Presented at the 48th annual meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL), Aston University, Birmingham, UK on September 4th, 2015


In order to make sense of abstract thought, humans have developed a rich facility for metaphor. These metaphors are loaded with meanings to be unpacked and interpreted. Research into education has a strong tradition of metaphor analysis, utilising metaphors for education to categorise differing attitudes towards the learning process. This work suggests the potential of metaphors as a shorthand for attitude systems. If this promise can be realised then researchers will have a powerful tool at hand.

This study seeks to test the hypothesis that learners’ metaphors for learning may reveal something about their perspectives and attitudes, with a particular focus on learner autonomy. In this study, the researcher assessed the propensity of Japanese university students for autonomous language learning using a survey developed by Shimo (2008), in addition to classroom observation. The same students were asked to complete short sentence fragments ‘A teacher is …’, ‘A student is…’, and ‘A classroom is…’ using metaphors, in writing. The complete sentences were subject to content analysis and followed up with one-to-one interviews.


The analysis of the metaphors employed by teachers and / or learners is a well-established technique. Herron (1982) and later Nattinger (1984) attempted to put language teaching methodologies into metaphorical contexts. Herron suggested that the grammar translation method was equivalent to gymnastic training – both require exertion and practice in order to attain proficiency. Nattinger’s disquiet in attempting to apply a computational metaphor to the relatively new methodology (at that time) of communicative language teaching perhaps reflects the computer’s place in society at that time; as computer technology has become entangled with human life, the human brain as computer metaphor has become dominant.

The relationships between metaphor, thought and society are fluid. As some work to express complex systems or ideas with metaphors, others analyse the metaphors we use to find out what lies beneath. Oxford et al. (1998) undertook an extensive survey of teacher and researcher narratives, and organised teachers’ conceptions into four major philosophical viewpoints on education; social order, cultural transmission, leaner-centred growth and social reform. Education as social order, for example, contains metaphors in the teacher as manufacturer subset suggesting a focus on efficiency, uniformity and end product.

de Guerrero & Villamil (2002) categorised the teacher’s role by metaphor into nine groupings as follows.

(category) (example) (counterpoint)
teacher as co-operative leader movie director learner as active participant
teacher as provider of knowledge TV set learner as recipient of knowledge
teacher as challenger or agent of change lion tamer learner as object of change
teacher as nurturer gardener learner as developing organism
teacher as innovator explorer learner as resistor
teacher as provider of tools tool carrier learner as constructor
teacher as artist potter learner as raw material
teacher as repairer mechanic learner as defective individual
teacher as gym instructor aerobics trainer learner as gymnast

Research has shown that the favoured metaphors people use reflect their attitudes and perceptions. For this study, I wanted to test the connection between metaphor and learner autonomy. The challenge was to measure autonomy. Learner autonomy is multidimensional and dynamic (Benson, 2013) and thus very hard to measure effectively. I drew on two previous studies, both of which took place in higher education in Japan.

Shimo (2008) attempted to discover if the level of self-perceived learner autonomy was linked to language proficiency. From a working definition of learner autonomy as the capacity to take responsibility for one’s own learning, she created a survey which assessed three domains; orientation for reflecting on learning processes, orientation for enhancing learning opportunities and orientation for reflecting on language abilities. The resulting eighteen question tool was a useful starting point for my study.

Murase (2015) developed a far more imposing questionnaire of 113 points, in an attempt to measure autonomy across four dimensions; technical, psychological, political-philosophical and socio-cultural.

dimension definition example statement
technical the ability to set goals, plan learning and study independently I set achievable goals in learning English.
psychological motivational and affective factors If I worry about learning English, I know how I can cope with it.
political-philosophical attitudes towards authority and hierarchy Students should always follow their teacher’s instructions.
socio-cultural orientation towards other learners and cultural differences in learning If I am doing something different from other students, I feel worried.


For this study, I melded elements from both questionnaires to focus on the learners orientation to others (other learners and teachers), self-awareness, and the technical capacity to practice independent learning. Students were asked to mark their level of agreement with a series of statements on a five point scale. The questionnaire was administered in Japanese to five classes of second year English majors at a Japanese women’s university. A translation of the final 26 point questionnaire is attached here.

Next, the same students were asked to complete four sentences with metaphors; A teacher is like____, A language learner is like___,A classroom is like___,Language learning is like____. They were also asked to give reasons for their metaphor selection.

Finally, the students were invited to semi-structured interviews. The first part of each interview related to their language learning experience and attitudes, and in the second part they were asked to select pictures which best matched their metaphors for learning, These pictures were generated from the learners’ questionnaires.


