The use of metaphors in teaching and learning

Our next post is by guest contributor, Rod Pitcher, a PhD student at The Centre for Educational Development and Academic Methods at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. Rod’s PhD focus is the metaphors that people use to explain their conceptions.

Image by: by justjk accessed through flikr

Metaphors are very useful in teaching and learning because they use already held knowledge as a scaffold upon which to build new knowledge or to illustrate some property of the new concept to be learned. Metaphors are of use to both the teacher and the learner and they help in the process of both teaching and learning. It’s helpful to think about this as we design the learning for our students.

Here are a few examples that illustrate how and why they are useful:

Metaphors in teaching electronics
Metaphors are common in teaching electronics. Radio waves are compared to ripples in the surface of water, electricity flowing in a wire is compared to water flowing in a pipe, spider webs are compared to communication networks. Each of these metaphorical objects has some property which casts light on the relevant area of electronics.

Although the metaphors aren’t perfect they help the learner to come to terms with the new concepts. The metaphors use knowledge that the learner already has of the surrounding world to illustrate some property of the unfamiliar topic. Thus learning takes place by building on that previously held knowledge

Metaphors in teaching writing
A thesis or academic paper can be compared to a number of things when teaching writing.

One of the most useful is that of weaving cloth on a loom. Like the cloth, the paper has to be constructed properly, the individual strands have to be placed in the right places to do their jobs. When the cloth is finally produced it has to be trimmed and cut to suit the purpose to which it will be applied. Similarly the finished paper will have to be revised and cut if necessary to suit the audience to whom it will be presented.

A thesis might also be related as the story of a journey, showing the researcher’s development as a researcher, the problems overcome in the progress of it and the thoughts of the person as they progressed. Like a journey the paper will have tough and easy stages, interesting byways and some entertaining digressions from the most direct path but will eventually reached the required destination.

Metaphors in teaching and learning
The type of metaphor used in teaching and learning depends on what is to be taught and learned. The metaphor must be chosen to illustrate the required concept. Choosing the wrong one would be disastrous for the teacher and misleading for the learner.

Metaphors have a great place in teaching and learning. They should be used more as they ease the path of both. However, they should be used with care and discarded when they have served their purpose. If the use of a particular metaphor is prolonged past its useful time it may become misleading or confusing to the learner.

Use them with care, but use them all the same.

What metaphors do you use in your teaching?  Do you have a cunning way of illustrating a concept that helps enhance your students’ understanding?

Conference presentations, training wheels & learning how to do stuff

Megan McPherson is Project Manager and instructional designer in Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University in Melbourne. She is managing the research project ‘Contribute: peer learning for inclusive practice in Art and Design’. Megan is also a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Education at Monash University.

Image also by Megan McPherson.

Apart from teaching students, another expectation of teaching in a university is attending and presenting at academic conferences. Last month I presented my first paper at an international conference. This post shares that experience with you and, in doing so, will hopefully help other novice academic presenters.

I decided to prepare for the IMPACT 7: Intersections & Counterpoints | International Multi-disciplinary Printmaking Conference in early 2010 as it is the major biannual conference for the discipline I teach in and it was coming to Monash University in Melbourne where I live. These are 2 factors that made it a fairly easy to commit to:

1. no travelling costs and

2. an international conference that had never been in Australia.

Of course the big third factor, conference paper equals research outcome, was a fairly big motivator as well. The planning and writing also fitted very neatly into non-teaching time and my other work commitments.

From writing the abstract and having it accepted, to writing the paper, then getting the peer review comments, to rewriting the paper and developing the presentation has been a year long journey. I have found some great resources to guide my academic writing, including development books about academic and PhD writing through the The Thesis Whisperer’s blog (for example, academics such as Pat Thomson, Barbara Kamler and Melanie Walker). I found Pat Thomson’s blog post about presenting and writing for conferences in July just in time for the presentation edit.

As an artist, I have presented at artist talks and in galleries but formal academic writing and presenting is new to me. A twenty minute conference presentation titled “Printmaking and learning in a notion of practice in the university studio”, is not like anything I had done before. As a novice conference presenter, the first hurdle was the abstract. Because you want your abstract to be included in the conference, Pat Thompson’s idea of focusing your abstract on the idea of “include me”  –  I have an idea, I can write about it and present it in an interesting way –  is a good way to frame your writing. For me, I also found it useful to look at abstracts from previous Impact conferences to see if my idea would be suitable, could continue a discussion from the last conference, as well as fit into the current conference theme.

The presentation I ended up developing (there were a few versions – I think I need to work on Mumford’s Method) explored the existing literature in the studio model of teaching in the field of art and design and how critique and the “crit” fits into learning in a notion of practice of an artist. My focus was on the space between where students and studio teachers interact in a creative and reflective process in the university studio.

