Going Meta With Metaphor: 6 Metaphors That Will Make You (and Your Students) Metacognitive

To think metacognitively, simply means to think about the way we think. Research shows that taking time to consider how all of our thinking happens, improves our relationship to learning, frees up the pathways for making connections, and provides a better understanding of how others think.

Metaphors, (like, these tissues are sandpaper on my nose! or an ocean of tears) are ideas or comparisons that are, in a literal sense, incongruent. Metaphors are not how life actually is. No, Anna and Elsa - love is not an open door, and love is also not a force field, Calvin Harris. Even though we know love is not either of these things (or the millions of other comparisons artists have used in the past), the initial disconnection between these two ideas forces us to think about how in fact they are related. In the moment where we push the two disparate ideas onto each other to work out their connection, our brains create a bunch of flashing images, and just like that - it makes sense. Love IS an open door - it is that feeling of stepping into a brand new world through that one open door when all of the others are shut closed. Not only can we have a much greater understanding of something when it is attached to a metaphor, but because of the many ways people interpret them, we can reveal many different ways of thinking. It is in this exposure of connectivity that we can, together with our community of learners, think about HOW our thinking happens (be metacognitive).

Here are a list of SIX metaphors you can use to help make metacognition a regular part of your learning:

1 .   L E A R N I N G   I S   C O N S T R U C T I N G

Imagine for a moment, if we thought about learning just like a builder constructing a skyscraper. When we have a growth mindset, we shift our understanding of learning as something that is being built over time. Learning becomes less of a thing that happens to you in a lecture hall, passively listening, but rather it is a thing that happens when we make plans, work in a team, acquire necessary tools and strategies and, after building a strong foundation, slowly piece things together. Even when we ultimately finish one skyscraper, we go on to the next site and start constructing again, using similar tools and experience.


2 . T H I N K I N G   I S   A  P A R A D E   A T   A N   U N M A R K E D   C R O S S R O A D 

Often we can be confused by the things we are faced with. It might be an algebraic equation or even when a friend does something totally our of character. We may have no idea what the next step is. Do you get angry? Do you retreat? What if you simply proclaimed your confusion instead! If we can cultivate an environment where confusion is proclaimed rather than hidden, we can illuminate pathways of disconnection. In collaboration, a community of learners can see what that "thought blockage" is and, like a crossing guard, assist with a possible route to understanding.


3 .   R E F L E C T I O N   I S   A   P B & J   A S S E M B L Y   L I N E 

Carve out even a small amount of time to be reflective, and it will feel as though you've added hours to your day. When we take time to exclusively think about what we've done, rather than just get more done, we are enabling a far more efficient day tomorrow. Imagine you are making 30 PB&J sandwiches for your child's class to eat tomorrow. After spreading the peanut butter on that first piece of bread, and then washing the knife and then dousing it in drippy raspberry jelly, and doing the process again, you might take a moment to reflect and think - Oh! I could just do 30 peanut butters, then 30 jellies and then slap 'em all together! Now, that is strategizing for efficiency!


4. T H I N K I N G   I S   A   C A K E   R E C I P E 

Don't just have a work book to write out science hypothesese or draw equilateral triangles. Consider creating a process journal; a place where you and your students can write down the process of how they got to learn something. How did I learn to do long division? Write out the steps! If we need to look at the back of the box each time we bake a betty crocker birthday cake, we ought to consider writing down the step-by-step instructions for how to play a dominant seventh chord on the guitar or give a presentation to a class.


5.  B O O K E N D   Y O U R   L E S S O N

Consider starting and ending a lesson with an activity which clearly allows learners to notice what growth they have acheived during that particular class. Perhaps you have already ritualized exit tickets in your classroom to assess what your student's have learned. Now consider entry tickets! This will illuminate both the beginning place and the end place of your student's learning for the class, and will make it much clearer to see the pathway of thoughts.


6.  W E A R   Y O U R   H E A R T   O N   Y O U R   S L E E V E

It can be scary to ask what biases we all have. Imagine for a moment however, if that was out in the open, or at least if there was safety to share and ask about these biases in the classroom? If we can truly cultivate a community of learners that is comfortable having dialogue about positionalities and biases (Who are we? Where were we born? What systems have we been born into? What do we believe in?) we are better situated to see the ways (and reasons why) others think the way they do. This sort of metacognitive thinking not only broadens the possibilities and multiple ways to think about the same idea as someone else, but is also a tremendous way to practice empathy and build a just and democratic classroom along the way.


