The use of metaphors in science and technology

Guest Post by Rod Pitcher:

Last year Rod wrote one of our most popular posts on the use of metaphor in conveying concepts to students. He followed this one with a post pitched to PhD students, Metaphors and the PhD. A PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the ANU, he returns to the tomtom to share some thoughts on the role of metaphors in science and technology.

Metaphors are widely used in science and technology. They allow explication of new research results by comparing them with old or existing knowledge, which may or may not be scientific.

The old knowledge might be something that is held by everyone. The new knowledge is held by a few who must make it clear to any interested others so that it can be spread throughout the scientific or technological community. Science communicators do the same for the public. Often the ideas are so new that without using metaphors it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to explain them.

How to explain a new invention

A new technology, like a computer network, needs to be explained to people who have no knowledge of it. In this case, one can talk about the ‘web’ of the network, comparing it to a spider’s web, either by drawing diagrams or showing the person a real spider’s web. Thus the principal involved in how the points of the network are interconnected can be made clear to anyone who has ever seen a spider’s web.

Using metaphors in teaching science and technology

There is the need then for compelling and accurate metaphors to communicate the new knowledge to students. The use of metaphors makes it easier for an audience to grasp the principal of the thing.

Metaphors not only allow the knowledge to be passed on but also help in developing the vocabulary of the discipline, since many of the words used in science and technology are directly derived from the metaphors used to illustrate the concepts.

For instance, in talking about electricity we can describe electrons passing along a wire and make the comparison to water flowing through a pipe. The words ‘flow’ and ‘current’ used to describe moving water help us to describe electrons moving through a conductive metal. Thus in learning this metaphor the student has also learnt some scientific words. In the case of ‘current’ there will be more for students to learn and of course many ways in which the the uses of ‘flow’ and ‘current’ differ depending on the discipline.

This process is not unique to the sciences. We can see how other fields use scientific processes as metaphors for human or social phenomena. When we talk about a ‘groundswell’ of public support, a candidate’s ‘momentum’, or a particular issue as a ‘lightning rod’, we are using images from the scientifically described world as a kind of descriptive shorthand.

What about bad metaphors?

The provisional nature of knowledge means that that we should also be careful about how we use metaphors; reminding students that ‘the map is not the territory’. Bohr’s model of the atom and Copernicus’ model of the Solar System were better metaphors than what had come before, but they remain provisional representations — they are now used for beginners in the field, steps along the way to more complex analogies.

Why so many metaphors in science and technology?

Science and technology, then, are prolific users of metaphors. It’s difficult to imagine any part of science or technology that doesn’t use them somewhere in its explanations of what is going on.

You can imagine a number of metaphors that might apply in a description of the luminescence depicted on the left. Depending on the audience’s existing knowledge of chemical reactions and electronic states, a teacher or lecturer could convey the processes at work here in a number of ways. Describing Bohr’s ‘planetary model’ of the atom would be a useful first step.

Metaphors allow explanations to be constructed that can be understood by anyone with a little effort. If all teaching of science or technology, or spreading of information about their results, was done using only non-metaphorical scientific words there would be a lot less people who had any knowledge of what it all means, including many scientists and technologists!

Rod Pitcher is a PhD student whose focus of study is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their research. His last two posts on the tomtom can be found here. and here. Rod’s profiles are at: and

The images in this post are from a 2008 series of photographs, “Fluorescence of lucigenin” © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

Share your thoughts about the use of metaphors in your discipline in the comments below!

Visiting guests and noting opportunities

A photography lecture in 1947

Melbourne Technical College 1947. (cc) RMIT University Archives Image Collection

Posted by: Megan McPherson, L&T Group, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT.

One of the pleasures of being connected with a university is the opportunity to hear visiting lecturers presenting at different forums and for different audiences.

There are some great visiting professors coming to speak over the next few weeks; Anthony Paré and Helen Sword just to name two this week: Wednesday and Friday respectively- click here to register!

On 8 November 2012, Professor Erica McWilliam, Adjunct Professor at Queensland University of Technology, spoke at the RMIT College of Business Research Showcase in the Swanston Academic Building. Her audience was mainly comprised of research students in the College of Business involved in higher degrees by research, however her discussion was relevant to any one involved in knowledge creation and learning and teaching.

Professor McWilliam’s presentation was about scholarship and the discomfort of being involved in research that is challenging and new.

