Revisiting 2 Metaphors for Learning

Setting the Stage

I have been privileged to join a large group of faculty and staff at Plymouth State University in the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community (CPLC). The aim of this learning community is to support instructors as they seek to improve student learning. We are considering learning through specific learning theories (constructivism and connectivism), through three broad pedagogical approaches (interdisciplinarity, project-based learning, and open education), as well as our general education program’s outcomes, or Habits of Mind (Purposeful Communication, Problem Solving, Integrated Perspective, and Self-Regulated Learning).

As part of my participation in this learning community, I read an interview with Cathy Davidson, author of The New Education. After outlining the failure of both edtech and a skills-centric approach to saving higher education, she noted the need for higher education to emphasize “learning how to learn”. This focus, she argues, is necessary for preparing students for a world in flux. Adaptation and flexibility, persistence and problem solving become critical traits in a world that changes so rapidly.

In considering my participation in the CPLC and some of my initial reading, I have found myself revisiting papers and studies that have been critical to my learning and development as a mathematics educator. I keep finding myself thinking about how those same articles, which helped me so much in mathematics education, might inform my work in higher education. One of the first papers I want to revisit is Anna Sfard’s amazing discussion of different ways in which we conceptualize learning. It’s a pretty heavy read, but definitely worth it if you have some time to dig deep. My intent is not to summarize the entire paper, but simply to introduce main ideas that could help us as we continue to rethink how we approach curriculum in higher education.

The two metaphors that Sfard discusses are the acquisition metaphor and the participation metaphor. She makes the argument that, at least in mathematics education, both perspectives on learning are necessary. 

The Acquisition Metaphor

This metaphor captures common Western views on learning and knowledge. In this metaphor, knowledge is a cognitive construct that one can obtain and possess. When we “learn something” we have somehow captured it and sufficiently trapped it in our brains. Now, a whole variety of learning theories discuss different mechanisms for how we come to possess that knowledge. Some view the learner as a passive recipient while others view the learner as an active co-constructor of the knowledge. Behaviorists and constructivists differ greatly in how they define learning, but both view knowledge as a cognitive construct that one must acquire. 

We see this tradition all over higher education. Colleges, departments, and programs are often created around the shared “stuff” that students are expected to learn (read: acquire). Course numbers often have a specific discipline code, categorizing the type of stuff one is to acquire in that course. Many professional preparation programs have culminating exams to ensure that graduates have sufficiently procured the necessary knowledge to be trusted in that field. Higher education (and education more generally) is not struggling to leverage this particular metaphor. One of the primary reasons I share this article and discuss its implications is because it’s very easy to get excited about a particular learning theory without understanding its inherent connection with a learning theory one is trying to shed. I have seen this in mathematics education. In moving away from behaviorism and toward constructivism and social constructivism we have made amazing strides and breathed new life into the discipline. I have seen engaging curriculum and improved assessments. If we make similar changes in higher ed, I have no doubt that student experiences and learning will improve. What will not change, however, is the baggage that comes by overemphasizing any learning theory that rests wholly within the acquisition metaphor.

One of the clearest problems with an acquisition perspective on learning is that when we treat knowledge as a commodity that one can obtain (again, Sfard outlines this well), it becomes easy to separate the “haves” from the “have-nots”. In education, those who have successfully obtained more knowledge than another is worthy of accolades, honors courses, and/or scholarships. Those who have obtained less are identified as in need of remediation, intervention, or is at risk of severance. Unspoken hierarchies develop. Traditional power structures are reinforced. Deficit perspectives abound. The long-term impacts of sole focus on knowledge acquisition, even when fueled by student-centered learning theories, are ultimately harmful for so many of our students.

Participation Metaphor

As a worthwhile counterpoint to the acquisition metaphor, the participation metaphor provides a vastly different conceptualization of knowledge. In this metaphor, knowledge is not the possession of facts, but rather, the ability to engage within a specific community and to contribute to an activity in a relevant way. Knowing is replaced by doing, and the role of context and community are highlighted. Now, this is far more than listing skills one should possess (there’s that acquisition language again). Knowledge is manifest through authentically belonging. For more detailed information, it’s worth checking out socio-cultural learning theories, especially as they highlight notions such as situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship (thanks Brown, Collins, and Duguid), and communities of practice (Lave and Wenger). 

There is something liberating about the participation metaphor. Regardless of the learning theory that guides me, I could never possibly facilitate the learning of everything my students would need to know in order to be successful in their field. I cannot adequately distill a list of topics and skills students need to acquire and then cover it in a series of courses. When I stop putting pressure on myself to ensure that my students’ heads are crammed full with all the important stuff from my field, then my focus changes. It’s not that my job gets easier, but I can at least avoid all the pedagogical pitfalls of trying to cover everything.

So, before I launch into how my focus changes, let me pose a few questions. How might your practice change if your end goal was to prepare students to find a place in which they can work with others and make meaningful contributions? What types of learning experiences would you value? What would you, as an educator, need to understand about the communities your students intend to join? What communities might you seek to join? 