The larger data set (the first two questionnaires) is still under analysis, so here I would like to focus on just one of the students who agreed to be interviewed; ‘Melanie’.

Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.001


Melanie has a very strong orientation to learning with others, but she still expresses a level of dependance on the teacher. These are some of the comments she makes at the beginning of our interview.

Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.002

Next we look at a selection of pictures, generated from the student questionnaires. The first picture she selects is an image of god, taken from Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.003

This metaphor is in line with her learner autonomy measurement, although there is a certain level of self-awareness that wasn’t previously apparent.

Talking of the class, she shows how important the social aspect of learning is for her.

Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.004

Her metaphors for learning are intriguing. She comes across as very optimistic, which reflects her strong ‘affective’ score on the measurement. But it seems that she sees positive and negative situations as something to be borne or muddled through, out of her control. This bears out the lower score she received for technical autonomy on the measurement.

Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.005

Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.006

Metaphors and Autonomy BAAL Extract.007

In the slide show below you can see more.

My Teacher is a Watering Can: Metaphors and Autonomous Learning by Darren Elliott


Benson, P. (2013). Teaching and researching: Autonomy in language learning. Oxford: Routledge.

de Guerrero, M. C., & Villamil, O. S. (2002). Metaphorical conceptualizations of ESL teaching and learning. Language teaching research, 6 (2), 95-120.

Herron, C. (1982). Foreign‐Language Learning Approaches as Metaphor. The Modern Language Journal, 66 (3), p. 235-242.

Mahlios, M., Massengill‐Shaw, D., & Barry, A. (2010). Making sense of teaching through metaphors: A review across three studies. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 16 (1), 49-71.

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.

Nattinger, J. R. (1984). Communicative language teaching: A new metaphor. Tesol Quarterly, 18 (3), 391-407.

Oxford, R. L., Tomlinson, S., Barcelos, A., Harrington, C., Lavine, R. Z., Saleh, A., & Longhini, A. (1998). Clashing metaphors about classroom teachers: Toward a systematic typology for the language teaching field. System, 26 (1), 3-50.

Shimo, E. (2008). Learner autonomy and English language proficiency: An exploration among Non-English majors at a Japanese university. 近畿大学語学教育部紀要 (Kinki University Department of Language Education bulletin). Vol.8, No.2, p.153- 178

An Interview with Jeannette Littlemore from darren elliott on Vimeo.


It was great to see Jeanette’s workshop, and to talk to her afterwards about the research she has been engaged in regarding metaphor and gesture. As teachers, we need to be aware of the ways in which our gestures may be interpreted… whether they support or contradict the words coming out of our mouths (which are quite likely to be metaphorical themselves). We also need to understand the messages our students are sending through gesture. It’s a fascinating topic. Some things you might like to comment on.

Teachers who gesture more are perceived to be better teachers.

The idea that gesture can betray an ‘accent’ in L2 users, or conversely, that adoption of an L2 physicality can give a more positive impression.

Incorporating gesture into teaching may enable learners to connect more powerfully to the target language.

You can find a list of Dr. Littlemore’s work here.

UPDATE Dr. Littlemore kindly sent me a copy of the article she published in the pre-conference edition of The Language Teacher, which includes further readings. The original can be found at…
Littlemore, J. (2010). Metaphor, gesture and second language acquisition. The Language Teacher, 34.4, 35 – 37

This is the first of four interviews from the JALT conference in Nagoya, Japan…. more to follow!


As a classic symbol of Japan, and a dying breed, the geisha is a skilled practitioner of her art. She is elegant, highly trained. Unfortunately, this is not the parallel I am going to draw between ‘Geisha’ and ‘Teacher’. Let’s skip ahead to the modern era.

There are now said to be about 2000 professional geisha and maiko left. If you bump into one on the streets of Kyoto, she is probably a tourist costumed for the photo op. However, the spirit of the geisha remains, the need which created her continues… indeed, grows more fervent. *

All over the country, ‘hostess’ clubs thrive… places in which a tired salaryman can sit and relax while pretty young women pour his drinks, laugh at his jokes and engage in him in light conversation. And in progressive new Japan, there will be a place around the corner in which pretty young men provide the same service for hardworking women.**

Is this, perhaps, how some students see their teachers? Is this how schools are set up? Let me ask you these questions.

Have you ever been required to attend after school social functions with students?

Have you ever been brought in to meet a prospective student and clinch the deal?

Have you ever taught a lesson without a textbook, not a a dogme-ist, but because the student ‘just wanted to talk’?

