teaching metaphors

The Teacher as Lensmaker

When as a college sophomore I first encountered Benedict de Spinoza, I was fascinated by both his philosophy, which emphasizes intellectual freedom and pursuit of virtue, and the fact that by trade or profession he was a grinder of lenses.

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Education: The Fury of a Storm or the Music of a Drizzle

Two readings triggered my thinking about contrasting images for education. In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind tells us that education is stuffing facts into the minds of students. The more, the better. The quicker, the better. In current terms he favors “information bombardment.”

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Teaching Swimming or Coaching Swimmers?

A question has been floating around in my head since I started teaching college students: are we supposed to act like swimming instructors or Olympic coaches? The analogy is not as odd as it might seem at first. Don’t we talk about whether students “sink

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A Garden, Not a Leaky Pipeline

In recent years, student dropout rates in STEM programs have received a lot of attention. The problem is often referred as the leaky pipeline, and that is a harmful metaphor. It implies that we can “plug the holes” (Cannady et al., 2014), or worse, that

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Giving Metaphors a Second Look: Teaching as Selling

Few metaphors have generated more objections than equating students to customers and education to a product. It faces challenges on multiple fronts. Tuition dollars do not buy grades or a degree. Education does not come with a money-back guarantee, and the customer is not always

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Over the past year, most campuses have had to confront the impact of ChatGPT on the classroom, particularly on student learning and submission of assignments. Teachers are scrambling to modify their syllabi to lay out policies to ensure no plagiarism occurs. There is not much clarity on how to respond to the threat of ChatGPT. The new technology raises fundamental questions about teaching and learning; however, the art and process of learning remain the same.

As interdisciplinary knowledge becomes more important than ever, the distinct barriers between humanities, science, and arts break down. Today’s students are exposed to multitudes of information and asked to make connections to several knowledge systems to find solutions to the complex challenges we face today—among them, climate change, increasing inequality, and racial discrimination. Having spent over two decades in the classroom, I feel learning is deeply connected to a constant process of being exposed to new information and, more importantly, chewing on that piece of information multiple times—much like what a cow does—to make complex connections. Thus, metaphorically, l associate modern learning with the ancient process of rumination that most ungulates do. Let me explain this a bit more.

A cow eats grass or fodder, which is nutrient rich but high in fiber and hard to digest. Likewise, the knowledge we intake is much like grass, nutrient rich but hard to digest. Cows indulge in swallowing, unswallowing, rechewing, and reswallowing. This process, rumination, enables cows to chew grass more completely, improving digestion. Much like cows, each one of us must, after ingesting complex information, engage in rumination—bring back the data; chew on it again; connect it to other viewpoints, others’ situations, and different perceptions; and grasp it so that we understand it in its every dimension.

An avid walker, I got these ideas during one of my longer weekend walks, which gave me time to ruminate on various issues. Walking allows me to be in my body and this world—in the present. It is an opportunity to dialogue with myself. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; I reflect on how some of the concepts that I tried to understand as a middle or high school student or an undergrad or grad student did not make sense then but do now as I was able to connect them concept with experiences I had later in life. The key here is to inspire students to contemplate to facilitate deep learning. ChatGPT can provide organized information within microseconds; however, rumination is necessary for deep understanding.

Biologically the cow’s digestive processes are ingestion, propulsion, mechanical digestion, chemical digestion, absorption, and defecation. Furthermore, cows use four chambers or compartments of stomachs for their digestion. They ferment the food through rumination, regurgitating and rechewing it before the main digestive process begins. Likewise, we as teachers have to ask our students to sit down after ingesting information, to regurgitate and chew on the data, to ferment the knowledge to absorb all aspects of this information — and to create new information.

With cows, as food passes through the GI tract, it mixes with digestive juices, causing large food molecules to break down into smaller molecules. The body then absorbs these smaller molecules through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream, which delivers them to the rest of the body. Each of us must mix the information we are exposed to with our creative juices and relate it to our experiences and other experiences for the data to break down into smaller pieces to absorb and make sense of the information thoroughly. I also want to add here the influence of peer learning. Listening to our peers is akin to any information we ingest being returned to the brain to, as it were, rechew. We have to retrieve the information from our brains at a later time and mix it with the views of others, to masticate on it again and mix it with different perceptions to make new connections. Teachers must encourage students to bounce ideas off of others in the class and dwell on them for a while, and they provide them with time to do this.

So essentially, I argue that deep learning is a complex process requiring much reflection time:

  1. To understand something, one must take a break and then return to it to understand it fully and form a different perspective.
  2. Learning involves bringing information back, chewing on it, and rechewing it because the material or the information is complex. We don’t have an efficient digestive or processing system for all the info we initially ingested.

The role of the teacher in this context is to inspire students to engage in rumination, challenge them to regurgitate the information they’re processing, and promote reflection through in-class experiential activities and take-home assignments. Learning takes time—students need to understand it as a well-thought-out process—things that students ignore in rush to get through the degree. Teaching and learning will then be meaningful for both the student and the teacher—ChatGPT notwithstanding.

Avinash Thombre, PhD, a professor of applied communication at University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is a practitioner of yoga, loves sauntering, meditates regularly, and identifies as an ecocentric writer, transcendentalist, amateur astronomer, public intellectual, and philosopher. You can access his reflective writing at https://avithombre.medium.com.