The Metaphor of Work

By Emily Tracy, IPLI Mentor and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Wabash City Schools

As an aspiring superintendent, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Ph.D. student, proud principal mentor, and well, with a few more things on the “to-do list,” I was searching for a spark the other day.  A spark to get me a bit more curious than the day before.  I picked up a book sitting on the shelf, Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart, that I learned about through my previous coursework. 

And there, the spark hit—a simple metaphor.  Remember in elementary school when we learned about similes and metaphors?  Similes seemed so comfortable with the insertion of two words to easily signify it indeed was a simile.  But metaphors.  Those metaphors took a bit more thinking, didn’t they?

I want to enlighten you on a metaphor that hit me as an instructional coach, a transformative leader, a teacher to the core.   

Ritchhart conveys to us deep thought in school leadership . . . the metaphor of work. Learning as work, students as workers, and the classroom as workplaces. Isn’t it well entrenched in our idea of education? We could even argue that way back — way back — public education began to take hold when child labor laws were starting to be instituted. And we could talk about the first public high school in 1821 and a decade later, the passing of a resolution from the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics, and Other Workingmen stating “children should not be allowed to labor in the factories . . . ” But I won’t go there with those details. I will take this notion of the “work” metaphor and education because it has influenced our teaching method and impacted how we organize schools. And it has shaped the form of intervention. Look at the language used in schools . . .

  • Principals get called “chief academic officers.”
  • Researchers assess “time on task.”
  • We look for “value-added” in terms of student output
  • Prospective teachers are trained in “management.”
  • Teachers are held “accountable for results.”
  • Students are taught “work habits.”
  • Students receive “rewards” for their performances
  • Students are given “workbooks,” “work time,” and “work periods.”
  • Students are assigned “seat work” and “homework.”

Ritchhart goes on to ask some questions that “spark.”  

Okay, so why does it matter? What is wrong with being a “worker”? Don’t we have to work to learn? Isn’t “work” considered noble and worthwhile? We all can do good and meaningful “work,” right? What is the difference between a teacher asking, “Is your work done?” or “Where are you in your learning?” You see, the issue isn’t a selection of words but rather a fundamental choice we are making in terms of how our students are channeling energy.

In their book, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By, write that they believe that “metaphors are alive in the most fundamental sense — they are what we live by.” So, when educators enlist the work metaphor, they are framing the experience of the classroom. They are focusing the students’ attention on the completion of work rather than helping them focus on the opportunity of learning.

Metaphors have the potential to set the perception of classroom problems and the solutions that are brought forward. When classrooms are viewed as “workplaces,” we tend to think that productivity can be improved simply by rewarding efficiency and products . . . higher test scores. The solution this metaphor suggests disregards whether what is produced is meaningful learning. Lakoff and Johnson tell us, “For some teachers, meaningful learning seems to be secondary to maintaining the work system.”

What type of classroom do we hear the following questions posed by students?

“How long does this have to be?” “Will this be on the test?” These are not questions about ideas or learning — they are about the “work.”  

And we hear these questions posed by our teachers, “Are you finished?” “What number are you on?” “Are you ready to move to question 4?” 

Students are then held accountable for the work they produce.

You guessed it — a work-oriented classroom.

However, in a learning-oriented classroom, the priority shifts to a focus on learning.  They let the work exist in context to serve the actual learning. The work is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

When teachers are focused on learning, they spend their time listening for learning with students. “Tell me what you have done so far.” “What questions are surfacing for you?” “What does that tell you?” In this type of classroom, mistakes are viewed as opportunities.  Doesn’t this remind you of another spark?  Growth mindset?  We as leaders strive for this in our districts, our buildings, our classrooms.  

Making a clear distinction between work and learning helps us focus on what is most important, the student’s learning. It allows us to pivot our thinking and monitor, assist and support their development of understanding.

The story not to be missed here is that teachers’ actions are shaped by how the task of teaching is framed. A work orientation doesn’t always lead to poor student performance; however, neither does a teacher use controlling teaching strategies. It is a combination of the two that causes student performance to dip. We need to see the power of facilitative expectations married with effective teaching practices. Both must be present.

What metaphor are you using in your learning environment?