Three Metaphors of Learning

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Excerpt from:

Wikiversity for Free Education and Free School: a New Initiative for Global Capacity Building?

Teemu Leinonen, Tere Vadén & Juha Suoranta

Draft - v.0.8, 2.8.2007


"In the article, On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one, Sfard (1998) points out that there are basically two metaphors that are dominating our way of thinking about learning. These are learning as acquisition and learning as participation.

In the acquisition metaphor the human mind is seen as a container of knowledge and learning is a process where the learner (or her teachers) is filling the container with knowledge (Paavola 2004). The historical roots of the acquisition metaphor can be located to the era when documented information was a scarcity: production and reproduction of written documents was expensive. On the other hand, also the trend of considering education primarily in the context of for profit activity has strengtened the acquisition metaphor. Many people have been taught that to reach learning you must pay for someone who will give you the knowledge you need. Implementations relying on the acquisition metaphor include standardized certification courses with standard materials and tests. In a farmer family learning arrangement the acquisition metaphor would mean that the parents are selling for their children a guidebook with tricks and tips how to run the farm.

The participation metaphor of learning emphasizes participation in various cultural practices and shared learning activities (Paavola 2004). In this metaphor knowledge and learning are situated in people's life-worlds, in their socio-cultural contexts. In this metaphor, knowledge is accessible only by the cultural mediation taking place in socio-cultural activities. The practical educational implementations of the participation metaphor are often such as dialogues among the learning community and learning by doing. The traditional way of learning your parents way of living and their occupation is a good example of the participatory metaphor. With the farmer family example it means that a child crowing on a farm will at first first follow what her parents are doing, later work with them in the fields, and at some point - in time having her own children - will master the tasks individually.

A third metaphor that could supplement the first two, called the knowledge-creation metaphor of learning, has been proposed by Paavola et. al. (2004). The model is partly based on the works of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), Engeström (1987) and Bereiter (2002). All of them have emphasised creation of conceptual and material cultural knowledge artifacts in communities. The knowledge artifacts are artifacts that are part of the community's or even the whole human-kinds collective knowledge. In the case of learning, the focus is on creating knowledge, to make more knowledge artifacts. Because the situation and context where learning takes place is always different the knowledge artifacts created by the learner are always new. They are new for the learner as she did not have them before. We may see that the knowledge-creation metaphor has a connection to the acquisition and the participation metaphors. In a good learning situation you acquest knowledge but also participate in the process of creating knowledge. With the example of the farmer family it would mean that children would learn farming with their family in the fields, but would also have access to different kind of materials related to farming. Furthermore, based on the acquisition and participation the new generation would try to create new knowledge in the context of their own farm, by asking what practices in their father and mothers way of doing are such that are good to keep and what new ways of farming could be implemented from the materials available. During the learning process they potentially would also participate in the process of creating collective knowledge.

As a platform for learning, Wikiveristy has potential to cover all the three bases. When it comes to the acquisition metaphor, the free/libre nature of Wikiversity content guarantees access and removes scarcity. This in itself is a great benefit, and promises to equalize and democratize learning when technological and ideological barriers of access are removed. The second metaphor, participation, is the forte of Wikipedia, and could prove to be a similar boon for Wikiversity. Arguably, with millions of people editing Wikipedia articles and hundreds of thousands discussing them, Wikipedia has become the largest and most vibrant non-governmental project of democratic enlightenment. When Immanuel Kant in 1784 answered the question "What is enlightenment?", by insisting on the public and authority-independent use of reason, he formulated an ideal that has in various forms guiden Western and liberal notions of education up to Jürgen Habermas' (1981) theories of ideal communication. The participation in creating free educational content provides a forum for interactive and dialogical public use of reason that is a value in itself in addition to creating free content." (

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