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First published in the SEAL Journal December 2000


by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins

Learning is a highly complex process about which we know very little. But one thing we know for sure is that people learn in different ways. How can we have a sense of the way our students learn -- just by listening to what they say? A very practical approach is to take note of the metaphors in their language.

What is a Metaphor?

In the innovative and mind-expanding book Metaphors We Live By, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson say:

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. [Note 1]

We like this definition for a number of reasons. First, it recognises that metaphor is about capturing the essential nature of an experience. For instance, when a student of ours described his situation as "It's like I'm banging my head against a brick wall." the sense of the repetitive, painful and self-defeating nature of his experience was instantly apparent. Second, the definition acknowledges that metaphor is an active process which is at the very heart of understanding ourselves, others and the world about us. Third, metaphor need not be limited to verbal expressions. For us, a metaphor can include any expression or thing that is symbolic for a person, be that nonverbal behaviour, self-produced art, an item in the environment, or an imaginative representation. In other words, whatever a person says, sees, hears, feels or does, as well as what they imagine, can be used to produce, comprehend and reason through metaphor.

Metaphor is not an occasional foray into the world of figurative language, but the fundamental basis for everyday cognition. Lakoff and Johnson state:

In all aspects of life, ... we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor. [Note 2]

Andrew Ortony has identified three characteristics of metaphors that account for their utility: vividness, compactness and expressibility. [Note 3] In short, metaphors carry a great deal of abstract and intangible information in a concise and memorable package.

In addition there is a fourth property, and it is the one which most impacts the way students learn. Because metaphors describe one experience in terms of another, they specify and constrain our ways of thinking about the original experience. This influences the meaning and importance we attach to the original experience, the way it fits with other experiences, and the actions we take as a result.

Clean Language

There is a very simple way to discover your student's metaphors for learning -- just ask them:

And when you're learning, that's learning like what?

Whatever answer they give can be further developed by asking:

And is there anything else about that 'X'?
And what kind of 'X' is that 'X'?

[Where X' is the metaphorical or symbolic part of the answer to the original question.]

These 'Clean' Language questions are taken from a method of exploring a person's metaphors devised by David Grove, and are fully explained in our book Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. [Note 4]

In the 1980s, psychotherapist David Grove realised that many of his clients naturally described their symptoms and outcomes in metaphor. He discovered that when he enquired about these metaphors using the client's exact words, their perception of their problems began to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a method of asking simple questions of clients' metaphors which neither contaminate nor distort them.

Metaphors for Learning

Using the above clean questions, we elicited a metaphor for learning from ten adult students:

1. Planting flowers -- A seed is planted in my mind which I nurture with water and sun in the faith that it will sprout and grow.

2. Playing cards -- I divide things into four categories and look for patterns across the suits until the logic and meaning emerges and I know which card to play.

3. Savings account -- I invest the time to accumulate data and information until there is enough interest that I can roll it over into the next idea.

4. Switching on a light bulb -- It's not until the light switches on that I have an insight or an 'ah ha'.

5. Eating -- You need to take in the basic meat and potatoes before you get to the mouth-watering dessert.

6. Being a detective -- It's all about uncovering the facts, looking for clues and asking the right questions until the whole mystery makes sense.

7. Peeling an onion -- I peel off a layer which reveals the next layer to be peeled off. Each time something teIls me I'm get closer to the core of the matter.

8. A quest -- I'm searching for that illusive something and every step I take brings me closer to what I need to know, but I never get there ... it's a continuous journey.

9. Sculpting -- You start with the raw material and shape it into a form that's pleasing to the eye.

10. Wrestling -- I struggle with the ideas until they're pinned down and I've captured them.

These metaphors reveal the diversity of student's symbolic representations for how they learn. They also suggest some interesting contrasts. For example the 'savings account' student steadily accumulates knowledge, whereas no learning will appear to be happening for the 'light bulb' student until the light is switched on. The 'playing cards' student presumably wants all the cards dealt so they can start looking for patterns, but giving the 'detective' student all the relevant information in advance will probably take the fun out of their investigation. The student on a 'quest' needs to discover new things at each step of their journey, while the 'planting flowers' student will want to stay with and continually tend the seed of an idea.

Although we obtained the metaphors for learning through asking Clean Language questions, students are speaking in metaphor all the time. Research shows that everyday conversation makes use of at least four metaphors per minute. [Note 5] Below are examples of metaphorical expressions which are 'hidden' or 'embedded' in language. Can you match the above ten students to the following problems with learning?

a. I've lost my way.
b. I can't digest all this information.
c. There's not enough in the bank.
d. It's got me beat.
e. Just when I think I understand, it all gets shuffled around.
f. I can't make anything out of this.
g. It makes me want to weep.
h. I'm clueless.
i. I'm wandering around in the dark.
j. We can't learn in these conditions.

It's easy to find the correspondence, isn't it? [Note 6] Why? For two reasons: first, we generally use common and well understood experiences as the metaphorical basis for complex and abstract information; and second, there is a consistency and logic to the metaphors each of us uses.

You can see that if you want to teach in a way that corresponds to the metaphors of a group of students, you will need a highly flexible approach.

Using Multiple Metaphors

One way to appeal to a wide range of learning styles is to make sure that you use a variety of metaphors. These should have as diverse a structure as possible. For instance, in addition to saying to the class "Can you figure this out?" and leaving it at that, you might also offer a few other metaphorical alternatives, such as:

Who can solve this?
See what you make of this.
What conclusions do you draw?
Who feels they can work this out?
Tell me when you get somewhere.
What can you construct out of this?
Take your time and see what emerges.
Tell me when you've come up with an answer.
Play around with the ideas and see where you get to.
Chew over the information until you've digested the ideas .
Spend some time considering this and it will all become clear.
You'll need to dig below the surface to get the nub of the issue.

In conclusion...

Metaphors embody and define the intangible and abstract, but this process inevitably constrains perceptions and actions to those which make sense within the logic of the metaphor. Metaphors are therefore both descriptive and prescriptive. As students become aware of their own metaphors for learning they can recognise how these limit or liberate them. In this way they can learn from their own learning process!

It also pays to know your own preferred metaphors because they have such an influence on the way you teach. Once you are familiar with your preferences you can begin to stretch yourself by employing new metaphors. For some students your new metaphors will say the same thing in a different way -- but other students will need to engage in a different class of mindbody processing. In addition to teaching the subject matter you will be training your students to process information via a variety of metaphors. The result will be an enhanced ability to think more creatively.


James Lawley and Penny Tompkins are NLP psychotherapists and supervisors registered with the UKCP and are certified NLP trainers. They are committed to developing the developers of others, and are co-authors of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling available at £17.95 (plus p&p: £2 in UK, £3 in Europe, £6 elsewhere).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p 5.
2. Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p.158.
3. Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought (Second edition), p. 622.
4. James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind.
5. Susan R Robinson, Birkbeck College, University of London, 11 November 2000.
6. We pair them: a-8, b-5, c-3, d-10, e-2, f-9, g-7, h-6, i-4, j-1.

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First published on this site 11 January 2001