“Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”
– George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) –
A major revolution in the study of metaphor occurred 30 years ago with the introduction of “conceptual metaphor theory” (CMT). Unlike previous theories of metaphor and metaphorical meaning, CMT proposed that metaphor is not just an aspect of language, but a fundamental part of human thought. Indeed, most metaphorical language arises from preexisting patterns of metaphorical thought or conceptual metaphors.
Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. (2011) Evaluating Conceptual Metaphor Theory, Discourse Processes, 48:8, p. 529
The ramifications of Cognitive Metaphor Theory which George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s introduce in Metaphors We Live By in 1980, in fundamentally claiming that metaphors not only existed in language but in thought and action, has given rise to “debates about the empirical and theoretical work” related to CMT. Yet, as Gibbs shows, it also continues to provide “important insights into the interaction of embodiment, language, thought, and culture” that has “great explanatory power, and must be considered to be foundational for any comprehensive theory of metaphor, as well as for broader theories of human cognition”.
As a theory, I find it particularly useful in reviewing how we might understand interactions while learning online. Within the complex web of terms surrounding dialogue and conversation, for instance, we now include ‘computer-mediated communication’, which Andrew Wood and Matthew Smith describe in Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, & Culture (2005, 2014) as ‘somehow different’. They suggest that this is because of the “blurring of technology with our everyday lives” that fuels a tension arising from the immediate versus the mediated nature of moving from face-to-face to technology-assisted forms of communication.
This difference is at the heart of creating content for the web, which within educational contexts means handling the added complexity of not only understanding the interaction but what that interactions means for teaching and learning.
Metaphors To Learn By
The importance of analogy and metaphor for educational purposes are espoused, for instance, in the online Coursera course delivered by the University of California at San Diego on Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects, in which Professor Barbara Oakley structures an analogy of the brain ‘as a pinball machine’ to explain the two modes of thinking with neuroscientists attribute to learning, the focused and diffuse mode. Based on her popular book, A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), the course uses a number of analogies to dramatise the way the brain can more effectively develop life-long study and research habits. In this sense, it borrows from Cognitive Brain Therapy (CBT), which in turn is influenced by the consciousness-raising Socratic questioning method of actively retrieving from long-term memory meaningful ‘chunks’ of information in order to problem-solve or critical examine a matter of vital importance.
Oakley book crafts an experience of learning. We might even say she is dramaturgically scripting the dynamics for the learner so he or she might enact a process of learning. But this is no more than all good storytellers do as they enable us to hear, see and feel the importance of the message they are communicating with their audience. In this way, their speaking and listening is obviously performative. Reading her book and doing the course under her tutelage becomes an interaction with ‘the zombie within’, playing pinball, building good walls over time, having an octopus of attention, solving a jigsaw puzzle and changing the legs of our octopus into ribbons to transport ‘chunks of knowledge’ from long-term into the four slots of working memory.