The Real Mr. Fitz: Metaphors for Education                                                  

Metaphors for Education


Like most teachers, I have been to many meetings in my time. I've always had, at best, an ambiguous relationship with meetings - even when I was the one leading them. But it seems lately that the education reform agenda has infiltrated our schools at a very deep level. I've sat through more than one meeting where the talk basically amounted to discussions like the ones below:

There is a tendency these days (and not just in education, I think) to view every problem as the failure of people to conform to the system, and every solution as a way of forcing or enticing humans to conform. We don't question the system, or see the system itself as part of the problem, and therefore we often are identifying the wrong problems.

I feel like we are often not thinking big enough, and that failure represents a failure to be models of big thinking for our students. Being practical is good, but only after we have thought through our purposes for education, our philosophies of what we, as educators, and our students, as learners, are actually there for. 

In working with my students on the power of definition for the past few years, I have come to realize that many of our definitions are less literal and more metaphorical. Sometimes we aren't even that conscious of the metaphors we use when we think about the world... or about education. 

In my comic strip, I wanted to create visual representations of the metaphors people use to think about how education works. 

I began with Ms. Merritt, a character I invented to be the state's ideal teacher. I very much feel that her factory model of pouring molten information into students and then measuring how much of it stuck is not that much of an exaggeration. I think a lot of administrators, teachers, students, and, of course, reformers, think of education in terms not much different that the image below. 

Mr. Blustbag, the reformer/education-consultant in the strip, sees education very much in the terms I think most reformers do: as a way to make money. The reformers have done a great job casting themselves as the saviors of schools, here to rescue students and parents from mediocre public schools. How do they rescue schools? By over-testing them. By standardizing them. By closing them. By privatizing them. By making a whole lot of money off of education, and killing public schools in the process.

One of the results of the education reform agenda is an impoverished and reductionist view of what education is. By promoting pacing guides and curriculum maps and virtual school courses, the reformers keep teachers tied to the instructional materials that are on the map, thus insuring continuing profits for textbooks companies and creators of standardized curricula in print and online...

The end results is that teachers see themselves not as creative, inquisitive models of learning, but as "curriculum dispensers," as Mr. Fitz puts it. Teachers are users of products. Learning itself becomes just another part of the consumer culture, and teachers themselves become expendable.

There are more positive metaphors for education, but some of those models come with their own perils. I have run into a number of "Mr. Pardee" types in my time, and though students tend to like them, they don't come away remember what they learned about the subject.

I don't think there is any one, definitive metaphor for what education should be like. I think there are other models, models that give us alternatives to the destructive metaphors being spread by the reformers. When is the last time we talked about education as an exploration at a meeting, as Mrs. Kepler does here?

Mrs. Fitz's metaphor focuses on making learning appealing:

Some would criticize this model as being too dependent on teachers working hard to making learning appealing. They insist that some parts of learning will just be hard work, and that's all there is to it. The kids need to learn grit; sometimes we have to make children take their "no-thank-you" portions. I was a fussy eater as a child, though (and still am) and no-thank-you portions never really made the foods I hated into a habit; in fact, they made me more resistant. Mrs. Fitz's metaphor emphasizes the idea that people will eat what they find appealing, and learn what they find appealing.

Mr. Fitz's metaphor, that education is like a comic strip, is here at the end of the series for a laugh, but if you read my previous blog post about great teachers, you know it is more than that.

My point is that the metaphors we use to think and talk about education matter, whether people think they do or not...

No one metaphor will ever capture the whole truth about education, and the metaphors may change from age level to age level, subject to subject, teacher to teacher. The point isn't to have a standard metaphor everyone has to use, but to have an ongoing discussion about how we view education, what its purposes are, and how the ideas and ideals we hold influence how we teach, and treat, the children in our schools.

If we aren't thinking hard about education, we are being poor role models for our students. Worse yet, we are likely accepting the models handed down to us by the reformers who want to dismantle public education and turn students into data points that make them money.