April 3, 2013

What Do Elvis Presley and Aristotle Have in Common? Metaphor!

by Peggy Kraus, Pharm.D., Clinical Pharmacy Specialist, the Johns Hopkins Hospital

Aristotle once observed that “Those words are most pleasant which give us new knowledge.  Strange words have no meaning for us; common terms we know already. It is metaphor which gives us most of this pleasure.”

The word metaphor comes from the Greek words meta or “over, across” and pherein or “to carry.”1  They are often used in education to help “bridge the distance” (a metaphor) between what students already know and what they need to know.Every metaphor highlights one aspect of the concept, just as it hides another.George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at University of California, Berkeley and Mark Johnson, Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at University of Oregon, called this “metaphorical systematicity.”1 Are we not “bridging the distance” through distance learning (yep a metaphor) thanks to the power of technology in our own class?

Metaphors can be used to create a pattern and expectations, shape the way we think, and influence the decisions or thoughts of others. 1,2,3  In education, are we not trying to do these very things?  We need to relay complex, often abstract concepts.  Metaphors can help students understand the concepts.4

Using “the web” as a metaphor for the Internet highlights some of its essential characteristics while making other, non-web-like qualities less apparent.1   Information is education (another metaphor).1 Some assume information transmission is the main purpose of education, or that the content of education is synonymous with information.1  But if this were the case, the internet would do away with the need for schools and colleges.1 What is lost or hidden in this metaphor is that attending too closely to information overlooks the social context that helps people understand what the information means and why it matters.1 This information needs to assimilated, understood and made sense of, and that understanding is different depending on the learner.1

We use metaphors as a bridge to understand educational contexts.  Researchers and participants often draw on pre-existing knowledge to explain current experiences.3 Metaphors accomplish this by enabling the connection of information about a familiar concept to another familiar concept.3 That can lead to a new understanding in which the comparison between the two concepts acts as generators for new meaning(another metaphor).3  They can be used to take knowledge that is already held and build the scaffold (another one) to teach or learn a newer concept.4

In order to examine the use of metaphor, Devon Jensen classified metaphors into four categories: active, inactive, dead, and foundational.3  Active metaphors carry saliency between the topic and vehicle terms.  For example, “This school is a real melting pot.”3  Inactive metaphors, the optic term must be interpreted through the vehicle term just as “The car race ended in a massacre.”3  Dead metaphors , the saliency between the topic and the vehicle terms are not apparent to due a lack of knowledge or experience with the characteristics of the vehicle term.  For example, “working downtown is a real rat race” is only understandable to modern man when the concept of a “rat race” is explained; few of us today have had experience or witnessed rats in a frenzy. 3  The last category, foundational, the metaphor defines the centrally important features of the concept.  Example: “ organization as machine.”3

Jensen then used these classifications and searched for studies that used metaphors and metaphor analysis as their central method.3  He found 1,128 studies, which surprised me.  He then classified the studies into five major themes. Studies in theme one attempted to raise awareness of modern metaphors that legitimized social process with regard to power and politics.3 In the second theme, these studies examined the metaphoric usage within an educational setting and led to change in education practice, policy and/or roles.3 The third theme was a group of studies that examined techniques and procedures for measuring, understanding, and interpreting metaphors in educational and literary writing.3 Theme four examined the usages, implementation, and/or analysis of metaphor in student, school, and institutional writing.3 And the last theme was on qualitative education research characterized by studies that look at how participants use metaphor to describe existing educational states.3  Metaphors can be myths that limit growth or new ideas that expand possibilities.3

One must be careful about the use of metaphors because it can lead to confusion or misunderstanding.4 This is particularly true when there are culture differences between students and instructors or when the metaphor is too old for a younger audience to understand.  Metaphors mean different things to people of different cultures and ages.

James Geary, a writer and the former European Editor of Time, during his TED talk entitled "Metaphorically Speaking" claims that we use six metaphors a minute.2  I really did not spend much time thinking about metaphors until I started working on this blog, but I now recognize that I use them a lot without even realizing it.  Geary starts his presentation by analyzing the many metaphors found in Elvis Presley’s song, “I’m All Shook Up.”  It might sound a little weird but its an interesting analysis.  Later in his presentation, he draws parallels between  RenĂ© Descartes famous philosophical declaration and Elvis’ song.  “I think therefore I am” was translated into English from the Latin “cogito ergo sum.”   But according to Geary, the literal translation should be “I shake things up, therefore I am.”  So perhaps Elvis was trying to tell us something really deep through the use of metaphor!


1.  Meyer, K.A. Common Metaphors and Their Impact on Distance Education: What They Tell Us and What They Hide. Teachers College Record. 2005; 107 (8):1601-1625.
2.  Geary J.  Metaphorically speaking. TED.com.   Accessed February 20, 2013.
3.  Jensen, D.F.N. Metaphors as a bridge to understanding educational and social contexts. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2006, 5(1), Article 4. Accessed March 30, 2013.
4.  Ritcher, R. The use of metaphors in teaching and learning. The teaching tomtom. Accessed March 30, 2013.

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