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Shklovsky, Locke, Fatherhood and the problem of metaphors in the classroom

One of the things I like most about teaching is the fact that so often it seems to rely upon a spontaneous creativity.  Spontaneous creativity is my favourite kind because it is both fun to do / be and yet at the same time you are not likely to be held accountable for it.  A poet or a painter cannot be spontaneously creative because their act of creativity will exist in (if you'll excuse the metaphor) concrete form, and people will be able to examine it and criticise it's internal rhyme or it's use of colour.  Spontenous creativity can be pretty naff with nobody minding - and pretty naff creativity is my speciality.

While there are many ways a teacher can be creative, the most common kind of creativity which I experience in a classroom is that of forming similes and metaphors to explain ideas. The trouble is, the older I get (or is it the younger my students get? I'm sure I was never that young when I was at University) the less effective my similes and metaphors become. The ways in which I explain things is becoming redundant - and I need a solution.

The scenario

Any teacher reading this will doubtless recognise the scenario:

You are attempting to explain something. Let's say, for example, Viktor Shkolvsky's idea that 'art' is all about making things strange (this idea, for those who don't know it, is that life is so full of routine that we end up not even noticing its passing. The purpose of Art is to make things look strange - less routine - and thereby to force us to notice them).  To help explain this idea, you give Shkolvsky's own example of Tolstoy forgetting whether he had dusted a divan, and then look out at a sea of blank faces which express so eloquently the fact that your students have:

  • no idea who Tolstoy was,
  • no idea what a 'divan' is,
  • no idea why anyone would be dusting one,
  • no idea what you are talking about, or why.

Faced with such incredulity you realise that the only way to make ammends, and to help your students understand Shklovsky's point, is to provide them with a new example; something which doesn't depend on an intimate knowledge of early twentieth century Russian furniture.  So you might refer to people who work next door to St. Paul's Cathedral, and become so used to walking past it several times a day that they haven't actually noticed it for years.

Some faces are now registering a mild interest which suggests they have got the point, but still think it's a little stupid.  Others are sporting the wavy-line-smile of someone who gets it, is processing it, and working out if it is something they can 'buy into'.  There are still some though, creasing their foreheads and holding their pens in that rigid stationary position which declares 'the pen only moves when I have any clue what the heck you are on about'.

So, you need to come up with another example. And another. And another. Using whatever imagery you can think of that they might be able to relate to. Encouraging other students to come up with their own examples. Using pictures, props, gestures, stories - anything at all until you hit on the one image which prompts that magic 'oooohhhh!' of dawning understanding.

This is, of course, entirely normal.  When John Locke wanted to explain his ideas about human understanding in 1695 he used the image of the tabula rasa, or 'blank slate'.  Then, just to be sure, he used the alternative example of the 'empty cupboard' - perhaps in the assumption that there would be some readers more familiar with cupboards than with Latin.

Examples like this work well because they take a theoretical idea, and make it relate to real life experiences.  It takes something metaphysical and complex and describes it in terms of things which are domestic and manageable.  However, just like Locke's tabula rasa and Shklovsky's divan, such similes and metaphors carry a shelf life.

For example, I used to describe experimental research as like fitting a loft arial for your television set, and trying to determine whether the poor picture is the result of the arial position or not by moving it around while some distant accomplice yells progress reports from the living room.  I was always rather proud of this image. I thought it explained it rather well, and on the odd occasion it could even be entertainingly illustrated with a portable TV, a long arial wire and a couple of volunteers.

The problem

Trouble is, the last time I tried to use the TV arial idea, I opened with my tried-and-trusted line "so, who here has ever had to fit a loft arial...?"

No one.  Not one.  Cable and Satellite TV have ruined a perfectly good simile.

This is an increasingly common experience.  Things which always used to work so well, have become the educational equivalents of conversation-stoppers.

  • "It's like that scene in Toy Story..."
  • "Remember when New Labour came to power in '97...?"
  • "As Cpt. Jack Sparrow might say..."
  • "Literary theory is a little like a Woolworth's pick'n'mix..."
  • "Gilray was the 18th-century equivalent of Spitting Image..."
  • "It's a bit like the difference between a C64 and a ZX81, you know...?"

Tumbleweed rolls accross the classroom floor. Which is fine because since none of my students have seen a Western I seem to be the only one who gets the joke. Or who understands the poignant pathos of a teacher suddenly realising they have lost their tenuous connection with the cultural lives of those they teach.

And so...

Of course there are some things which will always be available.  Both parents and non-parents, for example, like a good story about children being cute/naughty/loud/smelly, and so fatherhood has been a great source of new classroom illustrations (although, I hasten to add, this is not the sole reason I became a father).

But that same fatherhood means that most of the films my students are talking about are ones which I will probably not see for another eighteen years. That same fatherhood means that most of the programmes they watch on TV begin after I have already collapsed, exhausted and unconscious, into my bed.  I don't know who Nick Hewer is, what Riley said to Mitzee, or what Sacha Baron Cohen's new film is about.

I don't talk the cultural language of my students any more.  Instead, I wear perpetually the bemused smile my father wore every time I enthused to him about Indiana Jones, The A-Team and the joy of acquiring sticker no. 237 for my Football '85 sticker-book.

It seems there is nothing else for it.  From now on in I need to try and learn how (like a museum guide) to make my archaisms relevant.  I need to lean less heavily on contemporary illustrations and more on generic parables.  I need to reluctantly relinquish (like an old coat) one of my favourite educational tools, and (like an old dog) muddle my way through to learning some new tricks.


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