A few of the many ideas Professor McWilliam discussed were:

  • The three simple questions that she uses to define her research area:  What’s going on? How do you know? And So What? Twenty-first century researchers know that there are creaks and leaks in knowledge creation; it is how you, as a researcher, position yourself in relation to these three questions which is relevant.
  • What counts as a field? McWilliam suggests Robin Rogers’ notion of twenty-first century researchers operating in a tessellated field and our ability to collaborate, as networks and nodes, changes the way we think of discipline boundaries. Twenty-first century researchers need to be able to tolerate the discomfort of working not in one field or discipline, but being crossdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Check out the Research Whisperer’s post for detailed discussion of these terms.
  • Twenty-first century researchers creating trouble for what she called ‘straight thinking’, questioning how we design research, using patterns rather than straight lines. McWilliam used Gosling’s The Knight’s Move as the metaphor; see her keynote speech to the 3rd Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference (The Knight’s Move: its relevance for educational research and development, 2009).

The McWilliam keynote was twittered on the day by @kyliebudge, @thesiswhisperer and @MeganJMcPherson with the hashtag #mcwilliam. Using Twitter in a lecture presentation is a form of active note taking. It’s also a way to practice writing short, sharp summaries of bigger ideas. Anthony Paré describes this as a type of heuristic writing to make sense; and to make meaning and knowledge. The tweets start to make a narrative of the event, and the results can be both a record and a prompt to do further work with the information.

The Twitter notes have been useful to connect me with information and to network with others. I found the other keynotes referenced here and Kylie Budge (@kyliebudge) found McWilliam’s article ‘From school to café…’ and posted it to Twitter. The notes have been interesting for networking in academic circles; I had great questions and supportive comments in my Twitter feed from academics from different countries and from within Australia.

Thanks to @thesiswhisperer and  @kyliebudge for tweeting at the presentation in the room and all others who contributed to the #mcwilliam feed. Professor McWilliam’s Twitter handle is @elmcwilliam.

You can use tools like and to look at and collate the tweets from hashtags. When the College of Business has the video finalised, we will provide a link here too!

References / Further Reading:

Judge, A (2012) Insights from Knight’s move thinking, accessed 18 Nov, 2012

McWilliam, E (2009) The Knight’s Move: Its relevance for educational research and development. Keynote paper presented at the 3rd Redesigning Pedagogy International Conference, Singapore. Accessed 18 Nov, 2012.

Click here for slides from the above keynote.

Paré, A. (2009) What we know about writing, and why it matters. Compendium 2, 2(1), Dalhousie University. Accessed 18 Nov, 2012

Thomson, P (2012) Academic travel diary: a narrative to find the way. Accessed 18 Nov, 2012

Share your thoughts about getting the most value from conferences and visiting guests in the comments!

Writing critical thinking learning outcomes

Posted by: Associate Professor Kym Fraser, L&T Group, Design and Social Context College, RMIT.

A photo of The Thinker by Rodin located at the Musée Rodin in Paris

The Thinker, Rodin (cc) Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Andrew Horne

Building on Helen McLean’s post Bloom ‘n’ Biggs and John Benwell’s post Course guides: Bloomin’ verbs, this post provides ideas for writing critical thinking learning outcomes. Critical thinking is one of the Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) cognitive skills requirements that all programs will need to demonstrate from 2015.

Critical thinking is a complex process that requires the use of the higher level cognitive skills in Bloom’s taxonomy: analysis; synthesis; and evaluation (Bloom et al, 1956). We may expect students to demonstrate that they are thinking critically in many different ways, including: raising vital questions and formulating them clearly; gathering and assessing relevant information; using abstract ideas; and thinking open-mindedly. We also may expect our students to consider the context, justify their answers and analyse their own thinking in terms of clarity, accuracy, relevance, logic and fairness. Some theorists suggest that critical thinking is social in nature and therefore requires reflection followed by communication (Choy and Cheah, 2008: 199).

We can make our critical thinking skills development explicit for AQF requirements through the writing of our course guide learning outcomes. Through these we alert students to the focus of the course in terms of both the discipline content and the skills. We also help staff teaching courses in later semesters to see the outcomes students have achieved in our course and how they might build upon those achievements. Outcomes let students know some of the specific ways in which you expect them to develop and demonstrate their critical thinking skills in your course (how to think like a journalist/teacher/engineer). They also help students to better understand the language of the discipline and ways of thinking, which can often be quite discipline specific.

