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Family? Factory? How metaphors help make sense of school life

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 10 May 2022

jarmoluk / Pixabay

Melanie Ehren.

When we use the word ‘school’ we expect all of us to have a similar view of what this means. In its most basic form, it’s a building with classrooms of students and a teacher. This ‘grammar of schooling’ has been in place for decades and tends to include the grouping of students for purposes of instruction, with teachers’ work defined vis-à-vis groups of students and how they are progressed through school on the basis of assessment outcomes and age.

So far, so obvious. But underlying these visible structures, we find a vast variety in practices and views of what it means to educate children, how to organize a school and the meaning of a school. Those involved in schooling – students, parents, teachers and leaders – may have different views of their school, conceptions of their role in the school, and of  the values of schooling. Such views, often expressed in metaphors, provide an important means to access what people think, but also to understand their actions. Mills et al, for example, argue that how we choose to act is (also) a function of how we construct conceptions of what we are and what we are trying to do; and when certain metaphors gain prominence in the minds of a majority of people in an organisation or domain, they will over time transform into social or organisational values instead of only representing individual values or beliefs.

As teachers have an important role in improving learning outcomes and school life more broadly, their metaphors are particularly relevant to understand the functioning of a school. How they understand their profession and their work, the views they have on how students learn and the learning process provide an important lens to learn about and explain everyday school life.

In our interviews with teachers in four high and four low performing schools in South Africa we found references to four metaphors and particularly to school as a family and factory:

  • In this school, we consider each other as family. Colleagues are brothers and sisters to me. The school is like a home to me where we nurture the children.
  • Our school runs like a factory: we have a well-planned and efficient process to deliver the curriculum and treat all the learners in the same manner.
  • Learners come to school to be taught by skilled professionals who know what they need. Teachers diagnose student needs and adopt their instruction accordingly. Learners will achieve well when they –and their parents- follow our instructions. (hospital)
  • This school feels like a war zone. There is a lot of conflict between staff, parents and learners. We need to protect ourselves from burglary and violence, including from students who are disruptive. When parents have an issue, it’s not safe to speak to them alone in the classroom.

Metaphors are context-specific

The choice of metaphor is, however, highly contextual. School staff who for example work in deprived areas where children come to school unfed would emphasize the nurturing of learners; in communities which have high levels of conflict and violence tend to see these conflicts transpire into the school context to reflect a warzone metaphor. Across the schools we see that the use of metaphors varies by specific professional roles, the socio-economic, ethnic and religious background of the school population, and the performance of the school.

Metaphors are not unique constructs

The four metaphors are also not unique constructs to describe a school organisation, but rather need to be considered collectively to appreciate how staff view their school and particular characteristics of the school. Staff have different images of, for example the decision-making and communication style versus the teaching and learning culture in the school, as well as how different metaphors may be employed to convey relations with parents, learners and colleagues. Teachers for example referenced a high level of standardization of their teaching where they are following a prescribed lesson plan to meet basic external standards (factory metaphor), but ignore these strictures at other times to play and care for their children, or to offer extended learning opportunities for children to grow and mature (family metaphor). Sometimes the high level of standardization (befitting the factory metaphor) is mentioned as a way to prevent conflict and create stability and is sometimes also considered in the best interest of learners’ growth and development (fitting the family metaphor). Understanding the metaphors teachers use and why they use them provides an important pathway to change and to enable a strong teaching profession.



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