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Critical Pedagogy and Conceptual Metaphor

Critical Pedagogy and Conceptual Metaphor
Jonan Phillip Donaldson and Penny L. Hammrich
Drexel University School of Education
International Conference on Urban Education (ECUE), Nassau, Bahamas, November 8-10, 2018
Social Justice and Advocacy Strand
Abstract: Conceptual metaphor theory suggests the metaphors we use for a concept such as
learning dictate our practices in teaching and learning. Critical pedagogy theorists have argued
that the positivist transfer/acquisition/banking conceptualization of learning is dominant in
society and must be rejected. They characterized critical pedagogy learning through construction
metaphors. This study used a critical pedagogy lens to understand conceptualizations of learning
among educational researchers, and how they relate to beliefs regarding the purpose of education
and effective practices in teaching, learning, and social justice.
Descriptors: Critical Pedagogy, Conceptual Metaphor, Conceptual Change
Background and Framework
This study used a critical pedagogy lens to understand conceptualizations of learning among
educational researchers, and how they relate to beliefs regarding the purpose of education and
effective practices. Conceptual metaphor theory suggests that most (if not all) human concepts
are grounded in metaphors, and that the metaphors we use for a concept such as learning dictate
our practices in teaching and learning (Deignan, 2010; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, 1999).
Furthermore, since conceptual metaphors dictate what we can and cannot see and influence what
we value, they are intrinsically linked with worldviews (Gibbs, 2014; Goatly, 2007). Conceptual
metaphors can be characterized by analyzing clusters of surface metaphors people use when
discussing a particular concept (Deignan, 2010; Gibbs, 2014). Critical pedagogy theorists have
argued that the positivist transfer/acquisition/banking conceptualization of learning is dominant
in society and must be rejected (Freire, 1970/2005; Giroux, 2013; Kincheloe, Steinberg, &
Tippins, 1999). They characterized critical pedagogy learning through construction metaphors
and constructivist worldviews, arguing that critical pedagogy work requires rejection of positivist
beliefs regarding the nature of learning (Apple, 2014; Giroux, 2014; Kincheloe, 2007).
Conceptual metaphor analysis (Cameron & Maslen, 2010; Deignan & Semino, 2010) was used
to characterize conceptualizations of learning, and grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014; Corbin &
Strauss, 2015; Thornberg, 2012) to analyze alignments between conceptual metaphors, practices,
and worldviews. Three hundred and fifteen academic journal articles from two leading
educational research journals from the last five years were analyzed. Surface metaphors related
to learning were coded, and analysis of co-occurrence patterns revealed conceptual metaphors.
Beliefs related to practices and worldview were coded and alignments between conceptual
metaphors of learning, practices, and worldviews were analyzed.
Forty-nine per-cent of articles used the transfer/acquisition conceptualization of learning, and
19% the construction conceptualization. Thirty-three per-cent assumed that learning is
quantifiable, and 39% that test scores measure learning. A minority used situative or
sociocultural perspectives (5% distributed learning, 4% sociocultural ways of knowing, and 0.4%
contextualized/situated learning). In 27% the purpose of education is for careers, 15% economic
growth/workforce demand, and 19% citizenship. Others included empowerment/social justice
agency (10%), intellectual skills (5%), personal transformation (5%), and disrupting systems of
oppression (1%). Practices endorsed included learning standards (17%), learning objectives
(10%), accountability (7%), textbooks (6%), critical consciousness work (4%), agency (4%),
praxis (3%), autonomy (1%), ownership (0.8%), community of practice (0.8%), and empathy
work (0.4%). There were strong relationships between the transfer/acquisition conceptualization,
a set of practices (testing, lecturing, textbooks), and a belief that the purpose of education is for
career/workforce demand. There was a strong relationship between the construction
conceptualization, a set of practices (discussion, projects, community, agency), and beliefs that
the purpose of education is for social change, social justice, empowerment, or community
The dominant conceptualization of learning in society today is grounded in a transfer/acquisition
conceptual metaphor of learning (Donaldson, 2018; Bruner, 1996; Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1998;
Papert & Harel, 1991). The transfer/acquisition metaphor sees knowledge as consisting of
discrete entities, and learning as the transfer of those entities from authoritative sources such as
teachers and books into the minds of learners. Learners are then expected to be able to transfer
the acquired knowledge to new contexts (Shemwell, Chase, & Schwartz, 2015). Hager and
Hodkinson (2009) argued that although this is the dominant metaphor in society today, it is
rarely recognized as such: “So fixed are acquisition and transfer in the popular mind that this
conceptual lens can be dubbed the ‘common-sense account of learning’” (p. 622). The
transfer/acquisition conceptual metaphor of learning consists of a constellation of interrelated
surface metaphors for knowledge (e.g., give, product, possession, property, competencies,
outcomes, etc.), mind (e.g., container, receptacle, customer, raw materials, machine, etc.),
learning (e.g., acquisition, (to be) filled, receiving, storing, taking, absorbing, etc.), and
education (e.g., transfer, transmit, banking, factory, production, market, business, etc). See
Figure 1 to see the relationships between metaphors, worldviews, paradigms contribute to the
transfer/acquisition conceptualization of learning, and how this conceptualization impacts
practices, communication, cognitive filtering, and values.