Writing critical thinking learning outcomes that are useful to students can be challenging. Table 1 provides a list of verbs that can be used in the formulation of outcomes. They should also aid you in aligning the learning experiences and assessment tasks that lead to those outcomes.

Table 1.  Useful terminology for writing critical thinking learning outcomes*

Analysis Synthesis Evaluation
Analyse Argue Assess
Apply Categorise Appraise
Break down Combine Challenge
Compare and contrast Compile Compare and contrast
Deconstruct Create Conclude
Determine Devise/develop Criticise/critique
Discuss Design Defend
Describe Explain Discriminate
Differentiate Generate Evaluate/judge
Discriminate Modify Explain
Distinguish Organize Interpret
Identify Plan Justify
Illustrate Prioritise Recognise
Infer Rearrange, reconstruct Relate
Manage Reorganise Review
Outline Relate Select
Relate Revise Summarise
Review Rewrite Support
Select Summarise

* Adapted from Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 1956. (At our institution ‘outcomes’ rather then ‘objectives’ are used in course guides.)

Figure 1 below provides examples of critical thinking learning outcomes. As you will see, some of these incorporate all three of Bloom’s higher order cognitive skills (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) while others reflect just the one skill.  I hope that you find these useful when thinking about your course planning.

Figure 1. Critical thinking learning outcome examples

  1. select, analyse, interpret and evaluate a range of source materials.
  2. describe patterns or relationships in large amounts of written and/or visual information.
  3. evaluate available written and/or visual information, evidence and argument for reliability and authority/usefulness (e.g.; observation, testimony, measurement, experiment).
  4. look for, recognise, articulate and challenge assumptions and presuppositions, gaps/silences, suppressed/overlooked evidence in their own, peer and professional opinions.
  5. identify and manage the risks associated with making and implementing decisions.
  6. make a reasoned argument
  7. analyse and assess the strength of an argument and the implications for a course of action that follows from it.
  8. access or generate alternatives and select the most appropriate.
  9. develop a well-supported, clearly articulated argument to support a view and use it to justify one or more conclusions.
  10. prioritise tasks according to their own or other considerations.
  11. apply systematic research processes.
  12. develop industry/professional standards that may affect their decision making.
  13. develop a clearly articulated argument to support a view and use it to justify one or more conclusions.
  14. select and discuss written and/or visual information to produce a comprehensive picture for different ways of viewing a problem.
  15. determine the component parts of a problem/issue, their relationships to each other and to the issue/problem as a whole.
  16. identify and explain/rectify logical and/or other errors in an argument.
  17. assess the strength of an argument and the implications for a course of action that follows from it.
  18. develop a rationale for performing a character in a particular way.
  19. compare and contrast (eg documents, accounts, arguments, different styles of presenting a performance, the rights of individuals in different regional contexts).
  20. judge the validity of a group’s right to self determination.
  21. analyse a conflict and draw relationships with historical examples.
  22. generate critical questions about historical examples.
  23. reflect on the strength and weaknesses of yourself and your team members and suggest ways in which you and others could improve the work of the team in the future.


Griffith University Critical Evaluation Toolkit (accessed November 9, 2012 at

This toolkit was developed by Griffith University and is intended for use by academics. The toolkit identifies principles of critical thinking and analysis, elaborates on employer and graduate needs with respect to critical thinking and includes information on designing learning activities and assessing critical thinking.

Oliver, B. Assuring Graduate Attributes. (accessed November 9, 2012at

This is a site to which individuals can subscribe. Once subscribed, go to the ‘Set Standards’ section and in the right hand column you will see examples of standards in different disciplines. Some of those examples include detailed standards for critical thinking.


Bloom, S., Engelhart, M. Furst, E., Hill, W. and Krathwohl, D. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. David McKay Company, Inc: New York.

Choy, S.  and Cheah, P. (2008). Teacher Perceptions of Critical Thinking Among Students and its Influence on Higher Education. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 20 (2), 198 – 206.

Facione, P. A. (2009) Critical thinking: what it is and why it counts. Online at (accessed August 18, 2009).

Fagin, B., Harper, J. Baird, L., Hadfield, S. & Sward, R., (2006). Critical thinking and computer science: implicit and explicit connections. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, 21(4), 171-177.

Jones, A. (1997), Multiplicities or manna from heaven? Critical thinking and the disciplinary context. Australian Journal of Education, 51(1), 84-103

Jones, A. (2004). Teaching critical thinking: an investigation of a task in introductory macroeconomics. Higher Education Research & Development. 23 (2): 167 – 182.

