Metaphors and Motivation: Understanding College Students' Learning Experiences at Four Types of Schools

College and University, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Metaphors and Motivation: Understanding College Students' Learning Experiences at Four Types of Schools


Abstract The viability of the "student as consumer" metaphor has been debated for a decade in academic circles. Over that period, few have distinguished among differently motivated students or privileged students' own characterizations of their overall school experiences. To address those needs, this study investigated 298 student-generated metaphors about their educational experiences at four types of U.S. higher education institutions (Research I university, private religious university, public regional university, community college).

A recent article in The Teaching Professor stated that no topic had "generated the level of response, as did our consideration...of the student-as-metaphor," and it further claimed that the series of articles published in the journal were "a drop in the bucket compared to what we received" (Bailey 2001, p. 1). Several studies have examined teacher-generated metaphors for schooling (Browne and Hoag 1990; Weinstein 1994) and the "teacher as manager" metaphor (Bullough 1994; Marshall 1990; McLaughlin 1994; Welker 1994). Others have utilized student-generated metaphors to understand specific aspects of educational settings, such as students' identities (Gordon and Lahelma 1996; Jorgensen-Earp and Staton 1993) and cultural characteristics (Hardcastle, Yamamoto, Parkay, and Chan 1985), and their perceptions of grades (Goulden and Griffin 1995) and classroom environments (Grady 1995).

Educators have discussed the utility of the "student as consumer" metaphor in particular for over a decade, with many writers arguing that educational reform should begin with the notion of students as "buyers" in an educational marketplace. Other researchers have highlighted the limitations of the "consumer" metaphor, however, arguing that applying it can produce negative educational consequences for students and for schools (Browne and Hoag 1990; Clark and Astuto 1994; Hartoonian 1997; Kerssen 1987; Schwartzman 1995; Sessions 1995). McMillan and Cheney (1996) worried that use of the consumer metaphor could easily promote an entertainment model of teaching, distance students from the educational process, denigrate classroom experiences as products rather than processes, and reinforce individualism at the expense of the learning community. Echoing several other critics, Schwartzman (1995) argued that transferring a business metaphor to an educational setting is problematic because teaching involves more than just pleasing the customer.

The present study was designed to address two needs apparent in existing research. First, applying one homocentric metaphor (e.g., "consumer") to all higher education has been criticized as unreasonable given the diverse student populations served by distinctly different types of schools. Educators and students are helped most by research that accounts for important individual differences within the groups being studied. Second, while policymakers, administrators, instructors, parents, and researchers have debated students' roles in their own education, writing in this area has mostly privileged those writers' views over students' own perceptions of their educational roles. This inequity under-serves all interested parties and deserves a remedy. For example, Thorpe (1999) argued that, "...it probably doesn't matter what metaphor we use, as long as we understand what metaphors our students are using." To help meet these two needs, the present study collected, compared, and contrasted the metaphors that students with varying types and degrees of motivation used to describe their educational experiences at four different types of U.S. higher education institutions.

Metaphors Structure Human Reality

The metaphoric process sparks new and novel thoughts by moving cognition from one thought to another (Ivie 1987). The ideas and attendant ideologies evoked by a metaphor arguably help shape and organize an individual's reality and behavior (Cohen 1998; Gill 1994; Lakoff and Johnson 1980), such as in conservative politicians' "communism is a cancer" metaphor during the Cold War (Black 1970), and in the "frontiersmen" metaphors used to promote American military campaigns. …

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