Figure 1: Transfer/Acquisition Conceptualization of Learning
Many educational researchers including Dewey (1897, 1938), Vygotsky (1934/1986), and
Bruner (1986, 1996) had conceptualizations of learning grounded in a construction conceptual
metaphor: meaning is individually, collaboratively, and collectively constructed. The
construction conceptual metaphor consists of a constellation of surface metaphors for knowledge
(e.g., constructed (socially or individually), systems of relations, subject/object fusion, etc.),
mind (e.g., constructor, translator, world transformer, networks of schemata, etc.), learning
(e.g., construction, collaboration, transformation, creation, design, etc.), and education (e.g.,
socialization, scaffolding, community of practice, perspective expansion, praxis, etc).
Surface Metaphors
Trans fer, acquire, banking, computer, storage, retrieval, tabula rasa, data, input, output,
osmosis, grasp, get, hold onto
Empiri cist
Transfer/Acquisition Conceptualization of Learning
Learning is a process in which information is trans ferred from
an external source into the mind of a learner as the learner
acquires knowledge.
Conceptual Metaphor of Learning
Learning is Transfer/Acqui sition
Common Terms
Learning objectives,
assessment, correct,
incorrect, truth,
objective/bia s-free,
accountabi lity
facts, clear
Purpose of Education
Career preparation,
economic growth,
knowledge/skills for
Viabil ity of
sys temic bias
Cognitive Filtering
Lecture notes,
drill s,
fla sh cards,
exams, dril ls
Communication Values
Economic transaction, excavation, military (hierarchy/authority and command structure), business
management (also, overlap with surface metaphors )
Figure 2: Construction Conceptualization of Learning
Despite the long history of the construction conceptualization among educational
researchers, the findings in this study indicate that within the domain of educational research the
positivist transfer/acquisition conceptualization of learning remains dominant, and construction
conceptualizations compatible with social justice, critical pedagogy, and empowerment work
remain marginalized. Educational research provides the foundation upon which future teachers
build their conceptualizations of learning and associated teaching approaches and repertoire of
practices. Therefore, a precondition for development of critical pedagogy practices for social
justice on a larger scale may involve educational researchersespecially critical educators
being more intentional in explicitly articulating the conceptualizations of learning in which their
research is grounded, as well as problematizing conceptualizations of learning in their work with
other researchers.
Surface Metaphors
Construct, build, make, connect, create, deconstruct, transform
Constructivi st
Critical Theory
Constructed-Reali ties
Socio-His torical
Partici patory
Construction Conceptualization of Learning
Learning is a process in which meaning is individually,
collaboratively, and collectively constructed.
Architecture, engineering, design, construction, authorship, artist (also, overlap with surface
Conceptual Metaphor of Learning
Learning is Construction
Common Terms
Agency, making,
engagement, identity,
cri tical thinking,
ownershi p, empathy,
potential for
social change,
sol utions
Purpose of Education
Personal fulfillment,
engaged democratic
citizens, collaborative
social problem-solving,
maximizing human
potential, soci al justice
abs olutes,
testabili ty of
Cognitive Filtering
Proj ects, collaboration,
questions, perspective-taking,
experiment, exploration
Communication Values
Solutions-based Implications
This research provides strong empirical evidence supporting arguments by critical
theorists suggesting that efforts toward changing conceptualizations of learning is not only
crucial in our work in K-12 contexts, but also in our work with students in schools of education
and in our work with fellow researchers. This conceptual change work for critical pedagogy will
involve critical reflection and action regarding the metaphors we use, as well as practices in
teaching and learning. Furthermore, this study suggests that the critical work of problematizing
and changing worldviews and values may require problematization and rejection of metaphors of
learning, knowledge, mind, and education that perpetuate and reproduce oppressive
conceptualizations of learning.
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... This finding suggests that STEM educators in higher education conceptualize learning in ways similar to the majority of educational policy-makers (Donaldson, 2017), the general public (Donaldson, 2018), educational researchers (Donaldson & Hammrich, 2018), and educational psychologists (Donaldson, 2019). In this conceptualization, learning is the acquisition and manipulation of knowledge objects from external sources such as teachers or textbooks. ...
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The Learning Sciences investigates the nature of learning and how to design for powerful learning. Critical theorists argue that conceptualizations of learning have powerful framing effects that determine our practices in teaching and learning. This study investigated conceptualizations of learning in the Learning Sciences and professors in STEM fields, as well as the relationships between the practices they endorse and the conceptualizations of learning they use. The STEM educators used a Transfer/Acquisition conceptualization of learning. Emergent from this conceptualization were practices such as the use of lectures, textbooks, and exams. The learning scientists used a Construction/Becoming conceptualization of learning related to practices such as collaboration, learner-driven projects, learner agency, real-world impact work, identity exploration, and community of practice building.
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