Moore, T. (2004). The critical thinking debate: how general are general thinking skills? Higher Education Research & Development,23(1), 3-18.

Sharma, P. & Hannafin, M. (2004). Scaffolding critical thinking in an online course: An exploratory study, Journal of Educational Computing Research, 31(2), 181-208.

Tapper, J. (2004). Student perceptions of how critical thinking is embedded in a degree program.  Higher Education Research & Development. 23 (2): 199 – 222.

Thomas, T., Davis, T. & Kazlauskas, A. (2007) Embedding critical thinking in IS curricula. Journal of Information Technology Education, 6(1), 327-346

Share your thoughts about critical thinking learning outcomes (or critical thinking skills in general) in the comments! 

Quiet please! Introverts and our love affair with group work

Posted by: Kylie Budge, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

An upper corridor in the Washington National Cathedral

Quiet Halls (cc) Wikimedia Commons. Photographer: Ryan Linton

Do you ever stop to think about why we’re asking students to do group work? That’s right — why? The truth is we really need a good rationale for it or we shouldn’t be asking students to work in groups to complete a task or project or solve a problem. There are some very sound reasons why we should think carefully about this when designing learning activities and one of them just happens to be introversion.

Let me explain.

I was recently alerted to this fascinating TED talk by Susan Cain via a fellow educator and colleague on Twitter. My decision to click on the link was well rewarded.

In her talk Cain makes some powerful points about the case and place for introverts in society. ‘Solitude matters, and for some people it is the air that they breathe.’ She talks about the role of introversion in stimulating creativity: ‘There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.’ As Cain also points out: solitude is a catalyst for innovation.

Of interest to me as an educator is what Cain calls ‘the madness for constant group work’, which seeks to displace introverts and make them feel alien for their difference from the dominant status quo of extroverts. I found this particular point strangely compelling for at least two reasons:

1.    I am an introvert.

2.    Even though I am, I’ve probably been guilty of forcing students to do group work without thinking through the ‘why’ factor thoroughly enough.

In effect, I’ve been capitulating to the extrovert status quo and been an agent in getting students to as well, even if there was no clear learning need and even if it meant crushing the spirit of introverts within the group.

Why? — you may well ask.

Well, because like many I think I’ve swallowed and absorbed the widespread notion that doing group work must be ‘good for you’. It’s a way to learn the skills of teamwork and to encourage students to communicate and negotiate with each other. All of this still holds true of course, but it is especially powerful in a learning situation if there is an extra need to work in a group to complete a task or solve a problem.

However, what Susan Cain and other introverts like her are asking us to do is to stop and consider the impact that this might have on students who are the quieter, internal, solo players of the group. If we insist on designing group task after group task, how does this affect those students? Of course, most of us would probably offer a mix of learning activities – some group, some paired, some solo. But even then we really need to consider what the learning need is for the group work we’re including in our curriculum design.

Ask yourself why it is that students need to do that task or project in a group. If there’s a good reason for it — for example, your aim is to encourage students to hear a range of opinions and have to negotiate to complete a complex task — then yes, it’s probably a good way to design the learning. If, however, we ask this question and find ourselves wondering about the real reason a group is needed for such a learning task, then perhaps we need to reconsider our thinking and redesign it as a solo task instead.

The Centre for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) claims there are three good reasons for group learning:

1. Peer learning can improve the overall quality of student learning.

2. Group work can help develop specific generic skills sought by employers.

3. Group work may reduce the workload involved in assessing, grading and providing feedback to students.

Choosing one of these reasons and then deciding to design a group learning activity is not where thoughtful learning design ends though. As CSHE points out, one of the big issues for group work can be a lack of perceived relevance or clear objectives and, as many of us know, this is where group work can start to become very messy. If you decide that there is a clear purpose for a group task, then the point of such an activity (and its group context) needs to be made explicit to students too so that they know why it is they are working in a group. In the group task, consider strategies that make use of the contributions from the more introverted members and how you might make this transparent — for example, asking group members to report on how the work was done and by whom.

What Cain’s TED talk highlights for us is that there are other students in our classes (and colleagues in our workplaces) that don’t respond well to this kind of learning if it is overused and if there is no real need for it. It’s important to acknowledge those students in learning design and be clear about the reasons for the kind of learning activities we design as educators. We need to encourage students to find out who they really are and honour their particular personalities and learning styles rather than suppress them.