Questions I used to focus my presentation included:

  • What makes this interaction or experience in the university studio educative?
  • What kind of reflective process is taking place?
  • How is the learning and teaching research in the art and design discipline areas about ‘learning in action’,
  • and how is it contextualized into the wider academic community?

This is a huge area to cover in 20 minutes. Probably too big. In fact what I presented was a just a taste of the research that I have done and the potential for the area of research. I used much of my the literature review chapter from my PhD thesis to help me prepare. However, the experience of adapting this idea from a formal argument (from the chapter) to a presentation that I was able to deliver in 20 minutes, has made me rethink how I structure argument and how I write academically. This is especially in terms of how a conference presentation forces you to strip ideas back into a very succinct ones (hopefully).

The practising and rehearsal of the paper was important in terms of the final presentation. I was on the first pedagogic panel at the conference with a highly experienced academic as convenor. This made the presentation experience very approachable. The two other presenters passionately knew their areas and had slides of some great art work. I had no slides but was reassured by a story about the Australian artist, ex de Medici who presented on her work for 90 minutes without images. ex refused to use images, saying that people get distracted by them and don’t think about the ideas behind the work. Luckily at my conference, 20 minutes is not that long for people who had probably seen images in almost every other presentation.

What I gained from doing the presentation was:

  • some good feedback and interest in the research,
  • others in my field introduced themselves,
  • some lovely people shared references with me, and
  • I was able to share references too!

However, next time I will:

  • probably use images/diagrams of some in my next presentation.
  • have business cards with my academic email address on them as well as my art practice cards.

The real learning for me is that presenting research as a part of what I do as an academic is not so frightening and it’s actually very useful for making contacts and networking in my field. And I’ve learned that there is potential for presenting further research (depending on conferences themes and funding). My conference alert is now primed up with keywords and research areas.

I owe many thanks to the conference peer reviewers for their time and effort and some apologies for the typos and bad structure. After this experience I think I have my conference presentation training wheels on now.

As a teacher, it can be humbling to put yourself into the role of a novice. It reminded me that we all continue to learn and that learning can be challenging and uncomfortable but with the right preparation and support the result is worth it.

Online Seminars

This is our second guest post by Dr Karen Cullen. Karen is part of the L+T team in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT, Melbourne. A new arrival in Melbourne, she was previously a research active historian teaching in Scottish universities primarily utilising online and blended learning techniques.

Image by: gruntzooki

I’ve had a bit of a hate-love attitude towards online teaching. It is hard, really hard, to do well, especially when you are inexperienced. You often don’t get to see the students or hear their voices, there are no body language cues, often just cold, hard words on a screen. So why do it? Students who learn online are frequently exceedingly well motivated, committed to learning online because of distance, finance, health or other reasons, and they often interact with their tutor much more than standard face-to-face students. Over time I have come to realise the positives of online teaching and now really enjoy it, but my first experience was awful!

One year out of postgrad studies I found myself teaching an online course to a group of 30 first year students. The course material was new to me and so was online teaching. I was told that I had to include a weekly online chat session for the students (if you are unfamiliar with this think MS Messenger or the chat function on Facebook on a large scale), but that since many were in full-time employment the attendance would probably not be very high. Thankfully this proved correct, only eight students attended. A colleague had advised me to keep the focus of the first session open (big mistake!), allow students time to discuss any problems they were experiencing with the course etc. That worked well for about the first ten minutes or so. I introduced myself, so did the students. We then engaged in some Q+A about how they were getting on. Now, I rate myself as a pretty decent touch-typer, but even with outstanding typing skills there was no way I – or the students – could have kept up with the flurry of random questions, answers and comments that were flying up my screen. As I answered one student’s question another two appeared on the screen and the answers then came out of sequence. It was a mess. By the time I ended the session I had managed to answer the students’ questions, but I was exhausted – my fingers ached and my eyes felt like they were bleeding. Not a welcome introduction to online teaching.

Determined to do better the second time, I did a bit of research and came across some simple, but very effective means of structuring a group chat session (some useful general ideas). I posted several ‘room layouts’ on Blackboard (the Learning Management System) before the session and explained to students that they needed to have a copy of these on hand for the next session. Each student was allocated a seat in each of the rooms – one was classroom style in which the tutor was at the front doing the talking while students listened. The next was small group style, a third was in a circle for open discussion. I explained to the students that when we entered the chat session I would identify which ‘room’ we were in and this would set the tone for how we would conduct our discussion. The next class was so much more relaxed, I switched room styles several times to enable time for discussion and to permit me to address bigger issues. Other rules of ‘chatiquette’  helped me to control the session and its tempo, avoid chaos and provide a much more structured and useful session.