I don’t doubt that most native speakers who have taught in a foreign country have experienced such situations. Many NNESTs too. And the younger, more attractive and more affable you are….

The question should be, I suppose, ‘Do I care?’ Does it matter that the student is not here to learn, but to have fun, and that I am getting easy money for entertaining him? Do I mind, effectively, working as a host or a hostess? That’s a question I can’t answer for you individually, but as a profession we ought to be a somewhat concerned. I’ve had this particular post on the back burner for a while, but having just read the Marxists I thought it was time to get it out there….

*No, not sex. Whilst some geisha or maiko may have had physical relations with their clients, there is not a direct correlation between prostitution and the geisha system. Likewise, some hosts or hostesses may take on ‘patrons’, but it is far beyond the remit of this blog to get into the murky world of Japanese sexual politics. I’ll make one thing clear though. I am not using prostitution as a metaphor for teaching.

**Ironically (?) many of the host’s clients are hostesses. They have the money, and the free time… but they have no one to listen to them talk.

Personal Learning Networks – the what, why and how from darren elliott on Vimeo.

A presentation at the 4th International Wireless Ready Symposium, Nagoya, February 19th 2010.

A good starting point for twitter. I’ve made a list of ELT professionals and educational technologists worth following… there are many more out there too, but these might get you started. Don’t forget to include a decent bio in your profile so that potential followers know you are a real person, not just a robot, a pornographer or a marketeer.

The reading and research for this presentation can be found on my diigo social bookmarking page – the PLN list and tags should yield most. I particularly recommend the works of Warlick, Downes and Seimens (all of whom are on the twitter list, too)

There are some great listservs in yahoo groups. I’ll start you off with the webheads group, and follow with ELT dogme. Both very different, but very lively. A tip – set to receive a daily digest.

If you are looking for blogs, onestopblogs has a good selection. Choose the ones you like, put them in your google reader… tweeters on twitter may have blogs of their own, check the profiles.

If you want something more involved, join a ning! Bloggers in ELT is a favourite of mine, Classroom 2.0 is very active.

But your Personal Learning Network should be just that  –  PERSONAL. Take your time building relationships with real people, don’t be afraid to turn off or cut out when things become distracting rather than helpful, and have fun!

*extra points if you can place the title

I am a sucker for an analogy. Only this week I got contorted in a lengthy comparison of the plight of Southampton Football Club, starting the season on minus ten points but now powering up the third division, to a student who had missed the first few lessons and homeworks but had buckled down and caught up. I sense it went somewhere north of the head of my American colleague but no matter… I’m with George Lakoff when he claims that pretty much all human thought is expressed through metaphor.

It’s time for the mid semester reflections, to look back on what we have learnt, to reassess goals from the beginning of the semester and to galvanise for the final push, and I’ve been organising my materials ready for class. One of my favourite questions, and most enlightening, is the simple metaphor tester I open with. “A teacher is…. “, a “A learner is….” and “Language learning is…”. Unlike Dede Wilson (whose excellent article just dropped through my letter box wrapped up with a bunch of other good stuff in English Teaching Professional) I give the students no options, nor guidance. Nevertheless, regardless of level, the students have no problem grasping the concept and running with it … metaphor is a universal, after all.

Oxford et al. came up with a detailed taxonomy for these metaphors, but I’ll place them into just three categories. These are all common examples from previous classes.

1. Nuturing. Teacher as gardener, parent etc. Student as flower, child….

2. Controlling. Teacher as dog trainer, god etc. Student as dog, disciple…

3. Utility. Teacher as map, encyclopedia etc. Student as traveller, researcher…

There are a few things we can do with this. The first is to see which students match with our own metaphors as teachers, and which don’t. How are the students who see things differently performing? Are there discipline issues? Can we adjust our teaching to meet the needs of those students, or offer them support which fits with their beliefs about the learning process? I speculate that there is a strong correlation between metaphor choice and learner autonomy, for example.

But deeper than that, I wonder if the beliefs or the metaphor are the driving force. Can we, simply by reframing a metaphor, adjust the learners whole approach? If nothing else, it is the most immediate and direct method of raising the learners’ awareness of their own inner feelings about what they are doing.

Further Reading

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Oxford, R., Tomlinson, S., Barcelos, A., Harrington, C., Lavine, R.Z., & Saleh, A. (1998). Clashing metaphors about classroom teachers: Toward a systematic typology for the language teaching field. System 26(1), 3–50.

Wilson, D. (2009). Learning language is like… English Teaching Professional 65 (November), 18-19.

(and if you still want to know what a gift from a flower to a garden is, meditate on this)