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Two metaphors of learning

February 23, 2010

Image: photo of soldier beetle

The idea at the heart of Anna Sfard’s article On Two Metaphors of Learning is that metaphors are not just linguistic features or poetic tropes, but also basic units of conceptual development. It’s one of those brilliant ideas which hit you like a revelation, then immediately seem completely obvious: all new concepts develop out of prior concepts, and must be expressed through a re-wiring of prior language. From Plato’s cave to Newton’s clockwork universe, from Rousseau’s social contract to Schrodinger’s cat, intellectual inquiry has proceeded and explained itself via metaphor.

Sfard focuses on two metaphors between which (she thinks) are caught all current thinking about learning. The Acquisition Metaphor depicts learning as the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge. It underlies not just cognitive models which see learning as transmission, but also constructivist models emphasising the development of ideas or construction of meaning. Key terms in the AM are transmission, internalisation, appropriation.

The Participation Metaphor on the other hand represents learning not as cognitive growth or as receiving something, but as an active involvement in an ongoing process of learning – one that is inevitably situated in a particular context, embedded in a particular culture, and mediated by a particular community and idiom. Key terms in the PM are practice, discourse and community.

It’s an alluringly simple dualism which on the face of it would seem to leave some important strands of learning theory unaccounted for: behaviourism, for example, which sees learning not as acquisition of something but as the progressive modification of behaviour; and social constructivism, which sees learning not so much as internalisation of new concepts, more as the development of meaning through enculturation.

How does the acquisition/participation duality map onto that other binary opposition of learning as something that happens inside individual heads versus learning as a social meaning-making process? Here Sfard contends – not entirely convincingly in my view – that the AM/PM distinction is of a fundamentally different kind from the individual learning/social learning duality:

While the acquisition / participation division is ontological in nature and draws on two radically different answers to the fundamental question, ‘What is this thing called learning?’, the individual / social dichotomy does not imply a controversy about the definition of learning, but rather rests on differing visions of the mechanism of learning.

Sfard argues that while theories of learning can be classified as acquisition-oriented or participation-oriented, most conceptual frameworks use elements of both metaphors. These are not mutually exclusive categories, but complementary ways of thinking about the complexities of learning which each illuminate different aspects of it. When I think about my own learning experiences – whether as a conventional student 30 years ago, as a lifelong informal learner, or as a student on a formal HE course online – this seems about right: all of these learning processes have involved elements of both acquiring or constructing knowledge, and of engaging in a domain-specific discourse or community.

In some ways the most compelling part of Sfard’s argument is the thought expressed in the second part of her title: The Danger of Choosing Just One (metaphor, that is). She adopts a post-modernist stance in advocating that we should embrace what she calls – in a metaphor neatly drawn from political philosophy – ‘metaphorical pluralism’ as a guard against theoretical extremes. More importantly, Sfard derives from this multimetaphorical approach a powerful new understanding of the relationship between data and theory – between ‘fact’ and ‘metaphor’ – as mutually constitutive of each other, with neither existing previously to, or independently of, the other. And this in turn leads to her quintessentially postmodern conclusion that we should stop hankering after “a unified, homogeneous theory of learning” and learn to make do with a bricollage, a patchwork of metaphors – each fitting with a small area but none covering the entire field.

A realistic thinker knows he or she has to give up the hope that the little patches of coherence will eventually combine into a consistent global theory… We must learn to satisfy ourselves with only local sensemaking.

I’ll be sad to say goodbye to my unified theories – but I think she’s probably right…


Sfard A, 1998. On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. Educational Researcher, Vol. 27, No. 2. Downloadable from Anna Sfard’s website

From → H800

  1. Dr. Diane Gregory permalink

    Wow! What a post! We are kindred spirits but you have written was has been in my heart, mind and soul as I have tried to develop an exemplary online art education program at the MA level. I have been doing this now for five years and have come to the same conclusions. Yes, I will gladly give up my unified theory and embrace the postmodern pluralistic metaphor idea you mentioned… I am glad I found you.


  2. Hello from a fellow H800er…
    Do you think the neuroscientists might eventually say that after a long search for acquired knowledge inside people’s heads, they have found only a bunch of soggy nerve cells…and that this proves the participation metaphor more appropriate. (?)

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