Teetering on the Brink of Change

Talk about school change is rife with mechanistic metaphors—finding the right “levers,” shifting “gears,” fueling the “engine.”  In his bestselling book Images of Organizations (1998), Gareth Morgan argues that while such analogies may be apt where conditions are perfectly stable, they’re not so helpful when change, unpredictability, and a need for innovation come into the picture.  Isn’t it odd, then, that talk of “inputs,” “outputs,” and “mechanisms” is so ubiquitous in the discourse of educational reform?  Somehow, assembly-line notions persist, even as these new times demand creativity, criticality, and a capacity to learn and work amidst constant change.

When literary critic I.A. Richards observed that “thinking is radically metaphoric” (1938, p. 48), he was clearly onto something. That metaphors both reflect and reify our world views has since become richly documented and extensively argued (e.g., Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). School-change researchers have long promoted more generative metaphors that can help us better understand what’s involved where reforms take root and hold on: communities of practice develop, school cultures are transformed, complex systems are brought into synergy (see Hargreaves & Fullan, 2012; Tye, 2000).

Recently, representatives of the organizations that comprise NCLE came together for two days of stock-taking and brainstorming—and, as it turned out, thoughtful attention to the metaphors framing our thinking, work, and plans. Everyone who spoke (teachers, funders, administrators, leaders of professional organizations) acknowledged the cross-currents that complicate our efforts—tensions that, as Dewey reminded us so many years ago (1938/1997), threaten to devolve into reductive either-ors. After all, can’t we remain responsive to external calls for accountability while also maintaining an intrinsically curious inquiry stance? Can’t we allow for spontaneous meandering while remaining fundamentally goal-driven? Don’t we need strong leadership as well as grassroots energy?

Managing paradox and tension, so central to the work of teachers, emerged at our meeting as a key NCLE challenge as well. As we set strategies for moving decisively forward, we kept reminding one another of the importance of acknowledging complexity and holding our questions. Here’s how someone put it:  our central purpose of supporting student learning through teacher collaboration remains our fulcrum, but working toward this goal involves lots of collaborative weighing and balancing.

By adjusting the metaphor, we acknowledged that negotiating contraries isn’t an obstacle to our process, but integral to it. This framed our conversation in wonderfully productive ways, reminding us of the value of noticing the metaphors in play and evaluating what they hide and reveal. If we change the framing metaphor, we may just transform a whole conversation, and, even, our lives and worlds.

Are you interested in thinking more how these reflections on metaphor apply in other contexts? Would your learning team or group benefit by more closely examining the metaphors that characterize your work? Two conversation protocols that are valuable in supporting team inquiry and discussion are Ordered Sharing and the Four A Text Protocol.

Metaphors & the FrameWorks Institute: NCLE has been working with the FrameWorks Institute to better understand how the public thinks about and understands education issues. A key element of their work involves the study of how explanatory metaphors can be used in reframing education issues. Learn more about the work of the FrameWorks Institute here.

Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. New York: Touchstone. (Original work published 1938).  
Hargreaves, A., & Fullan, M. (2012). Professional capital: Transforming teaching in every school. New York: Teachers College Press.
Lakoff, R., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morgan, G. (1997). Images of organizations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Richards, I. A. (1938). Interpretation in teaching. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Tye, B. (2000). Hard truths: Uncovering the deep structure of schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.