The ‘delivery’ metaphor of teaching and learning

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Many of us might remember learning about metaphors in school mainly as a poetic or linguistic device which we were encouraged to identify and discuss when analysing literary texts. Metaphors can help us understand complex ideas and systems by simplifying them; equally, they can confuse or constrain our thinking by over-simplifying things. If we analyse the metaphors we use to construct and understand reality, then we can consider how that reality might be different and begin to consider how our assumptions and preconceptions about learning, and therefore our teaching practice can be developed and improved.

Our lives are rich in metaphor. Sometimes metaphors can become so embedded in our thought and language that we forget they were metaphors in the first place. For example, we frequently hear it said that brains are ‘wired’ in a particular way or that the brain is like a computer. Both of these ideas can be challenged: firstly, brains do not have wires and, secondly, brains could not have been compared to computers before computers had been invented. Many metaphors in education imply that it is a ‘race’ or a ‘competition’, hence phrases such as ‘she is ahead of the class’ or ‘he’s struggling to keep up’ and the importance of ‘league tables.’

A prevalent metaphor I want to consider in this article is the notion of ‘delivering’ learning. I have heard many teachers describe themselves as ‘deliverers’ of learning. This is often associated with ‘modules’ or ‘packages’ of learning. Similarly, it has been said that the lecture is the most effective way of ‘delivering’ knowledge. Babies and pizzas can be delivered; learning can’t be delivered. Learning is something that learners do, although they are likely to do it more effectively in the presence of a good teacher.

The ‘delivery’ metaphor implies a particular view of knowledge, learners and teachers. In this view knowledge is seen as a commodity which is received and, hopefully, retained by relatively passive learners who ‘store’ it for later assessments. The teacher’s role is to communicate this knowledge as efficiently and effectively as possible. It might be that some learners will build on the knowledge received and connect it to what they already know, but, for many, it will remain inert knowledge which is not connected, evaluated and criticised or used in different contexts for different purposes. In his essay, ‘On Educating Children’ Montaigne, the 16th century essayist, provides a tasty metaphor which illustrates the differences between, what we would now understand as, a transmission approach to learning as opposed to a constructivist approach:

“Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it: the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what is given.”1

One of the problems with the ‘delivery’ approach is that it implies that learners are individual ‘containers’ for the knowledge they receive and do not work together (especially if learning is seen as a ‘race’ or ‘competition’) to build knowledge and to use it to collaborate, solve problems and promoter further learning. This view of learning is based on a constructivist, particularly social constructivist, theory of learning (I will discuss these in the next article). Sfard (1998)2 identifies two contrasting metaphors of learning which apply equally well to students and teachers. The first is the acquisition metaphor in which learning is seen as gaining ownership of knowledge and skills. This metaphor sees learning as ‘transmission’ and knowledge as something to be ‘owned’ or ‘possessed’ by individuals. In contrast the participation metaphor, with associated key words, such as community, identity, meaning, practice, dialogue, co-operation and belonging, suggests that learning results from participation in communities of practice which learn, share, develop and communicate within a common, shared context.

When you are going for a job interview, undertaking teacher training or completing a CPD journal, it is important to demonstrate that you see yourself and your role as more than just a ‘deliverer’ of learning. You should be able to research, use and evaluate a variety of learning and teaching methods to encourage active and participatory learning. Teachers should be actively involved in developing active, independent and inquiring learners who work individually and collectively to build knowledge and make meaning.


  1. Montaigne, M. (1993) The Essays: A selection (Translated by M. A. Screech) London: Penguin
  2. Sfard, A. (1998) On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher 27:2, 4-13

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