Metaphors are powerful things. We all remember Forrest Gump’s illuminating take on life. “Life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get.”
And just recently we witnessed a rare moment of candor from a political operative. Eric Fehrnstrom, a Mitt Romney advisor, used a metaphor to explain the difference between running for president in a primary verses a general election. After the primary, says Fehrnstrom, “everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You kind of shake it up and start all over again.”
I’ve been reading a lot about the power of metaphors, how they can be effective in the classroom because, as educator William Strong puts it, “Logical language, for all its virtues, is sometimes too crude an instrument for expressing subtle, complicated ideas. Metaphor helps get the job done for teachers and writers.”
Another educator, Frank Smith, reminds us how the military metaphor has pitched its tent and established permanent residence in the world of schooling. “We talk of the deployment of resources, the recruitment of teachers, and wars against illiteracy.”
Mr. Smith didn’t mention my favorite military metaphor — “drill and kill.” That phrase makes sense when describing how soldiers train for war. But kids aren’t soldiers and classrooms aren’t battlefields. Nevertheless, too many teachers feel the need to “drill” their students, to cram just enough information into their skulls to correctly fill in the bubbles on a standardized test, but “kill” a child’s love for learning in the process.
A better metaphor to describe the education process is — stay with me here — fertilizer.
Like young radishes in a suburban garden, children need nourishment to develop intellectually. And before gardener and teacher know it, green shoots appear on radishes and nascent insights sprout from young minds.
And of course we know that one fertilizer does not fit all. According to my research, for example, poultry droppings can be hazardous to plants, but when composted, have the opposite effect. Many students can’t truly learn the material by simply reading a textbook. They need hands-on learning in the classroom as well.
Teaching can be a messy business. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I come home a little dirty — maybe even a little smelly — after a long day at school, I feel a sense of accomplishment, like a farmer after a long day tending his crops.
But sometimes too much fertilizer can burn a field of corn, or demoralize an entire faculty. A well-intentioned farmer, in the spirit of growing bigger and stronger crops, can get too aggressive and reverse his progress. For teachers, a 90-minute Power Point presentation in the name of professional development is like drowning a healthy potato in too potent a mixture of manure.
Playing with metaphors is fun. They can apply to almost any situation. Writing this column is like a submarine — after a steady sinking feeling, I have nowhere to go but up.
See what I mean?
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.