My Teacher is a Watering Can: Metaphors and Autonomous Learning

Presented at the 48th annual meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL), Aston University, Birmingham, UK on September 4th, 2015


In order to make sense of abstract thought, humans have developed a rich facility for metaphor. These metaphors are loaded with meanings to be unpacked and interpreted. Research into education has a strong tradition of metaphor analysis, utilising metaphors for education to categorise differing attitudes towards the learning process. This work suggests the potential of metaphors as a shorthand for attitude systems. If this promise can be realised then researchers will have a powerful tool at hand.

This study seeks to test the hypothesis that learners’ metaphors for learning may reveal something about their perspectives and attitudes, with a particular focus on learner autonomy. In this study, the researcher assessed the propensity of Japanese university students for autonomous language learning using a survey developed by Shimo (2008), in addition to classroom observation. The same students were asked to complete short sentence fragments ‘A teacher is …’, ‘A student is…’, and ‘A classroom is…’ using metaphors, in writing. The complete sentences were subject to content analysis and followed up with one-to-one interviews.


The analysis of the metaphors employed by teachers and / or learners is a well-established technique. Herron (1982) and later Nattinger (1984) attempted to put language teaching methodologies into metaphorical contexts. Herron suggested that the grammar translation method was equivalent to gymnastic training – both require exertion and practice in order to attain proficiency. Nattinger’s disquiet in attempting to apply a computational metaphor to the relatively new methodology (at that time) of communicative language teaching perhaps reflects the computer’s place in society at that time; as computer technology has become entangled with human life, the human brain as computer metaphor has become dominant.

The relationships between metaphor, thought and society are fluid. As some work to express complex systems or ideas with metaphors, others analyse the metaphors we use to find out what lies beneath. Oxford et al. (1998) undertook an extensive survey of teacher and researcher narratives, and organised teachers’ conceptions into four major philosophical viewpoints on education; social order, cultural transmission, leaner-centred growth and social reform. Education as social order, for example, contains metaphors in the teacher as manufacturer subset suggesting a focus on efficiency, uniformity and end product.

de Guerrero & Villamil (2002) categorised the teacher’s role by metaphor into nine groupings as follows.

(category) (example) (counterpoint)
teacher as co-operative leader movie director learner as active participant
teacher as provider of knowledge TV set learner as recipient of knowledge
teacher as challenger or agent of change lion tamer learner as object of change
teacher as nurturer gardener learner as developing organism
teacher as innovator explorer learner as resistor
teacher as provider of tools tool carrier learner as constructor
teacher as artist potter learner as raw material
teacher as repairer mechanic learner as defective individual
teacher as gym instructor aerobics trainer learner as gymnast

Research has shown that the favoured metaphors people use reflect their attitudes and perceptions. For this study, I wanted to test the connection between metaphor and learner autonomy. The challenge was to measure autonomy. Learner autonomy is multidimensional and dynamic (Benson, 2013) and thus very hard to measure effectively. I drew on two previous studies, both of which took place in higher education in Japan.

Shimo (2008) attempted to discover if the level of self-perceived learner autonomy was linked to language proficiency. From a working definition of learner autonomy as the capacity to take responsibility for one’s own learning, she created a survey which assessed three domains; orientation for reflecting on learning processes, orientation for enhancing learning opportunities and orientation for reflecting on language abilities. The resulting eighteen question tool was a useful starting point for my study.

Murase (2015) developed a far more imposing questionnaire of 113 points, in an attempt to measure autonomy across four dimensions; technical, psychological, political-philosophical and socio-cultural.

dimension definition example statement
technical the ability to set goals, plan learning and study independently I set achievable goals in learning English.
psychological motivational and affective factors If I worry about learning English, I know how I can cope with it.
political-philosophical attitudes towards authority and hierarchy Students should always follow their teacher’s instructions.
socio-cultural orientation towards other learners and cultural differences in learning If I am doing something different from other students, I feel worried.


For this study, I melded elements from both questionnaires to focus on the learners orientation to others (other learners and teachers), self-awareness, and the technical capacity to practice independent learning. Students were asked to mark their level of agreement with a series of statements on a five point scale. The questionnaire was administered in Japanese to five classes of second year English majors at a Japanese women’s university. A translation of the final 26 point questionnaire is attached here.

Next, the same students were asked to complete four sentences with metaphors; A teacher is like____, A language learner is like___,A classroom is like___,Language learning is like____. They were also asked to give reasons for their metaphor selection.

Finally, the students were invited to semi-structured interviews. The first part of each interview related to their language learning experience and attitudes, and in the second part they were asked to select pictures which best matched their metaphors for learning, These pictures were generated from the learners’ questionnaires.


The larger data set (the first two questionnaires) is still under analysis, so here I would like to focus on just one of the students who agreed to be interviewed; ‘Melanie’.


Melanie has a very strong orientation to learning with others, but she still expresses a level of dependance on the teacher. These are some of the comments she makes at the beginning of our interview.

Next we look at a selection of pictures, generated from the student questionnaires. The first picture she selects is an image of god, taken from Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. 

This metaphor is in line with her learner autonomy measurement, although there is a certain level of self-awareness that wasn’t previously apparent.

Talking of the class, she shows how important the social aspect of learning is for her.

Her metaphors for learning are intriguing. She comes across as very optimistic, which reflects her strong ‘affective’ score on the measurement. But it seems that she sees positive and negative situations as something to be borne or muddled through, out of her control. This bears out the lower score she received for technical autonomy on the measurement.

In the slide show below you can see more.

My Teacher is a Watering Can: Metaphors and Autonomous Learning by Darren Elliott


Benson, P. (2013). Teaching and researching: Autonomy in language learning. Oxford: Routledge.

de Guerrero, M. C., & Villamil, O. S. (2002). Metaphorical conceptualizations of ESL teaching and learning. Language teaching research, 6 (2), 95-120.

Herron, C. (1982). Foreign‐Language Learning Approaches as Metaphor. The Modern Language Journal, 66 (3), p. 235-242.

Mahlios, M., Massengill‐Shaw, D., & Barry, A. (2010). Making sense of teaching through metaphors: A review across three studies. Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 16 (1), 49-71.

Murase, F. (2015). Measuring Language Learner Autonomy: Problems and Possibilities. In Everhard, C. J., & Murphy, L. (Eds.). Assessment and Autonomy in Language Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nattinger, J. R. (1984). Communicative language teaching: A new metaphor. Tesol Quarterly, 18 (3), 391-407.

Oxford, R. L., Tomlinson, S., Barcelos, A., Harrington, C., Lavine, R. Z., Saleh, A., & Longhini, A. (1998). Clashing metaphors about classroom teachers: Toward a systematic typology for the language teaching field. System, 26 (1), 3-50.

Shimo, E. (2008). Learner autonomy and English language proficiency: An exploration among Non-English majors at a Japanese university. 近畿大学語学教育部紀要 (Kinki University Department of Language Education bulletin). Vol.8, No.2, p.153- 178


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