Talking Points October 2015

Metaphors and learner autonomy – A conversation with Darren Elliott

In this month’s Talking Points, Jim Ronald and Naomi Fujishima interview Darren Elliott, following his presentation at the BAAL conference on metaphors and learner autonomy.

Jim: Hello Darren, I’m not sure if you remember, but I first came to associate you with metaphors during the LD SIG’s 20th Anniversary conference. Naoko Aoki started her plenary by asking us to make small groups and talk about our language teaching mistakes. You were in the same small group as me, and as I told my mistake, you drew a picture of me as a monster chasing a student down the classroom!Darren Selfie Photo

Darren: I remember that incident… that was a really good discussion!

Jim: You also presented a poster, or in fact, a comic about language learning and metaphors. How did you first get interested in this topic?

Darren: Fairly early on in my career I became involved in teacher training, and I continued that interest into my graduate study. It’s quite a hackneyed approach, to be honest, but teacher trainers love to ask novice teachers how they see the classroom, the teacher, the learner and so on, and then explore those metaphors. That was my very first exposure.

Naomi: So you’ve been working with metaphors for a long time. How did you see the possible link between metaphors and learner autonomy?

Darren: I like playing around with metaphors in class. Students generally enjoy it too, because they can actually express something very deep with simple grammar and vocabulary. Anyway, it struck me that there were a number of common metaphors for teachers that came up fairly frequently, and that those metaphors might suggest very different beliefs about the teacher’s role. For example, I wondered if those who chose dictatorial metaphors (‘The teacher is a sergeant major’) would expect explicit instruction and structured classes, and if those who assigned a utilitarian role to the teacher (‘The teacher is a signpost’) would be more inclined to see the teacher as one resource amongst many they could manage themselves.

Jim: That is interesting! So, can you tell us something about the research on this topic that you presented at BAAL in September? (See below for the link to Darren’s BAAL presentation)

Darren: I started with a questionnaire based on Fumiko Murase’s measure for learner autonomy. Once those were collected, I asked the students to complete sentences with metaphors ‘A teacher is like….’, ‘A learner is like…’, ‘A classroom is like…’, and ‘Learning is like….’ . From these, certain common metaphors began to emerge. I found pictures to represent some of the main ideas collected; for example, the teacher was represented by pictures of a tree, a father, a compass, a satellite navigation system, a doctor, a football supporter, Michelangelo’s God, a lifeguard, a signpost, as suggested by the students. Finally, I conducted interviews and asked the students to use the pictures to explain their own personal metaphors in more detail.

The metaphors do require explanation as the researcher and the subject may have very different interpretations of the same metaphor. For example, if we consider the teacher to be a god, to what kind of god are we referring? Is this a vengeful and powerful god, a nurturing and forgiving god, or a mischievous god who consorts with humans? Could make a big difference!

Jim: That’s so true! In the Hiroshima LD Get-Together group, we’ve been focusing on reflective teaching (Farrell 2008), and one thing that came up is the possible mismatch between our expressed beliefs as teachers and how we really behave in class. Do you think there might be a similar kind of mismatch for learners – ideals may be represented by metaphors rather than the reality of their experience as learners?

Darren: Absolutely! True reflection is very, very hard to do… the interminable questionnaires that do the rounds at the end of any course are actually anti-reflection. As teachers, we can get caught up with practical considerations of why this works or that doesn’t work, but fundamentally misunderstand what we believe about teaching and learning. The ‘trick’ of reflection is to catch yourself off guard somehow, and metaphor is one way to do this. But as you say, there can still be a disconnect between what we say and what we do. Maybe we come up with a really cool metaphor, then figure out a way to explain it. Maybe we identify with one aspect of a metaphor and then feel obliged to fit its other properties into our world view, despite the fact it doesn’t match.

Sometimes, metaphors are coined which are so compelling that they start to influence the way we think despite the fact that they don’t really stand up to scrutiny. The ‘digital native’ is one of these, in my opinion.

Naomi: I see what you mean. Coming from Hiroshima, the home of real okonomiyaki , we tend to think in terms of the okonomiyaki itself and our individual choice of toppings. I wonder, a little cynically, how much language learners – and we teachers – might have metaphors that describe the toppings of autonomy, development, learner centredness, etc., while the main okonomiyaki of textbook, classroom study, homework, and student and teacher roles remains largely unchanged – and unrepresented by metaphors. So, can you say that students’ metaphors are a measure of their autonomy?

Darren: Not without reservation, but there do appear to be some correlations. The journey of learning is a tremendous struggle for some, like climbing up a mountain, whereas others see language learning as play. The metaphors learners use (and importantly, their explanations of those metaphors) do appear to show us something about the way they see their relationship to the learning process and the others (peers, teachers) involved in that process. I would like to continue the research by observing actual behaviour, not only reported behaviour, to see if these possible correlations really hold up.

Jim: That sounds well worth following up on. We can see that your interest in metaphors is providing valuable insights into learner autonomy. I think that many of us might stop at the level of classroom activity – for discussion, reflection, and fun. Any advice for those of us interested in that approach?

Darren: As I said, students tend to enjoy working with metaphors because it allows them to express complex ideas and deep feelings with fairly basic language. All human language is soaked in metaphor, so it’s easy to introduce to learners as an activity. It gives you and the learners another way to express your beliefs to one another.

Naomi: Thank you so much, Darren, for taking the time to talk to us. I hope the next time you draw a picture of Jim as a teacher, it will be something less threatening (or scary) than a monster!

NOTE: For those interested in more reading, here is the link to Darren’s article:


Farrell, T.S.C. (2008). Reflective language teaching: From research to practice. London: Continuum Press.

Murase, F. (2015). Measuring language learner autonomy: Problems and possibilities. In Everhard, C. J., & Murphy, L. (Eds.). Assessment and Autonomy in Language Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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