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Metaphors for teaching

Thinking about what we do

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In suggesting ways to define effective teachers, discussions concerning the craft of teaching have often looked to metaphors to help clarify views about the complexities experienced in defining effective teaching. 


One common metaphor is to look to gardening to explain the role of an effective teacher, in that teachers should know as much as gardeners do about the necessary nurture of their garden/class, planning lessons and taking as much pride in the eventual flowering - the successful use of English - as would a gardener.

Teachers need to appreciate what nutrients or input will produce the best results with a particular group. They also need to know exactly what to expect from their students and be excited as each student blooms in his or her own unique fashion.

In addition, as gardeners, teachers also need to recognise what can harm a harvest so that anything that might hurt student growth and development is avoided.


An art metaphor along with music suggests good teaching requires a foundation in a discipline and a degree of practised ability. Artful teaching goes farther as it should be seen as something more than just using scripted lines or playing written music; artful teaching requires an investment in thought, energy and planning.

Looking to the conductor metaphor, an educator has much the same role. First, to understand each student's strengths and weaknesses and to know how to make the most of strengths while helping those who are weaker improve to the level of the other players. Second, it involves ensuring all members of the class are always participating even if it is not their time to perform.

Third, good teaching requires conductors to know in detail what students are being asked to do and how they should perform. Finally, a good conductor is able to encourage everyone to practise and then practise even more in an effort to improve.


A religious metaphor suggests teaching continually requires educators to balance faith in their ability with a need to control their fear to push too much in attempts to have learners apply their abilities.

Teaching is often seen as an act of faith requiring imaginative ways to consider what students should be able to learn, do, think and feel. Teachers must always be analysing student possibilities and lose their fear that something planned might be too difficult for students to accomplish. It is this idea that teachers need to control or reduce their fear that makes effective teaching sometimes seem evangelical.


Finally, a theatre metaphor can help to describe teachers who have a firm control of the class as a dramatic playground as they need to speak with vigour, to gesture and move about to help to make them effective educators.

Not only does the teacher need to use dramatic skills to enliven a class, the lesson itself, while always somewhat impromptu, must be scripted in that the teacher knows where the class is going, what the other actors (students) should do and, finally, know exactly what students, as in an audience, should leave with in terms of skills acquired or practised along with an enhanced affinity for the target language.

Clearly difficult to define, even with the use of metaphors, a continual search for new ways to describe effective teaching is an excellent way to reflect on the art of teaching. While some metaphors might not lead in a productive direction in terms of explaining effective teaching, surely the more time we spend thinking about and analysing what it means to be effective in the classroom must be beneficial in the long run.

Dr Timothy Cornwall has been teaching EFL for 30 years and is part of the Shinawatra University faculty. Co-founder of Thailand Educators Network, he can be reached through , through his web site , at or on 081-834-8982.

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