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How metaphors shape our ideas about education

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Julia Turchaninova is a former Houston Independent School District / Houston Community College System (HISD / HCCS) principal teacher with a doctorate in education and over four decades of teaching, administration and research experience in teaching. secondary and higher. She has held educational leadership positions in Russia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Israel and the United States, and has published and translated 14 books and over 70 articles. She is highly regarded by parents and educators for her pedagogical expertise and wisdom.

Julia Brodsky: Why do we use metaphors to describe pedagogy?

Julia Turchaninova: Metaphors help us visualize and convey our mental models (the intuitive frames we carry in our minds that help us interpret the world) in a succinct way. We may want to think through our metaphors to understand and adjust our assumptions.

The most common metaphor of pedagogy, “gardening”, has been very popular since the days of John Amos Comenius, the father of modern education: the school is a garden, a child is a plant and a teacher is. a gardener. Each plant has its own temperature regime, humidity and harvest time. The gardening metaphor suggests that the potential for growth is in the seed, and all we need is to provide nutrients that allow it to express itself. Over the past century, however, this metaphor has developed a variety of shades of less inspiring meanings, referring to pesticides, GMOs, hydroponics, chemical weeding, square watermelons, and seedless grapes. These versions of the metaphor show how the school system shapes the development of children’s minds by preselecting materials, methods and criteria for success, as well as how it eliminates certain ideas and behaviors. Educators, like gardeners, need to be aware of the intended and unintended consequences of their interventions.

Conversely, for opponents of the school system, the metaphor of choice is “prison”. The similarities are obvious: innocent children face a sentence of 13 years, framed by bells, without the possibility of parole. They are forced to spend their days with randomly assigned strangers, at risk of being bullied and working to achieve the goals imposed on them. To add insult to injury, they are even forced to memorize books written by jailers – a cruel and unusual punishment few prisons would brag about. What a horrible violation of human rights!

Brodsky: With a metaphor, we can better reflect on educational practices and determine whether or not they are as effective and rewarding as they could be. What other metaphors are used? What are their shortcomings?

Turchaninova: All of our endless testing comes from the metaphor of “mass manufacturing”. The reason is obvious: as a giant company, the school system naturally lends itself to the industrial approach. Develop product specifications, design the production protocol, establish quality control standards and continuously test for compliance. But this is a problem. If you work on a conveyor belt, you consistently get the same type of raw material to start with, and you have a detailed process diagram, as well as a clear view for a standard end product. But in education your “raw material” is always different, and we must strive for unique and non-standard individuals as a result. Mass production is clearly not the answer.

Unlike mass production, we can borrow metaphors from medicine where good doctors strive to provide personalized treatment to their patients. I used to work in a school where the principal tried to encourage teachers to take an individualized approach to students using the medical metaphor. “Not a single doctor,” he exclaimed, “will treat all of their patients with the same drug regardless of the diagnosis! No doctor will prescribe the same diagnostic procedures for all their patients regardless of symptoms! Yet teachers and administrators raised in a “mass production” mentality are often reluctant to abandon standard testing.

Many parents use a metaphor of “work” to refer to school. But as a parent, do you bring your work home every night? Do it on the weekend? Take it with you on vacation? And if you do, do you still look forward to working on it when the whole family sits down to chat, play, and watch TV after dinner? And how many direct bosses do you have above you? How about six to eight different ones a day, each with their own quirks? Do they replace each other at the sound of the bell, demanding that you instantly and completely jump into the new mission whether or not you completed the previous one, and do it in their idiosyncratic way? And if you do, is this the kind of life you would want for your children?

Brodsky: So what would be the best way to deal with our metaphors?

Turchaninova: Since metaphors shape our understanding of complex issues, it may be a good idea for parents and educators to think about the metaphors we use when talking about school. It would be great for us as a society to come up with a new set of metaphors that help us express the essence of the kind of education we want for our children in the coming century.


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