Technological and Human Metaphors and Their Impact on Education

Recently, I woke up thinking about language, how it can reflect and shape our beliefs and values. When we use contemporary metaphors about technology, for example, to describe the human brain, some can look at that as what a missionary might call contextualization. We are using the language of the day to communicate an important truth. However, modern metaphors are not neutral. They don’t just help us explain. They also change how we understand something. As such, there are important considerations when we start to describe the human experience using technological metaphors, and when we begin to describe the technological using human metaphors or language associated with the human experience.

Cell phones do not die. Computers do not have memory. I’m sorry Descartes, but the human body is not a machine. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to use such metaphors, but they are also not without influence on our individual and collective understanding of self and the world. Such language might even contribute to our treating people more like machines, treating machines more like humans or living creatures, or finding ourselves increasingly content with technological substitutes for the fundamental truth about human needs implicit in the words, “It is not good for man to be alone.” We are relational beings. Without creating some new set of man-made laws or moral boundaries, I suspect that we are wise to become more intentional about the use of language that draws us toward what it means to be human.

The same thing is true for our education organizations. To critique the contemporary education context on the basis of its roots in industrialization is so commonplace that many call it cliché, but this is a way of talking about education that continues to help people struggle with the challenges and opportunities in education. Whether you agree with claims that our contemporary education system emerged from a desire to produce a complacent and compliant workforce for the industrial age, it is hard to deny the ways in which the industrial age continues to influence our choice of metaphors in education. These industrial and technological metaphors influence our beliefs and values about education. Notice my use of the word “produce.” Consider how people speak about “delivering instruction.” Think about our great debates about standardization. Even when we begin to talk about differentiation, personalization, or individualization; it is often within the production metaphor, leading some to be champions for “mass customization.”

Technological metaphors technologize the way that we think about education, and metaphors associated with life and humanity offer us another opportunity to humanize education. This is true even as we explore the benefits of learning analytics and big data, metric-driven learning, competency-based education, computer-assisted education, blended and online learning, or a dozen other developments.

Like so many others, I began learning about the extent to which metaphor shapes our view of the world by sitting at the feet (metaphorically speaking) of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson when they published Metaphors We Live By. As the authors write, metaphor is “explaining one kind of thing in terms of another” (p. 5). This only makes sense that we use metaphor given what we think to be true about human learning. An ancient truth that continues to be supported by current and emerging research is that we use what we already know, what is familiar to us, to understand and make sense of that which is new to us. We learn a new math concept by comparing it to something that we already know and building upon that. We do the same thing across content areas and learning contexts. Metaphors are important to our religious expressions and how we think and talk about our thoughts and actions. We are creatures of comparison.

Coming back to education, there is the chance that using technological and industrial metaphors as the dominant means of discourse about the what, why, and how of education will push us toward technological and industrial values. Some aspire to put these technological and industrial systems to work for humans. After all, the Russian origin of the contemporary word for “robot” is the word “slave.” We enslave technologies to serve us. Given the incredibly emotional baggage of the word “slave”, I mention it with caution, but it is important, because it reminds us about the past hopes and dreams of about the role of technology, but this is something that certainly continues today. We think of technology as existing to serve us.

One problem is that this underlying metaphor for the technological, when applied to education as a whole, can just as easily draw us away from visions of a “liberal” education, an education that helps people grow in independence, agency, and ownership. Learners can become part of the technological system of education, which has the risk of leading us to think of them less as a group of individuals, each person with worth, gifts, abilities, and rights.

Again, I’m not trying to create some new set of moral boundaries, but metaphor matters when we speak and think about education. How can we deepen our understanding of metaphor so that it can be of better service to our aims of freedom, humanity, truth, goodness, and beauty? These are not popular subjects today, but they will influence what type of education ecosystem will flourish in the future.