“In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.”
“In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world.”
-Alan Lightman, from Einstein’s Dreams
Exercises in metaphor pervade our history, whether it is Sir Isaac Newton’s revelations concerning the physics of our universe from his experience with a small apple, or Christ’s ability to paint parables for his disciples that illuminated the word of God. Metaphors allow us to explain the sometimes unexplainable, as the early mythologies were less religiously intended as opposed to a necessary way to explain the terrifyingly inexplicable events that surrounded early man, such as bolts of electricity falling from the sky. In his excellent novel, Einstein’s Dreams, Astrophysicist and Creative Writing professor Alan Lightman imagines the dreams of Albert Einstein. The dreams are not mathematical equations or a blank slate blackboard filled with calculations and diagrams. The dreams he imagines are the dreams of worlds. The worlds all vary in one fundamental way, the role that Time plays in them. In one, he imagines time as a fixed point, in another, a flock of birds. He then observes the way that people react in those worlds: What would they love? What would they fear? These nightly meditations eventually lead him to his truth, that to understand how time works in our world, he merely needs to observe how the people around him behave. Like his non-fictional counterparts, this Einstein has learned through the power of metaphor, and a strong reliance on the learning principle of Meaning.
Meaning requires an emphasis on bringing relevant and engaging experiences to students. “The more meaningful or relevant the task or application of information is to the students’ work, the easier it is to learn. The teacher may make explicit reference to students’ personal experiences as a link to connecting content with the students’ lives or they may actually simulate the experience in the learning activity” (DBTC). In the public school classroom, now more than ever, the diverse populations of students that enter our doors bring with them a multitude of different attitudes, experiences, beliefs and feelings about school. The typical schema that we expect students to have, schema that represents a more culturally exclusive time, no longer exists in all our students. For many teachers, the response to this inability to guarantee what students are bringing to the classroom, causes them to simply start over, treating the students as blank slates. The prolonged effects of this “Episodic View of Reality” (Feuerstein, Feuerstein, Falik, and Rand, 2006) can have devastating long term consequences. A better, more ethical way to combat the diverse schema that students are bringing to the classroom, is to provide meaningful, metaphorical anchor experiences at the start of units, that will pre-load metaphorical and experiential schema for later reference, building relevant and usable meaning into the lessons that follow.
One issue brought forth when meaning is not addressed in the classroom is that there is little to no transfer of skills from class-to-class, or, more insidiously, from grade-to-grade. The episodic view is the result of a lack of connection that the student feels toward the subject matter. In short, their education is something that is being done to them, not something that they are actively participating in. In some colleges, “Anchored Instruction” is being used to ground certain instructional practices in relevant life experiences. In this case, a Computer Learning class, where students were learning how to use technology, was paired with a teaching and learning class that used the students own struggles as a basis for studying instruction. A study of the experiment concluded that ““Evidence from other research projects suggests that a specific emphasis on analyzing similarities and differences among problem situations and on bridging new area of application facilitates the degree to which spontaneous transfer occurs” (Cognition and Technology Group, 1990).” by providing the students with a relevant and meaningful basis for discussion, they were more likely to retain, and later use, the skills they were introduced to.
Another anchor activity our district was introduced to recently was the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment program. Based on the theory and research of Reuven Feuerstein, the program consists of simple instruments, such as recognizing pattern, or connecting dots, that are seemingly unrelated to content area studies. “Organization of Dots engages children in projecting virtual relationships in an amorphous cloud of dots to form specific geometrical forms. The resulting products must conform to given forms and sizes in changing spatial orientation. The exercises become progressively complex as the child gradually overcomes the challenges of conservation, representation, and precision” (Ben-Hur, 2006). As you bring the students through the instruments however, it becomes a metaphorical discussion regarding learning styles in general, that can be applied into almost any situation. To teach us how to use the instruments, we were first tasked with completing them, and the frustration and learning that occurred even in the adults, was eye-opening, and empathy inducing. We have used this experience with classes of all levels, and it has myriad connections that we continue to reference throughout the year. Without providing this anchor experience, our ability to tap into relevance and meaning would be greatly diminished.
The ability to create transfer across grades is important, but it can be even more powerful when it is planned through the use of interdisciplinary anchors. The answer is that children learn by mobilizing their innate capacities to meet everyday challenges they perceive as meaningful. Skills and concepts are most often learned as tools to meet present demands rather than as facts to be memorized today in hopes of application tomorrow. Further, daily life is not separated into academic disciplines or divided into discrete time units; instead, the environment presents problems that one must address in an interdisciplinary, free-flowing way, usually in collaboration with peers and mentors” (Barab and Landa, 1997). By connecting experiences and metaphors that breach into different subject area, we increase the capacity for meaningful experiences, that also privilege the concept of transfer simultaneously. Again, the created meaning becomes a common reference point that teachers can refer back to in order to help students facilitate learning.
Lightman’s Einstein envisions a world where time is fixed, and everything that will happen is already known by the people that inhabit it. He describes this life as a series of rooms, with the absence of choice, its inhabitants serving only as “spectator’s in their lives”. Without meaning, a child’s education must feel this way. The student who is tasked with navigating these rooms, only to move onto the next, truly comes to believe as well that each day is “the end of the world.” We must as teachers be sure to provide relevant and meaningful experiences for our students. We must help them to see that they have agency and choice, and we must create for them, reference points that they can use to put their education in the context of their own lives. Short of taking them around the world, and covering all of the potential references they may need in our diverse curriculum, we can still produce metaphorical anchors that can be used to help students bring a common experience and schema to their day-to-day learning lives.
Barab, S., & Landa, A. Designing Effective Interdisciplinary Anchors. How Children Learn,54, 52-55.
Ben-Hur, M. (2006, December 1). Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment-BASIC. . Retrieved , from http://education.jhu.edu/PD/newhorizons/strategies/topics/Instrumental%20Enrichment/hur3.htm
Feuerstein, Feuerstein, Falik, and Rand (2006), Creating and Enhancing Cognitive Modifiability: The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program, ICELP Publications
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Saphier, J., & Gower, R. R. (1997). The skillful teacher: building your teaching skills (5th ed.). Acton, Mass.: Research for Better Teaching.
Vanderbilt, Cognition and Technology Group. a. Anchored Instruction and Its Relationship to Situated Cognition.Educational Researcher, 2-10.