As I have reflected on the participation metaphor, there are a few changes I’ve tried to make. I’ve focused more on the authenticity of student experiences, access to generative resources, and identity development. I won’t go into detail about each as each deserves, and will probably receive its own post, but I will give a brief overview as that will help illustrate the benefit of thinking through both metaphors. As I imagined my students becoming meaningful participants in their various communities, I worried about the alignment between the university classroom experience and the elementary school experience (the setting for which I prepare my students). What will happen if students get out in the field and come across messages from practicing teachers that directly contradict what they learned in my courses? Would that be an indication that my courses were out of touch? I’m certainly willing to entertain that possibility. Would they view that as a flaw in the practices of their colleagues? Either approach could be detrimental as it acts as an obstacle to joining their community. This raised a whole host of other questions. Is my job simply to maintain the status quo in education so that the preservice teachers I teach can move seamlessly into the workforce? If I do challenge the status quo, how can I do it in such a way that my students do not find themselves ostracized for not fitting a desired mold? The answer, for me, was to seek out ways to join my students in the field by moving my courses off site. Not only would this give my students a more authentic experience, but it would also help me to better understand the issues that different communities are wrestling with. I started the process of trying to join the very communities my students might later join. By serving within those communities together, we gained a stronger collective sense of how to navigate, challenge, and support the broader system. 

Moving courses off site was a great start, but I still worried about how well-connected their university experiences were with the realities of communities they sought to join. I thought back to my time as an elementary school teacher and remembered that though I kept all of my textbooks from my own program, they all sat on a shelf behind my desk, collecting dust. I never looked back to my university resources. I looked forward to new resources or used resources that other teachers were using. My textbooks felt like a remnant of my past. Growth came not from rereading a textbook, but from finding new resources to bring to bear. The more I reflected on this, the more I knew that utilizing open educational resources (OER) would be critical for my students’ ability to engage in their respective communities in meaningful ways. Using OER wasn’t simply about ditching a textbook or saving money (though both of those things were fun). It was about connecting students to resources that grow and get updated. It felt more authentic for teachers in the field (target community) to read blogs and access Twitter. I wanted my students to view learning as dynamic and ongoing, and a textbook seemed too static. Funny thing though, if I’m completely honest I would tell you that the textbooks I ditched were better than the OER with which I’ve replaced them. At least from an acquisition perspective. They contained all the information I’d hope the students would come to possess, packaged nicely with illustrations. The fact that students barely read/understood/applied the chapters in the text speaks volumes for not relying solely on an acquisition perspective. 

Why Both Metaphors

I have some more examples, but I’ll save those for a later post. At this point, some of you still reading (I applaud your persistence), may wonder why we need that acquisition perspective at all. I mean, if the participation metaphor led to strong pedagogical changes, why not kick that acquisition metaphor to the curb? Permanently. I understand the desire. I think I’m a better educator when I focus on the participation metaphor. 

At the crux of the matter, however, is transfer. Sfard explains how learning theories that emphasize the situated nature of learning and the importance of interacting within a specific community fail to explain how individuals are able to carry knowledge or tools from one situation/community to another. The best explanation for that transfer is to view knowledge as a cognitive construct that one can possess and take into different scenarios. The fact that transfer exists tends to weaken the supremacy of the participation metaphor. I should note that I think we assume transfer happens far more that it actually does, but again, that’s a post for another day. I see this transfer happening at 2 levels.

At a more superficial level, when university students learn the basic ideas and buzzwords of a particular community, it gives them a sense of legitimacy that invites some degree of participation within that community. Possessing the right knowledge can give someone a foot in the door. At a deeper level, if there are core concepts that one needs to have acquired in order to thrive within a particular community, it would behoove us to identify what those are and to ensure that they are, in fact, acquired. We have some great research, for example, that suggests that mathematics teachers who have a deep and interconnected knowledge of mathematics turn out to be better mathematics teachers. The acquisition metaphor is helpful in that regard. It’s important to note, however, that a deep and interconnected knowledge of mathematics alone will not make someone a good math teacher. That knowledge will not be enough to ensure that colleagues want to interact with that individual and support and/or learn from that individual. Here’s where looking at things from a participation metaphor could be powerful. The overall experience of university students would be enhanced if faculty and staff considered goals using both the acquisition and the participation metaphors.

How Does this Connect to the CPLC?

One of the main reasons I wanted to write this piece and to reflect on this particular article is that I see so much of the participation metaphor already shining through in the goals of the CPLC. PSU’s Gen Ed outcomes, the Habits of Mind, are written in a way that really supports both metaphors. I am a big believer, however, that when educators are explicitly thoughtful regarding their ontology and epistemology then they can be more purposeful in the pedagogical decisions they make. In our work we can easily bat around a number of good ideas or… *sigh*… best practices (you know, because we’ve definitely identified all the best ones). People may make changes to a course because someone keyed them in on this really cool thing they’re doing. Educators are amazing at recognizing good pedagogy and trying it out. The problem with that approach is that when those choices lack a firm anchor (as a clear epistemology provides), then educators find themselves vulnerable to getting swept up in the next fad. Strong pedagogical practices bear fruit only as they are thought about, implemented, revised, shared, tailored to a new group, and revised some more. The fad approach leads to the premature abandoning of amazing ideas that just hadn’t developed yet. Talk of theory, though not sexy, helps to keep us grounded. I am so excited to work with colleagues across disciplines to improve our work. As we do so, I’m happy to be the person sitting off to the side who periodically shouts out, “Let’s not forget the theory that drives us!”

I have found great traction as I have reflected on the differences between the acquisition and participation metaphors. I am confident that those delineations can be powerful for others engaged in this same work.

If you have the time, go back and read that source article.

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