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Book and Film Reviews, Philosophical Meanderings

‘Metaphoria’ and Digital Literacy

The Internet has changed the way we read.  There is no doubt about it.

Nicholas Carr, in his book What is the Internet Doing to Our Brains? The Shallows says, “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Some say this is a good thing. Some – a bad thing. I say, “It is what it is”. Let’s deal with it. Let’s take control of the opportunities to read differently and let’s opportunistically and deliberately choose how we read.  How we read may depend on many factors such as: difficulty or novelty of the material; purpose for reading – entertainment, knowledge; medium of the written word – online text laden with hyperlinks, video, images and potential distractions from email, Facebook, texts, RSS notifications, etc.; mood; expertise with the material; and so on. Kids need to understand this.

Let’s effectively use this scuba diver/jet ski metaphor to educate our students. It is part of the new literacy our students must acquire – a digital literacy.

I have often used a technique with kids that I have called Metaphoria! You can see some examples of this in Deep Understanding and the Issue of Transfer. But basically I might give them sentence starters such as “Programming in Logo is like…” or “Finding a bug in a program is like…” Students have said such things as the following.  “Programming in Logo is like playing tennis.  First, I take a turn, then the computer takes a turn.”  “Finding a bug in a program is like looking for a needle in a haystack.”  “Finding a bug in a program is like thinking about every step all over again.”

Metaphors provide students with a mental model  — a model that is durable and independent of the computer and therefore empowers students with tools with which to think.

John Spencer in Paradox of Creativity has the beginnings of some great metaphors to use with kids. He says, “Problem-solving involves this strange dance of composing and destroying”.

Have you got examples of metaphors that you have used with students that you can share?


About Peter Skillen

Peter Skillen is an independent educator in Ontario, Canada. He has been involved in technology supported, inquiry-based learning since the mid-1970s—particularly as it relates to learner agency, passion, & cognitive intent. Peter is currently Curriculum and Project Lead at


11 thoughts on “‘Metaphoria’ and Digital Literacy

  1. I use metaphors all the time in my teaching, but not as much when describing digital technology, except sometimes to make comparisons between different types of technologies. Ie, introduce the new technology using an older technology the students know.

    Using metaphors in teaching is powerful but it really means you need to KNOW your students. You have to understand what metaphors are going to be valuable for the kids, and let them construct their own metaphors. They will naturally form their own metaphors when explaining a concept to each other, of course, but it is useful as a guide to give them some assistance in building metaphors where necessary.

    Posted by dwees | January 8, 2011, 1:04 pm
    • Hi David,

      Yep. Agreed. Having them generate their own metaphors, I think, is also the best way. That way they are building it with, and into, their existing schema.

      Giving them some guidelines and assistance to do this is where ‘scaffolding’ comes into play I believe. And, as you say, you need to KNOW your students – each of them. Sentence starters may work for some – but not for others. They may be ‘restricted’ by too much assistance. It’s as if a slider needs to be used to move the quantity and quality of assistance up and down.

      Oh my goodness – another metaphor! 🙂

      Posted by peter skillen | January 9, 2011, 10:03 am
  2. On the flip-slide, I think we often teach what we teach in metaphors – school work stands in for acting, doing, making, and thinking. It’s a poor vehicle for capturing the tenor of life. It’s so much better when we help students tackle new ideas through relevant work and ask them to make their own metaphors, as Peter models above.

    Going back to the vocabulary post and the New Education of the 1800s (e.g. writing, not learning about writing): if your kids make connections and build background knowledge through authentic work, do they need to know the word “metaphor” and its definition? If so, how much time do you take away from the work to make sure a kid learns the word and its definition and to assess that knowledge?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 8, 2011, 3:14 pm
    • Hi Chad,

      This distinction between ‘explicit’ vs ‘implicit’ understanding of things (esp. procedural knowledge) has always been a conundrum in the literature and for me personally.

      I guess there is likely no one right answer to it – once again. It may again depend on a number of factors including level of expertise, learning style, need for transferability, and so on.

