Posted by: MandyS | February 23, 2013

“On two metaphors for learning”

Block 1, Week 3b, Activity 2 Sfard

To say that on first read this was mindboggling would be an understatement (or would that be a metaphor)! I really struggled initially to focus on what this was all about so had to strip it back to basics and just go through each sentence at a time to try to work out what she was talking about. Strange really seeing as I have read far more complicated stuff in my time but I suppose it is the context. I get used to lawyer speak and this is education speak; a whole new world.

So what I am trying to establish is what is meant by ‘learning’ and whether ‘collaboration and participation is all there is to learning’. From the H800 introduction to Sfard’s paper the key is to establishing ‘how learning happens’. Kolb is quoted as suggesting learning is the ‘production of knowledge through transformation of experience’ and that reflection ‘plays an integral role.’ I wouldn’t disagree with this. Generally speaking, one learns from experience either good or bad and being able to reflect on that experience is key to determining whether that learning is understood and the value it has.

So where does the metaphor bit fit in i.e. the characteristics of one thing can be applied to another? To try to get a grasp on this I had a look at a few examples of metaphors e.g. broken heart, it’s raining men. I liked the definition here that it is an ‘implied comparison’ that ‘dissimilar things are the same’ and that metaphors are used to ‘create impact’. The intro also goes on to explain that metaphors are not just a means of communication, they are ‘core to how humans think and analyse’. This has to be right because one has to think about and analyse a situation to identify how the characteristics of one thing can be applied to another. On that basis, Sfard is using these metaphors to help explain the meaning of learning? (I hope so because that is how I understand it).

1. How does Sfard define the two metaphors?

acquisition: Learning is the act of gaining knowledge and when one gains knowledge one acquires it. One then constructs meaning from that knowledge by thinking about it. An apt description came out of my Elluminate discussion today “we are recepticals and knowledge is a commodity”.

Participation: Here knowledge is replaced by ‘knowing’, which implies some sort of action i.e. one has to ‘do something’ and for this to be effective, the learner has to be an integral part of a team. In my Elluminate discussion it was highlighted that there is ‘active’ and ‘passive’ participation e.g. active would be taking part in a discussion, passive might be reading a book or listening to a lecture. This is perhaps more relevant to whether the two metaphors are taken in isolation or whether they are intrinsically linked but it does suggest one can still participate without having to be a part of a community?

2. How does Sfard distinguish between the two metaphors?

Acquisition: focuses on the individual’s ‘mind and what goes into it’ (the receptical).

Participation: focuses on the ‘evolving bond between the individual and others.’

3. What is the significance of Table 1. Is there a difference between what learning is and how it happens?

The table suggests that both acquisition and participation are needed for there to be learning i.e. “each has something to offer that the other cannot provide”.  There must be situations where we simply acquire knowledge without having to participate to ‘know’ something. I think the word ‘effective’ needs to be inserted before ‘learning’ here to reinforce that each brings something different to the table and this is why one needs both. For me, learning is ‘effective’ when knowledge can be interpreted and applied. This is perhaps where participation becomes important as it is a means of developing that important skill.

As far as any differences between what learning is and how it happens, to me, there is no distinction; what it is essentially depends on how it happens.

So it is not perhaps so complicated as it would first appear, in fact the principles are actually quite basic. The test will be whether I can actually apply them…


Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13; also available online at login?url= stable/ 1176193 (accessed 16 February, 2013).






  1. When you come to apply the two metaphors Sfard would say that you will not always find them adequate to describe the learning, as learning is so complex.

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