching video clips of what is happening in other places). I do not suggest this as some sort of brainwashing or conversion strategy. It is because this sort of exercise allows us to see what we are doing in education in a different light, plus there is so much that we can learn from others.

There is no expectation or obligation to change our accent. We just get a chance to learn about others, come to rediscover our own, and then we can decide what to do next.

Humility and Moving Beyond Assumptions

This allows us to move beyond hearsay and assumptions about ourselves and others. We make constant judgement about our own practices and those of others. We define our practice as rigorous, relational, compassionate, academic, proper, and any other number of descriptors. Sometimes we come to believe that our approach and practice equals one of those words.

“If you want to be compassionate, then you must ______________.”

“If you are committed to academic rigor, then _______ is a critical practice.”

“Educators who care about students always __________.”

“Good schools _________________ students.”

We make these judgement all the time, and some of them hold up even after exploring the breadth of practices and possibilities. Others do not. I firmly believe that there are some absolutes and many other near absolutes when it comes to quality teaching and learning, but by exploring the breadth of possibilities, becoming increasingly aware of my accent and how it differs from those of others, I also appreciate that there are flaws with many of my judgement and assumptions.

We Need More of This

We need more of this in education. Otherwise we are constantly critiquing one another without learning from it. We are missing out on some incredible learning opportunities. We are losing the chance to discover promising ideas and practices for teaching and learning that align closely with our core convictions. We are losing the chance to value the work of others and to develop an even clearer understanding of that which really matters in education.

That is why I do what I do. I firmly believe in this process. That is why I observe, interview, read, and learn from countless methods and philosophies in education. Comparative education studies is one way that people get at this by examining education practices from around the world. The same tools are valuable within a given country or system. I call it comparative methodology studies, examining the practices, affordances, and limitations of these practices; learning to hear the different accents in the field.

Education is the Dangerous Business of Influencing People

A wise mentor once explained to me that, if you are in education, then you are in the business of influencing people. If you don’t like that, then you should find another field. While I couldn’t deny the truth in what he said, I didn’t like hearing it stated that explicitly. It took me years to figure out why I disliked it so much, but now I’m ready to explain it, even if ever so briefly.

Education is about growth. It is about personal formation and development. Yet that growth can take many forms. You can grow into a downright cruel and evil person. You can grow into a coward who runs away from the slightest challenge, even if it is for the grandest of causes. You can grow into a cold and calculated criminal. You can also grow into a self-controlled, confident, courageous, wise, and compassionate person. In other words, the direction of one’s education matters.

When we claim that someone is educated, what do we mean?

Most people probably use the term “educated” in reference to a person who is literature, informed, knowledgeable, and maybe even having acquired a certain set of credentials, typically including a high school and college diploma. Others usually reserve “educated” for people who are well-read and well-rounded in their knowledge of some valued cannon of knowledge, perhaps the Western classics or a set of words like the Harvard Classics.

Travel the world and ask people in different cultures what they mean by this term and you will probably find a few commonalities but also plenty of differences. You don’t even need to travel far from home to discover differences. Just interview people in a diverse community within the United States. This is because we do not agree upon the aims of education, at least not all of them. We can and do find common ground. In other instances, countless parents and students just don’t ask the question. They submit to the aims affirmed by the educational establishment or, in some places, the political establishment.

The Reason for My Discomfort

This is why I was uncomfortable years ago when that mentor drew my attention to education being a “business of influencing people.” First, I was never completely comfortable referring to education as a business because my impression of business was one that made financial gain a primary purpose. Yet, it was the “influencing people” part that troubled me.

Don’t get me wrong. I try to influence people all the time. I even seek to do it in this blog. I try to challenge myself and others to consider affordances and limitations, and to expand their awareness of the possibilities. I believe that the self-examined life is worth promoting. I value agency over mindless compliance and conformity. I also believe in the existence of classic concepts like truth, beauty, and goodness; and I value them over falsehood, ugliness, indifference, and evil. In that sense, as much as I embrace change and champion educational innovation, I still find an intellectual home in classical antiquity.

My issue is with establishing mandatory educational institutions that seek to push forward their agenda at the expense of other legitimate alternatives, even though we find ourselves disagreeing today over what is a legitimate alternative. We do this by claiming that some educational establishments should be government-funded while others should not. We do it by establishing policies that favor our agendas and muzzle those of others. We find our schools turning into political battlegrounds. We don’t value the pursuit of knowledge wherever it leads, but only wherever our agenda deems it appropriate to lead. We celebrate and seek to secure power and influence in education more than having a candid, substantive, persistent, and transparent exploration of ideas.

When we do this, we are not engaging in mere influence. We are dangerously close to turning schools into places shaped by propaganda and manipulation. We find ourselves using the very same tactics employed by middle school cliques or bullies. We use subtle or direct name calling. We use leading questions that would cause most to feel like fools if they did not follow in our desired direction. We push people to accept and move on instead of giving time for doubts, questions, and exploration. We muzzle dissident voices and evidence that does not support our cause. We can do this in wonderfully subtle and intellectual ways. We can use words and body language that aspire to civilize these efforts. We value ideological ends and wins over empowering people with a growing sense of agency and a robust intellectual toolkit.

This is why I struggled with the idea that education is the business of influencing people. It is because, while I can’t deny the truth of the statement, it must be kept in check, at least in a society of that values freedom. This is not easy. There are countless challenges along the way. It is, nonetheless, worth the effort.