In Australia at least, it’s that time of year when many of us pause and reflect on what worked well in our teaching throughout the year and what might not have panned out as we expected. It’s worth considering the role of group work in that reflective mix. As Cain points out ‘in the long run, staying true to your temperament is the key to finding work you love and work that matters.’

Do you have ideas and thoughts on group work or designing learning activities? We’d love to hear about them in our comments below!

Travel broadens the mind

Posted by: Spiros Soulis, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Road, blue sky, horizonDo you remember your first overseas trip? Perhaps it was an exchange or volunteering program? Perhaps you were just heading off to travel with no set plans. Can you remember that feeling of venturing into the unknown? When you look back, think of what you got out of that experience: you learnt about coping with new situations, people and cultures, your values and beliefs were challenged. And whether you loved it or hated it, or had mixed feelings at the time, it probably had a huge impact on the person you are today.

Over 400 years ago Francis Bacon wrote: ‘Travel in the youngest sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.Bacon captures here something essential  about the added benefit of travelling when you’re young and impressionable.

Recently I attended a Student Mobility function at RMIT where students spoke about their experiences overseas.  A 3rd year Primary Education student spoke about her experience teaching in the Cook Islands.  It was invigorating to listen to her talk with such enthusiasm and passion about her time away and how she had grown from the experience.

She talked about how after that placement she knew she was ready to enter a classroom with confidence and that she could do the job required.  One could say that the first three years of her undergraduate degree equipped her with the skills and knowledge required to teach but for her it was the experience in a foreign land that was the catalyst in giving her the confidence required.

During the function, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own international experience.  I was 21 and in my final year of Youth Work and as part of my student placement (an early form of WIL — Work Integrated Learning) I travelled to Zambia to visit a number of rural youth projects. In four weeks we travelled more than 5,000 km travelling through cities, towns and villages. By stepping out of my comfort zone I was forced to reflect upon my own sense of self, I was challenged on so many fronts; it was ‘experiential learning’ in the truest sense of the term.

RMIT University is an international university of technology, committed to providing students with the learning, teaching, research and training to excel in an open world economy — a Global Passport. RMIT’s Strategic Plan 2015 has ‘Global’as one of its three goals.  It’s Internationalisation Plan 2011-2015  identifies as a priority the growth of Student Mobility in order to build upon our profile as a global university of technology and design.

In order to excel in ‘an open world economy’ an overseas experience can play a critical role. It is only when we leave the safe confines of our shores and venture forth into the unfamiliar that we can truly begin to step outside of our comfort zone. It is then that learning is not only accelerated but leaves a lasting impact particularly upon young minds.

Studying abroad can help to broaden students’ horizons and it can do this in a number of ways:

  • For me, my trip to Zambia allowed me to come face to face with a number of challenges but also allowed me to experience a foreign language and to communicate across cultures.
  • I had to come to terms with the challenges inherent in a developing country; I had never realised how much I took some things for granted like elections or access to fresh water.
  • It was also a key step in my independence, I was thousands of kilometres from family or friends, my most important networks were within my host country.

In short, like the Education student above, even this brief time was the catalyst for a number of abilities and resources I still draw upon to this day in my work and in my relationships.

If this has got you interested, RMIT has its own dedicated team that encourage, support and foster student mobility within the University. The Education Abroad Office has a number of Student Mobility Advisors who between them have conveniently divided up the globe and are able to give advice to students looking to experience overseas study.

In the new academic year you might think about encouraging your students to consider as an option the prospect of undertaking an overseas experience as part of their study.  The following resources may prove useful:

  • RMIT provides a number of opportunities for students wishing to undertake an International experience.
  • RMIT also provides Student Mobility Grants to assist Melbourne-based students who are undertaking various types of outbound mobility activities as part of their RMIT Program.
  • Staff from the Education Abroad Office offer to come and speak to your students about overseas mobility opportunities. Just email with ‘Class Talk’ in the header and they will get in touch with you. 

For those interested in — or still sceptical about — the benefits of an overseas experience there is an upcoming workshop (see below) that examines how international WIL experiences can develop intercultural competencies in students.

Title: Implementing international Work Integrated Learning programs: strategies and outcomes
Date: Thursday, 8 November
Time: 1.30pm-3.30pm
Venue: Building 80, level 7, room 9, City campus

Share your thoughts about student mobility and exchanges in the comments below!