In the years since, I have taught a range of online courses but I have done very few online chat sessions. Instead, I have found many more productive means of teaching online (Skype, which also has its difficulties – video-conference –  my preferred choice, not without its own technical and teaching-related challenges), but what that first experience taught me is that online teaching takes much, much more preparation than many face-to-face teaching scenarios. Considering the technical and practical aspects of online teaching can often be as time-consuming as academic issues. I can honestly say that I really enjoying teaching online now, but perhaps some better understanding of online teaching and learning might have helped me to reach this point a lot sooner!

Social media as professional development – can it work for you?

Post by Kylie Budge.

Image created via Wordle.

Inger wrote a great introductory post on how to use Twitter in your teaching. She’ll be writing more on this topic soon. Today’s post takes a slightly different angle and looks at what social media can do in terms of professional development for teachers.

I’ve recently discovered how social media works for me as a form of professional development (PD) and wondered if others might also feel like this. A few weeks ago on Twiiter I read a tweet related to this topic and then just this week, again via twitter, I saw a link to a recent paper on this very topic titled ‘The End of Isolation’.  As someone who has run face-to-face sessions on teaching for higher education and vocational education teachers for many years, it really got me thinking. What I’ve noticed is that since using Twitter and blogs for work I’m a lot more across what’s happening in the sector, trends in education, and educational issues generally than I was before I started using social media in this way. Twitter, in particular, works as a great PD tool for me because it offers super-fast bursts of news, information, ideas, and advice.

So in this post I’ll focus on why social media works as a tool for PD for me and why it might also for you. I like to think of it as virtual PD in a social format.

What I love about social media tools such as Twitter and blogs and what they offer in terms of PD is how they align wonderfully with the principles of self-directed learning. As the user you get to decide when you’re going to access the information and in what format. You get to decide what it is you’re going to use; ie. what the focus of your PD will be. You have control and this is very empowering. The added dimension that social media tools offer as avenues for professional development is that you are not alone. On Twitter, for example, people are always showing you useful information and commenting on what they’re reading or finding or doing in their teaching – this generates a lot of energy and enthusiasm. You have a lot of company on your PD journey when you use social media tools.

Let’s look more specifically at Twitter as a PD tool.

I’m a recent convert to Twitter. I’ll admit that before I started using Twitter I was one of those cynics who could not see the point. Now I get it and I’m hooked. Twitter is a micro-blogging platform which means that small snippets of information (140 characters or less) are fed to you through your Twitter timeline by those you follow 24 hours a day. For more information on Twitter basics read Inger’s recent post. In their tweets people often embed links to blog posts or articles in journals or newspaper reports or any other thing that can be hyperlinked. This makes Twitter a very rich source of information that goes a lot deeper than its 140 characters of space. As a Twitter user you get to determine who to follow and for most people this is aligned to their interests. If you like, you can just follow major newspaper and journals. Or only people who talk about teaching or research. You can go as wide or as narrow as you like in terms of the information you gather via your timeline. There are also channels you can follow that start with a #tag that will take you to a zone in Twitter where people are tweeting about that specific area of interest. You can save those channels in your Twitter account and go there any time you like to see what people are tweeting about. For those interested in teaching channels try:






Further information about #tags teachers are using can be found in this article.

What about blogs? How do they work as a professional development tool?

Like Twitter, blogs are available for people to access whenever they want. In this sense they work as a way of encouraging self-directed PD like Twitter does. Blogs inhabit a more luxurious space on the internet than Twitter can provide. However, they’re shorter and more informal than an academic journal paper but can whet your appetite to read deeper on a topic. And once again, you’re not alone when using blogs for PD. You can read comments by other readers or even leave one yourself. Like Twitter, the social aspects of using blogs as a PD tool means you can network with others interested in the same sorts of topics. Also, blog readers can access specific blog posts of relevance to them at a given time. Another thing I like about blogs is they become a resource that you can dip in and out of. I might skim a blog post about a topic and re-read it more deeply when I need to apply an idea from it at a future date. It’s good to build up a list of blogs you read for PD purposes and subscribe to them so you know when they’ve published a new post. There are many teaching related blogs out there. If you’re looking for some blogs to start with try those listed on the right hand side bar of this blog. At the teaching tom tom we’re slowly building up this list of resources and welcome suggestions for others to include. Bookmark blogs you like and/or subscribe to them. And make sure you subscribe to ours while you’re at it!

The beauty of something like Twitter or blogs when used as a PD tools is that you’re not limited by the resources, knowledge or experiences available in one institution. People feed information in from all over the world. This creates a very rich and diverse range of information you can draw on for professional development purposes. That said, it does take some getting used to. The key is to not feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available. Be realistic about the amount of time you can spend online for PD and take things at the pace you feel comfortable with. Remember – you have complete control over when, where, how, what and with whom!

I’m keen to know – do social media tools also work for you as a form of professional development?