I will be presenting a workshop entitled GOING META WITH METAPHOR at Inventing Our Future conference on Tuesday, August 7th, 2018 at Oakland, CA's Chabot Space & Science Center. Click here to learn more.

5 Steps To Using (Messy) Creativity To Build A Democratic Classroom

Creativity can be messy. Just take a look through a professional artists workspace - bits of dried clay, wet paintbrushes, costumes strewn backstage at play rehearsal, a songwriter's lyric journal. What is more important to investigate, beyond the messiness of the creative space, is the bigger structure of how creatives interact with and navigate their world. If we can emulate these systems in our classrooms, it's possible to see that (messy) creativity is in fact the perfect model for all learners to use when building a democratic classroom or learning community.

What does a democratic learning community even mean? It means creating a community where every member (including the teacher/facilitator) is a learner. It means creating a learning space that is reflective of the experience of everyone in the learning community - even the people missing from that space. Of course it means allowing students (not just the teacher) to have a say in what is explored in the classroom, but it also means encouraging the voices and stories of every member of the community to be heard, documented and explored. Every community member's story is as significant to the curriculum as all that stuff in the textbook.

Artists use 5 steps in their studios that ensure their voice is heard. Give the learners in your community agency by using these same steps. Here they are translated into applicable ways for the classroom:

1. E X P L O R E

Possibly the messiest of the 5 steps, is the exploration phase. Here, learners will be in discovery mode. The difference between this type of discovery and the stuff that Inspector Gadget, Sherlock or the guys from CSI: Every City in the World does, is that this discovery is documented and made visible to the community. Whether exploring the ways advanced algebraic equations work, the systems of inequity in the school to prison pipeline, or how to blend warm or cool colors of paint, the journey of thinking is to be documented as research. Exploration can also look like prototyping, annotating, brainstorming, challenging, experimenting, and yes, failing (forward).

2. C R E A T E

Sometimes referred to as a performance of understanding, creating in the classroom (yes, even the math classroom!) means synthesizing all of the your exploration into a tangible thing (whether written, drawn, built or performed) that is cumulative. This creation provides evidence of your deep understanding about a concept. It can be something created over the course of a month, or something low-stakes that was built in an intense 2 minute period.

3. E X H I B I T

It seems logical to hang art on a gallery wall, but what if you did the same to a learner's math solution or original hand-written lyric sheet or essay thesis statement? Every creation deserves a plinth, or spotlight, or quick make-shift masking taped frame around it. Once the creation is taken away from the work space and is exhibited - then you can invite the community of learners to do a gallery walk. Perhaps this is quiet and slow moving, or raucous and celebratory. Whatever it looks and sounds like, students should no longer be in work mode - but rather in a sort of consumption mode. Ready to look, hear, think, ponder, challenge and dream.

4. C R I T I Q U E

The word "critique" can seem intimidating to some, as it invokes a negative connotation, as if al critics do is point out what is wrong. A "critique" according to the Oxford dictionary is an "assessment" but that's another scary-red-pen-underline-conjuring word. I like to think of critique as a coming into dialogue with the creation. Whether this happens in writing, by commenting on a class online site, in conversation, by pop-corning out or asking for longer spoken comments - critiques should be structured using a simple framework or sentence stem (like "I see... I think... I wonder...). More about this and where to find them on another blog entry! Most importantly, just like the exploration and creation steps before this, critiques must be (in the end) documented so that the entire learning community can see.

5. R E F L E C T

Possibly the most overlooked step, and certainly the most crucial routine to incorporate in order to push learners forward is taking (even just a moment of) time to reflect.  When given time to consider "what happened", learners are able to deeply think about "what's next". Without an opportunity to write a few sentences in a journal, scribble a self portrait on a scrap piece of paper, or even just create a simple flow chart of their process, learners will not have the clarity needed to do the next task successfully enough that it has significance for them, or for anyone in their community.


And that's it! These 5 steps can be integrated into your community's schedule without taking up a lot of time. In fact - these steps could happen quite quickly after they become practiced and ritualized. The difference between this learning model and others, is that in this model - inspired by the the practice of artists - it ensures that everyone in the community is sharing. Sharing their understandings, their ideas, their questions and - sharing themselves!

If you have any questions about these steps, simply comment below or get in touch!