      The authentic work you mention is a critical underpinning to all of this of course. In my work attempting to get kids and teachers to use ‘collaborative journal writing’ one of the complaints I hear from teachers is that they don’t have to time to have kids ‘be historians’ and to write up that which they have learned. They will never ‘cover the curriculum’ if they do that. I get that.

      At the same time, I guess we need to pick and choose where it is important to do so. And to help kids to make the same judgements. Is there a skill, knowledge, or value learned that would benefit from being bumped up to a level of generalizability? Is it worth identifying and elevating it so that both near and far transfer is more likely?

      Interestingly enough, here we are – on our weekend – doing exactly that! LOL We are reflecting on these issues of great learning/teaching practice – not just ‘doing the teaching/learning’.

      Thx Chad

      Posted by peter skillen | January 9, 2011, 11:52 am
  3. Peter,

    Love the idea of metaphors. On a side note, when I applied to work at the Apple store, one of their big things is to push metaphors with customers to help them better understand technology concepts. During my interview I had to come up with a metaphor for RAM if a person didn’t understand it. Company employees actually spend time brainstorming metaphors to use with customers.

    Metaphors are a great way to have kids make connections between new knowledge and prior knowledge. I also think it’s important to teach students what they are doing when they create metaphors to tie in meta-cognition skills and awareness. This may tie into what Chad is talking about. I think students should know explicitly what they are doing when they use metaphors to make connections.

    Posted by marybethhertz | January 8, 2011, 5:30 pm
  4. Can I be the curmudgeon of the group? I appreciate the spirit you demonstrate Peter and the comments, but I am not as rosy about this.

    First of all, we are talking about similes not metaphors. Remember that similes use “like” and “as” to compare one thing to another. For example, Alan Watts famous comparison of human beings to tubes, “we are endlessly putting stuff in one end and dropping it out the other.” Similes are helpful to make connections, enlarge perspectives and enhance understanding. No doubt about it. Rock on similes.

    Metaphors are gateways to comprehending a larger whole. Like symbols they can connect us to transpersonal levels of understanding and consciousness. They are far more psychologically powerful than similes and not what is being discussed in this post.

    Here’s my issue and the one illuminated by Carr’s book. Einstein famously said something like “our problems cannot be solved using the same level of thinking that created them.” So now our over use of digital media is eroding our brain infrastructure such that deeper levels of thinking aren’t even accessible to us. It was already difficult enough to engage in deep, contemplative thinking for the majority of people. Now, what I am hearing is that it doesn’t matter if we lose even the potential for such thinking.

    So, I think we need to find a better balance for our use of digital media and find ways to leverage contemplative thinking while using it or any other source of information. In a culture where “just getting it done,” is good enough and the desired outcome, we have to (aligned with the larger conversation in educational change) redirect our energies and intentions in education. Cultivating the human capacity for contemplation is paramount to overcome our personal and global problems.

    Thanks for the conversation, as it is one I obviously care a lot about.

    With gratitude,

    Posted by Adam Burk | January 12, 2011, 12:07 pm
  5. Ok, you have me giggling. I am rather fussy about the proper use of words, so to see that I did not add my usual disclaimer regarding the ‘metaphor’ / ‘simile’ distinction makes me smile. Whenever I have written about this before, it is highlighted. Point graciously taken. 🙂

    I think perhaps we see Carr’s work differently. He is being seen as an anti-technologist. At least, for me the outcome and what I take away from it is different. I will accept Carr’s premise that digital media does rewire and make us think differently. Based on that, what I am suggesting is that we educate our students, and others, on this point – so that they can make more informed decisions about their technology use(s). Adam, I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts about ‘deep, contemplative thinking’.

    Thank you for your thoughts. You will come to know that this conversation regarding locus of control, deep, reflective thinking and mindfulness-based education with the individual and global context is also One about which I care deeply.

    Posted by peter skillen | January 12, 2011, 1:35 pm


  1. Pingback: Why do we think what we think? « The Construction Zone - March 1, 2011

  2. Pingback: Metacognition: A ‘Way of Being’ in the Classroom | The Construction Zone - October 22, 2013

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